By Tim Kelly
To understand the extent of the opioid addiction crisis in the United States, one needs only to speak to Sally Onesty.
Onesty, of Ocean City, knows all too well the scope of the problem, as well as the horrors and challenges of trying to help a loved one struggle with an opioid addiction.
“You want to believe (your loved one) there is not a problem,” she said in a recent interview.
In many cases, however, there is a problem, and a serious one.
Addiction to opioids is now so widespread there is hardly a family locally or nationally that has not been impacted by what has become a national health crisis.
Onesty lost her son Tyler to addiction in March 2017, and has since become a passionate advocate in the battle against opioids.
“I have an open offer to young people who are struggling that I will meet them for breakfast, lunch or dinner, no strings attached or judgments,” she said. “And quite a few people have taken me up on the offer.”
For all of Onesty’s hard work and advocacy, she is just one person. However, on October 6, the third annual “Knock Out Opioid Addiction Day” will take place statewide to raise awareness and provide information and resources for those who need help and for their family members.
The event — a statewide initiative organized by the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey and other state and local organizations — will feature parents, prevention and treatment professionals, community leaders, students and concerned residents. They will share prevention information with the medical community and New Jersey residents and families to help stem the tide of overdose deaths and addiction that is ravaging New Jersey and the nation.
Locally, the Upper Township-Ocean City Municipal Alliance will be distributing informational materials at high school football games around South Jersey and delivering the message to municipal employees. In Ocean City, they will be distributing the materials at the court and at the community center.
“That’s a good thing, we have to start somewhere,” Onesty said. “It shouldn’t be limited to this. Repetition is what works in getting the message out and helping (young people) understand the message.”
The most recent year with complete data, 2016, showed that more than 42,000 people in the United States and 2,000 people in New Jersey lost their lives from an opioid overdose, according to the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey. Provisional death counts for 2017 indicate an even higher number of drug overdose deaths, and New Jersey is on pace to have more than 3,000 such deaths in 2018.
“Knock Out Opioid Abuse Day inspires residents from all walks of life and all corners of New Jersey to take action against this opioid epidemic that has caused so much tragedy in our state,” said Angelo Valente, the Partnership’s executive director.
“All New Jersey citizens and healthcare professionals can be a part of the solution to this crisis by being well-informed and aware of the dangers of prescription opioids and how they can potentially lead to the use of heroin and other opioids,” Valente continued.
Onesty said parents should be aware of the warning signs of opioid abuse, and to understand how quickly people can become addicted.
She said her son first tried heroin at a party, and he was a full-blown addict within five days.
“The party was on a Friday, and the very next day Tyler made his first purchase. He didn’t even know what it was, but he liked it and he identified with it. Within a timeframe of five days he had a $200 per day habit,” she said.
According to Matt Birchenough, spokesman for the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey, opioid prescription medication’s link to heroin is more than simply being a gateway drug.
“Heroin is actually the same thing as opioids, chemically,” he said.
This is particularly dangerous due to the cheap cost and easy availability of heroin today.
“A bag of heroin can cost less than $5,” Onesty said. “That’s less than a pack of cigarettes, less than a six-pack of beer, less than a (fast food meal) costs.”
Onesty said her son started out smoking marijuana, which was easier to discover as a parent, and less cause for concern – she thought. However, the distinctive smell of pot soon gave way to a more understated, sweet odor which dissipated quickly and did not stick to his clothes.
“We did find pieces of aluminum, with signs of something burning inside of it, which is how he was smoking it,” Onesty recalled.
When the aluminum was unfolded, it carried the odor she remembered. Onesty said her son also began nodding off and falling asleep at family dinners and on car trips.
The family staged an intervention and Tyler went into rehab. He wound up going back into rehab facilities three more times after that.
“(Loved ones of addicts) need to understand the first attempt at rehab usually doesn’t work,” Onesty said. “Don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t and don’t lose patience with the addict. Addiction is a disease.”
Her son seemed to be on the road to recovery until she received a call from the manager of the sober living facility where Tyler was residing. “He told us Tyler was back using again,” she said.
She soon got another call from police that Tyler had been found dead, the victim of a lethal dose of heroin mixed with fentanyl.
“It doesn’t have to end that way,” she said. “There are more people in recovery today than there are addicts,” she said.
Onesty also said that as the opioid crisis grew, more loved ones of high-ranking elected officials and powerful people have been affected. As a result, positive changes have taken place.
“More help is available, more rehab facilities have opened, and attitudes have changed,” she said. “For example, the former ‘drug court’ in Atlantic County is now called ‘recovery court.’ A much more positive way to deal with these issues.”
In the days following Tyler’s death, she took on fighting opioid addiction as her new passion. She and the family included Tyler’s cause of death in his obituary, and they put his funeral on Facebook live, where the service went viral. She went through Tyler’s phone and saw two days prior to his death, he was reaching out to others to find help for them to kick the habit.
“When you put yourself out there on social media for all to see, it’s powerful,” Onesty said. “For us, it has been a very positive thing.”
She also put Knock Out Opioid Abuse Day in the same category. More than 5,000 volunteers participated in last year’s event.
For more information on Knock Out Opioid Abuse Day, visit drugfreenj.org/knockoutvolunteers. To learn about local volunteer activities contact Matt Birchenough of the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at (201) 916-1032.