FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) It’s a huge problem that’s making headlines across the country. Heroin use is ruining lives, devastating families, and tearing communities apart.
Leaders statewide are reacting to a recent Centers for Disease Control & Prevention report that indicates Indiana saw a significant increase in the number of drug overdose deaths between 2013 and 2014. Indiana Governor Mike Pence announced the formation of a 21-member task force to look at the best ways to fight addiction – and Allen County leaders formed their own task force.
Indiana’s attorney general has awarded $127,000 to first responders so they can now carry the overdose reversal drug naloxone – also known by the brand name Narcan. At least 3,500 life-saving kits will be distributed statewide.
In August of 2015, the Fort Wayne Fire Department began equipping all of its rigs with Narcan. Just four hours after the drug had been placed in all of the department’s emergency vehicles, crews used it to save a life. In the six months since then, it’s been given to patients two dozen times, with a positive outcome in 20 of those cases.
Medics at Three Rivers Ambulance Authority, or TRAA, used Narcan 322 times last year. That’s compared to 175 times in 2014 and 140 times in 2013.
Just last week, a federal proposal called for more than $1.1 billion to address the issue.
A family shares their story
The numbers are staggering and show the scope of the problem, but don’t reveal the terrible impact heroin and other drug addictions are having in our own neighborhoods. That’s why one Fort Wayne family wanted to share their story with NewsChannel 15. They hope to help others.
It was on February 12, 2015 that Derek Mutzfeld, a 17-year-old high school student, overdosed on drugs. It was a combination of Zanax, vodka, marijuana, and spice.
After living in Pennsylvania, Derek had recently moved to Fort Wayne to live with his father Jason and Jason’s new wife, Michelle Merritt. The couple knew Derek had battled issues before, but thought a change of scenery – a new home, a good school, stability – would help. “We brought him out here. We didn’t realize the level of the addiction and the problems he was having. He did come to us and say, ‘I have a problem with alcohol.’ So we took all the alcohol out of the house, got him into AA, got him a sponsor. We thought we were doing good. Didn’t realize that he’d fallen back into drug use,” Jason explained. “Being very smart – he’s also very good at manipulating and hiding things. He’s a great salesman.”
Jason admits that they heard what they wanted to hear.
“As a parent, we’re all guilty of that. We all hear what we want to hear and unfortunately we missed some signals that we now know we probably should’ve caught,” said Jason.
“One day he came home and he was incredibly energetic. We now know that was Vyvance. That was an ADHD med. One day he came home and he was incredibly red-eyed and kinda out of it. It was obviously pot. But like so many parents, we thought, ‘Well, it’s just pot.’ Now we know it’s not just pot. Pot can be an indicator of more than what you want it to be,” warned Jason.
The problem continued to get worse. He disappeared and went on a bender, but came home and was found in the nick of time.
“He fell off the wagon again in July and we had an incident in September where he flat-lined in the ER,” Michelle remembers. “Saying it was a rough day makes it sound like I’m poo-pooing it. I’m not. I don’t know how else to explain that. There’s nothing that could compare with losing your child, I would assume. And there’s nothing that seems to compare to coming that close to it.”
“We found out about this second-hand because he was in Indy living in a halfway house. And we found out about this later,” Jason said. “It’s very strange to realize that you almost missed the death of your own child. It’s surreal.”
A message for other families dealing with addiction
Jason and Michelle resolved to speak up and speak out. They want other parents to learn from their experiences and not make the same mistakes they did. They stress the importance of being involved in your child’s life.
“One thing that we always learned in our generation, we were taught to say no to drugs because bad people were gonna give your kids drugs. What we found, and everyone needs to know this, is that it’s not bad people who give your kids drugs. It’s their friends. You need to know your kids’ friends,” Jason urges. “You need to know where he is. It seems like an invasion. You don’t have to be in their business all the time, but it’s their friends who are gonna give them drugs. It could be a family member. It could be a medicine cabinet. You can find them in your kitchen. You can find them anywhere. You can buy them at the convenience store if you know what you’re looking for.”
“It’s gonna be their friends. It’s their network of people they know and they love that are possibly gonna give them the stuff that ends up ultimately killing them. That’s true of alcohol, marijuana, heroin, whatever, it is,” added Jason. “Stop saying, ‘It’s gonna be bad people.’ It’s not the bad people you have to watch out for. It’s the good people sometimes.”
“It’s not bad people who give your kids drugs. It’s their friends.” – Jason Mutzfeld
“This is no different than if someone said our child has a potentially terminal cancer, or Type 1 diabetes, or anything else that could potentially end a young life. And I think a lot of families think, ‘If we just keep it quiet and just keep it to ourselves, we’ll figure it out on our own.’ And honestly that’s probably what we did in the beginning,” Michelle admitted. “You know, if we’re good and we go to AA, and we provide him a good family, good structure, and good schools, that it will all figure itself out. But no, it takes professional help. I wouldn’t say we’re going to work it all out on its own if it were cancer. So why would I do that now?”
“We can’t just hide this,” Jason agreed.” I actually lost a friend of this who said, ‘You’re using your son to make a name for yourself.’ No, it’s about let’s be open and let’s be honest and have a conversation about this because this is a bigger deal than people realize, especially opiate addiction. In this state and all over the Midwest and the country, it’s a major issue that nobody’s willing to talk about. Well, some people are and we want to be those people. We want to be sure that parents are not alone. They need to learn to ask for help.”
Michelle said once they came forward and spoke to others, they were surprised to find out how many families are affected by drug and alcohol abuse. “So many people have reached out to us privately. People that we didn’t know were going through this to say, ‘Hey, it’s happening in my house right now.’ Or, ‘Hey, I’ve been there.’ Or, ‘Hey, just so you know, you’re not alone.’ And those are the people every day who have gotten us to where we are. I start to get a little emotional about it because we’ve had such great support, but we’ve been willing to say that there’s a problem. And no one can come alongside you and help you if you’re not telling them there’s a problem.”
“It affects more people than anyone is willing to admit. When this first happened I realized that often – especially Hoosiers – we tend to think of this as a character flaw. And it’s not. It is a disease. Alcoholism, drug addiction – it is a disease. The people who suffer from it – yes, they make bad choices, but it’s not always of their own will,” said Jason.
There is a grieving process, too, Michelle said. “A mom said this to me – whose son was about 10 years sober – she said, ‘For a long time I mourned the loss of the potential of my child.’ And it hit me so hard. I realize I spend a lot of time mourning the loss of what I thought – we project lots of thing on our kids – so we had a college picked out, we had big plans. I don’t know that some of those weren’t more my plans than they were his. And mourning that potential took time. You do. You mourn the loss that is some potential and you hope you get it back.”
As for the future, Jason and Michelle know overcoming addiction is an uphill battle that never ends.
“He’s better today. And every day is a challenge. ‘One day at a time’ is the mantra that he has to live by and he seems to be doing well now. He’s got a job, he’s got a place to live,” Jason said.
“I always say we have spent a lot of time hoping and praying for the best – and steadying ourselves for the worst, said Michelle. “And that’s a weird balancing act, but it’s been the last year of our lives, for sure.”
A new support group called Parents Recover Circle has been formed to help those in the Fort Wayne area who have children battling addiction. It meets on the first and third Sunday of the month at 1:00 p.m. at the Jennifer Ford Art Gallery/Choice Designs at 3223 Carroll Road. Go to www.treklimitlessrecovery.com for more information.
The Lutheran Foundation provides a hotline for people who need help with behavioral & mental health and who are fighting addiction. It’s open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call 1-800-284-8439.
The Foundation is also launching a new website designed to help provide mental and behavioral health information. LookUpIndiana.org will debut on February 23.