Sitting on the front porch of his family’s funeral home in Cambridge, Ohio, Jon Black has a rich legacy behind him. Four big white pillars flank the front entrance of this massive brick building built as a home in 1900, and converted into a funeral home in the late 1950s. An American flag waves out front, and the light breeze and the chatter of birds almost make this place seem inviting. Inside, the immaculate interior and remodeled rooms reflect the family’s hard work.
Today, Thorn-Black Funeral Homes operates as one of the most recognized businesses in Guernsey County. But the 45-year-old Black has not always been part of the legacy.
Battle with opioids
He started with alcohol at age 11, and progressed to recreational drugs. After a bad traffic accident, he became hooked on painkillers and opiates. He grew up in a family and a county where this shouldn’t have happened, a rural county at least an hour away from any big city. But it happened, and it’s happening even more often today — across the state and across the nation, in urban and rural places alike.
“There are so many people who feel like they are outside of this problem, and nobody is.”
According to the Ohio Department of Health, there were 3,495 deaths in Ohio from drug overdoses in 2016, up a third from the previous year. In Pennsylvania, 4,642 deaths were reported from overdoses, a 37 percent increase over 2015. Both states reported opiates were responsible for more than 85 percent of those deaths. And some of the highest death rates are actually in counties outside of major metropolitan areas — with Guernsey County showing a death rate of more than 37 people per 100,000 in 2016, compared to the state average rate of 36.
“There are so many people who feel like they are outside of this problem, and nobody is,” Black said.
“In a town this size or anything like these farming communities around us, opiates are family destroyers,” he said. “They go in and just basically tear the fabric of a family apart.”
Black found relief and began turning his life around a decade ago, and now he’s a counselor for other people with addictions, working closely with the Guernsey County court system.
A different direction
It was his own counseling that triggered steps toward recovery in 2007. “I just kind of had the revelation that the only time I’m any good is in treatment, so I better stay in it,” he said. “It took some time, but it was worth it.”
He went through treatment six times until 2010 when he finally stayed sober and got his life back. “Without sobriety, I have nothing,” he said. “No marriage, no child, no home, no nothing.”
Black and his wife, Amy, have been married for seven years and have a 6-year-old daughter named Dahlia. As Black puts it, his wife and daughter are “a couple gifts of my getting sober.”
Today, he’s committed to helping others try to get their own lives back, too. He has counseled people at the local jail and in his funeral home office, trying to show them a better path and getting them the services they need. “What I like to do is share with them that I’ve been there — I know what you’re going through,” he said.
But it’s not always that easy. It starts with cutting through the lies and deception that people with addictions often rely on, and getting them to the point that they’re willing to be helped.
And then there’s the issue of where to send people, even if they want treatment. The county lacks a true detox facility, outside of the jail, which is already crowded with drug-related arrests. Sober living homes are being built for people in the latter stages of recovery, but space is limited. Instead, people in recovery often have to go to other counties, where more services are available. That means living in a strange community, and having to find transportation back to their home county, or a ride to their job, if they have one.
“In these rural areas, it’s a great challenge to cover distances with people and get people to where they need to be,” Black said.
But rural communities also have their advantages. Karen Wiggins, director for the Guernsey County Alcohol and Drug Services, said rural communities have the advantage of “working together” and being able to give people battling addiction “a personal touch.”
“We can’t lose sight of the clients we’re working with,” said Wiggins. “My big thing is personal touch, talking with people — making them feel like they matter.”
But Wiggins, like Black, admits that rural communities have challenges. There’s less funding, fewer facilities and greater distance between those facilities.
In addition to lacking a detox facility, the county has limited funding to help children caught up in the opioid web. Nicole Caldwell, the executive director for Guernsey County Children Services, said the number of children entering agency custody has increased 150 percent over the past two years, with more than two-thirds drug-related in 2016. With the increase, the agency deficit spent about $288,000 in 2016, and struggles to keep up with expenses.
Caldwell said drug use affects everyone and is especially hard when children are involved. The goal is to keep children in their homes, but that depends on the parents’ recovery, which can take months or even years. Occasionally, even the children themselves have to be sent through drug or alcohol treatment.
“It’s really a community problem, and it has no prejudice,” she said. “It’s people with real lives, and it’s tough.”
The dark side
As a mortician, Black sees the darkest side of addiction: death. It’s even worse when it’s someone he counseled. In October, he delivered the eulogy at the funeral for one of his friends, 40-year-old David Stanley, who had been clean for more than a year. But Black almost expects a certain amount of loss. He knows addiction is a disease, and one that can be fatal.
“What we have to understand, and what I understand as an addict, is that addiction is an illness. And people die from this illness the same they do as cancer, diabetes — anything else that people die from,” he said.
Like other counselors, though, Black is determined to make a difference because he knows first-hand what people with drug addictions are going through.
“If we think that this is an illness and we believe it’s an illness, why should we hide from it?” he said. “We want people to have what we (recovered people) have.”
For Black, that means having a wife and family, a career and a life worth living. It means being free from his past — and he wants to give that gift to as many people as he can.
(Reporter Chris Kick can be reached at 330-403-9477, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)