Angie Toma felt more than sorrow at her brother’s funeral in August – she felt determination to stop other Chaldean families from going through the anguish of drug abuse.
“It was like watching him die slowly,” Toma said of the nearly 10 years her younger brother, Peter, struggled with addiction before overdosing at age 27. “It came to me at his funeral that I had to do something.”
It turned out her Aunt Iman Numan had the same idea, telling Toma, “We have to raise an awareness to help others.”
After getting the blessing of Bishop Francis, the women have launched Peter’s Angels, a non-profit group with the mission of bringing light to drug abuse and other challenges in the Chaldean community.
Toma said it’s sorely needed. “There is zero awareness,” she said flatly.
In fact, in typical Chaldean fashion her parents kept Peter’s drug use hidden even from his sister for the first two years. Now, Toma can’t get past believing that she could have helped Peter if she knew of his problems earlier.
“It has to be detected early so you can help them early,” she says. “We have to teach Chaldean mothers and fathers not to have shame, but to deal with this openly.”
Numan, who owns Mercy Funeral Home, tried for years to help her nephew, who went through at least four rehabs. “Losing a child to drugs,” she said, “is losing him to the devil.”
Right in Our Backyard
Many people think of heroin as a problem confined to the poorest neighborhoods in deepest Detroit. In fact, it is rapidly becoming the drug of choice for young suburban adults who find it cheap and easily accessible.
“Heroin is very common but there is that head-in-the-sand mentality with a lot of people — not just the Chaldean community,” said Lisa Berkey, executive director of the Greater West Bloomfield Community Coalition. “People need to know it’s a problem.”
“Terrifying” is the word used by Diane Dickow D’Agostini, a judge at Oakland County’s 48th District Court.
“I have seen drugs destroy so many lives and it’s very painful,” she said.
“Heroin in West Bloomfield? Believe It – It’s True!” is the aptly named title of informational forums Berkey presents with the West Bloomfield Police Department and Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital.
“We have always wanted to be able to target the Chaldean community but it’s been difficult to get people to come to our events,” Berkey said. “At our forum in October, 50 people came but only four were Chaldean. It’s that ‘what happens in our house stays in our house’ mentality.”
In the Shadows
Illustrating that reality, several Chaldeans interviewed for this article were willing to share their stories only if they could remain anonymous – and Peter’s family asked that we not publish his last name. While “Jamal” (not his real name) is quite open to friends and acquaintances about his struggles with addiction, he insisted on a pseudonym for this article to spare his family further pain and shame.
He’s put them through plenty: more than 10 years addicted to heroin, three stints in rehab, dramatic relapses, and all the lying and cheating that goes along with drug use.
Jamal first tried heroin in college. “I thought, I have found the holy grail. This is the answer to everything I ever asked,” he said. “In less than six months I went from zero to 90. Life became all about getting high.”
After six years, he went from snorting heroin to shooting it up.
“You’re in a very, very dark place. The guilt was overwhelming,” said Jamal. “I was spending $300 to $400 a day on heroin just to normalize, not even getting high. Plus, I was taking a ton of other drugs, including crack. It was a deliberate attempt to slowly kill myself.”
Jamal survived many overdoses and once woke up to find himself in Beaumont Hospital after three days in a heroin-induced coma. That near-death experience was so traumatic for his mother that Jamal finally decided to kick drugs once and for all.
He found what he needed thousands of miles away in a strict, 2.5-year rehab program where participants learn to rebuild their entire lives. He finished the program in May 2004 and has been straight ever since.
A large part of the program was learning to deal with emotions. Addicts, Jamal pointed out, use drugs when they feel bad and also as a celebration when things are good. “You have to learn to deal with your feelings,” he said.
Though he is quick to point out that it’s no excuse for his drug use, Jamal traces a lot of his problems to an unhappy childhood with a demanding father.
“As parents, we try to force round pegs into square holes for our kids,” he said. “Nurture what exists with your children – understand there are different measures of success. In our community, success is measured one way: money, money, money.”
Now 45, Jamal works from home in the family business, is happily married to a woman who has never done drugs, and is a doting father to a toddler. Even though he’s been drug-free since May 2004, he still feels great kinship to those in recovery.
“I believed with every cell in my body that I would never go more than 10 minutes without thinking of heroin,” he said. “I still go back to my program every year to give seminars – to show that it can be done.”
In the Beginning
“A lot of people who use heroin start out stealing prescription medications — Vicodin and OxyContin — from their parents and grandparents,” said Michael Patton, chief of the West Bloomfield Police Department. “You don’t think your kids are going to do that, but they are.”
Randy O’Brien, director of the Office of Substance Abuse at Macomb County Community Mental Health, agrees. “There is not a perception of harm with prescription drugs; people think it has some validity and is not as harmful,” he said. “These 17- to 19-year-olds start accessing their parents’ prescriptions, and when that primary source runs out, they start buying it on the street, where Vicodin and OxyContin costs $30 to $80 per pill. Heroin is a much cheaper alternative.”
West Bloomfield saw a rash of heroin use last year, with 12 incidents of overdose since April 2014. Of those, four people died. “It shocked us,” Patton admitted. “The most recent was a 17-year-old female in November.”
West Bloomfield is hardly alone. In Wayne County, heroin deaths were up 7 percent in 2014, with a total of 265. In Monroe County, at least 20 deaths in 2013 involved heroin, and it’s strongly suspected in seven more.
Throughout Michigan, heroin-related overdose deaths jumped nearly 300 percent, to 728 between 2010 and 2012 compared to the previous three years when there were 271 deaths.
At least prescription pills are stamped with their strength; there’s no way for users to tell how strong their heroin is. “There is no quality control,” Patton points out. “The cost has gone down, but the purity has gone up.” Sometimes, dealers cut heroin with the powerful painkiller fentanyl, which is easy to overdose on.
Many youths start using heroin by snorting or smoking it; eventually, they turn to the needle for a more forceful high.
However they start, addicts lead a hellish existence, always chasing that first high and needing more and more just to avoid getting “dope sick.” It’s also hell for the people who love them.
West Bloomfield resident “Samira” (not her real name) was married for eight years to a man she soon realized was an alcoholic and drug addict. During their engagement, his mother made some veiled remarks about her son not being ready for marriage, but Samira – who had rarely seen her fiancée even drink a beer – didn’t catch on.
“I thought she thought I wasn’t good enough for her son,” she said. “I realize now she was trying to warn me to the best of her ability.”
Things deteriorated soon after the honeymoon. Samira’s life became a nightmare as her husband abused cocaine (and anything else he could get his hands on, including crack and heroin), sleeping all day, partying all night and destroying their belongings in fits of rage. He lost job after job – as well as the family business. By then, the couple had two children.
“Nothing was ever his fault, it was always someone else’s,” said Samira. “I know I am making him sound like a horrible person but when you are on drugs, you are a horrible person.”
Opposed to divorce, Samira gave her husband three years to straighten out before she had to concede defeat.
“The final straw was when I gave him $60 to take the kids to the movies. It turns out he took them to a drug house in Detroit. That night I called my lawyer.”
Samira does not even know where her ex, now 38, is these days. “He’s probably in jail. But he won’t be alive much longer, unfortunately, because it seems that the only thing he wants to live for are those drugs,” she said. “I tell my kids, ‘your dad isn’t well but when he’s feeling better he’ll call you.’ They are much better off without this sick individual in their lives.”
What to Do?
Addiction has been around forever and no one has easy answers for the latest plague of drug abuse. Addicts are skilled liars and manipulators who are driven only by their need for the next fix.
“The answer is not simple,” admits O’Brien of Macomb County’s efforts. “We need to have a comprehensive, community approach, which is not an easy thing to put together. We have put a lot of time and energy into the problem and it still exists.”
Thanks to Healthy Michigan, the state’s expanded Medicaid program, addicts seeking treatment in Macomb can get immediate help. “We used to have as many as 300 on a waiting list, and then you lose these people,” O’Brien said. “In 30 years, this is the first time we don’t have a waiting list.”
Patton, the West Bloomfield Police chief, cited the need for effective treatment. “There has to be reasonable and accessible substance abuse programs that people can enroll themselves in,” he said. “Sometimes the best thing to happen is a judge holding up a big anvil and getting addicts going down the right path to get their health back. But the best way to solve this is through prevention.”
That is what groups like the Greater West Bloomfield Coalition strive for. “Talk to your children, attend meetings and forums,” said Berkey. “Heroin is everywhere, and parents have to be 10 steps ahead of their kids. With the Internet, they are so much smarter than we were.”
Jamal advocates tough love – letting addicts face the harsh consequences of their actions rather than giving them money or bailing them out of jail.
“The more doors close the more pressure they feel to seek help. You have to be willing to lose your child to save them,” he said. “Not everyone has to go through addiction to the degree I did, but once the process starts, the family has to be rigid with their expectations.”
The book “Codependent No More” by Melody Beattie helped open Samira’s eyes to her situation.
“The only way to help an addict is to let them go. The co-dependent person needs to understand they are not helping – they are hurting – by giving them money or bailing them out of trouble,” she said. “In this community that’s unheard of – we are all about unity and holding each other up. But the addict is a cunning manipulator who will say or do anything to get what they want. They may die, but they are dying anyway.”
Family members and friends must face what is often a grim reality, D’Agostini said.
“A lot of times parents assume their kid is a great kid who won’t get involved, but the problem is that with all the options in today’s world, sometimes your kids are befriending kids you have never seen before. It’s the same old-fashioned advice from before: know who your kids’ friends are, and talk to your kids about what is going on. Our community has a tendency sometimes to not talk about things because it’s shameful.”
D’Agostini periodically holds court in front of high school students to sentence drug and alcohol offenders, a powerful tool in teaching consequences.
“When these kids who think they know it all see someone going to jail, they are stunned,” she said.
But parents must open their eyes to possible problems before drugs enter the picture. “We have to look at why these kids are choosing to self-medicate by engaging in drugs. Sometimes it’s depression, anxiety or mental illness. Mental health is not often discussed,” D’Agostini said. “Kids are choosing this for a reason and sometimes it’s an escape from what they are feeling or experiencing.”
To make matters even scarier, relapse is a common occurrence even for the most motivated addicts. “With ODs we find that a third or half the time, the families believed they were winning that battle, that the addict was no longer using,” said Patton. “But no, it was still dominating their lives.”
“The addiction is so incredibly powerful that once these kids start it is difficult to break,” D’Agostini said. “It becomes a lifetime of trying to stay away from it.”
That’s why Peter’s Angels are so determined to prevent drug abuse in teens. As Toma noted, “When they are over 18 there’s only so much you can do legally to help.”
Building an Army
To start, Peter’s Angels is focused on simply getting the word out via Facebook and Instagram. “The bishop told us to build an army,” Toma said. “Because our community is so rigid, he told us they will shut us out at first – don’t even have a meeting yet because no one will come.”
For now, they welcome private inquiries and promise to do all they can to help direct addicts and their families in the right direction. “You don’t know what to do or where to start,” Numan noted.
The women are crossing their fingers for good attendance at their first public forum in late May.
“This is in our community,” Toma said. “Please don’t judge to the point of making yourself unaware. This is everyone’s responsibility.”
His relatives said Peter was a smart and open young man with no prejudices.
“He had the biggest open heart and mind,” said Toma.
And how would he feel about Peter’s Angels?
Said Toma, “He would love this.”
By Joyce Wiswell
Some signs of drug abuse in teens/young adults include:
- Withdrawing and spending lots of time in their room
- Loss of interest in sports and other hobbies
- Extreme mood shifts
- Erratic sleep patterns
- Falling grades
- Anxiety and/or depression
- Asking for money
Where to Find Help
On Instagram: PetersAngelsChaldeanCommunity
On Facebook: PetersAngels
Macomb County Access Center
For those with no or little insurance seeking treatment
Families Against Narcotics
(586) 438-8500; FamiliesAgainstNarcotics.org
Greater West Bloomfield Community Coalition
Macomb Prevention Network
Oakland County Office of Substance Abuse Services
Southeast Michigan Community Alliance
Substance Abuse 24-hour access line
Recovering addict “Jamal” said he is happy to personally talk with anyone struggling with substance abuse. To get in touch, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In His Own Words
“As I read some earlier journal articles, I realize how powerful the disease of addiction is. I felt a spiritual experience, but it quickly disappeared. The light of God has entered my heart, and with the help of doctors & psychiatrists to help with the mind, the mind and the heart begin to heal. The will begins to align with God. When the will, heart, and mind become in sync, the soul awakens.”
– Peter, dead of an overdose at 27