We are a nation of drinkers, smokers and dopers. Most people — 87.3 percent — ages 12 and older in the U.S. have used one or more addictive substances in their lives, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. Those substances include tobacco, alcohol, illicit drugs like cocaine, pot and heroin and misuse of controlled prescription drugs such as Vicodin, Oxycontin and, increasingly, fentanyl.
But not everyone who drinks a beer or takes Ecstasy becomes addicted. According to CASA, about 16 percent develop an addiction — which medical experts define as an unmanaged, chronic, relapsing disease.
Casual drug use, especially at an early age, is a major risk factor.
“Almost all cases of addiction begin with substance use before the age of 21, when the brain is still developing and is more vulnerable to the effects of addictive substances,” said CASA in its 2012 report, “Addiction Medicine: Closing the Gap between Science and Practice.”
It’s the rocky road down which both Charlie Oen and Kevin Ochs traveled to their addiction to heroin.
Early drug use
Ochs, 35, started drinking and smoking pot with his eighth grade friends at Shawnee Middle School when he was 14. It was a way to fit in at a school where he had felt lost and out of place, after spending grades 1 through 6 in Lima schools.
“My mom moved me out to Shawnee to get me away from drugs and gangs,” he said. “All of a sudden, I lost all my friends, It was one of the toughest things, going from city schools to Shawnee.”
By ninth grade, Ochs was using acid and cocaine. By his senior year, he was taking crystal meth and selling drugs himself.
“I was a drug entrepreneur,” he said. “I wanted to try everything, do everything, know everything.”
Oen, 25, an “Army brat,” started drinking and smoking marijuana in the seventh grade, when his military family was living in Germany.
“I remember being scared,” he said. “My parents always told me drugs were bad.” He said he enjoyed the feeling pot and alcohol gave him, “but it wasn’t something that I wanted to do all the time.”
Peer pressure hit after the Oens relocated to Wapakoneta in 2007, when Charlie was 16. The teen, who was used to moving every three years, found it hard to fit in with kids who had a network of friends they’d known their entire lives. He found solace among the teens and young adults who were part of the community’s drug underground.
“I was using Ecstasy, mushrooms, party drugs, and then somebody said, ‘Try this, it’s a Vicodin,’” remembered Oen. “I felt super chill. After that, it was off to the races. I thought, if I liked this, whatever someone offers me next, I’ll like, too.”
Vicodin, an analgesic drug, contains acetaminophen and hydrocodone, an opioid that acts on the pleasure receptors in the brain in the same way that heroin does. It was only a matter of time and opportunity before Charlie Oen tried heroin.
“Heroin was my favorite feeling I loved the most,” said Oen.
Kevin Ochs, too, described his introduction to heroin as the next step in the chase for the ultimate high. A girl he knew showed him how to inject it.
“I remember, as soon as she was done, I was like, ‘I don’t feel anything.’ Five seconds later, my whole life changed,” he said. “It was the best feeling I ever felt in my whole life.”
The feel-good factor
“Heroin produces a strong euphoria and a sense of calm,” said Dr. Manoranjan D’Souza, an assistant professor of pharmacy at Ohio Northern University who studies addiction. “That’s why people get addicted so quickly to it.”
He said all addictive substances act upon the mesolimbic dopaminergic system — the pathway that delivers the “reward” chemical messenger, dopamine, to various parts of the brain — but their actions take different forms. Nicotine, for example, is far more physically addictive than heroin, according to D’Souza. But heroin provides a mood-altering thrill that nicotine, even cocaine, can’t match, he said.
“That feel-good factor is very different for a drug like heroin compared to cocaine and nicotine,” said D’Souza. “That’s the part we don’t fully understand.”
What is clear to researchers is that addiction is a brain disease, not a moral shortcoming. Research increasingly suggests addictive tendencies may be due to structural and functional differences in the brain. And the addictive substances themselves alter the brain’s chemistry, making it stunningly difficult to quit. For those who do kick heroin, it often takes years for normal cognitive functions to return.
Kevin Ochs got sober and clean 16 months ago, worn out by a heroin-fueled life that had included prostitution, theft, drug dealing and, as he put it, “lots of drama.” He’s enrolled in an intensive treatment program offered by Coleman Professional Services. He takes Suboxone, an opioid that reduces the side effects of withdrawal and helps curb cravings. He’s found God.
“Having faith in something is huge,” he said.
For Charlie Oen, the turn around came in 2011, in prison, where he served two and a half years for burglarizing a house in Columbus Grove. He and two others committed the crime while high on coke and dope.
“I just started thinking,” he said of his time behind bars. “I was young, I knew I had more to offer. It was a miserable place.”
He got help through the state prison system’s Western Ohio Regional Treatment and Habilitation Center in Lima. He’s now a peer counselor at Coleman. He works part-time at a local restaurant. He’s back in good stead with his family and has rediscovered hobbies like video games, writing and music.
“Prison saved me,” he said. “I don’t regret anything. This was my path.”
Reach Amy Eddings at 567-242-0379 or Twitter, @lima_eddings.