Russ Zimmer, a young journalist and writer of the series about prescription-opiate addiction that ran in a central-Ohio newspaper network, said the original idea behind the project was to write about the increase in heroin deaths in the region. The health department data showed that heroin-related deaths were indeed on the rise, but that “prescription painkillers had been head and shoulders above other drugs and growing for two or three years,” Zimmer said.

The big reason heroin was claiming more lives, Zimmer said: People start with prescription painkillers and then, either when they can’t find pills or can’t afford them anymore, they turn to heroin, which is cheaper.

Learning about addiction from horse’s mouth

In a series of six stories, Zimmer was able to quote only two addicts on the record. He said he’d spoken with five or six more off the record, and that it was difficult to find addicts who would speak at all because of the social stigma addiction carries in society.

“There’s this belief in society that addicts are people with lower moral fiber,” he said. “Some of the addicts I talked to bought into that themselves, which obviously isn’t helpful to them.”

Zimmer organized an informative video chat with two experts, which (I was thinking as I watched it) may have been even more informative if it had included a recovering addict on camera. What better way to learn about addiction than from someone who’s been there and back? But if it’s difficult to get someone to speak on the record in a newspaper, how hard would it be to get someone to speak on camera?

I would. The world needs to hear about addiction from addicts and from the families of addicts.

Zimmer himself has learned a great deal about addiction from doing this series.

He said last year, before the series ran, he’d written a story about a 19-year-old girl with a young child who had become addicted to prescription painkillers. She had one or two months clean; her mother told Zimmer about her hope for her daughter’s future and her ability to recover.

“Just a few weeks ago,” he said, “I opened the Sunday paper, where we run indictments, and I saw her name listed for obtaining dangerous drugs.” He said he learned she’d continued to use and had been sentenced to prison.

“That bothered me,” he said, his voice halting. “I’m not a grizzled veteran [reporter] or anything, but I’ve sat in on a lot of court hearings where the charges are unsettling and they didn’t bother me—but this bothered me. You hear about people falling off the wagon… She was a likeable person, and she wanted to do well. It just bothered me that her desire to do well wasn’t enough. It made me see how strong this problem is.”

Thanks to Russ and to the Ohio papers—the Lancaster Eagle-Gazette, the Newark Advocate, et al.—for doing this series and for raising awareness of addiction and recovery.