Among the Numbers

Frederick County's Opioid Crisis Cannot be Explained by Statistics Alone

By Gina Gallucci-White | Posted on 04.17.18 – Feature, Lifestyles

The white sign with dark lettering along Md. 85 near the entrance to the Frederick County Adult Detention Center tells an important story, but actually it’s only part of a story.

The sign, in place since this time last year, informs passersby of the number of overdoses and lives lost to the heroin and opioid epidemic in the county. Already this year, 17 people have died from heroin-related oversdoses, along with 48 nonfatal cases. During 2017, 54 people died, along with 291 nonfatal cases. The numbers represent real lives ensnared in addiction, so by itself the sign serves as a simple-but-powerful reminder of the deep chasm that the opioid crisis has carved into the community.

But it’s only part of a story.

In the wake of addiction are loved ones who are also, very much, victims. There are moms and dads, brothers and sisters, and others who have seen loved ones fall into opioids’ grip. They have experienced the range of emotions—from helplessness to shame, from frustration to fear, from anger to grief.

Here are some of their stories.

‘THERE ARE NO BAD PEOPLE, JUST BAD CHOICES’

Growing up in Thurmont, Chris Schildt was active in his church, an honor student and a three-sport athlete at Catoctin High School, and later a coach. “He always had a positive message,” recalls his father, Ed Schildt. “[He] always tried to pick them up at their worst moments.” At the age of 22, Chris became a father and doted on his daughter. “He wanted to be the best dad he could,” Schildt recalls.

After graduating from Catoctin in 2009, Chris went to Shepherd University with the goal to become a teacher. But during his fifth year at the school, Shepherd sent Chris a letter to his family’s address stating he had not completed the education certification program. His parents opened the letter thinking it had graduation information. “We felt like things were changing [in Chris’ behavior] but we had no idea why,” he says. “We were not educated at all in this. At all.” The Schildts started asking questions and began the intervention process to get Chris help. He went on to graduate from Shepherd and also worked. “He was a functioning user,” Schildt says.

Schildt, along with his wife Karen, believe a sports injury Chris suffered his junior year of high school may have been his introduction to drugs. During a home wrestling match in the 180 pound class, Chris put his hand out on the mat to brace himself. The angle of his arm and the weight of the other wrestler caused one bone in his lower left arm to break and a dislocation of the other. The injury required surgery, along with plates and screws to repair the damage. Painkillers were prescribed.

“Even though he never had a problem with addiction in high school, I really think that was the beginning of knowing how you feel from [drugs],” Schildt says. “How it made him feel and then as he went off to college and that independence develops. You have drinking and other things going on around you and you have freedom of choice. I really think that was like a stepping stone, a trigger for him.”

Though they confided in their extended family about what was happening to Chris, the Schildts say they felt shame and guilt. “We felt like we had an ‘A’  [for addict] on our forehead,” he says. They began staying in, for fear of running into residents in the community or people talking at a restaurant.

Meanwhile, Chris went through two inpatient and two intensive outpatient programs. He was living in a halfway house when he fatally overdosed at the age of 25 on June 30, 2016. “We’ve saw Chris in some very bad moments dealing with this disease and he wasn’t a happy person,” Schildt says. “He wasn’t happy with who he was. But after he passed away, one of the things that we both felt as we got to see him for the last time in the emergency room, he looked so at peace. It was tough for us, but, for him, we saw peace. … We knew the struggle was over for him at that point.”

Several months before their son succumbed to addiction, the Schildts founded CHRIS4Recovery (Caring, Healing, Recovery Is Support), a group designed to support families with a loved one who struggles with or has been lost to addiction. There is no set agenda for each meeting, which usually has between 12 to 25 participants. They simply open the floor up and see how everyone is doing. “If they want to talk and share, they can,” Schildt says. “If they just want to listen, they can. … We share with them that we are there for them but we can’t solve an addict’s problem. We want to help those family members learn more, be able to help their loved one and to be able to get some sense of control back into their life because what goes on in a house with addiction is pure chaos and it varies.”

Karen Schildt has also created a communications support network through texts and emails to help group participants between meetings. She takes her phone to bed with her every night and if she hears a notification, she gets up to see how she can help.

The couple wants group participants to know they are not alone and there are people out there that can support you and help through tough times. “The hardest part about this whole addiction disease is you literally have very little control over your loved one when they are in the throes,” Schildt says. “They have got to want recovery and even then there are no guarantees to recovery because that disease just speaks volumes to them. It takes over their mind to the point where today, this hour, right now, they may want it. By 4 p.m., the world is different in their head. Their mind is telling them something different and you have no control over that.”

The couple have also helped put together three talks at area high schools over the past year discussing the dangers of addiction. Schildt also is a voting member on the recently created Thurmont Addiction Commission designed to promote education, awareness, support, recovery, prevention and outreach. “Our youngest son [Collin] said, ‘If we can’t live with Chris, we will live for him,’” Schildt says. “That’s the mission we have as a family. We do things for him, in honor of him. … I want people to know he was a good man. He was a good person, very community-driven. He made a bad choice. He wasn’t a bad person. That’s the thing we tell a lot of people, not just about our son but about [everyone facing addiction]. There are no bad people, just bad choices. Some of them are deadly.”

‘HE WANTED OUT OF THIS’

Matthew Delash lived for nearly 20 years in Woodsboro, but if you asked him where he was from, he would identify himself as a Texan. Born in the Lone Star state, his family moved to Maryland when he was just 6 and he attended schools in Walkersville. “He did the normal things as a kid,” recalls Tom Delash, Matt’s father. “He was in Little League, Scouts for a little while. He liked the outdoors, skateboarding, dirt biking. … [He was a] very personable kid. He never met a stranger.”

Delash, along with his wife and Matt’s mother, Darlene, began to notice a change in their son in late middle school going into high school. Matt began falling behind in school—not due to drugs, but because he was dyslexic. Unhappy with the academic atmosphere he was placed in, the family pulled him out of school during the middle of the 11th grade in favor of home school.

Matt’s version of why he got into opioids was he began taking pills after experiencing back pain from a dirt bike wreck. “He started finding kids that had pain pills,” Delash says. “I am not 100 percent sure that is true.”

Delash believes the heavy drug use began shortly after the death of Matt’s best friend in a car crash. “That devastated him,” Delash says. “I think that started a cycle. That was in August 2011, and by October of that year I sent him to his first rehab.”

His parents would eventually send Matt to six rehabilitation facilities across the country, including a nine-month stay in California, one in the middle of Iowa and another in southern Virginia. “He usually did really well,” Delash says. “Darlene and I would check with the counselors. He was engaged. He would participate. He usually came back looking better, feeling better, strong. … Bringing him back here was always a setback though. It was just a matter of time before he got back with the same group of people.”

Even if Matt did not seek them out, he would run into old friends at the local gas station or out in the community. One thing would lead to another and he would use again. Because he was coming from rehab with no drugs in his system, his parents feared he would be more susceptible to overdose. The plan was to move him back to Texas, but Matt had legal issues. He was on probation for driving on a suspended license and could not leave. “We were stuck here,” Delash says. “It was a bad situation.”

In early 2017, Matt announced to his family that he had found a 30-day rehabilitation center in New Jersey that he wanted to attend. He even checked to make sure they took his insurance. This was a first and the family felt encouraged. Delash drove him to the facility on Feb. 1, 2017. Two days later, the facility discharged him because he didn’t test positive for heroin. Delash is convinced Matt was, in fact, using but believes the synthetics he was taking didn’t show up on the test.

Matt came back to Woodsboro and tried to taper off the drugs. “He knew he needed to get out of this and he had a job lined up starting at the end of the month. He was moving toward being done with it. If he couldn’t get treatment,

he was trying to taper and I think that is a pretty tough thing to do. … He was a good kid and he got into something that he tried so hard to get out of it. It is heartbreaking when you see a heroin addict try to withdraw. It’s like the flu on steroids. Just throwing up, joints ache, miserable and [he knew] that just one hit and everything goes away. He went through that so many times trying to get off the stuff. He was a good kid. He was very giving. … He wanted out of this.”

On the night of Feb. 24, 2017, the 25-year-old left the family home to help a friend with a drywall job. “He never came back,” Delash says. The family filed a missing person report on Feb. 27, 2017. The next evening, a passerby would find Matt’s body in the Monocacy River near the River Bend Park boat launch area. Though the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner noted Matt died by drowning and hypothermia, drug intoxication including fentanyl found in his system was a contributing factor.

A day before the one-year anniversary of Matt’s death, Tom Delash sits at the kitchen table in his Woodsboro home with a visitor as Matt’s dog Ace meanders around the room. Delash had planned to close on a house in Arizona that week but pushed the date forward because of the anniversary. On the day they recognize as his death, Delash planned to have dinner with his younger son, Michael, who is in graduate school at the University of Maryland while Darlene was in Texas with relatives. “I don’t have a great coping mechanism,” Delash says. “I like having the memories. His room is still the way it was from last year. I just want to keep him alive in my mind.”

As Christians, Delash notes the family knows Matt is in a better place. They were heartbroken watching him struggle with addiction for so many years. “Now we know he really is at peace and that is comforting too,” he says.

But their message continues—and a central theme is what happened to them can happen to anyone. “The stigma really needs to go away because I think it prevents people from getting treatment or from reaching out to others for support,” he says. He advises parents to look for warning signs and do early interventions. “You can’t ever give up,” he says. “Of course, there was a lot of arguing. There was a lot of asking for money. All the negative things, but we tried everything. We tried kicking him out. We tried supporting him unconditionally. We tried everything in between but you can’t ever give up. They are your kids and you keep trying to the end. You just have to keep your eyes open because it could be anywhere.”

‘IT WAS JUST ONE TEXT MESSAGE’

You know Alyssa Honaker, or at least someone like her. Outgoing. Fun. Smart. Kind. Sassy. She tried different activities growing up, like soccer, T-ball and gymnastics, before clicking with dance and becoming heavily involved in hip hop, jazz and ballet. But by middle school, her mother, Shannon Stanley, noticed the activities began to fade and she started to lose interest. “I wasn’t overly concerned. She will find something that she likes,” Stanley thought.

Originally living in the City of Frederick, the family moved to Spring Ridge and the Oakdale High School district when Alyssa started ninth grade. Yet Alyssa still showed no interest in joining any clubs and was spending more time in her room. “She just wanted to get through high school,” Stanley says. “I chalked it up to her being a teenager and finding herself. … Never in a million years would I have thought it was anything other than normal teenage behavior.”

Then one day Stanley received a phone call from Alyssa’s best friend’s mother telling her Alyssa was on heroin. “We were shocked but because it came from her best friend’s mother, I knew there had to be something to this,” Stanley says. “It wasn’t just pulled out of nowhere.”

Stanley immediately went to the closest CVS and bought an over-the-counter drug test. As soon as Alyssa walked in the door, Stanley had her take the test. “It came up positive for opiates, which I didn’t even know what that was,” she says. “… She told me that someone had given her [oxycodone] at school and that was what was in her urine and I believed her. I was like, ‘Honey, you can’t do that. You can’t take pills.’”

Alyssa also admitted to starting with marijuana and alcohol. Stanley put Alyssa into counseling, where she was diagnosed with depression and given anti-depressant medication. “She claimed it didn’t work and we later found out it wasn’t working because she was mixing it together with other stuff,” Stanley says.

Throughout Alyssa’s addiction, the family wanted to keep the issue within the walls of their home. “I didn’t want the school to know,” Stanley says. “I didn’t want my younger kids’ friends’ parents to know. We didn’t want anybody to know. I didn’t want anyone looking at me as a bad mother. I didn’t want people judging Alyssa like people do, calling her names. … We tried to figure it out amongst ourselves with counseling.”

Alyssa would go through three rehabilitation facilities. She completed the first but hated every minute telling Stanley it was a waste of her time and she didn’t need to be there. “After that first one, I just assumed she would be better,” Stanley says. “I am naive to all of this stuff. I don’t know about recovery. … We thought, ‘OK. She is home. We can put this under the rug. No one needs to know. She’s good. We’re all good.’ That was definitely not the case. It got much worse after that.”

During her time at the next inpatient facility, Alyssa jumped out of a window and went missing for four days. Police found her on the Eastern Shore and Stanley had to pick her up. When they got home, Stanley told Alyssa she would be going to meetings and an intensive outpatient program. Then Alyssa overdosed at home.

“When the paramedics came and the sheriff’s department came, I begged them, ‘Please help me. What we are doing is not working. This situation is getting worse and worse. I need help. You need to charge her with something. There are drugs right there in her room. Please charge her. Please help me,’” Stanley says.

Deputies charged Alyssa with possession and she spent time in a juvenile detention center. “At least I knew where she was,” Stanley says. “I knew she was getting medical help. She hated it. It was absolutely horrifying for her. She later told me, ‘Mom, that was the worse thing that I have ever been through. Out of this whole thing, that was the worse but it was also the best because it finally made me realize this is going to be what my future is.’ She finally admitted, ‘I need help because this is not the life I want.’”

After going before a judge where Alyssa agreed that she needed long-term inpatient treatment, she was sent to Mountain Manor Treatment Center. Stanley noticed a remarkable change in her 17-year-old daughter. “When I visited her, she was excited and happy about recovery and talked about the future,” she recalls. There was no complaining and asking when she was coming home. The staff told them positive stories of how Alyssa was helping to uplift and aid others. “I’d never seen her this way before,” she says.

Alyssa came home from the center and Stanley noticed an inner peace. She was a doting big sister to her two younger sisters and was attending meetings for intensive outpatient treatment.

Then, on June 4, 2016, Stanley found Alyssa dead from an overdose. “It was just one text message one night [from her dealer],” she says. “It was a trigger and that was that. She was four days from getting off of house arrest.”

Stanley has been going to the Schildts’ support group for about a year. The first night she went she cried the entire meeting. As she continued to attend meetings, she began to feel comfort from people who had been in similar situations. “We were all in this terrible club, if you will,” she says. “… I have learned so much about addiction. I have learned so much about recovery, about the dynamics of it all. Before I was so worried about helping her the best way that I could and protecting her from this evil outside that was going to put a black cloud over top of our house if anybody knew. I was so caught up in all of that. I learned going to the support group that that is just not the case. My neighbor up there and over there and down there—they all could be dealing with the same thing that we were dealing with.”

Last year, Stanley began speaking at events to share Alyssa’s story in the hopes of helping others. “I’m just trying to put it out there to encourage people because I regret that part of this whole situation,” she says. “I wished I would have reached out and got support for us and for my family on how to deal with it.”

Stanley was talking recently with a mother who has children in their tweens and early teens. “She said, ‘I am scared for them’ and I said, ‘You should be. We all should be.’ Everybody should be because it doesn’t discriminate and we are living proof of it.”