SHERBURNE – “Hook me up to a lie detector test and I’ll say, ‘I promise I’ll never use again,’ and I’d pass, because I meant it,” said Caleb Johnson. “It always killed me when people said I didn’t have willpower. I have plenty of willpower. I worked 70 hour weeks in a 110º kitchen while withdrawing from heroin. Then, I became suicidal. I thought, ‘I can’t live this life with drugs in it, and I don’t know how to live sober.’”
“I got out [of rehab], and a week later, my dad died,” Ryan Holt said while fighting back tears. “He was my best friend. I worked with him everyday. He only saw me sober for one week.”
Editor’s Note: What follows is part one of a three part series. The other two segments will appear in Thursday and Friday’s editions of The Evening Sun.
Johnson and Holt were two of many speakers at a community event held at Magros Banquet Hall Monday night about the opioid and heroin epidemic. Speakers included recovering addicts, their family members, and members of county programs including Chenango County Drug Court and Chenango County Probation.
Alexis Pleus of the organization Truth Pharm moderated the discussion.
Sherburne-Earlville Superintendent Eric Schnabl gave the opening remarks.
“Opioid and heroin use was once an urban issue,” Schnabl said. “Now it is a scourge in our own community. If it doesn’t affect you now, it is only a matter of time until it does – unless we do something.”
Schnabl said that in 2015 S-E students grades 6-12 took a survey that included questions about their drug use. It was anonymous and asked questions including drug use in the past 30 days, age of first use, and spanned drugs including nicotine, alcohol, marijuana, prescription drugs, cocaine and heroin. 9.1 percent of seniors reported use of prescription drugs. 35.1 percent reported ease of availability of drugs. 64.8 percent reported that alcohol was readily available to them.
With heroin, 4.5 percent reported daily use. 4.6 percent reported weekly use, and 5.4 percent reported annual use.
Among middle school students, the survey showed that prescription drugs were easier to obtain than marijuana by 5 percent.
2.8 percent of sixth graders reported daily use of heroin.
“It is unacceptable if only a single student falls victim to the hell that is addiction,” said Schnabl. “We cannot arrest or incarcerate the problem away.”
Pleus then spoke and explained why she started Truth Pharm. Pleus shared that prescription drugs kill more than all other drugs combined.
“It’s also interesting that a recent study has shown that if a parent finds out their child is smoking marijuana, they view that as more serious than if they were to find out they were using prescription drugs,” said Pleus. “In 2014, 47,000 people died of an overdose. Nearly 20,000 died as a result of Hepatits C that was linked to needle use. That would wipe out the entire population of Madison County in one year’s time.”
Pleus continued, “Last year, the average life span of a white man was reduced for the first time since the Vietnam War. This is due to overdoses and suicides.”
She then shared her personal story with regard to why she formed Truth Pharm. “In 2014 I got the worst call a parent can ever get. My oldest son, Jeff, died from a heroin overdose.”
“I’m a licensed engineer, we ate at the dinner table, all my boys played sports. He went to college, he finished college, got an apartment … everything seemed fine,” Pleus said. “Then in 2011 he was arrested for house burglaries. He proclaimed his innocence. His public defender then said to me, ‘Well, a lot of the things heroin addicts do don’t make sense.’ That’s when it hit me.”
Pleus explained that after her son lost his battle with addiction, she became more aware of the stigma attached to it, and therefore ending the stigma is one of her main goals of the organization. “I was treated much differently when people learned how he died. The people we are losing to overdoses are valuable souls. If we treat them different, they won’t ask for help. And their lives are worth saving.”
Recovering addict Ryan Holt then took the podium to tell his story.
“I grew up in a normal family – brother, mother and father – we were middle class,” said Holt. “Anything I wanted, I had. Nothing traumatic happened in my childhood. I’ve never even seen my parents drunk.”
He said at a young age he began to work on his family’s dairy farm. Holt worked hard and spent time with his friends. He explained he was a good student with good grades.
Then, in his junior year, he began using marijuana and alcohol. “All the things I said I’d never do, I did,” Holt said. “I partied a lot, everyone else was doing it. I thought it was just kids being kids.”
Holt graduated high school from S-E and then went to college in Morrisville, where he commuted and continued to work full time.
“Then, I started with Vicodin,” Holt said. “It was a huge rush. I was comfortable. It was my social lubricant. It was alcohol and marijuana amplified. It was social in the beginning, and then … I moved to taking Oxycontin and then Opanas.”
Said Holt, “My priorities were working, so that I had money to buy drugs. I had this crazy notion that I would only take them on the weekends, or only at night. Soon, it wasn’t my choice. I was physically addicted. I didn’t want to be around anyone. I thought that was the life.”
Holt said all of his money from working went to the pills. He admitted to having stole from his family.
“After a while I just opted to isolate,” Holt said. “I didn’t want to be around anyone. Drugs and money and I was happy. I wasn’t living, I was just existing.”
Holt explained that in 2011 he was confronted by his family. He was told he was losing too much weight and looked like a walking skeleton.
At the age of 20, he went to rehab in Pennsylvania. “I still didn’t believe I had a problem,” he said. “A week after I got out, I was going to turn 21.”
“I got out [of rehab], and a week later, my dad died,” Holt said while fighting back tears. “He was my best friend. I worked with him everyday. He only saw me sober for one week.”
Holt said he wanted to bury his emotions. “After he died, I started to get high again. To not feel again,” he said.
Holt confessed it got worse, fast. He said prescription drugs were harder to come by, so in 2012 he used heroin for the first time. “I found it, easily, and it was much cheaper.”
Holt said it wasn’t long after that that a detective arrived at his home. Holt was arrested for grand larceny, and spent 30 days in jail before a court appearance where he was given the option of either jail or rehab. Since he had spent 30 days in jail, there were no drugs in his system, and therefore no rehab center would take him.
Holt was then ordered by the court to attend 12-step meetings. “I was forced by the court. The thing is, you will never get sober until you want it for yourself.”
Holt admitted that six or seven months after being let out of jail, he began drinking again. He justified it by the fact he didn’t have a problem with alcohol. “Then, it got worse, fast. Way worse. Faster,” he said. It took four or five months until he said it got “very, very bad.”
“I went to my probation officer and told him that I needed help and I was very heavy into it,” said Holt. “At first, he didn’t believe me. Then, I was given the option to go back to jail or go to rehab. My probation officer helped me get into Conifer Park near Albany.”
Holt explained that once he told the staff at the rehab that he was a farmer, they assumed his drug of choice was alcohol. He said they were shocked to hear he was an opiate addict.
“I got out, and changed everything,” Holt said. “I actually wanted it for myself. It is scary, a lot of people are dying. A lot of people I know are dead.”
Holt said, “I just want to let you all know that addiction affects everybody. Doctors. Lawyers. Anybody. I’m a dairy farmer.”
“I can’t regret everything I’ve done, because it has now brought me here to share my story with you, and now I am sober,” Holt concluded.
Recovering addict and S-E alum Caleb’s Johnson’s portion of the evening, as well as insight from his mother and brother, and speakers from the Chenango County Probation Department and Chenango County Drug Court will be featured in Thursday and Friday’s pieces.