The heroin epidemic continues to damage and destroy lives in Manatee County — the epicenter of the epidemic in Florida — increasing the number of people in the community who are affected directly or indirectly and knowing no boundaries.
“I was amazed by how many people were affected,” said Raul Hernandez, pastor of youth and families at West Bradenton Baptist Church.
One of his students had lost a parent to a heroin overdose, he said.
Even the back parking lot was not safe from the epidemic, he said.
“They would leave so quickly that they would drop their needles,” Hernandez said.
But he wasn’t trying to chase them off, but instead he wanted to get them the help they needed.
So Hernandez decided it was time the church join the efforts to aid in fighting the epidemic by hosting a community outreach event — Hope Against Heroin. The church event had more than a dozen organization set up booths outside to offer people the resources they needed. There was also food, bounce houses for children and a concert.
But inside, nearly a hundred people gathered to partake or listen to a panel discussion by experts from Centerstone of Florida treatment center talk about addiction. Hernandez wanted people to be informed in an effort to raise awareness.
Gino Scano, a recovery support specialist at Centerstone, is also a recovering heroin addict and alcoholic, so he was able to offer people some firsthand experience so they can help others.
Visiting loved ones in recovery is important, he explained.
“You see people come in, they’re thin. ... They can’t eat. They can’t sleep,” Scano said.
When people check into the center, they look like “hell on Earth,” he said. But after a couple weeks they are filling out their jeans, smiling and no longer are desperate.
“So, what’s going to fuel recovery? It’s on your shirts, hope!” Scano said, referring to T-shirts emblazoned with the event’s theme. “It’s hope. That’s what fuels my recovery. When you think of hope think of this: Hang on, pain ends.”
The panel spent time explaining the basics of addiction, as well as treatment.
Addiction is a disease that brings structural and functional changes in the brain and makes the addict want to use, according Dr. Margarida Lance, an addictionologist at Centerstone.
“We recognize that it’s a chronic disease, and it’s seen today as irreversible.” Lance said. “You can treat it.”
To treat addiction requires abstinence, she said, but that only makes the disease dormant.
“So for the rest of their lives, person suffering from addictions needs to remain vigilant, needs to protect against relapse,” Lance said. “So we have moved away from thinking of addiction just as a behavioral problem to an actual organic disease that requires long-term treatment.”
Samantha Kolb, director of Centerstone’s addiction center, helped explain how dependency works.
“Once someone starts using a substance, it hijacks the reward system of their brain so much so that it gets in the way of their daily lives. They are unable to stop because it consumes them,” Kolb said. “After the addiction takes over ... if someone stops using, they fill sick or ill.”
Sometimes detox can be so extreme that it can cause seizures or put the person at risk of dying, she added.
“So we oftentimes hear that they are not even using because it makes them feel high, they are using to not be sick or to feel normal because that it how their life has been,” Kolb said.
Scano agreed, saying addiction is an obsessive and compulsive disease.
“Once we get the thought ... and if we don’t interrupt that thought, we are going to use,” Scano said. “We are compelled to it. And if I am going to get sick on top of it, get the hell out of my way.”
For Scano, recovery still involves going to daily meetings.
“When I feel the old way, I got support all around me to help me and interrupt the thought,” Scano said. “See, I have to identify the thought, not identify with it.”
It’s important for him to do something else and let something else happen.
“I got to stop trying to be my own God, that’s what got me in trouble in the first place,” Scano said. “As long as I stay out of God’s way, it seems my life works out the way it’s supposed to, not always the way I want to, but always the way its supposed to.”