Faces of heroin: Drug users aren’t so typical anymore

Heroin users can be coworkers, neighbors or family members

WARREN, Ohio (WKBN) – The opiate epidemic is affecting countless families in the Mahoning Valley and the face of heroin is changing, too. It’s not the typical stereotype anymore. It can be a coworker, neighbor or family member.

“It’s not singling anyone out. It does not discriminate against age, it doesn’t discriminate against race, education, income, none of those things,” said Kathy Parrilla, the public health nurse for the Trumbull County Health Department. “We’re seeing it across the board for just about anyone.”

Trumbull County is all too familiar with the deadly effects of drugs.

“We have had 59 confirmed overdose deaths, and that ended July 30th,” Parilla said.

Out of the 59 deaths, 15 involved heroin and 38 involved fentanyl. Parrilla says fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin.

The lab tests aren’t back yet on recent overdoses.

She analyzes each overdose death and says she sees people of all ages affected.

“Anywhere from the 20s to the 40s, probably about 29 of the 59. Then it goes up again. Fifteen were in the 40s to the 50s, nine were in the 50s to the 60s, and we had one in the 70s.”

2015 Ohio Drug Overdose Data Report (PDF)

The Columbiana County Coroner’s Office has data for 30 overdose deaths this year and is also waiting on more lab results.

Fifteen of the 30 deaths involved heroin, fentanyl or a combination of both drugs. The average age of the overdose deaths was 39.

The Mahoning County Coroner’s Office says there have been 27 deadly heroin overdoses this year – 20 white males, seven white females.

“We’re seeing people with college degrees, we’re seeing people with post-graduate degrees,” Parrilla said.

Cindy Woodford, the chief operating officer at First Step Recovery in Warren, broke down the data and demographics of heroin users. She says one thing really stood out.

“I was just surprised at the number of people in their 50s and 60s using heroin, but I mean, it’s not surprising. They’re using it as the only option that they have because they’re addicted to opiates.”

For some, prescription opiate use starts with an injury and when a prescription can’t be refilled, heroin is the next fix and easy to get.

“People think of it as a choice and if you’re talking about prescription medications and moving into that transition, that’s not a choice, that’s a need. It’s a disease that changes the chemistry in the brain,” Parrilla said.

Woodford says the “new face of heroin” is born out of the people who are dependent on prescription meds.

“It’s the mom that has fibromyalgia that maybe…can’t afford the medication or doesn’t have the insurance anymore. It’s the student that doesn’t have insurance.”

There are days of the year – holidays, birthdays – that have a special meaning. For Julie Bish, it’s a day in August.

“I have been clean since August 21, 2015, so about 14 months.”

Being able to say that is surreal for Bish and getting to this point has been a long journey.

“I had tried treatments since 2012 and I just couldn’t get it. I wasn’t ready, to be honest, or anything,” she said.

Bish says she was a big opiate user and turned to heroin.

“First time I picked anything up, I was about nine. So it kind of progressed through my adolescence and my early adulthood and you know, it just got out of hand. It was the only thing I knew how to do.”

Julie’s wake up call came when two of her roommates overdosed and died.

“I didn’t want to die, and I knew I had to do something different or I was going to die.”

Julie Bish was addicted to heroin.
Julie Bish

She started treatment at First Step Recovery and learned how to deal with her emotions and triggers. Now she takes classes to become a recovery coach and volunteers at First Step every Thursday.

“Her story is very compelling and it’s very inspirational because she has been through a number of treatments, and it becomes disheartening and discouraging to think, ‘I’m never going to get this,'” Woodford said.

Bish has one message for people who are struggling with addiction:

“Give yourself a chance. It was definitely hard in the beginning. I wanted to go, I wanted to stay, I was at war with myself,” she said. “Just giving yourself the time to heal and to have a recovery-based life, it’s amazing.”

She is excited about the future, something she never really thought she’d be able to say.

“The possibilities today…I can do a lot more, and I can attempt to reach my potential, and I can be there for my children and my family.”

WKBN 27 First News is hosting a special town hall discussion, “27 Investigates: Heroin Crisis – National Problem, Local Solutions,” on Thursday, November 16 at 7 p.m. The forum at Mineral Ridge High School is open to the public and will be broadcast live on WKBN Channel 27 and on WKBN.com.

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