Gone North: The Front Lines of Ohio’s Opioid Crisis

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Gone North: The Front Lines of Ohio’s Opioid Crisis

By Paul Fuhr 08/07/17

Wheat fields, country roads, and even Amish buggies aren’t quaint details so much as the background features in an otherwise terrifying story about addiction in America.

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abandoned building
Opioid addiction feels less like an epidemic here and more like a guarantee.

“We’re just stopping by to see if Chelsea’s alive,” Dave shrugs. “It’s a favor for someone.”

It’s explained to me like it’s something to tick off a grocery list, or the thumbnail plot of a movie we’re about to see. There’s no mention of who the favor is actually for. Worried boyfriend? Sick-to-death mother? Hell, maybe it’s all a lie and we’re just here to collect money. Anything is possible as we stand on the wet, sagging porch of a rotted duplex in Mansfield, Ohio. I barely even know Dave—the tall, hollow-eyed friend of a friend of a friend from an AA meeting I don’t attend all that regularly. He’s two decades younger than me, but he has that hardened, weary, no-bullshit expression where most young addicts’ faces rest. While reconnaissance isn’t really my thing (Netflix’s Stranger Things is), I’m way too fascinated. I wanted a first-hand glimpse at the opioid epidemic, so I offered to drive. Now, I keep thinking of excuses to get back into my car.

The story goes that Chelsea was a smart, athletic high-school junior in one of the countless well-heeled suburbs that dot Columbus, Ohio. Cross-country, track, swim. Something about a sports injury. Torn ACL, maybe. OxyContin. Anyway, you know the drill: it’s the typical trajectory you read about in the news. One thing leads to another, and it never leads anywhere good. Still, by all accounts, her parents were blindsided by the painkillers. The tractor beam of heroin yanked Chelsea, just like Dave and so many other unsuspecting high schoolers, from the Interstate 270 loop around Columbus, up to Mansfield. These days, it’s not surprising to hear how kids—teenagers, really—would just vanish up there. Gone north, people say. Earlier this summer, there were 11 overdoses there in one day.

Mansfield itself is a hilly wasteland of sorts, zigzagged with railroad tracks, shuttered storefronts, sleepy family restaurants, and dead manufacturing plants with vast tangles of rusted pipework and shattered windows. It’s an unseasonably cold day in July: concrete-gray sky, slight chill undercutting everything, oddly humid. The entire city is pitched at a 30-degree angle—as though the people here are conditioned to fight uphill. To me, it seems like the city’s been hollowed out. The skyline is modest, if not slouched—careful not to draw too much attention. There are enough unkempt yards on Main Street to tell me that most people don’t care. The owner of a coffee shop calls Mansfield a “shell game”: all the drug-out criminals, he says, keep trading the same stolen electronics and lawnmowers over and over again. There’s a penitentiary that’s just a stone’s throw from downtown—a glaring, razor-wire reminder of what happens to drug offenders. Hell, the iconic Ohio State Reformatory—Shawshank fucking Prison—is just a mile away, too. And yet, Mansfield is just like any other town in Central Ohio: it’s blighted by a problem that the CDC has officially called an epidemic.

Despite a merry-go-round, Mansfield doesn’t seem all that happy to be alive. It’s haunted—and so am I, studying the patio as Dave knocks on the door for the fourth time: trash bags, ancient board games, a fat Zenith TV, a gas grill with spiderwebbed knobs. Everything is soaked from morning rain.

Finally, the door opens.

A skeletal girl winces back. Vague recognition flashes in her blue eyes when she sees Dave.

Chelsea.

There aren’t any hugs or handshakes. Chelsea just steps back and lets us in. To call her “wiry” is to say she actually has something of a body, which wouldn’t really be telling the truth. She’s a ghost, shrouded in a men’s Superman T-shirt several sizes too big for her. It’s splotched, stained, and wrinkled—the “S” logo is faded and flaking. Maybe she could have filled out the shirt when she was a high school junior a couple of years ago, but no longer. All told, she’s my height: just under six feet—and doesn’t look fazed that a total stranger (me) is standing there.

I don’t want to step inside. This isn’t what I signed up for. We just had to see if she was alive. That’s it. But inside I go. I’m 40, married father of three, and I don’t belong here. But my brain is already scrabbling through every single detail: Where did all the furniture go? Who pays the rent? Is she squatting here? Will the cops be busting in at any second? Heroin use is like a cartoon in my head: it’s all people wildly running around with needles and spoons, as if they’re all my grandmother’s greatest nightmare about people running with scissors come alive. I’m afraid that if I touch anything, I’ll get hooked on heroin, like catching my toe on a rusty nail will give me instant tetanus.

“Don’t mind this,” Chelsea says, uprighting a chair that’s off to the side. I don’t know what she’s referring to. There’s really no other furniture in the duplex—just an epic stretch of stained carpet and the fresh reek of cat piss. There’s a nice flat-screen TV, though, sitting atop some cinder blocks and moving boxes. An Xbox is there too, with controllers snaking out. The video-game system is clearly a shrine, but whose shrine? Is Chelsea secretly skilled at Zelda? Everything else has probably been pawned or sold or stolen, I tell myself.

There’s an acrid, unfamiliar smell here, though. Some people are in a bedroom back to the left, but all I can hear are murmurs and shuffling. Mild, half-hearted arguing. Vague signs of life.

Heroin is nowhere to be seen here and yet—it’s everywhere.

For me, it’s enough that Chelsea is alive. Mission accomplished. I don’t need to hear about her exhausting schedule for the rest of her Sunday, as she details all the places she’s going to “check out” with some friends. It amounts to a list of streets on the west side where, when most people are out, she can root around, jostle doorknobs, and scour unlocked cars for loose change. She’s just trying to keep her addiction alive which, like Mansfield itself, seems to be hanging on by a thin thread.

They say goodbye. Chelsea never once acknowledges me. When we leave, though, Dave seems oddly satisfied and asks if I want to hit Taco Bell. That’s where his brain goes: 7-layer burritos and Chalupas. Me? My brain starts working through everything I’m surrounded by. The doom-and-gloom of it all catches up with me. The stories are right, I realize. All of them. Chelsea is just one of a zillion sad endings. There’s no hope. Heroin is winning. Addiction is bleeding across the map. There aren’t enough treatment programs in the world to undo the damage that surrounds us on every street corner here.

It’s over.

“Look, man,” Dave shakes his head, sensing I’m bothered. “Chelsea’s not sober. And we can’t get her sober. But if I’m sober, something’s working.”

A lot of Internet bandwidth has been burned on the opioid addiction in Central Ohio. If you’ve heard “Ohio” and “addiction” in the same sentence, it’s probably in one of the countless news stories that paint the Buckeye State as Ground Zero for opioids. Here, overdoses are at historic highs. Coroners don’t even have enough room for all the bodies and they call funeral homes directly. Oxycodone, fentanyl, hydromorphone, hydrocodone and heroin flood virtually every corner of the state. Wheat fields, country roads, and even Amish buggies aren’t innocent, quaint details so much as the background features in an otherwise terrifying story about addiction in America. To show someone a map of Ohio is to show them an anatomical map of addiction: arteries of drug transportation, clustered nerve-endings of trailer parks ravaged by a bad batch, fevers of crime waves.

Opioid addiction feels less like an epidemic here and more like a guarantee—it’s always going to be here, thrumming in the background like insidious white noise. What’s even clearer is that no one program has the answer—there’s no magic frequency out there that will shatter the addiction crystal. “Heroin caught us all off-guard,” admits Berlin Heights police officer Joseph Bernard. “We only got trained in using the Narcan spray in the last two years.”

He also admitted to not knowing the specifics of his department’s current drug awareness programs—a familiar refrain among law enforcement across all of the state, given that they’re constantly changing and evolving their strategies, throwing anything and everything at the problem, trying to see what sticks. And while Officer Bernard works in a village of less than 1,000 people, it doesn’t make these postage-stamp towns any less impacted by the opioid crisis. In fact, it makes it all the more apparent that opioids strike anywhere. Heroin addiction often lives in secret and shadow, which is why when it emerges in a small town, it means it’s actually everywhere. In Berlin Heights, over July 4th weekend, he says it took seven sprays of Narcan to revive a woman who’d overdosed.

“It’s ridiculous how exponentially [heroin] has grown. It touches everyone,” Bernard says, observing that it’s pretty much the only game in his sleepy town. “I don’t even hear about pills. It’s just heroin, heroin, heroin. I’m genuinely surprised by how prevalent it is and how many people it affects. We have people who drive through and they just physically crash out. Next thing you know, squads are on the way.”

In fact, heroin in small towns isn’t even shocking. What shocks most professionals isn’t that it exists at all—it’s that it took so long to get noticed. “I remember my cousin who lived in a suburb of Columbus telling me about her classmates using pills and heroin around 2007,” says Rikki Grace, a mental health specialist in Westerville, Ohio. She claims she didn’t see a newspaper story on the crisis for another seven years, when she was working in an inpatient treatment facility. And yet, opioid addiction was festering long before it hit newspaper covers and made feature stories.

Have opioids always been here in Ohio, or has supply finally satisfied a demand that’s always been percolating in the dark?

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at paulfuhr.com. You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.

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