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Addicts work for sober futures

Epidemic also hits heroin users’ families

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    Katie Heltman, 28, of Toledo, right, speaks with friends Stephanie Grob, left, and Tina Egan, center, after a Team Recovery meeting this month. Ms. Heltman, who overdosed on heroin the day before her 24th birthday, is 10 months sober.

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    Frankie Lynn, right, hugs friend Kelly Debrosse during a Team Recovery meeting at ProMedica Toledo Hospital on Tuesday. Mr. Lynn relapsed earlier this month.

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    Team Recovery moderator Jett Hill, left, speaks with friends after a recent meeting of the support group Families After Addiction or Death, which meets Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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Second in a series.

Katie Heltman overdosed on heroin the day before her 24th birthday and awoke to chaos — paramedics surrounding her and the jarring, cold sensation of Narcan up her nose.

The heroin epidemic in northwest Ohio causes multiple overdoses a day. In Lucas County, nearly 3,000 drug overdoses have been reported in the last two years.

For opioid addicts, the risk of overdosing, or watching those around them overdose, is just one side effect of the addiction that killed 2,590 in Ohio last year.

Addiction, Ms. Heltman said, creates a warped logic so that news of overdoses doesn’t bring out fear, but the desire for whatever sent them there.

RELATED: Part I: Flood of overdoses takes toll on rescuers

“When you’re in addiction and you’ve been using for a length of time where it’s costing you more and more money to feel high or to get that effect you had before, when you hear of somebody overdosing, it’s what those in addiction think of as ‘good dope,’ ” said Ms. Heltman, now 28 and 10 months sober. “It’s terrible. But then you think of, ‘I can spend less money and I am going to get high.’ We don’t do it thinking, ‘I am going to get this and I’m going to overdose.’ That is not the plan.”

She didn’t plan to overdose on the bathroom floor after shooting up or wake up to her now ex-boyfriend crying in the corner with a police officer.

“It really is like playing Russian roulette with your life all day every day when you’re in active addiction,” she said. On three occasions she saw friends overdose in a vehicle.

“My first thought was when I noticed somebody [overdosing,] ‘I need to get high first and hide the stuff and then we’ll figure out what’s going on with them,’ ” she said, wincing slightly. “In addiction, you’re more concerned with getting high once you have it in your hand than the person dying next to you.”

She said she now sees the terror she inflicted on her family and friends and the twisted thinking of addiction. For her mother, Sandy Mercurio, the news that her daughter had overdosed came at the same time she learned about the addiction.

PHOTO GALLERY: Overdoses in Lucas County

“That was a complete shock,” she said. “It’s beyond description. To think you brought this child into the world, you love this child, and they almost die on the eve of their birthday.”

Sobriety is something Ms. Heltman said she works for day by day, by making it a priority to go to meetings, take care of herself, and solicit accountability from her support system. She has a full-time job and a car and is living in West Toledo with her mom, working to rebuild their relationship.

“I know if I get up today and do what I did yesterday, I will stay clean and sober,” she said. “And then I have to get up and do it again tomorrow.”

For addicts with less time clean to their name, the risk of overdosing looms even closer.

Another relapse this month put Frankie Lynn back at square one. The 22-year-old from North Toledo had a few months of sobriety under his belt after years of abusing opioids.

He went cold turkey in February, entered recovery housing, and connected with Lucas County’s Drug Abuse Response Team. The week before he had overdosed in a car with a friend. He calls the incident “a black spot” that he only vaguely remembers, but it scared him.

Map of overdoses in Lucas County from June 2014 to June 2016

“I was one of those addicts that always thought that I would never overdose, that it wasn’t possible,” he said. “I fell out and I woke up to a friend of mine giving me CPR in the driver’s seat of my car because he said I had stopped breathing, had turned purple and blue, and was going into convulsions.”

More traumatizing was watching his girlfriend overdose, he said. It looked to him like she was drowning in front of him.

“I didn’t think she was coming back. To me, it looked like she had died,” he said. “There’s no words to explain how you feel when you see that. The noises that come out of their mouth. I don’t know any other words to describe it except terrifying.”

Mr. Lynn, whose addiction began with jaw surgery at 15 and multiple refills of the powerful painkiller Percocet, advanced to snorting and then shooting up heroin when the pills became too expensive.

He relapsed and checked himself into detox in June, and again this month.

He’s making another go at getting clean and hopes to re-enter a recovery house or go out of state to put some miles between himself and people who are a temptation to revisit his demons.

Mr. Lynn said he too knows what his relapses have done to his family, particularly his mother and grandmother. In May, when he had roughly three months of sobriety, his mother, Tammy Lynn, said she felt confident that this recovery would stick.

“This has not been easy on me. I’ve thought about his funeral,” she said at the time. “I literally thought I was going to bury my child.”

Now that he’s back within the drug’s grasp, the heavy dread returns.

For every one of the nearly 3,000 drug overdoses reported in Lucas County over the last two years, there are parents, siblings, spouses, and friends left in their wake. It’s a club no one asks to join: loving a heroin addict.

One refuge for those broken and bewildered by the epidemic are the weekly meetings of Families After Addiction or Death, a support group run by Team Recovery. Ms. Heltman, a co-founder of Team Recovery, and Mr. Lynn, who attended his first meeting this spring, both sat in the audience Tuesday night.

“My name is Tammy, I am Frankie’s mom,” Ms. Lynn said as she introduced herself at the start of the meeting. “He’s struggling, but we’re going to do this.”

They joined parents and grandparents of children in active addiction, and other recovering addicts. There are those who’ve lost children, siblings, and spouses. More than a few kids were there, most plugged into a phone or tablet and oblivious to what was going on around them.

The meetings have lots of hugs, lots of tears, and some laughter. Enthusiastic applause breaks out when anyone shares a sobriety milestone — 27 days, 134 days, 9 months. One night’s discussion revolved around communication, another guilt and shame. The discussions are moderated by a rotating group of recovering addicts, parents, law enforcement officials, and addiction specialists.

Often, attendees share personal stories of struggle and success.

One addict, who used opiates for more than a decade said, “I put my mother through a tornado.”

Another: “Heroin grabs you by the soul.”

The first FAAD meeting was in January. Then, it was a handful of people who met at the Zepf Center to grieve together, support one another, and find comfort. It spread through social media and word of mouth and within a couple weeks, the gathering outgrew its original space.

Now they meet Tuesday nights at 7 p.m. in an auditorium at ProMedica Toledo Hospital and regularly draw 100 people. A second meeting now convenes at 7 p.m. Thursdays at Epworth United Methodist Church.

Mr. Lynn said his goals are to stay sober and start his recovery from scratch — go to meetings, find a counselor, and make it stick this time. He figures he missed something — a lesson, a strategy, something — the last time he tried to kick his addiction, but wants to try again.

He doesn’t want to live like this anymore, he said. He wants to do better.

Contact Lauren Lindstrom at, 419-724-6154, or on Twitter @lelindstrom.

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