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Why meeting a heroin addict changes how we think about addiction

Cincinnati Herion Epidemic
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By showing the faces and stories of addiction, the Cincinnati Enquirer encourages compassion as part of the solution.

In the span of just one week, from July 10 to 16, 180 people overdosed on heroin in and around Cincinnati. Eighteen of those people lost their lives. Fifteen babies were born with heroin-related medical conditions. These aren’t unusual numbers for the region; heroin use has reached epidemic proportions.

Those are some of the statistics, but the Cincinnati Enquirer report was far more interested in the human beings behind the numbers. They sent out “more than 60 reporters, photographers, and videographers to chronicle an ordinary week.” The reporters came back with hundreds of personal stories, photos, and videos, which were compiled into a moving piece about the heroin epidemic in Ohio called “Seven Days of Heroin: this is what an epidemic looks like.

Some of the stories are hopeful, some of the people are heroic, but the stories also paint a vivid picture of the despair and horror of living in bondage to addiction. Here’s a sampling from the article, which you should read in its entirety:

Gaffney, 28, quit cold turkey after learning she was pregnant. She’s living now with the baby at First Step Home, a treatment center in Walnut Hills. They plan to move into an apartment together soon. After years of addiction, Gaffney’s goals are modest. She wants to raise her child in a normal home. She wants a normal life. Uebel finishes the examination. “She looks real, real good,” she says. Gaffney is relieved. She scoops Elliana into her arms and takes her appointment card for her next visit to the clinic in December.

“See you then,” she says.

(Ten days later, Gaffney is dead from a heroin overdose.)

A bike cop spots him and calls for paramedics. He shoots naloxone into the man’s nostrils, but it doesn’t work. “He don’t hurt nobody. He’s my friend,” a bystander says.

“He’s drunk,” says another. No one else pays much attention. Men in business suits walk by. A woman pushes a stroller. When paramedics show up, they insert an IV and give him another naloxone dose. This time, the man rouses. The medics tell him he should go to the hospital, but he ignores them. He gets to his feet and slowly walks away.

The needle exchange van pulls to a stop alongside a vacant building in Middletown, out of sight from passersby on the road. Two women hop out and set up a large blue umbrella to hide the faces of clients. They run the Cincinnati Exchange Project like a covert operation: For the next hour or so, drug users will anonymously drop off used needles and walk away with new ones. The goal is to prevent the spread of HIV, hepatitis C and other viruses that thrive when drug users share needles. It quickly becomes a popular stop. Skinny young men. Middle-aged women in yoga pants. A guy in a lawn-care truck. One by one, they slip behind the blue umbrella, emerging moments later, new needles in hand.

Hudson, known around town as “Momma Scarlet,” is with Women of Alabaster Ministries, a group that helps prostitutes with drug addictions. Today, [she’s] packed 20 hamburgers from McDonald’s and plastic bags filled with toothpaste, shampoo, wet wipes and other toiletries. She hands out the food and supplies because the women need them, and because she wants them to know someone cares. Each bag comes with one of Hudson’s “Momma Scarlet” business cards bearing her phone number. The woman in the slippers opens one of the bags. “Oooooooh!” she says, smiling. She’s 53 and a long-time heroin user. Hudson encourages her to give up the street life.

“When you’re ready, sweetie, we’ll help you find a way.”

The stories go on and on, and of course, they’re the smallest possible sampling of the suffering. Telling these stories is absolutely necessary, though. Addiction is incredibly hard to understand, and many people, myself included, are tempted to portray addicts with “all or nothing” vocabulary. “If she cared about her kids, she’d stop using,” we say, or “If he was serious about getting clean, he wouldn’t have backslid.” But encountering people in the grip of addiction forces us to acknowledge that it’s never as simple as we want it to be. It forces us to see addicts as people more like us than we want to admit. Not evil, not saints, just human beings struggling with something terrifying.

Society’s addiction epidemic needs to be addressed from every possible angle — in politics, in education, in religious communities, in the family — everyone has a part to play. But if the personal element is forgotten, if the individual human stories are not told, none of it will do much good. We have to start with human stories like these or we don’t have a hope of understanding and addressing this crisis.

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