The Drug Epidemic That Is Killing Our Children

In the middle-class neighborhood on the east side of Columbus, Ohio, where Myles Schoonover grew up, the kids smoked weed and drank. But while Myles was growing up, he knew no one who did heroin. He and his younger brother, Matt, went to a private Christian high school in a Columbus suburb. Their father, Paul Schoonover, co-owns an insurance agency. Ellen Schoonover, their mother, is a stay-at-home mom and part-time consultant.

Myles partied, but found it easy to bear down and focus. He went off to a Christian university in Tennessee in 2005 and was away from home for most of Matt’s adolescence. Matt had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and schoolwork came harder to him. He started partying — smoking pot and drinking — about his junior year in high school.

The two brothers got to know each other again when Matt joined Myles at college for his freshman year in 2009. His parents were never sure when exactly Matt began using pills that by then were all over central Ohio and Tennessee. But that year, Myles saw that pills were already a big part of Matt’s life.

Matt hoped school would be a new beginning. It wasn’t. Instead, he accumulated a crew of friends who lacked basic skills and motivation. They slept on Myles’ sofa. Myles ended up cooking for them. For a while he did his brother’s laundry because Matt could wear the same clothes for weeks on end. Matt, at six feet six and burly, was a caring fellow with a soft side. Yet the pills seemed to keep him in a fog.

At year’s end, Matt returned home to live with his parents, where he seemed to have lost the aimlessness he displayed in college. He dressed neatly and worked full-time at catering companies. But by the time he moved home, his parents later realized, he had become a functional addict, using opiate prescription painkillers, and Percocet above all. From there, he moved eventually to OxyContin.

In early 2012, his parents found out. They were worried, but the pills Matt had been abusing were pharmaceuticals prescribed by a doctor. They weren’t some street drug that you could die from, or so they believed. They took him to a doctor, who prescribed a weeklong home detoxification, using blood pressure and sleep medicine to calm the symptoms of opiate withdrawal.

He relapsed a short time later. Unable to afford street OxyContin, Matt at some point switched to the black tar heroin that had saturated the Columbus market. Looking back later, his parents believe this had happened months before they knew of his addiction. But in April 2012, Matt tearfully admitted his heroin problem to his parents. Stunned, they got him into a treatment center.

After three weeks of rehab, Matt came home on May 10, 2012, and with that, his parents felt the nightmare was over. The next day, they bought him a new battery for his car and a new cellphone.

After kicking opiates, “it takes two years for your dopamine receptors to start working naturally.”

He set off to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, then a golf date with friends. He was supposed to call his father after the NA meeting.

His parents waited all day for the call. That night, a policeman knocked on their door.

More than 800 people attended Matt’s funeral. He was 21 when he overdosed on black tar heroin.

In the months after Matt died, Paul and Ellen Schoonover were struck by all they didn’t know. First, the pills: Doctors prescribed them, so how could they lead to heroin and death? People who lived in tents under overpasses used heroin. Matt grew up in the best neighborhoods, attended a Christian private school and a prominent church. He’d admitted his addiction, sought help, and received the best residential drug treatment in Columbus. Why wasn’t that enough?

But across America, thousands of people like Matt Schoonover were dying. Auto fatalities had been the leading cause of accidental death for decades until this. Now most of the fatal overdoses were from opiates: prescription painkillers or heroin. If deaths were the measurement, this wave of opiate abuse was the worst drug scourge to ever hit the country.

This epidemic involved more users and far more death than the crack plague of the 1990s or the heroin plague in the 1970s, but it was happening quietly. Kids were dying in the Rust Belt of Ohio and the Bible Belt of Tennessee. Some of the worst of it was in Charlotte’s best country club enclaves. It was in Mission Viejo and Simi Valley in suburban Southern California, and in Indianapolis, Salt Lake, and Albuquerque, in Oregon and Minnesota and Oklahoma and Alabama. For each of the thousands who died every year, many hundreds more were addicted.

Via pills, heroin had entered the mainstream. The new addicts were football players and cheerleaders; football was almost a gateway to opiate addiction. Wounded soldiers returned from Afghanistan hooked on pain pills and died in America. Kids got hooked in college and died there. Some of these addicts were from rough corners of rural Appalachia. But many more were from the U.S. middle class. They lived in communities where the driveways were clean, the cars were new, and the shopping centers attracted congregations of Starbucks, Home Depot, CVS, and Applebee’s. They were the daughters of preachers, the sons of cops and doctors, the children of contractors and teachers and business owners and bankers.

And almost every one was white.

Children of the most privileged group in the wealthiest country in the history of the world were getting hooked and dying in almost epidemic numbers from substances meant to, of all things, numb pain. “What pain?” a South Carolina cop asked rhetorically one afternoon as we toured the fine neighborhoods south of Charlotte, where he arrested kids for pills and heroin.

Crime was at historic lows, drug overdose deaths at record highs. A happy façade covered a disturbing reality. “We’ve never seen anything move this fast,” Ed Hughes, at the Drug Counseling Center in Portsmouth, Ohio, told me.  Silence, he thought, was a huge part of the story.

Kids were coming to the center from across Ohio. Many, he said, grew up coddled, bored, and unprepared for life’s hazards and difficulties. They’d grown up amid the consumerist boom that began in the mid-1990s. Parenting was changing then, too, Hughes believed. “Spoiled rich kid” syndrome seeped into America’s middle classes. Parents shielded their kids from complications and hardships and praised them for minor accomplishments — all as they had less time for their kids.

“You only develop self-esteem one way, and that’s through accomplishment,” Hughes said. “You have a lot of kids who have everything and look good, but they don’t have any self-esteem. You see 20-somethings: They have a nice car, money in their pocket, and they got a cellphone … a big-screen TV. I ask them, ‘Where the hell did all that stuff come from? You’re a student.’ ‘My mom and dad gave it to me.’ … And you put opiate addiction in the middle of that?”

Hughes knew families as addicted to rescuing their children as their kids were addicted to dope. This, too, was an epidemic, Hughes believed. “I’ve got 40-year-olds who act like 22-year-olds because their families are so enmeshed in rescuing them. The parents are giving them a place to live, giving them money, taking care of things, worrying about them, and calling me trying to get them into treatment. I try to tell parents it’s real important to say no, but say no way back when they’re young.”

Most of these parents were products, as I am, of the 1970s, when heroin was considered the most vile back-alley drug. How could they now tell their neighbors that the child to whom they had given everything was a prostitute who expired while shooting up in a car outside a Burger King? Shamed and horrified by the stigma, many could not, and did not.

Opiate use in medicine had been destigmatized by doctors who crusaded against pain. But there were no prestigious crusaders against the addiction that too often resulted from overuse of these pills. That task fell to parents of dead kids, like Wayne Campbell, a barrel-chested guy with the personality of the football coach he was part-time.

Wayne’s oldest son, Tyler, had played football. He was a safety for the Division I University of Akron Zips. In 2009, the school opened a 30,000-seat football stadium, a monument to corporate America in sports. If ever the Division I school needed a good year from its team, 2009 was it.

Instead, the team disintegrated under the pressure to win and the weight of pills.

Chris Jacquemain (above) and teammate Tyler Campbell died from heroin overdoses in 2011.
(John Kuntz/The Plain Dealer)

The Zips’ star quarterback that year, Chris Jacquemain, grew addicted to OxyContin after suffering a separated shoulder. He began stealing and was expelled from the team early in the season, then left school. Jacquemain’s life spiraled down. He died of a heroin overdose two years later.

Something like that happened to Wayne’s son, Tyler. A walk-on and an eager and aggressive safety, Tyler Campbell was prescribed 60 Percocets after shoulder surgery following the 2008 season. He was given no instructions about the drug and how to use it. Nor was it clear that he needed that many pills to recover from the surgery. Doctors told Wayne it was the usual postsurgical prescription. It seemed to Wayne that doctors wanted to make sure patients didn’t return quickly, so they prescribed a lot. That was part of the problem, he figured.

Wayne spoke later with Jeremy Bruce, a wide receiver on the team, who provided a glimpse of the team unraveling that year. The coaches and trainers, Bruce said, felt pressured to field a winning team as the school opened its new stadium. After the games, some of the trainers pulled out a large jar and handed out oxycodone and hydrocodone pills — as many as a dozen to each player. Later in the week, a doctor would write players prescriptions for opiate painkillers and send student aides to the pharmacy to fill them. “I was on pain pills that whole season — hydrocodone or oxycodone. I was given narcotics after every single game, and it wasn’t recorded. It was like they were handing out candy,” Bruce told me.

One problem the team faced was a steep drop-off in talent from the first to the second string, Bruce said. As first-stringers got hurt and second-stringers couldn’t fill in, he said, “it’s a snowball effect because of the pressure and the stress just to get those [first-stringers] back on the field. I think that’s where the narcotics came into play, and that’s why it was handed out so easily — the stress and the pressure to win right now.”

J.D. Brookhart, the team’s head coach that year, said that he knew nothing of the extent of opiate dependence on the team that Bruce describes. “That wasn’t the case, that we knew of,” he said. “I don’t think it was anything that anybody thought was anything rampant at all. Not from the level I was at. It’s not like trainers or coaches had any authorization [to prescribe pills]. These pills were ordered by doctors.”

Injuries were the team’s overriding issue that season, Brookhart told me from his home in Texas, where he has retired from coaching. Some 24 players missed eight or more games apiece due to injuries that year; this included two of Jacquemain’s three backups, he said.

By the end of the 2009 season, the Akron Zips football team was a poster squad for America’s opiate epidemic. Not only was Jacquemain dismissed for issues related to his addiction, but as the season wore on and the injuries mounted, Bruce said, “I would say 15 to 17 kids had a problem. It seems that most who had an addiction problem had an extensive problem with injuries as well.”

Toward the end of the season, he said, players had learned to hit up teammates who had just had surgery, knowing they would have bottles full of pills. Meanwhile, a dealer from off campus sold to the players, visiting before practice sometimes, fronting players pills and being paid from the monthly rent and food allowance that came with their scholarships.

The Zips inaugurated the new stadium with only three wins. The coaching staff would be fired at season’s end, but the effect of the season lingered on.

Among the team’s weaknesses was the size of its defensive line. The problem was felt acutely at Tyler Campbell’s position, safety. Running backs often broke through the defensive line and linebackers. It too often fell to safeties to make tackles. Against a monstrous Wisconsin team, the first game of the 2008 season, with a scholarship now and starting his first collegiate game, Tyler for one week was the nation’s leader in tackles, with 18 — an exploit that coaches attributed to his hard work and perseverance.

His stats, though, highlighted the team’s weakness. When a safety is making that many tackles, Bruce said, “there is a serious problem. [Opposing running backs] should never get to the secondary that many times.”

As the season went on, Tyler injured his shoulder. His body never fully healed, and he had surgery after the season. Team doctors could give Wayne no records of what Tyler was given after games. But those first 60 post-surgery Percocets following the 2008 season seem to have begun his addiction. By the next season, unbeknownst to those close to him, Tyler had transitioned to OxyContin.

Tyler’s 2009 season was spotty. He played 11 games but made only 31 tackles, and grew secretive and distant, which teammates and family attributed to his play on the field. In the spring of 2010, his grades dropping and his behavior moody, Tyler was sent home. Over the next year, he was in rehab twice and relapsed. At some point, he switched to heroin.

In June 2011, his parents put him in an expensive rehab center in Cleveland. Thirty days later, he drove home with his mother, clean, optimistic, and wanting to become a counselor. The next morning, she found him dead in his bedroom of an overdose of black tar heroin from Columbus — likely hidden in his room from before he entered rehab, Wayne believes.

With a solid reputation in Pickerington, Tyler’s family had kept his addiction a secret. But when he died, Wayne told his wife, “Let’s open it up. Come out and be honest.”

The obituary urged mourners to donate money to a drug prevention group. Fifteen hundred people attended the memorial. As they consoled him, Wayne was struck by how many murmured in his ear, “We’ve got the same problem at home.”

Two weeks later, Wayne met with fathers who wanted to do something in his son’s memory. He knew few of them, but learned that several also had addicted kids. That marked a moment of clarity for Wayne Campbell. “When Tyler died, it lifted the lid,” he said. “We thought it was our dirty little secret. I thought he was the only one. Then I realized this is bigger than Tyler.”

From that grew a nonprofit called Tyler’s Light. By the time I met Wayne Campbell, Tyler’s Light had become his life’s work. He spoke regularly to schools about opiates, showing a video of white middle-class addicts, one of whom was a judge’s daughter.

About a year after Wayne Campbell formed Tyler’s Light, Paul Schoonover called. Could he and his wife, Ellen, help in any way? Schoonover asked. It had been a few months since Matt had died.

At Matt’s funeral, Paul had told hundreds of mourners how Matt had died. About the pill use, the OxyContin, then the heroin. He told them how through all this, Matt led a normal suburban life; he played tennis and golf. Most of his friends were goal driven and making plans. Matt had goals, but had trouble following through to accomplish them. Still, he was working and part of the family. He never dressed shabbily, and though he ran out of cash quickly, he never stole from his parents. His bedroom door was always open. He never looked like what his parents imagined an addict to be. Yet all the while, it appeared, he led a dual life.

“Was I seeing what I only wanted to see?” said Ellen later. “I might have been.”

Paul and Ellen Schoonover with a photo of son Matt.
(Craig Holman/The Columbus Dispatch)

The Schoonovers, like the Campbells, once thought addiction a moral failing. But they now understood it as a physical addiction, a disease. They, too, had thought rehabilitation would fix their son. Now they saw relapse was all but inevitable, and that something like two years of treatment and abstinence, followed by a lifetime of 12-step meetings, were needed for recovery.

After kicking opiates, “it takes two years for your dopamine receptors to start working naturally,” Paul said. “Nobody told us that. We thought he was fixed because he was coming out of rehab. Kids aren’t fixed. It takes years of clean living to the point where they may — they may — have a chance. This is a lifelong battle. Had we known, we would never have let Matt alone those first few vulnerable days after rehab. We let him go alone that afternoon to Narcotics Anonymous his first day out of rehab. He had his new clothes on. He looked good. He was then going to play golf with his friend. Instead of making a right turn to go to the meeting, he made a left turn and he’s buying drugs and dying.

“When you start into drugs, your emotional development gets stunted. Matt was 21, but he was at the maturity level of middle-teen years. Drugs take away that ability to act emotionally mature. The drug becomes your god.”

The Schoonovers choose to channel their grief into getting the word out. Too many parents were as lost as they’d been.

So Paul called Wayne Campbell and Tyler’s Light, hoping to use Matt’s story to sound the alarm and prepare parents for what awaited them.

“There was so much evil in all of this,” said Ellen Schoonover. “We will turn that into something good. We can embrace it and find meaning from Matt’s death.”