Kari Rhodes was on her way home from a birthday celebration with friends in Erie, Pa., when she received a frantic phone call from her 17-year-old son. The words on the other end of the line triggered a scream like nothing her husband, Nick, had ever heard.
“Mom, she’s gone,” Noah Sams said that January night.
Nick stepped on the gas. They learned their daughter, Deandra Sams, who had long had a heroin addiction, had overdosed. Her sister Shayla, now 12, found the unresponsive 20-year-old in bed Jan. 25, 2014. On her laptop, a song played on a loop: Awolnation’s “Sail,” a song Shayla hasn’t been able to bring herself to play since.
Noah Sams never got over his sister’s death. Around the time she died, he picked up the same habit. And 18 months later, he too succumbed to addiction.
“I just feel I failed in so many ways,” Rhodes, 42, said. “From the day they started doing heroin, you saw nothing but doom and gloom. I just feel like I have to stand up for them.”
On Sunday, the Rhodes family attended a rally on the Mall aimed at eliminating the stigma surrounding addiction and focusing attention on the problem. Addiction, according to Facing Addiction, a nascent organization focused on the cause, is the most urgent health issue facing the country, affecting one in three households and 85 million people nationwide.
The list of expected speakers at the rally, believed to be the first of its kind, included U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy; Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy; and syndicated talk-show host and surgeon Mehmet Oz. Sheryl Crow, the Fray, Steven Tyler and Aloe Blacc were among the performers.
The rally, which attracted thousands, was a plea to change the rhetoric surrounding addiction and draw needed attention to the issue, said Donald McFarland, communications director for Facing Addiction.
“That’s why we’re in Washington, D.C., because it is a national health-care crisis,” he said. “The truth of the matter is, ‘just say no’ didn’t work and the war on drugs failed.”
It was a blustery and overcast day, and the metaphor of gray skies was not lost on attendees. The 360-mile journey was the least her family could do, Rhodes said. They carried signs with photos and messages scrawled on the corners reading “no more” and “heroin equals hell.” They were overcome with emotion; 12-year-old Shayla was stone-faced as she recounted the “horrible” sight of her sister on that night.
For once, they weren’t alone.
Mary Peckham, 57, of Halifax, Mass., walked into her son’s bedroom in September 2012 to find him sprawled motionless on his bed. For years, he had suffered from addiction, slamming doors and acting abnormally. This time, she knew, was different.
Matthew Peckham, 27, was a dirt-biker and a carpenter who had helped friends through addiction but could not overcome his own, his mother said.
“Even those of us that have lost, we’re still fighting and we still always fight in the memory of our children,” Peckham said.
Among the stories of loss were stories of renewal. Nico Doorn, 25, overcame a heroin addiction to become a recovery counselor. He said those suffering from addiction, and a physical dependency such as heroin, often are misunderstood. He felt uncomfortable speaking up about his addiction because of the stigma, he said.
“Something people need to understand is you have morals, you know that it’s wrong — so to speak — and you’re helpless,” said Doorn, who is pursuing a master’s degree in human development counseling at Vanderbilt University. “The approach of putting people in jail and showing celebrities who have thrown away their lives isn’t working.”
Some said there is no magic approach to treating addiction.
“Just treat them like a human being,” said Amber Latoroco, a detox counselor working in the Philadelphia area. She described the mentality of the patients she sees: “They have no self-esteem, they don’t know how to feel or what to feel, all the bridges are broken and you’re in the gutter. And you’re looking for a way out.”
Noah and Deandra Sams were looking for theirs. She wanted to be a marine biologist. He wanted to be a detective. Both had been taking classes at Kent State University.
Ever since her sister’s death, Shayla Rhodes has been quiet and reserved, her parents say. But their daughter’s words from the night of Deandra’s death, when Rhodes sat on the bed with her son in Ashtabula, Ohio, have not left.
“Mom, it’s okay,” Shayla said. “Sissy’s not in pain anymore.”