Around five years ago, the mother of a struggling opioid addict launched a support group in Dayton to help other people living with a loved one’s addiction.
It’s called FOA, for Families of Addicts. Central to the group’s mission is an effort to break down the stigma that often surrounds the opioid epidemic.
It’s 7:30 p.m. on a Wednesday evening, and Lori Erion is hosting a meeting of the Dayton support group called Families of Addicts or FOA.
More than 70 people gather in a big room as the meeting gets started.
Many of the participants are here to find help for themselves or to figure out how to manage a loved one's active addiction.
Erion opens with a story about why she founded FOA.
“I started FOA in November of 2013 as a result of having my own recovery experience, and then finding out that my daughter was using heroin,” she says. “The things that worked for me weren’t working for her. I didn’t know how to support her, and I didn’t know how to deal with the feelings I was having. That is why we have people in recovery, people looking for recovery, families, siblings, and significant others all in the same room together, really fighting as a family, working it out together, and teaching each other.”
Then, one by one, people stand up to share their own stories or offer their services.
There are addiction counselors from different Miami Valley rehabilitation centers and programs.
Some are professionals. Some are volunteers who are in recovery themselves. There are service providers that can help people fill out insurance paperwork or access Narcan, a drug used to reverse an overdose.
At tonight’s meeting, there’s also a public health van out front offering free HIV testing.
Inside, there’s a table where people can get fentanyl test strips to help prevent accidental overdoses, and there’s a table with free food, soft drinks, and all sorts of recovery literature.
Many people at the meeting identify themselves as grandparents who are raising grandchildren because of addiction.
One of those people is Paul Bertke, who goes by the nickname Buck.
“My stepdaughter has been using since she was about 14,” he says. “She’s now 30, and just yesterday I picked her up out of Access Hospital Dayton, out of detox, again.”
Buck and his wife are raising three of his stepdaughter’s children, and he says the oldest of the children, who is still in grade school, has seen a lot.
“My granddaughter, her dad, he overdosed. So, he died. They don’t have a dad anymore. She’s only 10 years old. We’ve put her through counseling and so forth, but that’s always there.”
Buck says it’s hard to speak with young children about addiction, but kids usually know more than adults think they do, especially when they’ve seen adults overdose and be arrested.
He says helping relatives with addiction issues is hard because it’s often trial and error.
Most FOA attendees here agree: they say there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to helping a loved one, and it’s tough to find a balance between helping and enabling.
But they also agree that there are a lot of resources available. The real trick, they say, is matching a person in recovery to the right resource, one that will help them stay sober.
That’s what appears to be happening with one brother and sister pair at the meeting: Tiffany, who's been clean for more than six months, and Jeremy.
Tiffany shares some difficult stories, saying she’s overdosed multiple times, seen friends die, and went to prison on two occasions, but she finally sought help for her addiction.
Then, she started documenting her recovery on social media, which inspired her little brother.
“He kept on telling me on Facebook, I’m so proud of you. I want what you have. I look up to you. And he’s never looked up to me. We’ve always struggled in our addictions, and we’ve always got high together, but we never got sober together,” Tiffany says.
Tiffany says she spoke to the woman who runs the sober living house where she’d been staying, and they were able to arrange a room for her brother, Jeremy.
Then they drove the two hours to Portsmouth, Ohio, to pick him up and bring him back.
Today, Jeremy says he’s happy to be living under the same roof as his sister again and to be sober.
“I thank god every day when I wake up,” he says. “I look at her like she saved my life. I came up here weighing 115 [pounds]. I’m weighing 154 [pounds] now. In 31 days, I gained that much weight.”
Most people at FOA are open and vocal about their struggles.
FOA isn’t an anonymous group, and that was by design. FOA founder Lori Erion had an epiphany while watching a documentary film about addiction and recovery.
“We could have had a secret support group,” she says. “However, early on, I saw Anonymous People, and in that movie, it talked about the 23 million people in longterm recovery that aren’t saying anything, and I thought, well, I’m one of those people. That is the aha moment I had, when I was like, ‘Yeah! We need to be talking about this!’”
While the rate of overdose deaths in Dayton recently declined, the opioid epidemic shows no sign of letting up.
Across the country, more than 70,000 people died of an overdose last year. That’s an unprecedented number.
In an effort to help more people avoid that fate, FOA has a big goal for 2019. Organizers plan to start a phone hotline that will link people touched by addiction to the services they need.
And they hope that hotline can save lives.
This story is part of WYSO's Recovery Stories series.