Addicts fight to live every day
By Jordan Cohen
Doug Walker, 29, is a heroin addict and alcoholic in recovery for two years. He knows he is in a fight every day of his life and that “addiction is right around the corner.”
“To use is to die,” the 2005 Howland graduate told an audience of 250 at the high school gymnasium Sunday evening. “If I pick up one more time, I will be dead.”
Walker said his addiction had turned him into a “liar, cheat and thief [who] would steal the shoes off my mother to feed my addiction.” He finally decided in January 2015 to “surrender and let go” and entered rehabilitation. The audience gave him a standing ovation after he finished speaking.
Walker was one of the many “Faces of Heroin,” the name of the event that brought users, family members who have lost loved ones and the general public to the gymnasium. Organizer Meghan Durig, Howland special-education teacher, said drug overdoses have claimed the lives of seven Howland graduates in recent years. In their memory, seven seats in the gym contained their names and photos.
“We want no more empty seats,” Durig said.
Faces of heroin are more than those lost. They are the families devastated by addiction. Some of them sat in a special section of folding chairs, each row marked with the family’s name. Lama Green of Howland chose to sit in the gym bleachers in front of photos of her brother, Mohannad Saleh, Class of 2002, who fatally overdosed last August after battling addiction for 13 years.
“He woke up the beast inside of him and could not stop it,” she told the silent audience. Green then displayed a bag and its contents —– the shoes and other belongings of her brother the day he died.
“Please do not let my story be about you or someone who is struggling,” she pleaded. In the reserved section, other victims’ families wept openly.
Speakers noted that as of last Nov. 12, 92 people in Trumbull County died from overdoses. Autopsies showed that many died from a combination of heroin and fentanyl, an extremely powerful opioid.
“Heroin bombed America and we haven’t gone to war,” complained Girard Municipal Judge Jeff Adler. “We’re not going to win this war unless it’s a community effort.”
“People used to plead to us not to lock up their sons or daughters, but now they tell us to ‘put my child in jail because I know they’ll be alive in two weeks,’” said Warren Municipal Judge Terry Ivanchak.
“We will never arrest our way out of this problem,” said Capt. Jeff Orr of the Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office.
“There is help,” said Durig, whose voice choked up as she pleaded for addicts and their families to get assistance. Several recovery agencies set up tables outside the gym for those who might want to take advantage.
Perhaps the most powerful presentation was a video showing the obituaries of each of the seven overdose fatalities along with photos of happier times – victims and family members smiling and enjoying life. One photo showed a young man holding an infant.
The video ended with a stark black and white sign.
“Stand strong,” it read.