The approximately 10 people sat around the table, some drinking coffee, focused their attention for about 90 minutes on a young man talking about his experiences with drugs.
"You wake up hating life," said Josh Phillips on his experience with heroin. "You can't go to work without [heroin], you can't go to sleep without it."
The Sept. 13 gathering at the Corner Cup Coffeehouse at Graham and Fishcreek roads was part of the Stow Strong series of forums presented by Stow Youth Services. SYS is a part of the city's police department that acts as a juvenile diversion program, provides assistance to families, including referrals to other agencies, and educational programs for adults and students.
Phillips, now 23, is a 2011 Stow-Munroe Falls High School graduate. He said he began with marijuana in high school and then in college, other students began offering him prescription pills. He eventually switched to heroin because it was actually cheaper and easier to attain than the pills. He said he worked constantly at different jobs, for a moving company, in construction putting up siding, shoveling snow, to earn the $300 a day the drugs, ended up costing him.
He said this raises a question for addicts; what could they accomplish if they used all the energy they expend feeding their habit on something positive?
"You'd really make something of yourself. You'd go far," he said.
To explain the irrationality of drug addiction further, he said he came to hate the drug, but used it anyway because he would feel incredibly ill if he did not.
"Anybody who was trying to help me was my enemy," he said. "I just didn't want to get sick."
"[Addicts] associate drugs with no pain," said Stow resident Celia Kulmala, a senior at Liberty University studying religion and psychology and an intern with Stow Youth Services. "That seems like an obvious connection."
Phillips is no stranger to the damage of drugs, himself knowing a half dozen people who died of overdoses.
"The most recent was two weeks ago. He lived on my street. I knew him in fourth grade," said Phillips.
On Sept. 5, Phillips marked eight months without drugs.
"It's a start," he said. "I don't want to get too confident, because confidence is complacency. But it feels pretty good."
He went through detox, lived in a halfway house for a time and still periodically get shots of a drug that helps counteract his cravings. He has a girlfriend, who has been supportive, works long 12-hour days, without the money going through his fingers to a dealer, is good at math and hopes to become an engineer, and has reconnected with friends who drifted away from him when he was using drugs. He said some of them smoke and drink, but not around him.
Phillips credits his family, especially his grandmother, with whom he lives, and some uncles for being a big part of his support system. He said he enjoys helping his grandmother around the house and takes a lot of pleasure in little things he once took for granted, like going to the movies.
"They say an idle mind is the devil's workshop. Heroin is a workshop, too, the addict's workshop," said Phillips. "I try to stay busy."
He added that he has learned to really value the people in his life.
"I just got them back and I don't want to let them go," he said.
Stow Youth Services Coordinator Kathy Christ provided some stark information about the opiate and opioid drug crisis.
She said that statewide, there were 2,531 drug overdose deaths statewide in 2014 and 3,050 in 2015.
Deaths related to fentanyl, a narcotic 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin and 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine that heroin is often laced with, totaled 84 in 2013, numbers that jumped to 503 in 2014 and 1,155 in 2015.
"The dealers are cutting the heroin with fentanyl because it's cheaper," said Christ.
Emergency first responders used Naloxone, also called Narcan, a drug proven effective in reviving heroin overdose victims, nearly 20,000 times last year.
More locally, said Christ, Akron had 112 overdose deaths so far in 2016, with 24 overdoses the previous weekend, four resulting in deaths.
Stow had seven deaths last year and this year, as of Sept. 13, had 11 deaths resulting from 42 overdoses.
More ominously, is carfentanil, an opioid analog of fentanyl, but more powerful with a potency 10,000 times that of morphine, is now being found cut with heroin making overdoses even more likely.
"That stuff wasn't around when I was doing it and I'm so glad," said Phillips.
Christ said signs of drug use to look for include:
Red flushed cheeks or face.
Burns or soot on fingers or lips.
Frequent loss or need of money.
Stolen items at home.
Behavior changes, such as lying, depression, mood changes.
"Droopy" appearance, as if arms, legs and head are heavy.
Alternating between being wakeful and drowsy.
Disorientation and poor mental functioning.
Signs of injection and infections, including wearing clothing to cover them up.
Drug paraphernalia, such as spoons and bottle lids.
Phillips said it is only a matter of paying attention to determine if someone is using drugs.
"If you're around someone who's doing it, eventually you're going to realize they're doing it," he said.
For addicts, there is help available. Stow safety forces recently partnered with Akron non-profit Community Health Center to offer Operation Second Chance, with safety forces referring those they encounter with a drug problem to the CHC for help. Stow residents can even contact the police and fire departments to seek help without fear of arrest.
In addition, anyone in the county can call the Summit County Alcohol, Drug Addiction, and Mental Health Service Board hotline, 330-434-9144 to get help for themselves or a loved one.
Corner Cup Coffeehouse owner Heather Ciranna.said she found the forum helpful.
"I so much want to get educated on the characteristics of this because I want to help," she said.
Phillips said he is now trying to be an example for his younger brother and sister, who are in early adolescence.
"I pretty much forced them to listen to me," he said.
He also said his hatred of heroin and what it did to him and others has made him want to speak out.
"I'll try to help anybody I can because it's disgusting to see this stuff around," he said.
The next SYS forum at the Corner Cup Coffeehouse will be Oct. 11 from 3 to 4:30 p.m. The subject will be human trafficking.
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