Each Tuesday night in a small conference room at the nondescript Crossroads Center near the point where South and Jefferson streets meet in Frederick, a group of women find strength in one another.
In this room, they share, grieve and encourage, all in an attempt to lift the burden imposed on their lives by heroin abuse. The group, to this point all mothers of addicts, understands the unique fear that strikes when an addicted child turns off his or her phone, leaves home after a fight erupts or evades even the most basic questions.
“To be the parent of an addict is excruciating and exhausting. And trying to get them help is excruciating and exhausting,” said Beth Schmidt, wearing a black sweatshirt emblazoned with “I hate heroin” in hot pink letters.
The Heroin Action Coalition’s peer family support group has been meeting at Crossroads since May, though it started under a different name.
The Heroin Action Coalition, in its current form, is a collective of other small organizations started by mothers across the state. The group seeks to ensure that appropriate opiate addiction treatment is available to all who request it or need it without regard for that person’s income or insurance coverage.
The need is real, said founder Lisa Lowe, who struggled for years to secure treatment for her son, a recovering addict.
Since 2007, heroin or prescription opioid drugs have been involved in the majority of the state’s overdose deaths. More than 2,100 people have died from overdose of heroin or opioids since May 2007, according to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
After grief, sharing help
Schmidt’s son, Sean, is among those who have died.
He died in December 2013, two days after his 23rd birthday, from an accidental overdose.
Schmidt, who is from Sykesville, carries around a list with her of other young people who have died and speaks regularly at awareness events, but that doesn’t mean she’s immune from breaking down from time to time when discussing Sean’s death.
She didn’t have any resources when she first found out her son was addicted, so she started a Facebook group.
“I wanted to be that voice for the other parents. The things that I was learning, I wanted to get out in the public. Had I known what I know now, I might have done things differently,” she said.
For example, Schmidt was once turned away from a treatment facility after telling them Sean had used heroin for only four months; the facility said they had others waiting to get in who’d suffered longer. But Schmidt learned later that Sean had lied about how long he’d been using the drug to avoid hurting her more, she said.
Eventually, Sean would gain admission to a 28-day inpatient program, but that success was short-lived.
“He worked it like he was fighting for his life,” Schmidt said. “And evidently he worked it too hard because after 11 days, he was sent home.”
The program — and the family’s insurance company — simply said it was time for him to go.
That, Schmidt said, is evidence that Maryland’s treatment programs need an overhaul.
Lowe and other mothers who are members of the coalition say they’ve also struggled to secure adequate treatment for their children.
Tina Canter, a group member from Frederick, said her family sent her son to a treatment program in Florida after running into closed doors here.
Lowe first became aware of her son’s struggle with substance use disorder when he was a teenager. With about 100 beds available for adolescent treatment in Maryland, “I couldn’t get him into treatment.”
“As a mother of a child with an often-fatal mental health disorder, I was appalled that I could not find treatment for my son,” Lowe said. “If he had cancer, or any other disease, he would get the care and it wouldn’t matter how much money I had or what kind of insurance I had.”
Given the still-increasing numbers of overdose deaths, coalition members say the state needs to focus funding to add residential treatment facilities, particularly for the treatment of adolescents.
The group also wants the state to bolster performance measures for treatment programs, create uniform treatment standards and increase oversight of rehabilitation centers.
An 11-point policy agenda created by the group is being circulated to lawmakers.
Last year, advocates worked to pass two pieces of legislation, which created a certification program for the anti-overdose drug naloxone and protected witnesses of an overdose from criminal prosecution.
This year, they also hope to encourage the state to begin an awareness campaign to end the stigma surrounding addiction and spread information about the naloxone and Good Samaritan programs.
Other areas of focus include strengthening the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program.
Carin Miller, who helped start the family support group, is pleased to see that it continues to grow and help new families.
The Mount Airy woman’s son, who is in recovery, moved to Colorado for a job a few months ago and is doing well, she said.
“He told me the other day how he’d wasted five years in life,” Miller said. “He’s enjoying the beautiful mountains out there and the beautiful sky.”
Now a member of the Heroin Action Coalition board, Miller is hoping to create a smoother path to help and provide services for those who come after her.
“I’m fighting to save my child, but in the long run, I’m fighting to save everyone’s child,” she said.
The Heroin Action Coalition is now active through chapters in 13 Maryland counties. For more information, visit www.heroinactioncoalition.com.