'A whole new life'
Local people share their path out of the depths
of addiction, and into long-term recovery.
Amber Hartman Ortez began smoking marijuana and drinking at age 11. At age 14, she was trafficked for sex and got her first taste of crack-cocaine. By 15, she was a runaway and a prostitute.
But what she calls her real path of destruction was yet to come: heroin addiction.
In recent years this newspaper has done posthumous profiles of many people like Hartman Ortez — people whose lives were snuffed out by their addictions and the ever-more-potent drugs easily available on Ohio’s streets. But this story is different. The profiles here are of people who overcame repeated setbacks and struggle before finally finding hope – and a different life story.
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Married and the mother of a 12-year-old daughter and a 17-month-old son, Hartman Ortez has been clean for four and a half years. Meeting her now, it’s difficult to imagine the hardened life the soft-spoken 29-year-old led for more than a decade.
“Once I got clean I developed a passion inside of me to want to help others,” she said. “That’s mostly what keeps me clean is connecting with other people and sharing what I’ve been through.”
The experiences of people like Hartman Ortez or 22-year-old Joey Lane, who nearly died from heroin overdoses twice before making recovery stick, is a counterpoint to the depressing narrative of overdose victims in convenience store bathrooms, apartment building parking lots or neighborhood alleyways. It shows that recovery can and does happen, that addiction’s tug doesn’t have to be a death sentence. And it provides a glimmer of hope in a war that communities, for a long time, felt they were losing.
No two recovery stories are exactly alike, but for each of the people interviewed here substance abuse was a symptom of larger issues of trauma, isolation and loss. Although at various stages of recovery, each expressed a desire to help others find their way out of addiction hell.
Treatment programs have long had recovery specialists who can talk about their own experiences, but having the recovery community doing its own advocacy is a fairly new concept — and an important one, said Jesse Heffernan, a certified recovery coach who now serves as the Innovative Solutions Director for America’s Rehab Campuses.
“It was kind of this emergence from church basements,” said Heffernan, who is in long-term recovery himself. “We started out with intentional anonymity because our substance abuse disorder was viewed as criminal and it was demonized.”
‘The narrative has changed’
A 2013 documentary entitled The Anonymous People helped to shift the tide, said Heffernan, because it featured celebrities speaking out — going public — about long-term recovery.
“It changed my whole life,” he said. “It seriously just shattered my allusions around what recovery is supposed to be and what it can be. That was powerful.”
Two years later, the national non-profit organization Facing Addiction held the first recovery rally on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. About 30,000 people attended the event.
“It hadn’t really been done before like that,” Heffernan said.
In fact it used to be very rare to see someone step in front of their church congregation or civic organization — let alone television cameras — and tell their story of addiction and recovery, said Greg Delaney, a pastor and outreach coordinator for Woodhaven Recovery in Dayton.
Delaney, who also serves as faith coordinator for Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s Heroin Unit, appeared at the White House earlier this month and spoke of his own battle with addiction.
“I was so blessed to share at the White House and I’m someone who almost died from my addiction,” he said. “You just didn’t do that (in the past).
“The climate has changed,” Delaney said. “The narrative has changed.”
Heffernan emphasizes that every person’s recovery from addiction is different. For some, complete abstinence is the only way, while others need medication-assisted treatment or even a pathway that embraces moderation.
“The idea that someone who was shooting up 15 times a week now just drinks a six-pack of beer — to the old school community, that’s not recovery, but I’d say it is,” Heffernan said. “The thing that I try to teach most is that if someone in their life in one day can move one degree towards having better quality of life, that’s recovery.”
One of Amber Hartman Ortez's numerous mug shots. CONTRIBUTED
‘I felt like I wasn’t loved’
Trauma from sexual abuse led Hartman Ortez to fill a void with drugs and unhealthy relationships, she said.
The Bellefontaine native was introduced to heroin by a man she was in an abusive relationship with at age 16. He also is the father of her daughter.
Motherhood didn’t stop her from using.
She was arrested more than 25 times in the next seven years, mostly for solicitation and drug possession. She lost custody of her daughter and did two stints in state prison.
“I got out of prison, but I didn’t really work on myself while I was there,” she said. “I didn’t know what my root issues were and I didn’t know how to heal from those things. So I just went back down the same path doing the destructive things; using drugs again, dropping back into prostitution and being trafficked.”
Hartman Ortez’s experience is mirrored by many people struggling with addiction. She went to rehab a couple of times, and overdosed “many times,” she said, but couldn’t break out of the cycle.
“Nothing really matters when what you’re trying to do is fill an empty hole in yourself,” Hartman Ortez said. “I felt like I wasn’t loved in the world… I was just searching for this life that I wanted and I didn’t know how to get it.”
Amber Hartman Ortez recently posted this photo of herself on Facebook alongside her former mug shot with a message of hope for those battling addiction. CONTRIBUTED
Finally, after ending up in jail again, she broke the pattern. “I knew that I was done,” she said. “That I had to get help or I was going to die.”
That was 2013 and it’s when she found Safe Harbor House, a treatment and recovery program in Springfield that helps women who have been victims of abuse, sex trafficking, homelessness and addiction.
Safe Harbor House taught her how to have healthy relationships and showed her that she could be loved by a community. Now she’s found a passion for helping others and works as a peer supporter. She is working on a degree in social work.
For those still struggling, she has a message. “I would tell them that they have a purpose for their life and that there’s people out there that want to help them… At first you just have to become selfish. You have to do what is best for yourself so that you can recover. Because you can’t be there for anybody else until you recover yourself.”
‘Beaten, battered and broken’
Joey Lane of Eaton started using drugs at a young age, went into treatment — three times — and slipped up more than once, coming very close to death. Now 22 and a year clean from heroin, his story is one that offers hope to people in all stages of recovery.
“I grew up always wanting acceptance from others,” he said. “I started hanging out with older people in a scene where drugs were and finding out how much money you could make from drugs. I saw everybody liked the drug dealer.”
He tried heroin for the first time at age 16 and spent the rest of his teen years in and out of jail and rehab.
On March 1, 2017, he checked himself in for in-patient treatment at Woodhaven in Dayton — his second time there. This time, coming off two overdoses and waking up "crying, not wanting to be alive, wishing they wouldn’t have revived me,” something clicked. “This time,” he said, “I was beaten, battered and broken.”
People often talk of traumatic events leading them toward destructive behavior, but for Lane, it had the opposite effect. Forty-five days into his treatment his father, who battled alcohol addiction, took his own life.
“Dying twice and then 45 days into treatment my dad committed suicide, really opened my eyes that I need to stop this,” he said.
Lane knows the biggest hurdle for those with substance use disorders isn’t getting into treatment. It is making the transition from the supportive, insulated atmosphere of rehab back into the real world. It is the reason experts are recognizing recovery housing and programming as a vital weapon for battling the opioid epidemic.
Lane said he slipped up when Father’s Day came just two weeks after his treatment ended. He left the sober living house he was staying at and went to have a drink in memory of his dad. He knew immediately it wasn’t the right move and made a call to a friend.
Two days later he was living at a recovery house run by Good Shepherd Ministries, one of a network of small, faith-based non-profits that Montgomery County’s Alcohol, Drug Addiction & Mental Health Services Board (ADAMHS) is working with to help bolster local recovery efforts in a coordinated way.
The county recognized several years ago that people coming out of rehab faced a huge barrier in finding a safe and sober living situation where they could begin to put their lives back together. Because Medicaid and other health insurance plans don’t cover recovery or sober living houses, this work — considered crucial by recovery experts — was being done by a disconnected handful of mostly faith-based groups on shoestring budgets.
To help remedy that situation, the county applied for capital improvement money and used it to purchase and renovate three residential houses that were turned over to non-profits to run, with subsidies from the county.
Today, the county helps fund 50 recovery beds through seven non-profit organizations, and is working with more groups to get them certified according to Ohio Recovery Housing standards. That means they get inspected regularly and it allows them to qualify for more grant funding.
“We know how important recovery housing is and we want it to be high quality,” said Pam Stanley, housing coordinator for ADAMHS. “Many people have been through treatment many, many times and not been successful.”
That was Lane’s story until recovery changed his life. He has managed the thrift store at Good Shepherd for the last six months and is now hoping to go to school and become a drug counselor.
“I’m so appreciative of life, because I always thought that I had it worse than anybody,” he said. “And now I know that there’s others that have had life a whole lot worse and got clean.”
‘I started really digging deep’
Marshall Wehner, 29, recounts how he got hooked on heroin and how he's working toward long-term recovery now, at Miamisburg First Church of God on March 9, 2018. KATIE WEDELL/STAFF
Marshall Wehner spent pretty much his whole life around drugs, starting with his childhood in southern Kentucky.
“My dad was in prison for drug trafficking,” he said. “I started getting into all the prescription pain pills… the hustling lifestyle.”
It wasn’t until he moved to Miamisburg that he tried black tar heroin. And from there his story cycled downward.
In and out of jail, and with multiple times through diversion programs like the Secure Transitional Offender Program (STOP) and the MonDay Program, but nothing stuck. Then during the 28-year-old’s last stay in jail in 2017, he had an epiphany of sorts.
“I started really digging deep,” he said. “I started focusing on which people I wanted to be around.”
Wehner knew the real challenge would come when he got out of jail and was exposed to the same familiar temptations and influences.
So he connected with an old friend, Kyle Shaw, who now runs Whole Truth Ministries. The non-profit has a recovery house in Riverside and plans for another one in Miamisburg.
Kyle Shaw, founder of Whole Truth Ministries in Miamisburg, shares his recovery story with inmates in the STOP program on March 9, 2018. KATIE WEDELL/STAFF
A few weeks ago Wehner looked on as Shaw shared his own recovery story with a group from the STOP program at the First Church of God in Miamisburg. Those on probation in STOP come to do service projects at the church each week, have a community meal and hear stories from those who used to be in their shoes.
Hearing how others successfully made it through recovery can be a powerful motivating tool, and not long ago Wehner was in that same audience and wearing the same orange prison jumpsuit the people in the STOP program wear.
He’s still making the transition, but he is on the other side now. And like the others in this story, he wants people to know how he got there.
‘The environment I was looking for’
Joshua Marshall has never been to prison and never abused opioids. His struggle has been alcohol addiction, but it mirrors the same uphill battle as the others.
Marshall hopes that maybe the attention being paid to addiction treatment and recovery because of the opioid epidemic will mean better research into the science of addiction and better ways to treat it.
“A big turning point for me was, I was in a car accident and got a traumatic brain injury,” he said. The 25-year-old initially stopped drinking following that crash, but soon found he was back to blacking out and driving drunk to get more beer.
“I didn’t feel like I could control it anymore,” Marshall said. “I would always find myself behind the wheel. I didn’t want to risk that anymore because I had an OVI.”
His “divine intervention” came when a family friend who cut his hair started calling and checking up on him, and eventually disclosed that he was in long-term recovery from addiction.
Marshall has been at Good Shepherd for six months and is looking forward to getting back to work. He previously worked as a pipe fitter on construction jobs, but his peer supporters are worried that might not be a healthy environment to go back to.
A Dayton Daily News analysis of overdose deaths last year found construction workers were seven times more likely to succumb to a fatal overdose of pills, heroin or fentanyl than the average worker. The physical stress of the job, access to health care and job site culture were sited as reasons for the trend.
His peers at Good Shepherd have urged Marshall to go back to college to expand his job prospects.
“We kind of stick up for each other and it’s exactly the environment I was looking for,” he said.