SALT LAKE CITY — Substance abuse experts said the number of people seeking treatment for heroin addiction in Utah has been growing for seven years, an indication of the continued struggle facing families and the ones they are trying to help.
The number of recorded heroin overdose deaths nearly doubled from 1,842 in 2000 to 3,036 in 2010, according to the most recent statistics available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Authorities say a number of factors are fueling the drug's use, including relatively low prices and a less demonized image than it once had. But it's also the grip of addiction that makes it so difficult to leave heroin behind once it's experienced.
Darlene and Mike Schultz lost their son, 22-year-old Adam, more than a year ago from a drug overdose.
“There’s nothing worse than losing a child,” Darlene Schultz, Adam's mother, said.
Losing their son, “was the worst thing that happened in our life,” Mike Schultz, Adam's father, said.
But sharing their family story, they say, has helped them deal with the pain of his addiction and his death.
Adam was a hard worker who loved to try new things and work with computers, his mother said. He also loved to do things with the family.
“He liked to work on old cars,” Mike Shultz said. “We worked on old cars together. We had a lot of fun. He was a great kid, a lot of fun to be around, a lot of people liked to be around him.”
They knew something was wrong when his behavior changed.
“We kind of knew something was up,” Darlene said. “It’s that gut feeling. You get that gut feeling, and I think that’s more important than any drug test you can give anybody.”
Adam went from being involved with the family and talking with them all the time to wanting to be alone. He got involved with drugs and knew he was hurting both himself and his family.
At that time, the parents thought they could fix their son. They said they forced him into rehab several times.
“We thought we could just flip a switch and he could just get off of it, and it was just impossible,” Mike Schultz said.
“All the nagging, pleading, threatening, guilting is not going to help a person get better,” she said. “They have to help themselves. That’s one thing we learned because we tried everything.”
Adam eventually fought hard for his life. He volunteered with Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness. Being open and honest about his addiction helped his whole family.
Adam went to treatment and was clean for 13 months, but relapsed in November 2012 after his grandmother’s funeral.
“He wanted help,” his mother said. “He came to us for some help and went that route, and it was on and off for another six months.”
Then he moved out. Then it got worse. After six months he called home and came back home again. He was 150 days clean when he died, she said.
“We thought if we loved him enough, we could love him into recovery,” Darlene said. That seemed to work: “You can love them into recovery. The love and support you give them is so important. I think that’s what moved him to recovery is our love and support, not forcing him to help.”
But over a four-year period, the family endured lies, stealing and stress. The parents wondered how their son got mixed up with drugs. They say they tried to do everything right. They had dinner together every night as a family and took vacations together.
“So it was very hard on all of us that he ended up where he ended up because we were a good family,” she said. “This isn't supposed to happen.”
Through family therapy, they realized that they had nothing to do with their son’s addiction.
“It's hard because you look back and say you could have, would have, should have done this or that,” she said. “Really, his poor choices were not my fault, and that's the first time I felt like it was his choice to do what he did.”
The other thing the couple struggled with was hiding their son’s addiction from family and friends.
“You can’t share that your son is an addict because of the stigma,” she said. “The way people think about you. We didn’t want people to think that we were bad parents and that’s why our son ended up where he was.”
As a school teacher, she didn’t want parents to say they didn’t want their kids in her class because her son is addicted to drugs, and “there must be something wrong with her,” she said.
Mary Jo McMillen, with the Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness, said a lot of times, families are frustrated with the stealing, the lying, or the arrests, or they used again.
“So many times, they are so hopeless,” McMillen said. “They are very powerless over stopping a runaway train, which is addiction.”
A lot of times, when family members call treatment centers, they are told to have the person who has the addiction give them a call, McMillen said.
Through family therapy, they talk about addiction as a disease. The focus is on the family, not the addict.
“It's the family member who's ready to get support at that point, and that's where we really need to, I believe, bring the family into the support system; because once we have the family supported, I think we stand a better chance and an opportunity to reach the person who is addicted.”
“Family group is about us,” Darlene Shultz said. “How we can find happiness in our lives again because it’s very hard to go through.”
McMillen recommends family members take care of themselves because the stress of dealing with someone with addiction can be very stressful.
“If you do that, you will be in a better place to act when your loved one may indicate, ‘OK, I’m ready to get help,’” she said.
It’s like when parents travel by plane with children. Emergency procedures say in case of a loss in cabin pressure, parents should put an oxygen mask on themselves first, and then help their child.
Derek Hinton and Niten Mondragon are both former heroin addicts, and they said they both were consumed by the isolating addiction.
"It totally takes you over," Mondragon said. "It's the best feeling in the world, but it brings the demon out inside of you."
"The physical withdrawals get to the point where you would do anything for it," Hinton said.
Hinton and Mondragon are both in Odyssey House treatment now and are recovering from their previous addiction. Their paths crossed only after spending years of being hooked, desperate, sick, and alone. Mondragon said his first heroin experience was smoking it at age 14.
"It's almost the new thing now, everyone is just doing heroin," Mondragon said. "And all my friends are still doing it, most of them."
The drug is cheap, easily accessible and popular, and experts say that people of all ages are scoring balloons of heroin at the expense of everything else.
Project Reality addiction expert, Joel Millard, said the drug is life sentence.
"It's a chronic disease, not an acute one," Millard said. "So once a person gets addicted for whatever reason, then that's a vulnerability they'll have for the rest of their life."
Experts say that was the case for actor, Phillip Seymour Hoffman. After going through rehab and becoming clean years prior, he succumbed to his addiction last weekend and died as a result. The drug systematically destroys families of the people using it.
"You lose trust. They lose faith in you sometimes and it creates a lot of problems in the family," Millard said.
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"It really destroyed my family dynamics," Hinton said. "They lost trust in me. They lost faith in me. I know my mom would wonder if I was alive or dead and that makes me feel horrible looking back on it."
Both Hinton and Mondragon are fighting for their lives together in a friendship that could be key in their recovery. Experts say that one of the keys to recovery is healthy relationships, and that the sudden loss or lack of those kinds of friendships could be a sign of trouble.
Contributing: The Associated Press