SCHERERVILLE — For Donna Okleshen, her son's death came as a relief of sorts.
No longer would she have to worry about coming home to find him passed out on the floor, foaming at the mouth, overdosed on heroin.
The last time she discovered J.D. like that was truly the last time.
And with that came an eerie sense of stability her life had been lacking since he first tried heroin in the late 1990s.
"It's over," she said, during a recent interview at her Schererville home, J.D.'s daughters playing on the floor. "He's in a much better place now."
The last 15 years of her life had been a nightmare. J.D. was in and out of jail constantly. He overdosed too many times to count. She'd return from work at the end of the day wondering which of her valuables would be missing.
That all ended last Oct. 29, when she found his lifeless body in her bathroom, hugging one of his daughter's toys. The heroin finally won. Justin Dean Okleshen was 32 years old.
Unfortunately this story, in Northwest Indiana and the United States as a whole, is not unique. Since the beginning of 2012, 154 people in Lake County and 93 in Porter County have died from heroin overdoses, according to the respective county coroners. An additional 70 people have died of opioid painkiller overdoses in Porter County (Lake doesn't track those deaths).
The U.S. is experiencing an opioid overdose epidemic, with drugs such as heroin and opioid painkillers like OxyContin and fentanyl killing an estimated 78 Americans per day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Experts blame the crisis on the overprescribing of painkillers — the CDC found that the number of prescription opioids sold in the U.S. has quadrupled since 1999, despite no change in the amount of pain Americans report — as well as the flood of cheap Mexican heroin into the U.S., for which Chicago is a regional hub. Heroin is the opioid of choice in Northwest Indiana.
Local, state and national officials have been trying to stem the tide of the opioid epidemic, by expanding access to the overdose-reversal drug naloxone, increasing funding for treatment programs and limiting painkiller prescribing, to varying degrees of success. Beyond that, the answers for how to address the epidemic perhaps lie in the stories of the addicts themselves.
Opioid abuse in the Region
Charles Hageman, of Highland, has been abusing opioids for roughly half his 51 years. He was originally prescribed Vicodin after injuring his ankle working out at a local gym. The leftover pills sat in his medicine cabinet for months until he accidentally cut himself one day.
He noticed the drug not only took away his physical pain, but also gave him energy and confidence. He eventually graduated to heroin, which is significantly cheaper on the street than prescription painkillers.
Two-and-a-half decades later, he finds himself in the Porter County Jail, on a charge of dealing Suboxone, a drug used to treat opioid addiction but that is susceptible to abuse.
During a recent interview at the facility, he reflected on the numerous jobs and relationships he's blown because of his addiction, all the years he's spent behind bars, his 21-year-old son who doesn't even talk to him.
Hageman recently completed the jail's new therapeutic community program, which the facility started thanks to a grant from the Indiana Department of Correction. The program tries to address the root causes of the inmates' addiction, and goes beyond the traditional 12-step model in teaching them parenting skills and career building.
He believes the timing is right this time around. You can offer all the treatment programs in the world, he said, but if an addict doesn't want to get clean it won't matter.
"The night before I got arrested, I told my girlfriend, 'I need to be in jail,'" Hageman said, his face pockmarked, his eyes glassy and tired, faded tattoos on his arms. "I was a mess."
At the end of therapeutic community, he wrote a parting letter to his former love. At the bottom, he originally wrote "Goodbye forever, heroin." Then, acknowledging the fickle nature of addiction, he crossed out "forever" in favor of, "one day at a time."
Down the hall, Shane Corneil and Bryan Hall, both of Valparaiso, were among the inmates currently participating in the therapeutic community.
Corneil, who is being jailed on charges of theft and burglary, started using heroin in 2001. Since then, he's spent a total of 7 1/2 years in prison. He even abused opioids behind bars; he says Suboxone is easier to get in prison than on the streets. That made any drug treatment he received from the Indiana Department of Correction pointless.
Hall's addiction began after high school, when he experimented with prescription painkillers. He later doctor-shopped for opioids; when they got too expensive he turned to heroin.
He just got out of jail June 30. Five days later, he overdosed on heroin. Paramedics revived him with naloxone. He was in intensive care for about a week.
That experience didn't slow him down. Two weeks after his release from the hospital, he was arrested on charges of possession of heroin and a hypodermic needle.
Like many Region addicts, Corneil, 33, and Hall, 29, got their heroin mostly from street corner dealers in Chicago. They both tried to get into treatment at local safety-net mental health centers, but ran into waiting lists. The longest each has held down a job is about six months.
They also both have kids from whose lives they've largely been absent. During a fathering class in the therapeutic community program at the jail, the instructor asked the 16 men how many had children. Most of their hands went up.
"I'm a dad. I'm not no father. I want to be a father," said Corneil, who has a tattooed tear drop and two piercings next to his right eye. He then listed some other life skills he lacks thanks to drug addiction: "I don't know how to do a resume. I don't know how to write a check. I don't know how to fill out an application correctly."
Recovery is another way out
Opioid addiction isn't a one-way ticket to the grave or a jail cell. Recovery is also possible.
Just ask Kevin Glisic. Three years ago, he was in the throes of heroin addiction. Now he's the executive director of Moraine House, a Valparaiso halfway house for recovering addicts.
He considers himself lucky, lucky that he faced charges in front of an empathetic judge who saw his potential. Rather than sentence Glisic to prison, the judge ordered him to Moraine House, which happened to have an open bed.
"I feel like sometimes God sends angels with badges," Glisic said. "I was on the path of destruction. I was going to kill myself or someone else. I believe God intervened and got me the help I needed."
Glisic, of North Judson, had used opioids for 20 years — he started as a teenager after being prescribed Vicodin for a bone injury — yet never sought treatment. Moraine House was his first shot at it.
It worked. The chores and curfews brought structure to his life. He participated in regular 12-step meetings. Prison loomed if he failed a drug test. He learned life skills like managing money and rebuilding his credit.
After his 180 days of treatment was over, Glisic was offered the position of assistant director. He moved into the staff quarters, where he still lives.
Glisic, 39, believes it's going to take more education to make a dent in the opioid epidemic.
"You've got to show the youth real facts, real images, shocking events, photos and stories," he said. "People have to share their stories and be open and honest about it."
One person who's doing that is Herb Stepherson, of Valparaiso. He speaks about his recovery before local civic organizations, drug treatment agencies and social workers. He blogs about his experiences with addiction at junkboxdiaries.com.
A year ago, as he marked a decade of opioid abuse, Stepherson wanted to die. He said he planned to get locked up in prison, and do enough drugs there to kill himself.
The judge in his case had a different idea, sentencing him to Respite House, another Valparaiso halfway house for addicts.
In a familiar refrain, Stepherson first tried opioids after finding painkillers in his parent's medicine cabinet. "Once the stash from taking them from my parents ran out, I was left wanting more, and the heroin supply is plentiful," he said.
The next decade was a nightmare. He stole to support his habit. He ended up homeless. He ate out of dumpsters. He was robbed at gunpoint multiple times. A staph infection from shooting dope almost caused his right foot to be amputated.
"You hear about 'Just say no' and 'Don't do drugs' and Scruff McGruff and 'This is your brain on drugs,'" he said. "I never had any inkling about what kind of absolute hell awaited me with addiction."
Stepherson said he tried to get help more than a dozen times, unsuccessfully, either because there were no open rehab beds, or local hospitals refused to do opioid detox.
"It's hard to get treatment," he said, "but dope dealers will always take a phone call."
Being around other people in recovery was what finally gave him hope. He is scheduled to be at Respite House through Jan. 11. After that, he plans to rent an apartment close to his 5-year-old son, with whom he hangs out every weekend. He recently got a job in sales and marketing.
He also intends to keep telling his story.
"The shame and taboo and silence that surround this disease of addiction are just as deadly as the disease itself," Stepherson said.
"We cannot treat addicts like lepers and pariahs and outcasts. We've got to show them some love and support and encouragement and bring some attention to the recovery community."
Too late for many addicts
Families like the Okleshens, though, are only left to wonder, What more could we have done?
J.D. Okleshen attempted to get treatment at one point but couldn't afford it. He detoxed at a local hospital once, but only after lying to the staff that he was suicidal. He was on methadone for a time until his girlfriend ran out of money to pay for it.
Now, two little girls are left without a father.
J.D.'s oldest daughter, Lilliana Stasak, at least has memories of him.
"We took pictures together. We played games, hide and seek. We took bubble baths," the 7-year-old said. "Dad used to push us on the swings. I like swings. They're my favorite. I like to jump off."
Despite the fact that he stole from her repeatedly, and made her life a living hell at times, Donna Okleshen doesn't think her son was a bad guy. He used, she believed, to cover up the lack of self-esteem from a medical condition that caused him to lose his hair, as well as the emotional pain from his father's suicide.
"When he's straight, he can be the best guy in the world. The best," she said, still talking about J.D. in the present tense.
"But that drug is just an evil, evil ... You don't even want to be around him. You don't even know him when he's on that crap. He acts so stupid."
"People say they make the choice to do it," added Kara Stasak, of Merrillville, the mother to J.D.'s two kids. "He made one bad choice. It made him an addict the rest of his life."
Nearby, Lilliana and her 5-year-old sister, Natalia Okleshen, played with Barbie dolls and a toy castle from the movie "Frozen," seemingly oblivious to the discussion their mother and grandmother were having.
Stasak said she had to leave J.D. in 2012, after he overdosed with his daughter in the car, causing Child Protective Services to investigate her.
Meanwhile, Donna Okleshen hopes his drug dealer, who was arrested in the spring, goes to prison for as long as possible, along with everyone else peddling dope in the Region.
The heroin the man sold J.D. was cut with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid said to be 50 to 100 times stronger than heroin. Fentanyl-laced heroin is driving the surge in overdose deaths both in Northwest Indiana and the country as a whole.
Donna, a 58-year-old retail employee, lives in a subdivision that looks like countless others in suburban America: duplex after duplex, all painted the same colors, plastic mailboxes, freshly cut lawns.
She said her friends and family don't really know what to say to her about J.D.'s death, so they just avoid her.
"I have to suffer this thing on my own," she said, looking emotionally and physically drained. "Nobody understands what we're going through. But it could happen to any of us: your child, anybody out there."
"You hear about 'Just say no' and 'Don't do drugs' and Scruff McGruff and 'This is your brain on drugs.' I never had any inkling about what kind of absolute hell awaited me with addiction." -- Herb Stepherson, of Valparaiso