The solution to the nation’s heroin and opioid addiction epidemic was there in the filled-to-overflowing conference room at the Putnam County Educational Service Center in Ottawa on Monday night. It was there in plain sight.
It wasn’t in the sheer number of participants, some 300 strong, a coalition of the determined made up of concerned residents, worried parents, police chiefs, criminal court judges, county prosecutors, public health officials, rehab employees and representatives of Gov. John Kasich’s office.
The solution wasn’t in the impressive, and costly, measures the distinguished panel proposed for opioid addicts, such as more rehab beds, more counseling, increased drug tests during parole, longer incarcerations and up to four years of postrelease supervision.
No, the solution to our country and culture’s heroin problem was standing there in the front of the room in a T-shirt and blue jeans.
“My name’s Bryan and I’m a recovering heroin addict,” the grinning 32-year-old announced.
He has recovered through Narcotics Anonymous, a 12-step recovery process first outlined in 1939 in “Alcoholics Anonymous,” the so-called Big Book of A.A. that is the blueprint of recovery for hundreds of other addictions.
Bryan said his saga with drug addiction got started in high school. His youth sounded like mine, maybe like yours, one pockmarked with stupid, risky experiments with beer, booze and pot.
“Just a typical party scene,” he said. “Football games, we were drinking we were smoking, we were flirting with the girls, yadda, yadda, yadda.”
What made Bryan different was the desire for more.
“My mind as an addict, when I like something, I want more and more and more,” he said. “Even though I know it’s damaging me and is eventually going to kill me.”
The Big Book describes it as a “strange mental blank spot” that drives the dried-out alcoholic or the cleaned-up heroin addict to pick up their substance yet again, even when they don’t want to. It’s a state of mind that the text describes as “cunning, baffling and powerful.”
“I’ve been around people who have overdosed and died and I wondered where they got that dope from so I could go get some,” Bryan said. “I’ve been brought back to life by Narcan before, and I was very pissed and angry because you just ruined the best high I’d ever had in my life.”
It’s the kind of twisted logic that is impervious to the pleas of parents, the stern warnings of cops and the punishments of criminal court judges. And the people listening to Bryan knew it, too.
“We should have expectations of relapse,” Putnam County Assistant Prosecutor Todd Schroeder told the crowd.
Bryan, during his talk, looked fondly at the upturned faces before him, at the clergyman with his white collar in the third row, at the rehab counselor with her name tag and fliers sitting on the aisle.
“I feel bad for the ladies and gentlemen who work in this field. They do their damnedest to try to get through to us, but there’s nothing you can say or do,” Bryan said. “It finally came down to me being the most miserable I ever was in my life, and then being willing to do something different. And when I finally decided to get clean and sober, I needed the help of someone who had been exactly where I was.”
He needed, he said, to hear the message from another addict that he, Bryan, was beyond human aid, that the problem he suffered from, that queer mental twist, was something that only a power greater than himself could master.
The solution for Bryan meant finding God, and it’s a solution that cannot be legislated by a village council or mandated by a judge or handed out by treatment facilities like prescriptions for naloxone, medicine’s latest chemical answer to a chemical problem.
Bryan offers the opioid addict that path to power. As one who’s been there, he has a better chance at putting a broken soul with a disease of “more” back together again than do all the king’s horses and all the king’s men who were assembled in that conference room.
He was grateful for the large crowd listening to his story of hope, and touched by the palpable concern that vibrated through the room.
“To see this here is absolutely awesome,” he said. “It’s not bigger than all of us if we can unite and do something.”