Charlene was planning for her 27-year-old son to attend the opioid addiction town hall meeting, but he didn’t make it. Addicted to opioids since 2011, but sober for the last six months, the son relapsed just two weeks ago and is back in treatment for the ninth time.
Charlene, whose last name has been withheld at her request to protect her privacy, organized last Thursday night’s gathering at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills. She knows firsthand the heartache and helplessness of a parent who just wants to make things better for a child plagued by addiction before it is too late. Her family has suffered time and again these past five years, dealing with the fallout of what is now a son’s full-blown heroin addiction.
The crisis Charlene faces is becoming more and more common. A recently published study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health found that fatal drug overdoses in Pennsylvania increased 14-fold between 1979 and 2014; it also found some of the highest rates of drug overdose deaths in counties in southwestern Pennsylvania. The problem is so pronounced in the suburb of Mt. Lebanon, where Charlene lives, that its school board voted unanimously last spring to supply all schools with Narcon inhalers that reverse the effects of an opioid drug overdose. Mt. Lebanon police officers now carry Narcon and are permitted to administer it to overdose victims when responding to 911 calls.
Her aim in organizing last week’s town hall meeting, Charlene said, was to begin to remove the stigma of addiction so that the community can begin talking about the problem openly and honestly and work together to find solutions.
The two-hour symposium, which was open to the community at large, featured Rep. Tim Murphy (R-District 18), state Sen. Guy Reschenthaler (R-District 37) and state Rep. Dan Miller (D-District 42), as well as a panel of experts from law enforcement and the judicial system and health specialists in addiction and treatment.
The event was moderated by KDKA-TV news anchor and Mt. Lebanon parent Ken Rice.
Charlene’s son began self-medicating with opiates in October 2011, when he was a senior in college suffering from back pain. But by the time he came home for winter break that year, it was apparent to Charlene and her husband that their son was addicted to pills. They quickly sought help so they could send him back to college.
“We ended up somewhere in Pittsburgh to do an out-patient detox,” Charlene said in an interview. “We thought we could fix this, and he could just go back to school.”
That effort failed, though, as did another attempt at rehab the following spring. Her son saw various doctors and therapists, but by the summer of 2012, he began using and became addicted to heroin, although Charlene did not know at the time. He went back to school in the fall, but by the end of the semester “he admitted he had a problem and that he needed rehab.”
He completed a rehab program in Florida for 90 days before moving to a sober living program, which he failed. He attended still another rehab in Cleveland, which seemed to work. He came home for about two years, and Charlene thought he was doing well, but in retrospect, she was missing some red flags.
“He was doing internships,” she recalled. “As parents we look the other way a lot. He had multiple car accidents, and by June 2015, it was obvious he had a full-blown relapse. He was using heroin.”
Charlene and her husband were not about to give up. They sent their son to a 90-day program in the Poconos, following which he began living in a sober community and holding down a full-time job.
When he relapsed again in January of this year, Charlene found a six-month residential program in Arizona, which her son completed. When that program finished, he found a full-time job in Arizona. Once again, he seemed to be doing well.
But a couple weeks ago, he drove back to Pittsburgh, relapsed and is now back in rehab.
“I know I’m not alone,” Charlene said. “But I feel like I’m alone.”
Charlene certainly was not alone last Thursday night, as a diverse array of community members filled the 400-seat sanctuary of Beth El.
With the help of Murphy, Charlene was able to pull together a panel whose expertise covered virtually every aspect of addiction, from its effects on an addict’s loved ones, to various recovery options, to addiction from a law enforcement perspective. Two recovering addicts, who now work to help others recover, were also on the panel. They spoke frankly about the long-term effects of drug addiction, which can include lifelong challenges in getting a job, housing and even child custody.
Murphy is an advocate for treating addiction as a mental health issue and criticized the shortfall of services in the United States to treat the mentally ill. He recently introduced a bill in the House — which was passed in July — to address the nationwide shortage of psychiatric beds and child psychiatrists.
Ninety percent of those with a drug addiction do not seek treatment, Murphy said. Of those who do seek treatment, 37 percent cannot find it. And of those who do find treatment, 90 percent don’t get “evidence-based treatment.”
“It isn’t that treatment doesn’t work,” he said. “It’s that we’re not treating.”
The crisis needs to be addressed on a local level in addition to the federal level, said Murphy, chair of the House’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, which is investigating prescription drug and opioid abuse. “This is a community problem.”
Charlene stressed the importance of helping those in crisis to navigate the landscape of treatment and recovery.
“Even though there’s resources, you still really don’t know what to do,” said Charlene, who is hoping to work with Mt. Lebanon’s Teen and Family Services to put together a resource packet for families dealing with addiction.
Miller praised Beth El for hosting the event.
“A lot of religious institutions said, ‘No,’ to this event,” he said. “But not Beth El.”
Miller urged those in attendance to contact their representatives to encourage the scheduling of a special bipartisan session on the epidemic, which has been endorsed by Gov. Tom Wolf and other leaders in the commonwealth.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.