Because death often removes substance abusers from the community, it gets ever easier to forget and dismiss the faces associated with the problem. As the numbers rise, the lives and families that are swallowed whole can get lost in the mix as a common threat becomes a political numbers game aimed at assigning blame.
Over the past four months, the Sun Advocate has interviewed nearly 20 addicts and their family members. While some are in recovery and some are in the depths of their addiction, they are all individuals who relay a realistic portrait of what substance abuse is like for those living it.
For safety, no specific names will be included in these stories. We'll deal only with the facts which make day-to-day life a struggle.
During several of the interviews, small children were present as open or barely masked drug use was taking place. The juxtaposition of their innocence amidst the harsh climate of substance abuse was difficult to watch and even more difficult to understand.
"I started using in the eighth grade," said one recovering addict, who has fought through the court system and her disease to retain custody of her children. "It started with my mom's pills and I can tell you I liked the feeling too much from the very first time."
Over the next 10 years, the straight-A student and cheerleader continued to use, feeling that her position in life and school made her drug abuse acceptable.
"I remember looking down on the kids who were smoking pot and drinking," she chuckled, "Can you imagine that? I really thought me and my friends were different than them. I really thought that because my drugs were coming from a pill bottle that everything was okay."
The honors graduate would attend college and travel across the world before her addiction sank its teeth in.
When it did, it cost her temporary custody of all of her children, time in jail and years of recovery and treatment. She lost everything in life that meant anything to her. But she kept living, cleaned up her life and eventually regained her children.
Many are not so lucky.
In Utah, substance abuse related deaths are nearly double the national average and drug deaths in Carbon County are nearly five times the state average. Yet treatment dollars are continually cut, forcing local entities to pick up the tab, or watch as their community struggles with the problem.
"I would do anything to get rid of the stigma placed around substance abuse," said a working mother of two, who has never ingested drugs but has looked on as substance abuse infested her entire life. "Something needs to change, people need to wake up and see the danger. To see just how important increased prevention and education are for everyone's future."
This particular parent, reported a heart wrenching story of addiction which saw one of her two adult sons battle addiction at it's most devastating for years, only to see her younger child be killed by the addiction just as his life was reaching its highest point.
"The guilt felt by our whole family has been devastating," she said. "My older son blames himself for his brother's death. I blamed myself at one point and it got to where the guilt was going to kill us all."
After spending tens of thousands of dollars on bail and assistance for her children, this mother learned that she was ultimately unable to help her kids and has started an online support group for the parents of children facing substance abuse issues.
A part of the problem
Substance abuse professionals across the spectrum have stated that parents rarely realize how much they are harming their children by allowing their disease to stay alive.
"I will never forget the day my son's inpatient counselor told me that she didn't feel safe letting him come home with me because I was an enabler," said a parent whose child was facing felony charges and drug addiction. "I almost came across the table at her but then I finally got myself under control and realized that I did have to make some changes."
"It's hard for the people that love you the most to see that every time they give you $20 to go to the store, or $100 to help pay for a fine, they are funding your disease," said a local addict now facing felony charges. "When you're a junky you don't care where the money comes from as long as it comes. You would lie to Jesus Christ himself if it would get you a fix. What most don't realize is that by the end of an opiate user's addiction the cycle goes from only from sick to well. It isn't even about getting high anymore."
A majority of those interviewed reported that they had no idea how serious their addiction was until it was too late. According to those in the treatment field, this sentiment alone shows the need for increased education and prevention.
"What people don't realize is that these dead kids are their own grandkids in the coming years. These dead people are their brothers and sisters," said a local mother who lost her only son to addiction. "And they won't realize, they won't do anything about this problem until it's in their home and by then, there really isn't very much they can do."