Pandora's Pill Bottle - 4

Battling Opioids at Ground Level

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
Connect with Todd:
An Indiana farmer and former opioid addict shares what it was like when he was addicted and what finally saved him. Meanwhile, a North Carolina pastor tells what it's like to be on the front line of dealing with the opioid crisis.

OMAHA (DTN) -- There was a dry creek bed near his Columbus, Indiana, farm.

In his mind's eye, Randy Hedrick still sees his father lying dead, trapped underneath an overturned four-wheeler in loamy soil.

The search ended there, but Hedrick's own life started to become crystal clear.

Growing up watching his father's emotional ups-and-downs caused by addiction to opioid painkillers, Hedrick later saw how the addiction ultimately contributed to his dad's death.

The choice was simple: End his own addiction or end up like his father.

The younger Hedrick became addicted after using opioids to deal with injuries on the farm.

At that point of ultimate decision of what to do after his father's death, he had been using opioids himself for nearly 20 years. He saw the toll it was taking on his health. During the throes of addiction, Hedrick said he was unable to think clearly because of a perpetual fog.

He needed hundreds of milligrams of painkillers daily just to function, so Hedrick engaged in doctor shopping to buy as much of the stuff as he could get, no matter where he was at the time.

Hedrick was tired of hiding his addiction from his wife and their children for years, although he said they never suspected it.

He had to stop the opioids.

DTN is running this special series to take a closer look at the impact of opioid addiction on rural America, how it became such a big problem, and what is being done about opioids.

THE RECOVERY BEGINS

Early in his recovery fight, Hedrick stayed in a rehab clinic for a week and attended support meetings. He fought withdrawal symptoms, which typically include nausea, muscle cramping, anxiety and depression.

"I started asking hard questions," he said. "It helped me to see how I got involved in drugs. One thing I learned when I got clean, I don't want any more secrets."

He did all he could to quit the drugs. Within months following his father's death, he was clean.

Hedrick and his wife celebrated their 41st anniversary in 2018.

"I needed to change who I'm around -- my dad was one of them," Hedrick said. "From as far back as I can remember, I think a lot of his anger had to do with opioids."

While Hedrick made a lot of changes, there was still something he couldn't change.

Whenever Hedrick hops atop a tractor, the cravings for painkillers return because that's where he spent many days and nights while using opioids.

For years, Hedrick dreaded operations that required taking pain medications. Now, he readily uses over-the-counter drugs instead. One of the biggest challenges in recovery, he said, is being able to afford treatment.

"You can get through it," Hedrick said. "When you're addicted, you're self-centered. When you get clean, you start caring about others. When it's gone, it's hard to deal with at first -- the emotions. You'll have highs and lows."

For Hedrick, he strongly believes his religious faith is the reason he's alive.

"I believe in Jesus Christ and he saved me," he said.

ON THE FRONT LINES

Opioid addiction has become an everyday way of life in Morehead City, North Carolina, where local pastor Donnie Griggs is on the front lines in his rural town of 9,000 people.

Griggs' brother, Curtis, was addicted to drugs starting at age 12. By 17, he was hooked on Xanax and oxycodone. From there, Curtis started using heroin daily.

"He got booked up last year for selling (drugs) and assaulted my parents," Griggs said. "He had a real moment of clarity. He had a psychotic break. Has been a year sober now. He's done more drugs than anyone I know. I don't know why he's not dead."

Morehead City is surrounded by small towns of 100 or fewer residents -- all of them facing the opioid challenge.

As the pastor at One Harbor Church, Griggs rides along with first responders in ambulances on overdose emergencies. He has seen friends die from suicide brought on by addiction.

"It's affecting every facet of society," Griggs said. "I'm in mansions and I'm in trailer parks. It acts like a bomb and not a bullet. We can't get foster parents as hard as we try. It is in the school system, kids are trading drugs."

One Harbor Church considers itself an important part of the solution, often giving money to local efforts aimed at helping opioid addicts.

"We're sending people to rehab," Griggs explained. "They can apply to us for help. We'll come up with the money. We help them find ways to re-enter the world, help buy cars, find jobs, contract for housing. We're working into the jail. We want to communicate to the whole community that hope is there. We have prayer nights dedicated to this. We all know it is a big problem."

The National Institute on Drug Abuse said the rate of opioid overdose deaths in North Carolina was above the national average, as of 2016, at 15.4 deaths per 100,000 compared to the national rate of 13.3.

A common thread among people addicted to opioids is a lack of awareness that help is available, Griggs said.

"They just need someone in their lives to help think it through," he said. "A lot of people don't have the moment of clarity. There's always a story. I have had grandmas and 14-year-olds who show up at church high on heroin. There is a real lack of hope."

MOMENT OF CLARITY

Donnie Griggs' personal moment of clarity came when his brother Curtis assaulted their parents; he turned over his brother to police. During the past year, Curtis has taken life skills classes and is on a new track.

"His addiction was so serious," Griggs said. "There are many reasons why people relapse -- loss of transportation, job, house, a new group of friends -- if you don't have these, you're getting high."

Churches should play a key role in communities combating opioid addiction, he said.

"Shame is a huge contributor in perpetuating the problem," Griggs said. "It is all demoralizing. Churches historically steer clear of people who could be trouble. We have to talk about how life is hard. Life is brutal, all of us are fighting fights. We need to identify them as people and not as problems."

Church leaders across the country are much like everyone else in the opioid fight -- they continue to look for answers and take steps to get involved.

The examples are numerous.

The Church of the Open Door in West Manchester Township, Pennsylvania, holds special services focused solely on the opioid crisis.

During the last week of September, the Lutheran Church hosted an addiction and faith conference in Minneapolis focusing on what the church needs to do to improve its response to addiction.

Others such as Calvary Tabernacle Church in Madison Township, Ohio, is building temporary housing for families affected by the opioid crisis. There are a variety of support services including counseling, day care, a clothing bank, as well as help in finding long-term housing and employment.

Churches in northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia recently created the Holy Friendship Collaborative to combat the opioid crisis from a faith perspective.

Carmel Christian Church in Carmel, Indiana, recently launched a confidential support group called Parents of Addicted Loved Ones to help change the stigma around addiction.

The U.S. Health and Human Services Department has created a toolkit for churches: https://www.hhs.gov/…

CANADA'S BISHOPS SPEAK OUT

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement on the state of the opioids crisis, https://www.cccb.ca/…, to outline the causes and possible solutions.

"It is necessary to confront the problems underlying the use of these drugs, by promoting greater justice, educating young people in the values that build up life in society, accompanying those in difficulty and giving them hope for the future," the bishops said. "We all need to look upon one another with the loving eyes of Christ, and to learn to embrace those in need, in order to show our closeness, affection and love."

Embracing them can start with helping each individual feel welcome in the church.

Every Sunday, Griggs weaves into his sermons the need to recognize opioid addicts as people. "If you're addicted to drugs, I get this is hard. We're glad you're here," he tells them.

But he knows he alone can't save them.

"I'm not the savior for this little town," Griggs said.

"God can set them free. I can't impose myself on people. I'm there to show compassion. Quite often it leads to 'Can we talk?' Faith comes into a lot of discussions. I couldn't do it if I didn't have faith God was involved."

**

Editor's Note: Next in the series: A Utah family shares what it was like to lose a loved one to addiction.

To see other stories in the series, go to:

Pandora's Pill Bottle - 1: Opioids in Rural America: https://www.dtnpf.com/…

Pandora's Pill Bottle - 2: How Opioids Become a Problem: https://www.dtnpf.com/…

Pandora's Pill Bottle - 3: Impact of Opioids: https://www.dtnpf.com/…

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @toddneeleyDTN

(ES/CZ/AG)

Todd Neeley