America's Heroin Epidemic
Central Ohio, which includes Richland County, is in the grip of what the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) calls a heroin epidemic. Anthony Marotta, the DEA special agent in charge of Ohio, says the drug is coming out of Mexico and being transported to Ohio through the southwest border states.
"Heroin here in Richland County is completely out of control," says Sergeant Don Zehner of the Richland County Sheriff Department. "It's affecting everybody." The situation has gotten so bad, local law enforcement officers say they're in over their heads.
Lisa says the most surprising thing about this devastating phenomenon is that it doesn't discriminate. "I could not believe that people of different ages, different socioeconomic backgrounds, were literally dying this slow death in the middle of America," she says. "The reason why it affected me so much is that I interviewed so many people, and every single one of them was begging for help. Nobody liked that they were addicted to heroin."
These days, Mike and Darla are hooked on heroin and living with their family in a homeless shelter. Mike says their problems started in 2004 when he got hurt at work and was prescribed painkillers. "Before long, I was eating a handful of pills every day to be able to go to work," Mike says. Eventually, he began substituting heroin for the pain medication because he says it's less expensive and much stronger.
Every day, Mike and Darla say they drive to Columbus—100 miles round-trip—to buy drugs. When they can't find a babysitter, they tell Lisa they take their 13-month old son, Cayden, along for the ride, even shooting up in front of him.
While Mike and Darla know their sons are addicts, they say the family does not shoot up together. "It's something we usually don't talk about," Mike says. "We know that they do it, but they don't actually do it in front of us." The parents do admit, however, that they've used heroin in front of the boys.
Mike and Darla say this is not the life they envisioned when they got married. "It's nowhere near the dream I had for my family," Mike says. "This is a nightmare."
Darla says she cries every day. "I hate it," she says. "I want nothing more than for this to stop and to just get back to the way we used to be."
Even though Darla's never seen her sons do drugs, she says she's seen the effect it has had on them. "I worry every day ... that they'll overdose," she says. "It tears me up inside."
Michael says there is shared blame for his drug use. "[I blame my parents] somewhat because they've been doing it over the years, and they did it in front of me," he says. "I got mad at them for doing it. I told them to get off of it, and they never listened to me. I felt like everything I said went through one ear and out the other." Still, Michael says he knows he bears some responsibility for his own addiction.
Darla admits it's hard to take care of a baby when you're addicted to drugs, but she says she does her best.
Oprah says Mike and Darla are in denial. "Babies pick up on the energy that's in the family," Oprah says. "You guys are fooling yourselves if you think you're doing a service to [Cayden]."
The boys say they shoplift and sell what they steal to get drug money because their parents don't pay for their habit.
"People who are addicted to heroin, I've learned, have done a lot of things in an effort to get the drug that they are hugely embarrassed of," Lisa says.
Dr. Karim shares 5 things you may not know about addiction.
Many people who hear the Hawks' story may wonder why they don't just get help, but Dr. Karim says its not that simple. "The reality is that a lot of times it costs money to get help," he says. And, the drug has such a strong hold on the Hawks that there's little chance they'll recover without proper treatment, he says.
"The reality is we're seeing this wonderful family and their downward spiral into destruction," Dr. Karim says. "And there's a baby involved—a 13-month old baby, you know? This has got to stop now."
This time, Mike, Darla, Michael and Matt all agree they need to stop using and say they want help. Four drug treatment centers have agreed to take one family member each, under certain conditions. They each must personally call the treatment center to accept the offer, and they must be on a plane within 24 hours. The treatment centers have even agreed to pay for all expenses, and Darla can take Cayden to rehab with her.
Find out more about these treatment facilities.
Dr. Karim says the Hawks have to be separated because they need to go on their own journeys to recover. "Each one of them has their own stresses, anxiety, possible depression, mood changes, triggers and associations. They have a lot of work to do individually. They can do family therapy later," he says. "Right now, the focus has to be on each of them and their unique relationship with the drug."
All four of them say they are ready to kick their heroin habit.
Growing up, Merry says she spent her days cheerleading and dreaming of a career in education or nursing. Then, during her teenage years, she says she began living a double life. "I was getting drunk on the weekends," she says. "I was doing cocaine and acid and other drugs. I guess heroin just wasn't too much of a further step."
Merry says she tried heroin for the first time when she was 17 years old. "Right away, I was hooked," she says.
Over the years, Merry's dangerous drug addiction has affected every aspect of her life. "It's destroyed my family. It's destroyed my self-esteem," she says. "I have been in so many bad situations."
When her daughter, Riley, was just 1 1/2 years old, Merry had to forfeit custody to her mother. Now, she fears for the safety of her unborn child. "I think about it every day," she says.
Since Merry has destroyed so many veins shooting up, she has trouble finding a place to inject the drugs. "She has track marks all over her body," Lisa says.
Merry says she hates what drugs have done to her, but she continues to use. "I have to. I don't know what else to do. I know that I can't go sick. I can't do it," she says. "My main concern is not about myself but my baby. What if I start to detox, and I lose this baby?"
Though she doesn't know how heroin is affecting her baby, Merry says doctors have told her the painful detoxification process could cause her to go into early labor.
Merry begins calling area hospitals, searching for somewhere that will admit a pregnant drug addict. When a hospital agrees to take her that night, reality begins to set in. Merry panics. "I don't know what to do," she says. "I'm scared that I'll go down there, and they'll give me nothing. ... I'm sick. God, this is a frickin' nightmare."
Watch as Merry struggles with whether she should get clean.
With Lisa watching from the front yard, Merry jumps in a car and speeds away. "I think the heroin was starting to wear off, so she started to get sick and so she freaked out," Lisa says. "She asked me to go with her. ... Now, I'm feeling like I should have gone with her, but I couldn't get in the car with her because she was clearly under the influence. Now we don't know where she is."
Every detox is painful, but this time, Merry wasn't the only one at risk. "When you're pregnant, it's very risky for a hospital to take you. It's very risky for a physician to take you," Patti says. "I've seen her so sick that she could not get up from the couch and take herself to the bathroom. I had to lay on the floor beside her."
As the body goes through withdrawal, addicts often suffer from symptoms like nausea, diarrhea and violent tremors. For the five days Merry was detoxing, she says she was extremely sick. "I got so sick, I didn't even know where I was," she says.
"It's not so easy for a heroin addict to just check into some kind of facility to get clean," Lisa says. "[In Richland County] there is not a single detox facility. These users have to do it at home or somewhere, and it's a long process. It takes sometimes a couple of weeks to start feeling normal again after coming down from heroin."
Detox rids the body of toxins, but it doesn't help ease the addiction. To learn to live with the disease, many addicts enter treatment programs...a choice Merry must face.
Merry has known about the offer for six days. Now, she has 24 hours to make her final decision. What's holding her back? Lisa says Merry is scared.
"She's been addicted for seven years. You have to change your life in every way and become responsible," she says. "It's also a community. Her friends for the last seven years, they're heroin friends. They've been part of this life."
Patti says she thinks her daughter is ready. "When Merry did go through the detox and came home, the very night that she came home, she was trying to build her little arsenal of weaponry against this disease," she says. "She said, 'I do have some friends. I have my friend Roxanne, and I have Lisa.' ... It's a whole lifestyle change. It's scary, of course, but it's a good thing scary. There is no alternative."
"It's death or it's prison," Lisa says. "That's the alternative."
Kelly, a mother of four who is a recovering heroin addict, offers Merry words of encouragement. "It is the hardest fight you will ever have in your life," she says. "[But], in the end, my life is far better now than it was before. ... You can do it. You have to fight, literally, for your life."
Merry agrees to take the next step. "I'm ready to go," she says.
Find out more about addiction and other diseases.