Substance abuse in Cuyahoga County continues to grow, with devastating consequences

Three Cuyahoga County residents share their stories with addiction

In Ohio, substance abuse fatalities have risen by 800% since 2000, affecting many. These fatalities quickly spread their way through Cuyahoga County, which set its first record high of 727 drug-related deaths in 2017.

After this record high, there appeared to be hope on the horizon as drug-related deaths in Cuyahoga County began to fall towards the end of 2017. Officials believed this drop was in part due to the “reduction of carfentanil (a byproduct of fedental, with 100 times more potency) in the illicit drug supply, the increased availability of naloxone, addiction treatment, and prevention education.”

Unfortunately, hope was soon shattered as drug-related fatalities once again started to spike in 2020. Lori Criss, director of the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services believes this increase in overdoses was largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Additionally, increasing rates of Fentanyl laced Cocaine, a deadly combination, have caused a rise in overdoses across the county. Currently, there is projected to be 819 drug-related overdoses within Cuyahoga County for 2022- a new record high. 

Scientists believe there are certain genes that are linked to addition, causing it to run in families. Trauma and underage drinking are also thought to lead to substance abuse, with teens at being at a higher risk as their brains have not yet fully developed. 

These Cuyahoga County residents who once suffered through addiction shared their stories: 

One person, 28, who wished to remain anonymous, shared that they got into drugs because they were curious and wanted to have fun. “I was just curious about drugs in general. I wanted to know what each one felt like, the experience” they shared. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for them to find themselves addicted to opiates at the young age of 17 — an addiction that would last 5 years. 

Due to their addiction, they did many things they were ashamed of like lying and stealing from friends and family. “I wanted to die basically every day,” they recalled.

They were one of the lucky ones that made it out of their addiction, an outcome unfortunately not all will see. “I realized it wasn’t a sustainable way of living and [if I continued] I would end up dead or living on the streets,” they shared.

When asked how they got sober, they shared that they checked themselves into rehab after their realization and changed their lifestyle. It has been 7 years since they did opiates. 

Tony Kost, 39, also shared his story with substance abuse:

His addiction began around 16 years old, when he started going to raves and got “heavy into the culture”. During this time, he tried many drugs like acid and meth as well as heavy drinking — which lasted around 2-3 years, until a friend passed away. 

Eventually, the drinking began again to help him sleep and from working in the bar industry and going out with coworkers. He shared that during this time he didn’t care about much else but partying and drinking, which felt cool then but led him into some dark days, and an addiction to alcohol. 

“It was very rare that I didn’t drink, if I didn’t, I’d pay the price with a severe hangover,” Kost said.  “For a very long time in my life, I felt like I was living on the blade of a knife,” he continued. 

His addiction lasted about 15 years, until one day he woke up questioning his life and his choices. This led him to a visit to the ER, where he told the doctor he was drinking himself to death and didn’t know how to stop on his own. Afterwards, he spent a week in a hospital that specializes in alcohol addiction to withdraw and free himself from his addiction. Since then, Kost “found the strength to never drink again”. Additionally, Kost changed his lifestyle, invested in himself, and took things one day at a time. 

Kost believes the biggest problem with alcohol addiction is that it is “openly accepted and denied to be a problem”. 

“Nobody applauds heroin or drugs but will applaud drinking”, Kost said. “It’s a damaging addiction that is encouraged, encouraged until you do something that is embarrassing” he continued. 

“If addiction was taken more seriously a lot more people would have the ability to come to terms with what they’re doing to themselves and the people around them a lot sooner.” Kost feels. 

The effects of substance abuse extends past the life of the user, causing heartache and damage to the lives of their loved ones as well. Cindy Ciulla, 44, recalls the effects her friends addiction has had on her life:

After a surgery, her friend was prescribed painkillers which started his addiction and he began to seek out drugs elsewhere. 

Since then, Ciulla watched him continuously steal from his family and leave his partner to raise 5 kids alone as drugs took over his life. Ciulla once thought there was hope when her friend checked into rehab, but he found a way to do drugs there and it was unfortunately ineffective. 

Even then, Ciulla shared that she tried to be there for him and told him if he was thinking of using or needed a friend, he could call her anytime. 

Ciulla shared that her friend was the “least expected person who you would think would become a drug addict” 

“I lost a friend. I considered him one of my best guy friends and I’m not in touch with him (anymore), I can’t be” Ciulla expressed. “The whole thing makes you feel like a helpless person,” she continued. 

Ciulla also recently lost a different friend to addiction, who was only 23. She remembers feeling really upset and angry over his death and “just wanted to pick him up and tell him how much she loves him”. His life was cut way too short due to drugs, she feels. 

 “My heart bleeds for addicts,” Ciulla proclaimed. 

Substance abuse is believed to be preventable by seeking therapy, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and eliminating stressors

The American Rescue Plan — a $1.9 trillion government act aimed toward pandemic response, allocated $3 billion to substance abuse and mental illness. Additionally, Mayor Bibb of Cleveland expands use of Cuyahoga County Diversion Center, a 50-bed health and substance abuse crisis center. 

Cuyahoga County (as well as Lorain, Mahoning, Stark, and Summit county) also offers Access to Recovery (ATR) vouchers for substance abuse treatment and recovery services. 

Beth Zietlow-DeJesus, Cuyahoga County board’s director of external affairs believes every person should carry naloxone, as it is a life-saving tool for a person experiencing an overdose. These Cuyahoga county pharmacies offer naloxone without a prescription.    

If you or someone you know is suffering from substance abuse or addiction, there is help and support out there. For free, confidential help call the Substance Abuse and Mental Help Services Administration (SAMHSA) hotline at 1-800-662-4357.