Editor's note: This story is Part 1 of a three-part series,"Fighting Back: The Opioid Crisis," done in partnership with KTVL. Part 2: A mother who lost her son to heroin is making sure life-saving naloxone is available to all. Part 3: Hospitals are rethinking the way they administer opioids to help prevent addiction.
Ty Golden was deep into heroin addiction when he overdosed.
“I knew instantly that something was wrong,” he says.
As he hovered on the brink of death, the people he was with used an overdose antidote called naloxone to restore his breathing. But Golden knows others who haven’t been so lucky.
He’s seen overdosing people carried out to the sidewalk and left alone while others called 911 and fled the scene, afraid of being caught with drugs — even though Oregon law shields people from drug possession charges if they report an overdose to emergency dispatch.
Jackson County has seen a spike in overdose deaths this year — at least 22 so far, compared with 8 for all of 2017. Every time Golden learns of another fatality, he questions whether it could’ve been avoided.
“You wonder how it happened,” he says. “Did people with him not want to get caught and did they carry him out to an alley and leave?”
Golden says addiction and overdose deaths don’t discriminate; they strike people from all walks of life.
“It doesn’t matter how many people love you — or don’t,” he says.
When Justin Hon hears of another fatality, he wonders whether there’s anything he could have done to help the person — especially if it was someone he knew. Like Golden, Hon is in recovery from a years-long struggle with addiction.
Both are now fighting back against addiction and overdose deaths by helping others on the path to recovery. The battle is bringing together everyone from former addicts to bereaved parents to hospital workers.
“I’m tired of people dying from overdose,” Hon says. “It’s sad for the community and it’s sad for families. The grief and loss they’ve had to deal with is really hard. When you go to their funeral, it’s even more tragic. You see the family members weeping and you ask, ‘Why am I still standing here?’”
While methamphetamine long has been prevalent locally, in the past several years Hon says he has seen opioids — which include heroin and prescription painkillers such as OxyContin — spread throughout the Rogue Valley, affecting adults as well as students from middle school through college.
“Now that it’s here in the valley, it has spider-webbed out. But it’s underground — like roots," Hon says.
Sinking into addiction
Growing up in central California, Golden says he knew a lot of kids who used drugs. He started drinking and smoking marijuana at 12, then began using methamphetamine at 13. Golden dropped out of school and began racking up criminal charges.
He took prescription painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin that he bought on the streets. His meth use began to take a toll on his health.
“My kidneys would shut down. When you’re messed up on drugs, you don’t seek medical attention. You’re paranoid. You’re afraid they’ll call the cops,” Golden says.
He gave up meth after being introduced to heroin.
Golden says whenever he stopped using meth, he would sleep and eat and then feel better. Meth users often go days and sometimes even weeks without sleep, rarely eating as the high from the drug gives them seemingly endless energy.
With heroin, it was different.
Whenever Golden tried to stop using heroin, the withdrawal symptoms would drive him back to the drug.
“It threw me into hard-core addiction. I never wanted to be sick, so I had to keep using. I wanted to stop for a long time,” he says.
Going without heroin for even two or three days became unthinkable because of the withdrawal symptoms.
“It’s pure hell. Your body aches. You can’t sleep. You’re cold. You can’t keep anything down. It’s like having the flu, but worse — so much worse. I couldn’t kick heroin,” Golden says.
For Hon, meth was the drug that wouldn’t let go. It was more important to him than his wife and four children.
“In the first 10 years of my addiction, I loved it,” he says. “I had a wife and kids, but I didn’t care. They were an inconvenience to me. I would go to any lengths to get high. In the beginning, it’s about thrill-seeking — how much can you do? After a while, the fun is gone. I wasn’t experiencing the adrenaline rush and the euphoria. In the beginning, I thought I could lift up cars. At the end, I got tired. I was ruining my health. I would get horribly sick, have horrible headaches. I was combative and psychotic. I was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I would snap at anything if I had nothing to get loaded on.”
Like Golden, Hon accumulated a string of criminal charges. He became a regular at the Jackson County Jail.
“Jail was a time to get fed and sleep,” Hon says. “It was a reprieve.”
Michael Kinler also spent years unable to break free from meth.
On July 5, 1999, he decided he would never be free of his addiction. He loaded a shotgun shell into a flare gun, pointed it at his head and pulled the trigger.
The blast blew away the side of his scalp, leaving the torn tissue hanging.
Rather than seek medical help, Kinler used more meth, road his bicycle around Medford for several hours, then went to his parents’ house, where he lay down and vomited. He woke up in a hospital 16 days later with his scalp stitched back onto his head. After being discharged, he used meth again — and kept using.
Kinler says he was in prison twice in Washington state and was in jail in Oregon more times than he can count. He was on a first-name basis with most of the jail staff.
His addiction deepened after his brother — who had numerous convictions on meth possession charges — crashed into a pole and died after police tried to stop him for speeding and running a red light. Kinler says he used drugs to numb himself, despite the toll they were taking on him and his family.
“It took my soul. It took my life. It cost me a lot of things,” Kinler says.
Kinler says he was born into a family with drug and alcohol problems.
“Children learn what they see. I didn’t get taught there was a different way of life,” he says. “I knew about recovery, but I wasn’t ready for it. I was 38 when I finally grabbed it.”
Kinler did drug treatment through Foundations for Recovery, a Medford faith-based program that uses peer mentors to coach people as they break free from drugs, change their thinking patterns and examine the pitfalls of drug and alcohol use.
“Day by day we make a conscious decision not to do what we used to do,” he says.
Kinler says he has been clean for more than two years. Now a peer mentor himself, he coaches others following the path he traveled, including people involved with the criminal justice system who are staying at the Jackson County Transition Center.
“People are shocked I’m clean,” he says.
Golden, who was addicted to meth and then heroin, says he also has been clean for two years.
He tried short-term programs, but would start using again once he was out because of withdrawal symptoms. It took a 90-day residential program at Addictions Recovery Center to finally break heroin’s hold on him.
“That place saved my life,” Golden says.
He learned he has to stay away from people who might tempt him to use again.
“You have to give up on that lifestyle and the people who can draw you in,” he says. ‘It’s too dangerous to interact with people who aren’t in recovery.”
Sometimes the urge to use seems overwhelming, like when Golden’s mother died a year ago. But then people offered support, bringing over meals and checking in on him.
“I had to honor my mom by staying clean,” he says. “I leaned on other people. So many people went out of their way to make sure I was OK.”
Golden also turns to his sponsor, who has been through addiction himself and acts as a mentor.
“The guy who’s my sponsor is one of my best friends. We used to do crimes and meth together,” says Golden, who is taking a peer support class and hopes to someday work for an addiction treatment center.
Hon, the father of four, says his last day doing drugs was on March 9, 2012. That’s the day when multiple government agencies showed up at his house.
“My son was screaming, ‘Don’t take my daddy! He’s a good daddy! He feeds us!’ I knew he was justifying my behaviors,” he recalls.
Hon handed over a key to his lockbox to authorities. It contained marijuana, meth, scales and baggies for packaging and selling drugs.
A no-contact order barred him from seeing his kids for almost a year.
He begged not to be released from the Jackson County Jail, but was eventually let out. His probation officer made a special arrangement for him to spend nights at the Transition Center and his days in drug treatment at OnTrack.
As Golden does with the Addictions Recovery Center, Hon credits OnTrack with saving his life. He remains friends with some of the staff members there and calls them on March 9, the anniversary of his “clean day.”
Hon also developed bonds with his sponsor, who became like a father figure to him.
“We did everything together. He molded and guided me into the man and father I am today. He loved me. He saw something in me I didn’t see in myself. Plenty of times we broke down together and cried about things in my past,” he says.
Hon says one of the most difficult things about his recovery was finding a job. He knew how to get high and commit crimes, but not how to work a legitimate job.
Once a man who viewed his own kids as an impediment to his drug use, Hon now works at the Family Nurturing Center in Medford, helping clients who have experienced substance abuse.
The center offers a child abuse and neglect prevention and intervention program that includes parenting education, a respite nursery, mental health care, home visits and referrals to community services.
“It’s a very rewarding job, especially when a client completes everything and gets their kids back,” Hon says. “It’s so rewarding. It’s the best job I’ve ever had.”
Hitting the streets
Like Hon, Golden and Kinler, Chris Gerlach has overcome drug addiction.
Now the pastor of Family Christian Ministry in downtown Medford, Gerlach says he saw relatives using drugs when he was young.
“They just trained me up,” he says.
Once he tried meth and cocaine in middle school, there was no turning back. He was sent to drug treatment centers from Portland to Sacramento, but nothing worked.
“I had been killing myself. I was rotting my body. I wasn’t picky. I would put anything in my body. I was constantly hallucinating. I could taste death, to be honest with you. I was rotting from the inside,” he says.
Gerlach says his breaking point came when he held his baby daughter for the first time.
“I looked at my baby and it was beautiful, but I was also really sad because I knew in my addiction I would hurt her,” he recalls. “I said, ‘If there is a God, help me to get free.’”
Gerlach used his newfound faith to break free from addiction 18 years ago. He launched his storefront church on West Main Street and uses it as a home base for street outreach.
Gerlach and others go out to Riverside Avenue and other places in Medford where addicted people hang out.
“We share hope. We say, ‘I’m clean. You can do it,’” he says.
He says helping even one person get clean creates a ripple effect because that person’s addiction has such an impact on friends and family members.
Because of his background, Gerlach understands the barriers some people in recovery face — including short-circuited educations, criminal records and a lack of job skills.
“We’ve been able to connect people with jobs,” he says. “We’ve started landscaping companies and paid for people to get their contractors’ licenses.”
Golden says not everyone will reach out to accept a helping hand when mired in addiction.
“We can plant a seed for them. ‘If it gets bad, if it gets out of control, here’s something you could do to seek help.’ They may not want that help right now,” he says. “You have to make that choice in your heart and mind. You have to be willing to surrender and accept help.”
Hon, who also has spent time doing street outreach, says he tries to be a role model for others while remembering his sobriety requires a sustained effort.
“If a guy like me gets clean, it proves they can get clean,” he says.
Hon says when he was addicted to drugs, he didn’t care about spending time with others and having real relationships. He only wanted to be around people who could help him get high. Those in recovery regain the ability to form meaningful bonds.
“There’s another way to live without drugs. They learn how to smile when they’re with people and how to hang out with people. We’re joyous on a real level,” Hon says.
He says the recovery community in the Rogue Valley is strong — full of people who understand and support each other.
“That’s our family of choice. We’re choosing a new way of life,” Hon says.
In moving on with their lives, Gerlach, the pastor, says sometimes people in the recovery community don’t do a good enough job showing outsiders there is hope in the battle against addiction. Members of the public see people on the street in the grip of addiction, but don’t realize the regular-looking person next to them is a recovered addict.
“What we do see is the people who are addicts and look like zombies. But there are a lot of overcomers and people with victory in their lives. They’re harder to see because those people are working, going to church and they’ve acclimatized back to the community,” Gerlach says. “For every one person you see who’s addicted, there are 10 people who’ve gotten free.”