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Carroll County group addresses drug abuse epidemic

By SARA KLEINNews Leader Staff Writer Published: November 12, 2015 4:00 AM

On Oct. 12, 2012, a 21-year-old girl named Holly Noel lay on the floor of her Carrollton home. She was unconscious, had stopped breathing, and her heart had stopped beating.

A heroin addict who had been sober for 14 months after rehab, Holly had recently begun to use the drug again: this time, the dose she had taken was three times stronger than what she was used to.

Holly's mother, Tonda DaRae, found her soon after her overdose and tried to give her CPR. It was too late.

Holly died after using heroin for a total of four months in her life. She left behind her mother, sister Miranda, her fiance, and her baby son.

Two years later, in June, a grieving Tonda created Holly's Song of Hope, a Facebook page where Holly's friends and family could share stories and news about heroin. In one year the site grew to 1,000 members.

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"Most people who are on Facebook...don't tend to pay a lot of attention to it," Tonda commented. "We noticed very quickly that with HSOH we had people watching it really paying attention to what was going on."

The success of the HSOH Facebook page led Tonda to expand from digital conversations about drug addiction to real-life meetings, which she established this year.

Twice a month on Thursdays at 5 p.m., Tonda and HSOH members new and old gather at the Carrollton Bible Chapel on Steubenville Road to talk about their experiences. Meetings for Minerva and Canton are in the works.

Tonda explained that HSOH seeks to reach out to anyone, whether or not they have any experience with drugs or addiction. Meeting participants include family members and friends of addicts, addicts, recovering addicts, and people who have no experience with addiction but want to learn more about the problem.

"We keep everybody together. I wouldn't in the beginning have thought that would work. I was concerned especially (about) active addicts with parents who had lost (children)...but when I started the Facebook group and I allowed that to happen, I was bowled over..." she stated.

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"A parent will say, 'This is happening with my child and I don't know what to do,' or 'Why are they doing this?', and our recovery people and even the addicts (said), 'This worked for me,' or 'Don't do this because that just drove me away'...It's heartwarming. I'm seeing that happen now within the actual meetings," she added.

"I just found that...what I came across the most were loved ones saying, 'Why?' It doesn't have to be parents. Girlfriends, boyfriends, kids, siblings -- it's across the board."

Each meeting is designed around a basic agenda that Tonda creates. Participants also receive Holly's Hopes, a list of guidelines for how meetings are run that assures participants "this is a safe place for open, honest conversation free from judgement" and "what we learn here can be shared with anyone: whom we see here will be shared with no one."

Tonda said meetings always devote some time to conversations about codependency as well as actions that the Food and Drug Administration is taking regarding prescription and illegal drugs.

Each meeting also picks a street drug as a focus of conversation. Participants talk about a variety of drugs.

"We've even dealt with some alcohol issues," said Tonda. "Right now we've been discussing marijuana a lot..."

Guest speakers are invited so they can share their perspectives of drug addiction.

"I have a lot of people who have offered to come in. A lot of pastors, counselors, therapists, doctors," Tonda noted.

Meetings also include a session about why people become addicted that invites each participant to weigh in.

"It is peer-to-peer support," Tonda explained. "There are no certifications or degrees. To me that was important, because when I lost Holly I had a lot of people who wanted to help...some very intelligent people, but it was very difficult to listen to someone and not sit there the whole time thinking, 'You have no idea what you're talking about unless you've been through it.'"

Although the use and abuse of drugs can be a heated issue, Tonda said HSOH meetings seek to avoid conflict while acknowledging tough emotions and thoughts, an approach that she said makes the meetings successful.

"When you're able to talk with someone who's been there, and they totally get it, when you can say to a group of people, 'I hate my child right now,' and they understand that you are not being mean, that you don't exactly mean that but yet you do. Those are powerful things, to not worry about being judged for saying things like that and only having people understand where's that's coming from," she commented.

"I know quite a few members who are now in recovery, and they're very big members of the group. They're there to answer questions and jump in," Tonda noted.

She added that the contacts she has made as she has continued to move forward with HSOH meetings have enabled her to provide an additional benefit for local residents struggling with addiction.

"Our county is so limited on resources...the more heads together the better. I have been very lucky in...getting to know many people who run recovery centers...to where it gives me a little better ability if I have a parent call me and say 'My kid's ready right now', I'm able to...make some phone calls and try to get them somewhere quickly rather than waiting on a waiting list," she said.

HSOH also seeks to give parents information in an effort to help them steer their children away from the temptation of drugs.

Tonda said Carroll County faces some particular challenges when it comes to kids and drugs, including the attitudes of the adults around them, which she said must change if kids are to be encouraged to say 'No.'

"A large part of our problem which has always been...the lack of things for kids to do. Because...it's always been this way, there's a certain amount of acceptance. 'Well the kids are having a big bonfire and they're drinking beer and maybe there's some pot, but we know that they're in that cornfield, so it's OK,'" she stated.

"Nowadays pot isn't what pot was when we were young. ...A basic joint in the '70s...you were looking at a THC level of two to three percent. Today you're looking at levels of anywhere of 12 to 20 percent. Everything is 10 times worse, so that acceptance has to change." she noted.

Tonda said parents' attitudes about discussing drugs with their children must also change.

"Yelling at the kids...doesn't help. If your kid comes to you and asks you a question and you freak out, they'll never trust you again. So you have to stay calm and just keep lines of communication open," she explained.

"It's not always going to work. Sometimes the drugs win. The only thing we can do is just talk to them, stay open, stay calm, be honest, don't lie."

Another component of HSOH meetings involves discussing ideas for how loved ones should react, and try to help, when kids get involved in drugs.

"You (can) do the intervention and try to force them into rehab and hope that while they're there it clicks. But most addicts and recovering addicts will tell you that until they're ready to do it, there's nothing you can do," she explained.

"I tell parents, 'Tell them you love them and when they're ready you'll be there... Don't coddle,...don't excuse, but let them know that ...when they're ready to get serious, you're ready to get serious with them."

Turning the tide of prescription painkiller use and the transition from prescription painkillers to heroin is one key concern that has come out of Tonda's experience as a grieving parent and her interactions with HSOH members.

"You don't just do heroin. It always starts somewhere. With Holly, like most people, it was prescription pills. She wasn't prescribed anything. It was people she was hanging around with.I was very proud of the government taking step one in changing the formulation of Oxycontin and other medications so that (addicts) could not crush them up and snort them....However, they did not plan for the consequences," Tonda said.

"Heroin does the same thing and it's way cheaper. I tell parents, 'How many times have you given your kid $20 on a Friday night to go to the movies or the game?' You can buy a head of heroin for $10. Parents don't realize that. You pay $80 for an oxy...they change that formulation, and, boom, there's heroin for $10."

Another key concern, and one that Tonda emphasizes, is changing the perception that the general public has of people who are addicted to drugs, a move she said is necessary to address the problem of drug addiction.

"Every addict is someone's son or daughter. That's what people have to remember," she commented.

"Once upon a time you thought of an addict or junkie...you got a certain picture in your head. Now people are starting to realize that picture isn't right. This is now everywhere. Everyone everywhere that you will speak to knows someone who has been touched by this."

As part of efforts to turn back the tide of drug addiction while removing the stigma of the condition, Tonda, her daughter Miranda and HSOH friends traveled to Washington D.C. last month to participate in the UNITE to Face Addiction rally.

In addition to joining community events such as a candlelight vigil and concert, Tonda said she was able to meet with Ohio legislators in Capitol Hill, including Senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman and Congressman Bill Johnson.

"It was a wonderful trip....A lot of sharing and hope, and the whole point was to change the stigma, get people talking about this. ...Addiction is a mental health disease. ...And that was the whole point in that rally."

Tonda and HSOH coordinators, along with other groups like SOLACE and the Coalition for a Drug-Free Carroll County, have also been active in community initiatives locally to raise Carroll County residents' awareness of the region's drug abuse epidemic, an issue that she said the county is only just beginning to address.

"We don't have a hospital. Holly died in her home right here in town but was transported to Aultman. ...That death was listed as Stark County, but it wasn't....It was Carroll County. That hurts our county because it makes it look like we don't have a problem," Tonda explained.

"In 2014 we lost 11 people in our county. If we'd lost 11 kids from getting shot, people would be outraged...yet these kids go unnoticed," she said.

Those initiatives have included an overdose awareness event at Carrollton's Public Square in August of 2014, a town hall in Carrollton that drew 100 people, and actions that helped county law enforcement agencies acquire Narcan kits, which are used to resuscitate people who have just overdosed on opiate drugs.

HSOH and Tonda are still at work to encourage legislative and community changes that address drug abuse and abuse prevention, such as encouraging hospitals and hospital social workers to help addicts detox and find rehabilitation centers as well as instituting court-mandated programs that, instead of jailing opiate addicts, give them outpatient counseling as well as in-clinic Vivitrol injections.

"Opiates attach to certain receptors in the brain. Vivitrol attaches to those same receptors, only it's stronger. It's a shot, so they can't take it home and sell it to get money for drugs," Tonda explained.

She added that data from counties that have used Vivitrol indicate that the 10-month program costs about $1,000 less per addict, at $17,260, than the same period of incarceration and nearly one-third less than six months of treatment in an inpatient rehabilitation center, which costs $25,200 per addict.

"It doesn't cost the taxpayers nearly as much money. The recidivism rate is nearly zero," said Tonda.

Tonda and HSOH's most recent effort was to join other activists for an Oct. 26 meeting with Gov. John Kasich about how to prevent drug sellers and addicts from obtaining legal drugs for illegal uses.

The result was Kasich's recent approval of a $1.5 million expansion of Ohio's prescription painkiller tracking system, the Ohio Automated Prescription Reporting System, designed to enable physicians and pharmacists to identify people who use different medical facilities to obtain prescription painkillers.

But in the end, Tonda said, HSOH's most important effort is to remind people that the problem of drug abuse is a problem not just for addicts but for everyone.

"The three most dangerous words a parent can say is 'Not my child,'" Tonda said.

"My husband and I sat down with both my girls and had a very open and honest conversation about drugs...We had every reason to believe that this was not something that our children would get involved in. ...And yet, curiosity won out."

"It takes everybody," she added. "You have to have everybody on each part of that journey to be able to understand."

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