Four moms whose children have suffered heroin addiction shared their thoughts about the governor’s new drug task force recently. From left: Justin Phillips, Kourtnaye Sturgeon, Michelle Craine and Teresa Short.(Photo: Matthew Tully)
They are experts. Reluctant experts who have been forced to see the horrors of Indiana’s heroin and opioid epidemic from up close.
They’re parents of young men and women whose lives have been ripped apart by drugs. They’ve lived through their children’s incarcerations and withdrawals, relapses and hospitalizations, broken promises and overdoes, and in some cases through their funerals.
It’s a different kind of expertise, one earned through years of pain. But they are experts, nonetheless, and they are at the top of the list of people the governor’s new drug abuse task force should turn to for true insight.
“These are sick people that need our help,” an Indianapolis mom, Kourtnaye Sturgeon, said. “They need our help, and the truth is we as a state are doing the polar opposite of what they need. I hope the people on the task force understand that.”
The mothers I met with have been through personal hells, yet they optimistically fight on. They’ve seen their children lose everything to addiction and, so, they have worked to save other families from that same fate. They have memories of happy and bright children — memories that sometimes no longer seem real.
The women aren’t doctors or addiction specialists; they are hair stylists and small-business owners and marketers. But they’ve seen just about everything you can see about this crisis. They’ve seen its raw ugliness and the awful choices it forces upon a parent. They’ve seen what heroin does to a person, and they’ve almost screamed at a system that is not equipped to handle a crisis of this magnitude.
With these backgrounds, with this baggage, these moms can offer two essential things to the public debate. First is a dose of reality. Second is a tour of the roadblocks standing in the way of successful recoveries.
The reality check comes in the stories the women share. Stories about overdoses and homelessness, about a son selling his body for drugs, and a daughter imprisoned for stealing to support her habit. Stories of formerly happy children turned into broken adults, and of parental shame that eventually settles into sadness.
Theresa Short, 56, told me about once reporting her son’s heroin use to his probation officer. She knew that call could send him to prison but couldn’t think of how else to save him from the fatal overdose that seemed to be on its way — the type of overdose that claimed her stepson three years ago. Her son, a former high-school wrestler, has relapsed so many times that she is now “scared to death because he gets off parole in October,” and then he will no longer be subjected to court-ordered drug testing. That type of fear is why she turned in her own son.
Sturgeon, 53, wiped away tears as she recalled kicking her son, now 24 and struggling in recovery, out of her house several years ago. That was hard, she said, because it meant she would lose what little control she had. But too many lines had been crossed, too many lies had been told. She told me about the time he looked at her and couldn’t promise to stay clean. “I know why you’re asking,” he said, “but I hope you know that the last thing I want to do is use.”
Michelle Crane, 49, recalled driving her son, amid violently painful withdraw symptoms, to his drug dealer. She had a look on her face that said, don’t judge me unless you’ve been there, and I understood. “That was not my child,” she said. “He was out of his mind, and unless you’re going through it you can’t explain the horror to anyone.”
Her son is 28 and, after numerous attempts at recovery, is now serving the last days of a prison sentence stemming from a petty crime. Once, Crane said, she spent a Mother’s Day searching the city for him. Another time, she found him in a parking lot on 38th Street, a mix of meth and heroin in his system, sores so extensive on his face that she didn’t recognized him.
“The heartache addiction causes a family is indescribable,” she said.
As the others talked, Justin Phillips mainly listened. She didn’t have to say much; we’ve spent hours in the past talking about her late son, Aaron Sims. He had a great smile and a sharp mind, and he played football at Lawrence North High School. But heroin addiction overwhelmed him and he died of an overdose in 2013 at the age of 20.
That is the reality check.
And here is the message for the task force and other state policymakers who are taking a closer look at the addiction crisis. It’s simple: “The current system is just making the problem worse,” Short said.
The epidemic has too often been treated as a criminal justice issue and not a health crisis, she said. Treatment centers are far too limited and far too costly, particularly for those without insurance. Jails and prisons lack the programs to effectively help inmates deal with their addictions, and they don’t come close to adequately preparing them for life on the outside.
Over and over, the moms talked about the lack of opportunities for those who have collected rap sheets while in the grip of addiction. As much as anything, this was on their minds. It’s so basic, they said, but so tied to a troubled person’s chance of turning his or her life around. The task force, they argued, should focus closely on job training and work programs for those with felony records, and for those whose addictions will continue to challenge them for years.
“Nobody wants to hire them, even when they are clean,” Short said. “They cannot find a job and that only makes their lack of self-worth worse.”
Sturgeon talked about the challenge of finding affordable treatment programs and said that the task force needs to understand the urgency of the situation. Those trying to overcome addiction to heroin can’t be asked to wait months, weeks or even days.
“When they are receptive to that help, there is a very short window,” she said. “If you can’t get them into a facility right away you can easily lose them.”
They know. They’ve seen it.
The women also gave several pragmatic suggestions: They said Indiana needs a needle-exchange program. They urged the state to study with skepticism the for-profit methadone clinic industry. They almost begged for more detox centers. They said the probation system should be not only about enforcement but also about partnering with those fighting addiction.
And they said Indiana must better help families navigate the complex network of recovery programs and centers, providing clear data focused on the results and outcomes that different programs produce.
“It’s so hard to determine who is honest and who is not,” Sturgeon said.
As I’ve written about this crisis in the past couple of years, I’ve heard from many people who argue that a person who sticks a needle in his arm is responsible for his own problems. What that argument misses is that these are real people who shouldn’t be tossed aside. And even if you think they should be, tackling this crisis more effectively will help us all. Each story of addiction has collateral damage that spreads immense pain and heavy costs through families and communities.
There are no easy answers. There is no quick fix. But there are experts who can offer wise counsel. They’ve lived through the pain, frustation and fear of this epidemic.
You can reach me at email@example.com or at Twitter.com/matthewltully.