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WYSO’s Recovery Stories series brings you conversations from the heart of Dayton’s opioid crisis: stories of loss, stories of love, stories of hope and recovery.

The Beginning Of My Life: Family On The Journey From Heroin Addiction To Recovery

WYSO’s Recovery Stories series brings you conversations from the heart of Dayton’s opioid crisis. Today, we meet Urbana 31-year-old Sarah Clay.

In 2007, Sarah met her husband Justin. 

“We worked together at a factory. We hit it off pretty quickly. We moved in and I was pregnant within four months,” Sarah says.

Their family grew to include four children. But everything soon changed when the couple fell deep into opioid addiction.  

Today, Sarah is in recovery and Justin’s mom Kathy Stewart helps to care for their  children.

This summer Sarah regained custody of her three youngest children. She says she feels hopeful for the first time in a long time.

As Sarah recalls in this conversation with her mother-in-law Kathy, less than a year after finally getting clean, Justin died. 
What follows is a transcript of their conversation, edited for length and clarity.  

Sarah: When Justin got his cancer diagnosis, we were we were already using [heroin] at the time. He got to a really dark place to where I think he just kind of gave up. I remember dealing with overdoses and him asking me, next time please don't call the squad. And that was a hard thing because I wouldn’t have been able to do that. When did you realize Justin and I had a problem?

Kathy: The kids would report that they had not eaten, or that they had to fix their own meals while the parents were resting. And that was unusual because I know, Sarah, you were an excellent cook and that you would fix meals on a daily basis. So, that was concerning. How can you explain the overwhelming power to allow drugs to supercede the care of your children?

Sarah: At first it was it was almost like a pick-me-up. I remember even saying one time, I'm a good mom when I'm high, because I could go run with the kids and play with the kids. And it sounds insane to say now because ultimately my children were abandoned. But it got to the point where my kids were just in the way. I needed drugs to live. I remember the day children's services came to the house and told me they were taking the kids. There was no question in my mind who I would call, who I wanted them to be with and who I knew would take them. You were just always there for us. You finally had to, for our benefit, had to stop being there. I think you kind of realized you were enabling us in other ways.

Kathy: When it did come down to an electric bill not being paid or it turned off, I wanted to go and pay that. But then I also knew that I had to draw a line and say, they had the money but they chose to use that money for an addiction.

Urbana 31-year-old Sarah Clay lost her husband Justin to cancer not long after Justin entered recovery for heroin addiction
Credit Maddie McGarvey / WYSO
Urbana 31-year-old Sarah Clay lost her husband Justin to cancer not long after Justin entered recovery for heroin addiction.

Sarah: Eventually that did end up helping us out because that made us kind of hit a spot to where we were actually able to see we needed help. One of the worst two weeks that I can recall is the two weeks before I went to treatment. I had done some very hurtful things to people I loved. I stole from you. I mean, I lied and did whatever I could to get drugs that week. Eventually everything ran out and I was very sick. I wanted to die. And I just remember you were just trying to help me, trying to get me in somewhere as quick as possible. But at that time we couldn't find anything.

Kathy: I remember pulling up to the emergency room to wait for you and seeing a lady laying on the ground outside the waiting room. The homeless woman was you laying out on this sidewalk, and I was in shock. I tried to deter the children but they did see their mother laying there. It just broke my heart to see you in that situation. I would never have guessed that it would have came to that where, I felt, you had lost your dignity.

Sarah: I felt lifeless. Addiction is a very horrible thing. I think families suffer just as much if not possibly worse than the addict because the addict is able to numb. The family's not. They're being worried that they're going to get the phone call that that person's dead. But there is hope and recovery is possible. On August 15 I entered treatment at Access residential hospital in Dayton, Ohio. It was really the beginning of my life. I always had hope that me and Justin would eventually get our life back together, raise our children together. Unfortunately, the day I got out of treatment Justin passed away. That kind of hurts. You know, I'm not sure exactly where we stood in his heart the day he died. I know he loved me.

Kathy: I know he loved you, too. That would be my my gift to you, to say I know he wanted to be together as a family. I just know he wanted it to be healthy. I'm very proud of you and how you present yourself in the community. It does take a strong woman, keeping your head up high. And you’re doing well.

Sarah: And it feels good to hear that. It feels good to hear people tell me they're proud of me. People can see the change in me. I'm just completely a different person today. And I like that person. And I want apologize for all those things that I've done. I'm terribly sorry. I wish I could go back and not do those things.

Kathy: Apologies accepted and I love you and you know that.

Sarah: I love you.


This story is part of WYSO's Recovery Stories series. The series was produced by Jess Mador, with assistance from Community Voices producer Jocelyn Robinson.

Original photos by Maddie McGarvey.

Additional project digital support from 100 Days in Appalachia.

More about Recovery Stories:

WYSO’s Recovery Stories series brings you conversations from the heart of Dayton’s opioid crisis: stories of loss, stories of love, stories of hope, resilience and recovery.

Ohio’s opioid epidemic has killed more than 10,000 people over the last three years, touching thousands of families across the Miami Valley. But numbers alone don’t begin to tell the whole story of the crisis. WYSO’s Recovery Stories series documents the reality of addiction and recovery in our community, with first-person stories from Daytonians personally affected by the epidemic.

Jess Mador comes to WYSO from Knoxville NPR-station WUOT, where she created an interactive multimedia health storytelling project called TruckBeat, one of 15 projects around the country participating in AIR's Localore: #Finding America initiative. Before TruckBeat, Jess was an independent public radio journalist based in Minneapolis. She’s also worked as a staff reporter and producer at Minnesota Public Radio in the Twin Cities, and produced audio, video and web stories for a variety of other news outlets, including NPR News, APM, and PBS television stations. She has a Master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York. She loves making documentaries and telling stories at the intersection of journalism, digital and social media.
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