(Editor’s note: Our interview with recovering opioid addict David Stanley was held in February 2017. On Sept. 27, Stanley died from an apparent overdose, but his story deserves to be told.)
David Stanley, 40, died Sept. 27, 2017, at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, following a long battle with drug addiction. It was at least the 10th time he had overdosed, but he had never given up hope. The Guernsey County man grew up in a loving home with both parents and his two sisters. He attended John Glenn High School in New Concord, where he wrestled and did OK academically. He was artistic and was especially good at painting, and in his senior year, his artwork earned him a governor’s award.
According to his obituary, he loved children and they were drawn to him. “They saw in his eyes a special friend with a fun heart,” it read. He also had a knack for operating heavy equipment and worked as an operator. But whatever his life was supposed to be, the drugs took over.
David wasn’t exactly sure how his addiction started. But he said about his second year of high school, he started hanging out with the wrong crowd. By the time he graduated, he had picked up a couple DUIs and was experimenting with recreational drugs like marijuana.
And then things got worse — much worse. In 2008, his back was broken during a fight and he was prescribed an addictive painkiller.
“I found out I loved pain pills,” he said. “All of a sudden, I wanted them instead of needed them.”
His habit grew costly. When he ran out of money, he turned to stealing and was eventually charged with burglary and theft.
While in jail, he went through the process of “detox,” or detoxification — which cleaned his bloodstream of drugs. It’s a painful, frightening process that David said is hard to even describe.
“It’s like you want to rip out of your skin, an uncomfortable flu — bad diarrhea, vomit, sweats, cold, hot. You can’t be comfortable. You can’t sleep. You can’t not sleep. Everything at once — just overwhelming.”
Long road ahead
David eventually found himself in the Eastern Ohio Correction Center, located in Jefferson County, and he was in this facility in 2009, when his mother, Madge Stanley, died of lung cancer. He had promised her that he would one day get clean — but that day was yet to come.
Someone told him that if he went back to drugs after being clean, the effect would be 10 times worse. But when he was released, he found himself getting into heroin.
“I don’t remember where the needle came from, but boy, I fell in love with that needle,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense — when I was a kid, I was scared to death of needles and shots.”
David became so addicted that he couldn’t keep a job or a girlfriend. He sold his belongings and scraped to get by, just so he could buy drugs.
“I used everything. Whatever there was to put in a needle, I used. Once I started using heroin, I needed heroin, and when I say I needed heroin, I needed it every day, a couple times a day. And I don’t mean I wanted it — it was a need. My body needed it.”
‘If I start using heroin again, they’re going to put me in the ground.’
He was right.
Near death experience
In 2014, he overdosed in the basement of his father’s home. He had been in a fight with someone he thought was a friend, and was left for dead, lying on the bathroom floor with a broken sternum and his lungs full of vomit.
He spent the next 11 days in a coma, his family sitting around him in the hospital, not knowing if he would live or die.
He lived — but he would go on to overdose eight more times, twice requiring the use of a ventilator to keep him alive.
“I didn’t care if I lived or died,” he said. “I really think that I was trying to die — something inside of me was trying to kill myself. The addict in me, maybe, unconsciously, maybe, was trying to kill myself.”
David’s struggle with addiction took a toll not only on himself — but his whole family.
He lived in the basement of the home where he grew up, and his aunt, Charlotte, also lived in the home, to help provide support. She also helps care for David’s father, Gary, and works days as a medical assistant in Zanesville.
Charlotte said there were multiple times when she helped revive David, and had she not been there, he would have died much sooner. She said she wanted to help, partly because David was her sister’s son, and because she knew David’s potential.
Still, it was never easy.
“It’s very hard and lots of tears and lots of depression and lots of anger and frustration,” she said. “I try to be calm — somebody has to be calm.”
One of the hard parts is knowing when to help, and when to hold someone accountable.
“I know that I haven’t made all of the right decisions in trying to help him, because I’m sure that I was an enabler for some of (his addiction),” she said.
But Charlotte continued to help him anyway — because she still had hope.
“You can’t give up,” she said. “You have to keep trying, and he has to keep trying.”
Making a stand
Then came March 1, 2016 — the day he decided he was done. He enrolled in counseling — lots of counseling and peer programs designed to help people recover and stay clean. He attended programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, and its 12-step recovery program, and met with local drug and alcohol services counselors.
He also used a medical injection called Vivitrol, which prevents relapses to opioid dependence after detox.
For more than a year, he lived a new life, but there were still scars.
He experienced seizures — stemming from a stroke he had in 2014 — and was not able to operate heavy equipment safely, and so had trouble finding and holding a job. He also tried to make some social changes, including his friends.
“Learning to change is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life,” he said.
“A person sure comes a long way in a year without using drugs,” he said. “You get yourself back, you get your self-respect back. To become friends with yourself again. You start to get people’s trust and people look at you a little differently, I’ve noticed.”
David made new friends and found ways to stay clean. He tried to mentor other people with addiction about the opportunity that’s available, thanks to counselors and peer support.
“You just have to do it,” he said. “And once you start helping yourself, I promise all of that stuff starts feeling good. And once you start feeling good, it opens up a new world of wonderful, wonderful things. And once you start feeling all that good stuff, that good feeling, you want more of it. It’s like you get addicted to feeling good.”
But the spring and summer of 2017 presented big challenges.
His girlfriend died in April, and over the summer, he learned that his father had been diagnosed with an advanced stage of lung cancer.
Jon Black, one of David’s counselors and a good friend, said David faced “a perfect storm” that led him to return to drugs.
“It was disappointing. I don’t have an answer,” said Black, who gave the eulogy at David’s funeral.
Still, he’s hopeful.
“We reached some people during the funeral who needed some help,” Black said. “We’re going to make this death mean something.”
David’s aunt had little to say to say after his death, but she said “no one fought harder,” and that she was encouraged by his decision to be an organ donor.
David said he understood some of the stereotypes people hold — and he agreed that because of their behavior, addicts have earned some of the shame that society gives them.
“Addicts need to be dealt with like addicts,” he said. “But they’re sick people. It’s a disease. If you want to argue with the disease part of it, then look it up online or in a dictionary.”
Although he was clean for more than a year, he doubted that he’d ever be completely cured of his past, but each day that he was clean was one more day of life.
“What it comes down to is if I start using again, I will die,” he said. “There is no ifs, ands or buts. If I start using heroin again, they’re going to put me in the ground. I don’t have another chance.”
(Reporter Chris Kick can be reached at 330-403-9477, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)