The pain in Avi Israel’s voice was evident as he described his son Michael’s spiraling decent into addiction and subsequent death.
“Michael died at 20 years old. You see, my son suffered from Crohn’s disease. It was very painful for him. When he was 18, he was prescribed narcotics to deal with the pain, the Xanax was to help him cope with anxiety issues, as well as various other drugs for depression,” Israel said. “The medical community didn’t really know too much about addiction back then… Not a day that goes by…that I don’t miss my kid.”
Students from Perry Central School – seventh through 12th grade – sat in rapt attention earlier this week as Israel spoke of his son and his struggle with addiction. The program was sponsored by Perry Rotary Club, with the support of the Perry Police Department, and the Wyoming County District Attorney’s Office.
“We have a safety committee and the chief (Perry PD) gave us information about the statistics of opioid use,” said Middle/High School Principal Becky Belkota. “And we’ve seen the articles and the like, and it’s something we want to get ahead of…prevention as oppose to reaction. We wanted to give an insight to addiction, not just heroin.”
The question is asked: “How many of you know someone who died because of addiction?”
The majority of students in attendance raised their hands.
“Addiction is how you get there (dead). If you’re aware of the pitfalls; maybe you’ll be a little more cautious.
“There has been a four-fold increase in addiction since 1999. When you think of an addict or a junkie, what do you think of?… You may think of the dirty strung-out man hanging out on a street corner… Does my son look like that to you?… Addiction doesn’t discriminate.”
Opioids are a prescription form of heroin, Israel says, and “said to be more intense than heroin.”
“It’s a selfish addiction. You may be doing it to yourself, but you are hurting everyone else. There are more than 100,000 tombstones related to opioid deaths in this country.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “overdose deaths involving prescription opioids have quadrupled since 1999…From 1999 to 2015, more than 183,000 people have died in the United States from overdoses related to prescription opioids.”
Today, nearly half of all opioid overdose deaths nationwide involve a prescription opioid. More than 15,000 people died from overdoses involving prescription opioids in 2015, the most recent data available.
Between November and December Perry law enforcement has responded to four heroin/opioid overdoses. All were saved by using Narcan, which is the brand name for the generic drug naloxone, which is a medication used to block the effects of opioids, especially in overdoses. (Intravaneously, it works in two minutes and when injected into muscle, it works within five minutes.)
However, in the last year, the village has one confirmed death due to overdose, Police Chief Mike Grover says. Just recently there were three overdoses in Perry. In all three of the incidents naloxone was administered. In two of the incidents, the victim was revived. In the third incident, the victim was unable to be saved. The irony of these three victims, two of the overdoses happened to the same person in the span of a week. During the second overdose, he succumbed to the drugs.
In Warsaw, Chief of Police Pete Hoffmeister says there have been 10 overdoses in the past year, with two ending up in deaths. While naloxone was used to save eight of those who overdosed, two were dead before law enforcement arrived. Of those 10, two were in September, two in October, and two in December – as of Dec. 30. The youngest person they encountered was 17 years old and the oldest 55.
Nationwide, every 17 minutes someone dies from an opioid overdose. About two years ago, there were 100 deaths in Erie County. In 2015, it more than doubled. In 2016, that number could reach over 500. That’s about 10 per week. February alone recorded 23 overdose deaths in just one week.
In Wyoming County, between 2010 and 2014 the number of opioid-related emergency department admissions increased 47.6 percent – 42 and 62. The number of opioid-related inpatient hospital admissions rose from 61 to 91 respectively – a 49.2-percent increase.
During that same time period, those who were admitted for treatment for any opioid in Western New York was 7,679 in 2010. By 2014, the number of people seeking treatment rose by almost a third – 10,154 – a 32-percent increase.
Across the state, those in treatment for heroin use was 55,900 in 2010; in 2014, the number was 77,647. Deaths across the state due to heroin overdose increased 163 percent (215 in 2008, and 637 in 2013) and opioid overdoses increased 30 percent (763 to 952).
Six years ago, Wyoming County didn’t see a heroin issue in the county as much as today. Deputies say they’ve dealt with the drug 30 to 35 times in 2016. The county saw five deaths related to heroin overdoses and 26 overdose incidents law enforcement knows about that are from opioids.
“If this was the flu, we’d all be under quarantine,” Israel said. “Since it’s not the flu, people look at those who are addicts as…they did it to themselves.
“When you think of the word addict, what comes to mind? Someone sleeping in the street? A loser? Those who have lost someone…did they look like losers? They are not the picture of what addiction looks like today.”
Israel says roughly 10 percent of people have an addiction. A misnomer is that to be an addict, one had to use every day. An addict is when you do use, you have difficulty controlling it.
“You don’t have to have cravings to have an addiction,” Israel said. “Addiction isn’t about how easy it is to use. It’s how easy it is to stop.”
Michael suffered with a lot of pain because of Crohn's disease, which is commonly found at the end of the small intestine where it joins the beginning of the large intestine, is when the digestive or gastrointestinal tract is chronically inflamed.The first prescription he was given for pain relief was hydrocodone – an addictive narcotic, especially to a young person, Israel says.
“In 2010, Michael told me he was addicted to his pain pills. In January 2011, we went to the doctor and he told them he was an addict. They told him they had it under control… Michael died June 4, 2011. It took six months before Michael died. That’s how quick an addiction can grab you. He couldn’t kick his habit. He couldn’t let go. I kept asking him…'Michael, why don’t you just quit?’ "
Israel cautions the students, telling them an addiction at their age is “deadly and it’s your life.”
“Your brain is still developing…It’s like combining peanut butter and jelly and stirring it all together then trying to separate it. It doesn’t happen.”
According to officials, you may be more prone to addiction if you have a family history of addiction. But family history and genetics do not negate the company you keep.
“Addiction robbed me of my kid,” Israel said. “I blame myself… partly because I didn’t know enough about addiction. I knew everything about Crohn’s disease. But I didn’t know about addiction… It robs you of everything you hold dear; everything you love goes away. Your friends – when you start acting like a jerk – will go away. Your family starts not inviting you to get-togethers.
“Micheal came up to me one time; he needed a hug. I found it hard because I just thought he was destroying our family. It wasn't because I didn't love him. It's because I didn't understand his addiction.”
When your brain only focuses on one thing you become incapable of making even the simplest decisions, Israel says. Once you get into this kind of addiction it doesn't let go. The only escape is to use again, but you fall deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole. And sometimes, you lose the fight.
“I can't stress how important it is to not start with anything. Don't give into peer pressure. I cannot impress upon you how painful it is to lose someone you love. It is one of the worst pains I have ever experienced. And still feel.
“I miss my son so bad it keeps me up at night. The pain just cuts me like a knife. Think of that pain you'd inflict to your parents if something happened to you. My three daughters miss their brother. They don't talk very much about it. At the holidays there is always an empty seat. He will never be there anymore.
“You have the option of saying no to heavy painkillers. You can say you are OK with taking just a Tylenol. Once you start it grabs you and pulls you down so fast; you may think you have it under control, but you really don't unless you get help.”
Israel says the fear addicts have is the fear of withdrawal. It’s akin to having the flu…”only one hundred times worse.”
“What I wanted to impress on you is what addiction does to you and your family and how severe it is today and the pain it leaves behind,” Israel said.
“I’m a little worried about upcoming surgery and medications after,” said Perry Sophomore Chelsea Pascoe. “It definitely impacted us to just stay clear.
“We are told a lot about what would happen (if you become addicted) but we saw, sort of firsthand on what it will do… And when he found his son, I don't know how you'd cope with something like that.”
“You don't see it very often… the story (of addiction),” said Freshman Russ Johnson. “You hear about it, but you never really get to see how it affects the families and see what happens… I want to be the one that just stays clean. It's who I am. I want it to mean something to me. It's important.”
“I’m not whole because I miss someone really bad. I hope you never have to go through it,” Israel said.
For more information on Michael story and addiction, visit savethemichaels.org.
For resources on addiction and recovery in Wyoming County visit Recovery.org or Spectrum Human Services or Smart Recovery of Warsaw.