Curing Our Coast: Locals Look To Turn Heartbreak Into A Community Resource

OCEAN CITY — Some people wear their hearts on their sleeves. Local business owner Gary James knows that even on his best days, people can probably see 19 years’ worth of the staggering and heartbreaking pain that he and his family have endured written all over his face.

Nine years ago this month, Gary James got the call that his son Kevin had died of a heroin overdose in downtown Baltimore. He had just been released from jail after struggling with his addiction for just over a decade. James says his son was released from jail late at night, and rather than reporting to a rehabilitation center in Frederick, he took a detour to the city and bought heroin. He shot up, he overdosed and was pronounced dead.

“The way the system was at the time, we didn’t know when he was going to be released,” remembers James. “Kevin had been in and out of our lives for long periods of time throughout his addiction. That is hard enough on a family, but the guilt that happens afterward where you ask yourself, ‘what if I would have just taken a sleeping bag and slept outside the jail and was there when he got out, would things have ended differently?’”

While heroin addiction has reached epidemic-like numbers in recent years, Kevin James’ story is a reminder that this isn’t a new problem, and the power of that problem can often lead to tragic endings. Gary James says as he reads about more and more families having to go through what he and his family have endured, he fears for what he hopes will never become a reality for anyone else.

“We were the All-American family. We did everything together. We ate dinner together, we played ball in the yard, and we went to church. We were happy, and then it all changed,” James said.

At his son’s funeral, Gary James remembers a moving eulogy given by one of Kevin’s best friends.

A few weeks ago, Gary James found himself sitting in a church at the funeral of the same man who had eulogized his own son’s death.

He had overdosed on heroin.

‘Enough Is Enough’

Heidi McNeely says once you have a child that is addicted to heroin, you never truly feel a sense of comfort again.

“It’s like you are waiting for the other shoe to drop at all times,” she said. “When they are addicted, there is so much lying, and stealing, and hardship on a family. And because the drug is so powerful, even when they can be clean for long periods of time, they can fall back into using so quickly.”

The trauma caused by addiction doesn’t just affect the addict. McNeely will be the first to tell you that drugs, perhaps especially heroin, can tear families apart at the seams.

“A ringing phone is suddenly a terrifying thing, because the person on the other end could be calling to say that your child is dead,” she said.

McNeely’s son, Sean, had struggled with heroin addiction for several years before being arrested in 2014. She says he is several months clean now and on the road to recovery.

Yet, as McNeely continued to read and learn about other families who were living through the hell that she had, she felt a calling to stand up and do something.

“I just thought, enough is enough,” she said. “I just wasn’t going to sit idly by and watch another child die. You just have that moment where you can’t take it anymore.”

So McNeely set up a town meeting, and spearheaded an organization called Worcester County Warriors Against Opiate Addiction.

“We didn’t know what to expect in the first meeting,” she recalls. “But as we were setting up the chairs in this little room in the Ocean Pines Library, something in the back of my head kept telling me that we needed more chairs, and low and behold, I was right.”

The first meeting could end up being a marker in the early stages of the community’s fight against the proliferation of heroin addiction in the region. It brought together people who had quietly struggled with the throws of addiction and the trauma of watching a loved one fall into the abyss of heroin’s powerful clutches.

“It brought people together, and I hope as we have more meetings, the stigma and the shame that goes along with having a child or a family member addicted to this drug will go away,” said McNeely. “We live in a small community, but when you are going through it, you feel very alone, and you feel very ashamed. But, I believe it has gotten to a point where almost anyone you meet knows someone that knows someone that is battling through this horrible drug.”

As a result of the first meeting’s success, the Worcester County Warriors Against Opiate Addiction will meet again May 24 at 6 p.m. at a larger venue, the OC Worship Center on Route 50.

“We are very thankful that a church based organization like the OC Worship Center was kind enough to host a non-religious organization like ours to bring together people in the community who are concerned about heroin addiction in our community,” she said.

The Labryinth Of Recovery

Jackie Ball’s son, Wes, is a recovering heroin addict who is currently incarcerated after violating the terms of drug court. Jackie and her family, like many families who have been forced to fight through addiction, have spent copious amounts of money trying to help rehabilitate him.

Ball and McNeely joined forces and are trying to make the Worcester County Warriors Against Opiate Addiction more than just merely a support group for struggling families to feel that sense of “power in numbers.”

She says one of the focuses of the Worcester County Warriors Against Opiate Addiction group is to set up a network or a roadmap of sorts that will help families know which steps to take during a time of great trauma in their lives.

“No one tells you who a good lawyer for heroin addiction is, or what a good rehab center is, or what drug court is,” said Ball. “There are so many resources out there, but sometimes, those different entities don’t necessarily work together. When you are going through it, you don’t know which way to go or if you are making the right choices. We want to help people find their way through all of this as best we can.”

All three parents interviewed this week agree that while heroin addiction makes the addict hard to love, the immense love they have for their addicted child makes them suffer through pain, guilt, shame, anger and trauma that they are only still trying to truly quantify.

Heroin addiction creates a wretchedly new normal for families. A reality where a child literally transforms before your eyes into someone that is almost unrecognizable. It’s a reality where you second guess every step you’ve ever taken as a parent, and one where you can even find yourself in the unlikeliest of places: drug court, the parking lot of multiple rehab facilities or even in a dilapidated building in a seedy part of a city where you child has overdosed.

Gary James, Heidi McNeely, and Jackie Ball are all good parents who have children who caught a horrible disease called addiction. Their strength to live through the pain and endure the trauma of addiction is immensely inspiring, but even the strongest of folks can be scared, too, even of something as simple as the telephone.

“When I read about all these kids dying, and the people who are becoming addicted to heroin,” said James, “It’s just awful. I just hope no one has to get that phone call that I got nine years ago.”

About The Author: Bryan Russo

Bryan Russo returned to The Dispatch in 2015 to serve as News Editor after working as a staff writer from 2007-2010 covering the Ocean City news beat. In between, Russo worked as the Coastal Reporter for NPR-member station WAMU 88.5FM in Washington DC and WRAU 88.3 FM on the Delmarva Peninsula. He was the host of a weekly multi-award winning public affairs show “Coastal Connection.” During his five years in public radio, Russo’s work won 19 Associated Press Awards and 2 Edward R. Murrow Awards and was heard on various national programs like NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition, APM’s Marketplace and the BBC. Russo also worked for the Associated Press (Philadelphia Bureau) covering the NHL and the NBA and is a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter and composer.