Heroin Epidemic: Our Collapsing Community

Picture a 12 year old, a 16 year old, a 29 year old, a 35 year old, a 43 year old, and a 57 year old all lying on cold metal mortuary tables. They never met but they all died from the exact same thing. For some death was right away, for others after years and years of turmoil, pain, and anguish. Mommies, sons, little brothers, big sisters, parents, grandparents—no age, gender, race, demographic, town, or city is exempt from this debilitating outbreak.

In Michigan the epidemic is statewide. In America, it is nationwide, with the Midwest as the leading region for deaths. Just south of Metro-Detroit and Downriver is Monroe County, where 1 out of 3 babies are born exposed to heroin.

Local conditions contradict Hollywood’s glamorization of the Heroin industry. In films such as American Gangster starring Denzel Washington there is a flashy appeal as well as a characterization of addicts as an urban and acute demographic of mostly males and blacks. However, this is not realistic. According to the CDC female users have doubled since 2002 and also use has more than doubled in non-Hispanic whites. The epidemic has reached such high numbers that The New York Times recently reported that vehicular deaths are now outnumbered by drug overdoses.

Local mother, Karen Kowalik, lost her son this year to his battle with heroin addiction. Mark, or Marky, as Karen calls him, was a young, handsome boy who served time in the military and according to friends and his sister had such an amicable personality. Mark is proof that not every user had an abusive childhood or fit an urban demographic as stereotypes convey. Mark attended both private school and then public school with his older sister by two years. He worked. He travelled all over the United States trying to run from his addiction. Unfortunately, every state is going through their own crisis with heroin.

Awareness and knowledge are things that Kowalik has devoted herself to in Mark’s honor. She started an organization called “Motiviating Awareness Requires Knowledge” and less than two weeks ago she orchestrated a beautiful event at Wyandotte’s Bishop Park on International Overdose Awareness Day, August 31. It showcased a multitude of local Michigan organizations and speakers gathered from 5 pm-9 pm to provide comfort, awareness, and information to the community.

Among those on the roster were: Judge Salamone of Taylor’s Drug Court, Clinical Therapist Scott Saghy, Bryan’s HOPE, family members of lost addicts, persons in recovery and recovered, interventionists, SUDDS, recovery home representatives and some consoling musical performers.

They debunked stereotypes, offered help to those in need, rolled a continuous slide of their lost ones who of roughly 60 victims varied in age from teens to 50s. Their faces were unlike those seen on television shows. They had rosy cheeks, smiles, looked like the guy next door, the soccer mom, they were our neighbors, the girl we went to elementary school with. They were not some dehumanized stranger as often we like to think, as often as we and our community turn a blind eye to them.

Clinical therapist Saghy, a former HFC student (2008-2010) suffered from a cocaine and alcohol addiction from the age of 9 to 43 years old. He overdosed in his mid-thirties and that resulted in days of hospitalization and stitches on his face where he had split open his flesh.

Saghy divulges, “I was lost, I had anxiety, depression, and anger issues. I was abused as a child. In school I changed majors multiple times. Then, a professor here at Henry Ford College for a Psychology class I took changed my life”. Saghy realized he liked psychology but also wanted to help people and stayed after class one day to talk to the professor about it. The professor guided Saghy to go into social work and he did so and is now a clinical therapist with a changed life and has changed many other lives.

Another success story comes from Vice President of Bryan’s HOPE Michigan Stacie Burns-Natale. She shows how even extreme addicts have hope. At her low of lows, she was looking at a severe jail sentence and was so high on drugs that as the jury walked out from deliberation she passed out right in front of the Judge and hit her head on the table. The Judge gave her some ultimatums to clean up her life and Bryan’s HOPE was one of them. She says it was the best thing that ever happened to her.

The trend here with Saghy and Burns-Natale is that somebody reached out and intervened. A teacher at Henry Ford, a Judge, and a heroin awareness organization. Burns-Natale says the information she came across, that they have now-a-days, they didn’t have back when she started using. Saghy said the way his professor talked to the students, and cared about them, it played a large role in turning his life around.

Although Mark lost his battle, his mother talked to him every day and was there for him as much as a mother could be. She has devoted her time as many other mothers have of lost loved ones, to help others and reach out to other addicts. In addition, Bryan’s HOPE does free Naloxene training classes for the families of those with addicts. The Naloxene reverses the effects of heroin long enough for the overdosed person to be taken to the hospital. You can find Bryan’s HOPE on Facebook.

Understand that nobody is past hope. Years of drug use should not be a reason to give up on somebody. Saghy shares, “The new addicts are actually the harder ones to pull off the drug. They haven’t experienced a lot of the consequences of drug abuse yet. Whereas, those using for a while, they have screwed their lives up, they have been on the verge of death, they have nothing left, they just want to live.”

There are a multitude of help hotlines and organizations out there ready to help local addicts and support pages on social media. There are help programs available for all income levels, so lack of funds should never be an excuse for not getting help. Saghy also stresses that somebody trying to get clean must cut ties with their associates that abuse drugs with them. He avidly recommends a 12 step organization, finding a sponsor, working the steps without delay, and helping others.

Michigan legislation has been teetering on a bill that half of the other states have in the Nation, which allows for somebody to bring an addict in for help without being prosecuted for their role in the circumstance. Many addicts use together, but are found alone when they overdose. This legislation would trim down the casualties of drug related deaths as it has in the other states it has been enacted in already. Write to the Governor and voice your opinion on this matter if you want to make a difference in reversing casualty rates of our neighbors, friends, and halt a spiraling epidemic.

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