As the White House announces a program to address a surge of heroin abuse in recent years, a family from Sandy has organized a town hall to tell their story, and to raise awareness about Utah’s growing problem with opiate addiction.
Mark Lewis lives in a nice home on a quiet, winding road in Sandy. There’s a door upstairs that has not been opened since October 27th last year. His son Tony died in that room from a heroin overdose.
“It’s just a place I’m not ready to go yet,” Lewis says. He was working in Las Vegas when he got the call informing him that his son had passed away. “I felt like I got hit in the chest with a hammer. It’s one of those phone calls parents dread. I didn’t think it would ever happen to me.” But Lewis knew his son had been struggling with addiction for more than a decade.
It all started when they moved from Hawaii to Utah. His son was 15, someone gave him prescription pain pills, he was immediately hooked, and he eventually got into heroin. After a couple years, Lewis started to notice things disappearing from his house, and he knew Tony was feeding his addiction. Tony was open about the problem. He even asked for help.
“I would say Tony just stay in the house, I don’t care if you work, just stay home. He would say dad, you don’t understand, I can walk two minutes and get heroin, or I can call somebody and get heroin, you don’t just quit,” Lewis says. “At the time I didn’t understand the mindset of an addict.”
He tried counseling and treatment programs, and he tried to quit cold turkey several times. “He would literally lay in his room and scream for three or four days in pain, unable to eat, and when that pain passed, he would sleep for four or five days because he was exhausted. As we fought this together, we got to a point where we felt so alone, and really didn’t understand what resources were available to us,” Lewis says, but he realizes now, families like his don’t have to go it alone.
“It’s amazing to me after Tony died, how many people I talked to who say they’ve been affected with their family friends or niece or nephew, but nobody seems to talk about it,” he says. “We’ve learned there are a lot of people working on the problem, but there’s still a lack of awareness by those who can make a difference, and we want to get the conversation started.”
Lewis has organized a town hall meeting to raise awareness about the effects of opiates in Utah communities. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill will deliver a presentation. So will Michelle Moyes from Discovery House, a treatment clinic in Salt Lake City. Moyes says what happened to Mark Lewis’ son is not unusual in Utah.
“Sadly, it’s more common than any of us want to think about,” Moyes says.
Moyes is a clinical supervisor, and she says at least half of her patients developed their addiction problem after being exposed to prescription opiates. Death from drug poisoning has become the leading cause of injury death in Utah, far surpassing traffic accidents, firearms, or falls. Moyes says she tries hard to provide hope for her patients in their recovery, but being on the front lines of opiate addiction takes an emotional toll.
“Every one of my moms or the men I work with or the young kids I work with, somehow they’re connected to me and they become part of my family,” Moyes says. “Every day I need to be able to smile and not get overwhelmed in what we’ve do. I’ve lost people who mean a lot.”
Moyes says there are a lot of barriers to recovery, from cultural pressures that make people want to hide the problem, to lack of awareness about how to get help, to inadequate treatment resources. “There’s not an easy answer and not an easy solution. I think it’s about the whole community rallying around and saying what do we need to do to help, and then provide those opportunities,” she says.
Mark Lewis says he wants to see addicts, families, medical providers, law enforcement, and elected officials come together and start talking.
“If I can stop another parent from getting the phone call I got that morning, then that’s what I want to do,” Lewis says. “Together we’ve got to find a solution. We’ve got to build a coalition to drive change.”
The town hall event will take place at the main branch of the Salt Lake City library this Wednesday at 7pm.