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Health and Medicine

Heroin recovery: Can you go it alone?
A New Philadelphia man's 12-year battle with heroin addiction suggests you need help to climb from the abyss

This story is part of a special series.

Morning Edition Host
Amanda Rabinowitz
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In The Region:
Heroin has long been considered an urban problem. In the last year, the drug has spread to the suburbs at an alarming rate, prompting officials to declare a statewide epidemic. But, in the rural communities of Northeast Ohio, heroin has been big a problem for a decade. A group of about two-dozen white, middle-to-upper class Tuscarawas County kids all got hooked on the drug in high school. WKSU's Amanda Rabinowitz shares Sam Hochstetler's story.
LISTEN: Heroin: Big Trouble in a Small Town - Sam's story

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Sam Hochstetler has been battling heroin addiction for 12 years after snorting heroin when he was 16 out of boredom and depression. "[I was] just looking to self-medicate and have that happy all the time, euphoric feeling. I had done other drugs and ended up liking it."

Within six months, he was injecting the drug… as much as 10 times a day. Now 28, Hochstetler still battles addiction. His last relapse was a year ago.

"When I started out snorting it, I didn’t think 12 years down the road it’d still be an everyday part of life. I mean, not necessarily just the heroin but the addiction in general. The depression that comes with it. It’s definitely a battle."

An underlying depression
Hochstetler is quick to acknowledge his battles with depression. When he’s off the drug, he bottoms out. Heroin picks him back up. Meeting him in person, you’d never sense he’s depressed – or an addict. He has a magnetic energy that lights up a room. He’s tall and slender and always smiling wearing a backwards baseball cap. He now lives in an apartment in Dover, just across town from his mom and dad in New Philadelphia. They are very close and he regularly visits his mom, Holly, in the bakery she’s set up behind their house. 

Sitting on a stool in middle of her shop, she reflects fondly on Sam’s childhood. He rode his skateboard around town -- his spikey hair dyed jet black. He loved to play guitar. When he was nine, he got his first job as a stock boy at a local mom-and-pop business after school, using his paychecks to start his Star Wars collection. 

Chaos and close calls
When he was in high school, things started going south. Holly says money went missing and she caught Sam in a number of lies. When they learned it was heroin, Hochstetler says she and her husband did everything they could to keep him alive.

"Punches were thrown, my husband’s running through yards breaking his fist on drug dealer’s faces, shoving them in window wells. And I’m thinking the other day, this stuff really went on in our house? It really did."

Sam has had several close calls over the years. About three years ago, a friend took him to the emergency room following an overdose.

"We got a call that he was taken the hospital, lifeless and blue and he was on a ventilator," Holly said. "So, [I] said a little prayer on the way over. And when I got there, the doctor said that she had never seen anything like it…he had just sat up."

Sam knows he’s one of the lucky ones. At least 10 of his high school friends are either in prison or dead because of heroin. He also acknowledges he makes things harder for himself by insisting he deal with his addiction his own way. He’s done inpatient detox once, which was covered under his dad’s insurance. Every other time over the last 12 years, he’s quit on his own cold turkey. That only lasts anywhere from a week, to months to a year at most.

"I was always to think, well I know I’m bad. I know I’m strung out but I’ll go get help and get clean. But it’s not that simple. I mean, your life revolves around it. You need it to feel well, feel normal, be able to get out of bed. Staying clean is extremely difficult. You really have to change your lifestyle," he says.

Tuscarawas County starts Suboxone program
Sam sees that as an individual decision. But others say it can’t be – and in Tuscarawas County, it doesn’t need to be. The non-profit Community Mental Healthcare in Dover started a Suboxone program about two years ago as a treatment option. Suboxone is a prescription opiate drug that contains naloxone that reverses the effects of opiates. It’s used to wean people off heroin. Dr. Carmel Shaw runs the program and she requires addicts to commit to at least a year of supervised treatment that includes Suboxone, drug testing and counseling.

"It takes about almost about two years for your brain to get back to doing things the way it needs to do it. And you can’t be dope sick and try to do that. Suboxone is sort of like your bridge. We offer them structure, a way of dealing with reality. That’s why we do this on an outpatient basis," Shaw said.

Making a commitment and open communication
Still, the program requires that individuals make a commitment to sobriety. Sam Hochseteler has yet to make that commitment, but goes to Community Mental Healthcare for outpatient counseling. And, he relies heavily on his family for support. Holly Hochstetler stays very much involved in his life.  

"We have open communication at our house. Like I say, I can’t stress that enough. I’m sure he gets sick of listening to me say, ‘Well you know if you want to do anything about it, you have to do it.’ If you can get them to realize, that the ball is in their court and only they can do it, then you’re making some headway. It’s up to them."

No secrets 
Holly also says a key to dealing with her son’s addiction is to make sure the community knows about it. She doesn’t keep Sam’s heroin abuse a secret. "I think that people think ‘those dirty junkies, they don’t deserve anything.’ Until it’s your kid. The more people that know, the more eyes you have, the more ears you have. The more people are going to say, ‘No you can’t have $20. For what?’ So the more people that know, you know they say it takes a village? It really does."

Sam, meanwhile, takes life one day at a time. He’s still going to deal with his addiction his way. He can’t say for certain that he won’t go back to heroin again…but he says after 12 years, he thinks he’s had enough. "I’ve been clean for a year or two. Screw up for a couple months, go back. But my last relapse was just a one-time and kinda realized, it’s really not fun anymore."

"Not everybody’s story ends up like ours, but he’s coming right along. I’m here to offer hope," Holly said. 

That hope will likely extend to more heroin addicts in Tuscarawas County. Medicaid has begun covering Suboxone treatment and last year, Ohio expanded  Medicaid so more people are eligible for that program.

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