September is National Recovery Month and mental health professionals and people in recovery want to eliminate negative attitudes associated with substance abuse and hammer home the message that it is possible to get clean.
More than 13,000 Ohioans have lost their lives to drug overdoses since 1999 at an average rate of five people a day. The leading cause of most overdose deaths are opiates, such as heroin and prescription painkillers, according to the Ohio Department of Health.
In Butler County, 189 people died from drug overdoses in 2015. Of those, 149 were heroin-related — including heroin, fentanyl or a combination of both, according to Dr. Lisa Mannix, Butler County Coroner.
“Last year was the second straight year that drug overdoses were the leading cause of death among coroner’s office cases. The 189 deaths were a 38 percent increase above 2014’s record-breaking number of 137,” she said at a recent drug awareness event.
Mannix said that 2016 data shows that Butler County is on pace to exceed the 189 overdose-related deaths in 2015.
In Hamilton County, Cincinnati experienced 174 overdoses in one week (Aug. 19-25), according to the county coroner.
Lauren Marsh, director of the Butler County Coalition for Safe, Healthy & Drug-Free Communities, said the battle against addiction is more challenging than ever.
“Addicts are suffering from the control of their addiction and the stigma of being an addict as well,” Marsh said. “Many people still feel that addiction is just a choice and people feel terrible about themselves when they become alcoholics or drug addicts.
“Some in the public don’t really understand what addiction is and they end up condemning people going through it.”
Marsh attended a recent rally in Hamilton where many addicts in recovery shared their stories on how they were able to get clean.
“This month is a chance for them to shed light on a problem and encourage those who struggle daily,” Marsh said.
One of the stories that she relishes hearing is that of a local man who beat an alcohol addiction.
Don Curtis, 63, has lived in Hamilton all of his live and shutters when he thinks about the drug and alcohol addictions that are plaguing the county. He told the Journal-News that alcohol nearly cost him his family and his life.
“Alcohol was socially acceptable in my family at a young age,” Curtis said. “I liked the effects alcohol had on me as an underaged drinker. When I got to legal drinking age, I added quantity and I continued to do that on a daily basis.
“Even when I was sick and hungover, nothing stopped me.”
Curtis worked at a local hospital and he remembers being in a “good place financially in 2000,” so he decided to retire and become a stay-at-home dad. He also became a stay-at-home alcoholic.
“My wife would come home from work and she could tell I had been drinking all day,” Curtis said. “I was drinking every morning and I was making a trip to the liquor store and buy a half-gallon of rum every other day. It was economical to drink at home.”
During a Thanksgiving trip in 2000, Curtis passed out (he always had his wife drive so he wouldn’t get a DUI). His wife packed up the couple’s son and left him.
He did get a DUI that winter, right in front of the courthouse.
“I started thinking maybe I should quit,” Curtis said after a visit to the emergency room. “On Dec. 17 of 2000, I made the decision to quit cold turkey.”
He told his wife he had quit drinking, even though withdrawals led to seizures.
“My wife called the life squad and when they arrived they decided my blood sugar was so low it was life-threatening,” Curtis said. “They were given me Valium intravenously to combat the systems of withdrawal.”
He added, “I stayed in treatment for 12 months at Verizon Services (now a program run by Community Behavioral Health) and haven’t had a sip of alcohol since 2000. I don’t how I got through life with alcoholism. I drank from age 18 to 46.”
Curtis said recovery is possible and addicts should seek professional treatment and research their disease.
“If you don’t have insurance then there are several programs and help out there to help you get sober,” he said. “Go to a 12-step recovery program and research your disease — it is a disease, it is a biological genetic disease. You can recover and go to work and pay taxes and become a responsible citizen.”
Laura Sheehan, vice president of Behavioral Health at Community First Solutions, is hoping this month will lead more people to share their stories and help people become more educated in how to combat the battle against addiction.
“There is a lot of misinformation out there about addiction,” Sheehan said. “Our community needs education to truly understand what it is and who it affects.
“When we are better educated, we will be better prepared to battle this epidemic together in our community.”