The expression “opioid crisis” is abstract; it doesn’t inspire emotions of any kind.
Perhaps the crisis begins to feel real when you learn that 1,241 Virginians died of drug overdoses in 2017, according to the latest figures from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. That number translates to 14.8 deaths per 100,000 persons, slightly higher than the national average of 14.6.
But even though they tell an important part of the story, numbers don’t get to the heart of things.
If you’re an EMT, a nurse, doctor or police officer, and you’ve tried to save someone from an overdose, then you know the human toll behind the abstractions.
On an even more personal level, if you’ve lost someone you love to opioid addiction or watched a family member or friend give up everything in pursuit of prescription painkillers or heroin or both, you get it.
Cathy Young of Locust Grove gets it. The substitute teacher in the Orange County Public Schools hasn’t lost any of her three sons to overdoses, but there have been close calls.
One after another, they all got caught up in drugs at a young age. Now, as a member of Orange County’s Epidemic Intelligence Council (EpIC), which meets monthly to discuss ways to address the local opioid crisis,Young wants to help other parents understand what they can, and can’t, do to help their struggling children.
“You can't protect them. You can only give them knowledge, and they will use it when they want to. The one thing I've learned about all of this is, and the hardest part is, you have no control. You have none,” Young said bluntly during a recent interview.
Crystal Hale, Orange County’s director of social services and the founder of EpIC, is grateful that Young asked to join the group: “Her insight offers the group an invaluable perspective of a parent who has faced the unthinkable task of witnessing her children battle addiction.”
She continued, “One of the many things I truly admire about Cathy is that she doesn’t hold back and helps us to make better decisions by sharing her experiences and sometimes even challenging our thought processes.”
Young, 52, grew up in a poor neighborhood in Maryland. A member of a large family, she feared she would become addicted to alcohol or some other drug. She said one of her sisters, who died in a car accident at age 18, was an alcoholic.
She and her first husband moved to Calvert County, Md., in pursuit of better schools and “higher status” for their family.
She thought the wide, open spaces of her new community would prevent her children from getting into trouble, so long as they didn’t have a car.
“That’s what’s in your mind—that’s not really what happens. So you move to the suburbs and you're cocooning your child, and the whole time they have a back door on that cocoon—and they're climbing out,” she said.
Her stepson, her oldest child, began using marijuana as a teenager. Young wanted to send him to rehab when he was 16, but her husband and the boy’s mother objected. Soon, he was experimenting with other drugs.
She said he has been “in and out of recovery” since he was 18 or 19. He overdosed on heroin five or six years ago and ended up in an emergency room. He went into a treatment facility and then moved to a halfway house. Now 37, he has a job; he drinks beer and still uses marijuana but is off the other drugs, she said.
The middle son—her firstborn—followed in his older brother’s footsteps. When she asked him how his addiction problems started, he told her his older brother had given him his “first pill.”
She also asked him why he became an addict.
“He said, ‘Mom, there is no ‘why.’ Everybody’s ‘why’ is different.’”
She added, “If you focus on [the cause of someone’s addiction], you will drive yourself crazy because you will never get an answer.”
She mentions the possibility of a genetic predisposition and ticks off reasons people start using drugs, even though those reasons don’t answer why some become addicted and others don’t: “Some people are sad; some people got hurt at work. Some people are lonely. Some people are bored.”
No matter what explanation they give, she believes addicts don’t understand what they’ve gotten themselves into: “They just get caught in the trap.”
Her youngest son, 21, is in the midst of battling addiction. He went into rehab a year ago and is working hard to stay clean.
You might think Young would be a wreck after all the suffering she has been through. But she is a determined, fierce woman keeping an eye out for other families as well as her own.
She said if you think your child has an addiction problem, there is a problem. Don’t wait to verify it. Educate yourself by attending an open meeting of a support group for addicts so you can find a community that will support you and your child.
Young also said parents should educate themselves by reading online about addictive drugs and the warning signs of addiction. She recommends a book called “Parenting the Teenage Brain: Understanding a Work in Progress” by Sheryl Finestein.
Also crucial, she said, is realizing your other children still need you even when you’re completely preoccupied with the child suffering from an addiction. If they feel neglected, the problems within the family will only worsen.
Finally, she said it’s important to realize you’re probably not the best person to help your child get well. In her view, professional counselors, support groups and education coming from outside the family can do a world of good.
By participating in Orange County’s EpIC meetings, Young is doing what she can to bring her personal knowledge to bear on the local addiction crisis.
With fervor in her voice, she said, “I need to give back because someone jumped in and took my child on.”