By Howard T. Spence
Heroin and other addictive opioid substances have been available in our nation and locally in Michigan for many years. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, there was a significant increase in the use and addiction to heroin and opioid drugs which imposed heavy costs - both financial and social - on our communities. However, the crisis associated with heroin and opioid addiction during the 1960’s pales when compared to what we are now witnessing in our country over the past few years resulting from an unprecedented exploding of heroin and opioid use and addiction.
Not only is the magnitude of addiction and the consequences of overdose deaths much greater today than in earlier time periods, but the demographics of the people who are becoming addicted and who are overdosing and dying at record numbers and rates has changed. Back in the 1960’s heroin and opioid use was a phenomenon which was more commonly associated with inner city and urban areas. The epidemic which we are experiencing today differs in that most of those who are becoming addicted and dying from drug overdoses of heroin and related opioid substances tend to be coming from the suburbs and rural areas of our state and country. Those presently fueling the opioid overdose epidemic are increasingly younger users and addicts, and are at this point those addicts are by and large white members of our communities – many with middle class or better backgrounds.
Getting Community Members and Family Members Involved in the Fight Against Heroin and Opioid Addiction
People who become addicted to heroin and opioid drugs today have futures which in many cases are bleak and challenging. Every day local judges in our drug and sobriety courts here in Ingham County and Eaton County see tragic and heart-wrenching examples of people – both young and old - who have lost control of their lives and have limited hope of reclaiming control.
Judge Donald Allen, who presides over the Ingham County drug and sobriety court for the 55th District Court located in Mason, Michigan, recently described the life and future of an addict with one-word – "chaos."
People who have become addicted frequently resort to crime to support their addictions. Addicts come before Judge Allen on a regular basis to be sentenced because of being convicted of drug related criminal behaviors which range from petty theft all the way to assaultive crimes. Historically these people would be incarcerated – often given lengthy sentences by judges – during which time they would go through withdrawal or detoxification from their heroin or opiate addictions. However, time has shown that incarceration of drug addicts alone does not have a permanent or long-standing positive result for either the community or those who are caught up and/or become "victims" of their own addiction. Once released from jail to prison, many soon revert back to drug use and addiction.
Judge Julie Reincke presides in Eaton County over the drug and sobriety court associated with the 56th District Court in Charlotte, Michigan. In a previous article, she shared some of the disappointments and heartbreaks that she sees on almost a daily basis related to the addictions of people – particularly young people – who appear before her to answer to crimes they commit to support their drug habits. Judge Reincke described the chaos, which Judge Allen highlighted, by giving examples of young mothers who lose their children and families. She recalled instances of people who have appeared before her who have subsequently overdosed and died from an inability to control and shake their use of addiction to opiate drugs. She shared recollections of the heartbreak which she has witnessed as a sobriety court judge that has been shown by the family members and loved ones of the defendants who appeared before her who have become addicted to heroin and opiate drugs here in our communities.
In recent years, with a turn towards an approach that is less punitive and more therapeutic in sobriety and drug courts, our state judiciary has recognized the importance of trying to reclaim the lives of people who either innocently or deliberately have made choices and decisions that led to their becoming addicted, becoming ostracized, and even becoming overdose victims. Judges like Donald Allen and Julie Reincke continue to show their concern about the lives, health, and futures of people who are heroin and opioid addicts. That concern and dedication to the rehabilitation and recovery of drug addicts is highlighted by the fact that both of these local sobriety and drug court judges are involved in the community in addressing addiction issues through community action and support groups such as Families Against Narcotics (FAN).
Judge Allen is presently the president of FAN’s Lansing chapter. Judge Reincke is now involved in the very recent startup and establishing of a FAN chapter in Eaton County. The Eaton County FAN chapter is being organized with the help of Eaton County Sheriff Tom Reich and will be holding its meetings in the Charlotte area. Sheriff Reich is one of those new generation sheriff’s, like Ingham county’s Sheriff Scott Wrigglesworth, who has recognized that traditional law enforcement methods involving incarceration are not effective in helping to address the current heroin and opioid drug epidemic.
Addict in the Family?
While heroin and opioid addiction certainly can bring chaos into the lives of those who become addicted, many times those addictions same addictions also literally bring even more chaos into the lives of their family members and close friends of those people who have become addicted. Family members are usually devastated when they find that someone they love is addicted, has overdosed, or has even died as the result of their addiction and use of drugs. Sometimes family members suffer so much and are so impacted by the addictions of loved ones that they subsequently decide to dedicate a significant part of their own lives to help others in our community better understand and deal with addictions that they experience with people they love.
The first part of this article series mentioned Mike Hirst, a father who lives in the Jackson, Michigan area who lost his son, Andy, to a drug overdose. He has since established a nonprofit organization named “Andy’s Angels,” which is dedicated to helping parents of drug addicts and giving them support and information which hopefully will help them succeed in saving others from death by overdose from heroin or opioid drugs. Mike Hirst has established an internet website resource for Andy’s Angels non-profit which he maintains as a support system for families who discover that one or more of their family members have become ensnared by heroin or opioid addiction. That website is www.andysangels.net.
Every community in our area seems to have families who have been impacted by an overdose death or tragedy of a loved one who became addicted to heroin or opioid drugs. Just as with Michael Hirst, many of those parents, siblings, and family members want to dedicate a part of their own experience to community service to provide encouragement, support and help to similarly situated people in our community. Their goal is to support others who will possibly be undergoing the same type of trauma and chaos that they themselves have experienced as the result of someone in their family becoming addicted, overdosing, or dying from an addiction related situation. Locally in our own Greater Lansing community one such family is the family of Phil Pavona and his wife, Pat.
Recently the Pavona family lost their son, Eric Pavona, to death from a heroin overdose. Since that time, the Pavonas have spent many hours in the community trying to help others become aware of the dangers, symptoms, and challenges associated with heroin addiction or opioid addiction by someone in their families.
The Pavonas have become actively involved in the FAN program which is operating in Ingham County, and they have been instrumental in the founding of this first FAN group here in this mid-Michigan area. The Lansing area chapter of FAN meets on the 4th Tuesday of each month at 7 pm the University Lutheran Church which is located at 1020 S. Harrison Road, in East Lansing - adjacent to the Michigan State University campus. Usually there are at least 75 people in attendance, and sometimes there are as many as 150 present. Many attending are family members trying to get support, information and guidance. Some just need to talk about the chaos which they have found in their own homes due to the addiction or loss through overdose of a loved one.
These FAN meetings are open to the public at no charge. At the meeting scheduled to be held September 26, Dr. John A. Baker III, a certified Addition psychiatrist, is scheduled to give an overview of things that parents can do to identify addiction symptoms in their family members and to help with the recovery of family members or the loss and grief of family members related to heroin and opioid addiction.
"Our son Eric Pavona was a wonderful, intelligent kid who seemed to have everything going for himself," said Phil Pavona. "He had a car, money in the bank, was doing well in school... Then he fell in love with a girl who was already addicted, and he started to use some of the heroin and party favors which some of the people sponsoring parties in East Lansing would just set out on the table next to the beer kegs for those at the parties to use. It didn't take long for him to become addicted to the heroin. I don't blame the girl he fell in love with.
Mr. Pavona expresses a lot of anger towards the persons who deliberately entice people to use strongly addicting drugs for their own future profit. He calls those people “predators.”
“At those parties, some pushers give away heroin and other addictive drugs to people coming there knowing that they will quickly become addicted, and then all those free "goodies and party favors" will suddenly become very expensive for the newly minted drug addicts, and a source of income for the pushers. These drug pushers know what they're doing. They give away a few hundred dollars of addictive drugs knowing that they can get these kids hooked and addicted and then they can sell them those drugs which used to be free. Soon many of those kids are stealing and even selling their bodies to support addiction habits that can easily cost well over $100 a day,” said Pavona.
"My wife and I fought for two and a half years to try to help our son Eric regained control of his life. Chaos? Yes, that's the right way to describe it for both my son Eric and for my wife and myself - and just as importantly for each of our four young daughters who were living in the home during that time,” continued Pavona. “Kids on drugs will lie to at the drop of a hat, they will steal from you and anybody else to get money to satisfy their drug addiction cravings. It was just like somebody opened up our son’s head and put an alien brain in there...," said Phil Pavona. "You do not want your child to have to face this. Kids who are addicted act like they are just ‘lost in time.’ They don't seem able to remember the last time they were happy. It seems like the only time that they feel anything is when they are high and feel that euphoria or drug induced pleasure which is a very quick and temporary flash of pleasure that comes from their use of heroin or some opioid drug."
The impacts of drug addiction on families can be devastating – even destroying family relationships and love that has been in those families for many years. The costs of heroin addiction and opioid addiction can be much greater than the costs of the drugs themselves.
"Eric's addiction was expensive and drained us both emotionally and financially," said Phil Pavona. "It also caused problems within our family because my four daughters were impacted too. It got to the point that at least one of my daughters was sleeping with her purse around her neck because she found that was the only way to keep Eric from going into her purse and stealing from her. She even felt she could not invite any of her teenage friends into our home or to spend the night because Eric might steal from them too. One of our daughters became very angry with Eric in the situation because of his addiction and would refer to him as a "dirt bag." She felt like he was scamming and dishonest while trying to feed his addiction all the time. In some ways she was right...”
Another one of my daughters was angry with me and my wife because we had taught all our kids that they should be accountable for what they do. Yet some of the younger ones saw that we were spending a lot of our time and money and love on Eric and he was not being accountable for anything that he was doing that was harming them or our family. It was almost as if our daughters thought that Eric was requiring so much of our love and attention and parental strength that there was none left over for them,” continued Phil Pavona. “Our youngest daughter remembers that period when we were trying to deal with Eric's addiction as a time of turmoil in our family and in her life too. She got to the point where she did not want to bring her teenage friends home... She was just plain scared of Eric."
Phil Pavona also recalls that during that time of great stress in his life and family because of his son’s heroin addiction, he and his wife had great difficulty finding anyone who understood their situation to even talk to about it. He pointed out that there is a great shortage of psychiatrists and clinicians who are trained and available to talk to and encourage parents and other family members who were struggling to cope with a family member’s addiction.
"I remember that we tried to find help and couldn't at that time. The clinicians and others that we talked to were themselves sometimes seemingly burned out. The insurance companies that provided the funding for treatment that we tried for Eric and could have helped him after releases from detox had significant limitations that didn't really provide enough money to get addicts into long term therapy. The insurance coverage was just enough to pay for the time necessary to get an addicted person detoxed and then the treatment ended and the system pushed them right back out into the street," remembered Phil Pavona. "I still recall the day I walked out of a health-related meeting for our son Eric with my wife, and I turned to her and said, ‘We are watching our kid die right in front of us, and there's nothing we can do about it... Why can't our kid just stop?’"
"After two and a half years of chaos and trying everything that we knew to do, we found our son Eric dead in our basement one day. In fact, one of our daughters found him dead. He had overdosed and died...," said Phil Pavona.
"My wife and I looked everywhere for support and help. The ‘system’s’ broken. We couldn't even find anyone to understand and empathize to give us advice about how to deal with the situation we were facing at home with our son, or what our role as parents could be to help her son and protect our other children. At that time, there was no Family Against Narcotics chapter around where we could meet with friends and strangers to exchange stories, commiserate, to network together and seek out help and understanding. I know the value of that type of support system, which is why my wife and I are involved so heavily in this program now. There is a lot of truth to the old saying that 'it takes a village to raise a kid and to get through life.' Almost all the families who find themselves in situations with children who are addicted and overdosing walk around with this black cloud hovering constantly over their head. What's different about Families Against Narcotics is that all three involved groups of people who can work together to help with the situation – family and friends, the addicts themselves, and professionals – are in the same room talking. They share different perspectives and try to help one another to find a common ground for understanding and support. It gives people a place to network together, to seek out help, yes even to commiserate."
The path towards recovery and treatment is a long and sometimes very frustrating one – full of unexpected twists and turns, and often ending in a place where no one wanted to be. Sometimes just keeping an addicted family member safe and alive is a goal unto itself which is difficult to achieve.
"It is really very hard to ‘cure’ a heroin or opioid addict," said Pavona. "I was told by one clinician that fewer than 5% of those persons who actually are addicted to heroin or opiates ever are cured to the point that they can go for a period of as long as 5 years without relapsing to using heroin or opiates. But we must keep trying and understand that recovery can be a life time process. And one of the main ways to help is giving support to those who are addicted. Just like the herding instinct of some community animals, the entire herd will put the weakest members of the herd – the young, the injured, the older and less able to fend off attack - in the middle of the herd to protect them from the predators who are running alongside the herd, constantly trying to single out the weakest and most vulnerable to attack them and destroy them. I view those people who are enabling and facilitating our kids to become heroin and opiate addicts to be essentially the same as those predators who try to attack the most vulnerable members of our community, single them out, and destroy or devour them. Those predators seeking to profit by ruining the lives of vulnerable people who don't know what they're doing or what they're getting into are the ones who need to be locked up in jails."
While we cannot give up on treating those in our communities and families who are addicted and susceptible to the sad end of possible death due to overdosing on heroin and opioid drugs, it is much more effective to focus dollars on prevention and education of people to discourage them from drug use and experimentation in the first place. Phil Pavona agreed that prevention should be a major focus in the battle to salvage our friends and family members who are setting themselves up to be lifelong drug addicts.
"Treatment is very expensive and results are not always what we want them to be. I believe the best way to attack the heroin and opiate drug addiction and overdose epidemic should be through focusing resources on prevention,” concluded Mr. Pavona. “We need to educate parents and family members, we need to educate our kids who are going out to those parties or stealing pain killers and prescription drugs out of medicine cabinets, that the answer to a happy and healthy life is not in a pill or pain killer, is not in a “drug” that will just make them feel so good. He need to train them and help them understand and end up with the mentality that there is an answer to every problem in life, and that answers do not come in the form of a pill. The dangers to their futures are great when they start down the road to even the first use of an opioid drug or heroin. The real danger is that they are on their way to ruination of their lives that will come from becoming addicted. They need to understand that there are dangers in the unknown. Even these young kids who today are “just smoking marijuana cigarettes” may suddenly find that they are overdosing on fentanyl or other opiate drugs which have been mixed into that marijuana cigarette... Our people just need to know that getting addicted to heroin through gateway drugs or by stealing pain killing prescription medications like Vicodin, Xanax, and so forth – this cannot end in any situation or circumstance that anyone would want for their family members and loved ones."
Information about the Lansing area chapter of FAN can be found on their website at http://www.familiesagainstnarcotics.org/ingham-okemos.
September 2017 is both National Recovery Month and Recovery Month in Eaton County. Please share this information and message with your friends and loved ones. The life you save may be one that you love.
For information or referrals to substance abuse treatment services in the Greater Lansing area please contact CMHA-CEI Central Access at 1-888-800-1559 or 517-346-8318
For more information on detox services you can also directly contact The Recovery Center at 1-855-TRC-DTOX (1-855-872-3869) or 517-267-7623
For more information on the Tri-County Crisis Team visit the website at http://www.tricountycit.com/
For more information on the Michigan State Police Angel Program call 517-284-3208 or visit the website at MSP-Angel@michigan.gov
For more information on prescription drug abuse prevention and medication disposal sites in the area visit http://www.capitalcountiescommit.org/
Disclaimer: The writer of this article, Howard T. Spence, is solely responsible for the content of the article and the information therein. Howard T. Spence is Eaton County Commissioner from Delta Township. The views and information provided in this article are his alone, and do not reflect the policies or positions of Eaton County government, CMH – CEI, or any other government agency, nor the official position of the publisher of The New Citizens Press newspaper.
Editor’s Note: This article is Part III of three articles addressing the serious heroin and opioid addiction and overdose problem, which is impacting America. The series will continue in The New Citizens Press with an article regarding the personal impact on families. The other articles may be found on www.tncp.net.
Printed in the September 17, 2017 - September 30, 2017 edition.