As the media renew their interest in the socioeconomic problems facing Rust Belt communities, they’ve uncovered just how desperate the situation is in places like Ohio. My home state leads the nation in opioid deaths, and we account for 7.4 percent of the nearly 30,000 annual American fatalities in that category.
For government agencies, these are just statistics. But for people like me, these are our lives.
I had my first drink at the age of 13. Within a year, I started smoking pot. While this might seem like typical teenage rebellion, it wasn’t. It was a preview of two decades of addiction that threatened to take everything away from me.
When I became an adult, my power-lifting friends introduced me to more-extreme highs in the form of steroids, pain-killers, and amphetamines. I loved them. But these drugs were incredibly expensive, and I eventually ran out of money.
I still needed to get high. So, I discovered a cheap but equally destructive street alternative: heroin.
For 21 years, I abused various substances — both legal and illegal — to dull the pain associated with growing up in a broken home. Addiction totally consumed me. It hurt people I loved. It robbed me of the simple joys of everyday living.
That became abundantly clear at the birth of our first child, in 1990. I was still deeply enslaved by my addiction, and I feared that I could not be the husband my wife needed or the father my son deserved if I remained more committed to getting high than I was to them.
To make matters worse, I was indicted by a grand jury for my involvement with a scam doctor who got rich pushing pain pills on addicts like me. While I avoided jail time with probation and a fine, I could no longer avoid the reality of my life.
Addicts will often say that the morning is the hardest part of the day. After the darkness of a binge, the sunlight illuminates the bitter truth about what their lives have become. There, in plain view, I could not shield my eyes from the destruction caused by my addiction.
So I enrolled in a rehabilitation program. For four years, I struggled with sobriety, even as we welcomed our second child, a daughter, into the world. Despite the high stakes, I kept relapsing.
An old power-lifting buddy asked over and over if my wife and I would attend his church. My parents weren’t really religious, so as an adult, I found the idea of going to a worship service foreign and unsettling.
One day in 1994 we finally relented. On that day, I dedicated my life to Jesus and to the service of others. My addiction no longer had dominion over me, and I was going to use the lessons of my life to help others.
Because my story is all too common where we live, I knew there was an urgent need for people who had lived these experiences to care for those still struggling in the midst of them. We understood we had to meet the immediate needs of people — whatever they were and wherever they were.
We have seen addiction ravage our communities, leaving the bodies of loved ones in its wake.
For more than 20 years, my wife and I have fought on the front lines of the opioid crisis ravaging Ohio. We brought addicts toilet paper when they ran out of money at the end of the month. We prayed with them. We ensured that their children had school uniforms. We opened a food pantry so no one would go hungry. We even drove them cross-country to access quality treatment as they suffered through painful withdrawals.
We have seen addiction ravage our communities, leaving the bodies of loved ones in its wake. We have witnessed first-hand how an absence of resources and a vacuum of expertise have left so many of our fellow Americans without life-saving options. Still, with our human touch, we have helped save many lives.
Through our work, we met Robert Woodson, the founder of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. Bob has been the country’s foremost leader on every part of poverty, and he provided a vital platform for our ministry to share our story. He also very graciously introduced us to his good friend, Congressman Paul Ryan, in 2012.
As someone who isn’t very political, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that one of the most powerful lawmakers in Washington was earnestly interested in learning from those of us “on the ground” in communities like ours. He asked us thoughtful questions and, unlike most politicians, did a lot more listening than talking.
Since our initial meeting four years ago, now-speaker Ryan has become a true friend and ally. While others were rubbing elbows at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this summer, Paul was touring our new facility, Creation House, where our organization will provide healing and guidance to those battling substance abuse. He was visibly moved by the stories of those breaking the bonds of addiction, and he listened intently as families recounted their heartbreak at the loss of loved ones to this disease.
His journey with us, detailed in part in the Opportunity Lives documentary Comeback, remains ongoing. Paul didn’t abandon us once the cameras went away. He has seen us as trusted experts who can inform his policymaking with real-world experience living through and caring for others in the death grip of addiction.
Mr. Trump should visit Elyria and see for himself just how dire the situation we face is.
As President-elect Donald Trump sets a domestic agenda for his new administration, he is obviously acutely focused on the needs of a state like Ohio. He understands that voters here helped propel him to the White House, and he’s eager to return the favor on economic projects, especially in Ohio’s once-great manufacturing sector.
But he should follow the example of our friend Paul Ryan and discover how reversing social decay should be the first priority in communities like ours. Mr. Trump should visit Elyria and see for himself just how dire the situation we face is.
Addiction has pushed apart families. It has left children without parents, and kids in the care of grandparents. It has taken thousands of young people from us, even as their whole lives lay ahead of them. It has robbed us of real economic mobility — something for which our state was once known, and something that must return in order for us to have a shot at the American Dream.
If he were to visit, Mr. Trump would also discover that while Washington doesn’t have the answers, my wife and I have at least a few, and so do our fellow soldiers in this war against addiction. It is our hope that our president-elect, like our friend Paul Ryan, will just ask.
— Paul Grodell is the pastor of Beyond the Walls Church/Creation House in Elyria, Ohio.