Editor's note: Today is the first in a series of six on the drug crisis in Howard County. This week: A look at the drug crisis and the impact on one family.
Her son’s receding reddish-brown hair and full beard are cropped tight, not a strand out of place. His black dress shirt, its buttons extending only to his chest, and white undershirt are perfectly pressed.
The omnipresent newsboy cap, worn in many of his pictures, rests to the left of his head. Red roses, yellow flowers and green leaves sit inches away, surrounded, like everything else, by white cloth.
It is the first picture she shows, the last picture she took of him.
She clutches it tightly in her right hand, explaining vigorously, the tears now dry, that it will always be the final image.
It’s the essence of calm. But she doesn’t feel soothed.
A lid was eventually closed on that image, on her son. The casket lowered into the ground, leaving her with a picture stacked among the rest, of her son flexing, smiling, sitting in a car – alive.
There are parts of the story she still can’t tell. Others she can recite, but just barely. And still others she’s almost eager to narrate – the child’s mischievous habits, his happy-go-lucky attitude.
But that joy came before the drugs. Before the hollow eyes. Before she had to call the police on her own son.
Before Sandra Young was in the kitchen, sewing, at around 9 p.m. on an ordinary night last spring, hearing a knock on the door that she never intended to answer.
A year of sorrow
Young has a policy: she doesn’t answer the door after dark. That night, like usual, she sent her husband.
Seconds later, he was in the kitchen. It’s for you, he said.
At the door was Howard County Coroner Steven Seele, urging her to take a seat. And Young, despite the denial that would later consume her, had a dreadful moment of clarity.
She knew why Seele was there, stepping into her home, steeling himself – a friend had received the same visit.
Young’s son was dead of an overdose, found in a Marathon gas station restroom on the corner of Indiana 26 and 931.
Christopher Moss, 30, the youngest of her three children, was a victim – killed on March 9, 2017, by a combination of acute heroin and diphenhydramine, an antihistamine meant to treat allergic reactions – of a drug crisis that produced in 2017 the deadliest year for overdoses in county history.
Forty-four dead. Countless more ravaged with grief. Saddled with a ceaseless pain, an agony that burrows into the mind and body and builds a forever home.
“It crushed me. It certainly did. And the day he died, it was like someone ripped my heart and soul out of my body,” said Young, her face, framed by shoulder-length blonde hair and black thick-rimmed glasses, contorting in an effort to control the emotion that would ultimately overwhelm her.
“It just – it ripped me completely. And the person I had been for 63 years wasn’t there no more. And that person will never be me again. And now it’s been almost a year and I still don’t know who I am.”
Young’s story, sadly, is far from unique.
Of the 44 overdose deaths in 2017, the victims ranged in age from 21 to 64, marking a harrowing year in the fight against an ongoing and still-strengthening opioid crisis.
That final figure makes 2017 by far the deadliest year for overdoses in Howard County history, surpassing the previous high of 34 in 2015. Among the reasons for that jump, say experts, is the presence of mixed-drug overdoses, similar to what killed Moss.
In response, local officials have taken a range of approaches – everything from drug summits and prescription take-back events to a Systems of Care program meant to focus on topics from addiction to suicide.
Conversations about how to slow down the epidemic have been plentiful – but the pain continues.
“There’s only two ways out of this addiction. Only two ways. You can face your evil, you can recover, you can learn to stay sober. And the other is that I return you to your family in one of these,” Seele told an Addiction Impact panel audience in August 2017, holding a folded blue body-bag above his head.
A life cut short
Moss’ journey into one of those body-bags started in a way similar to many of Howard County’s overdose victims.
“He was a happy-go-lucky kid. He was so full of joy and always trying to make somebody laugh,” said Young, a lifelong Kokomo resident. “Very loving. I knew he loved me more than anything.
“But yeah, as a little kid, he was like that. Running around, making people laugh, being silly. And that’s the way he was up until the drugs.”
Moss, then 15, was a student at Kokomo High School, she said, when he began to experiment with drugs, mostly prescription pain medication. Like many teenagers, he began to dabble and experiment alongside his friends.
But, instead of it becoming a phase, the habit took hold.
It wasn’t long before Young found paraphernalia in her son’s room and called the police, she said, in an effort to try “whatever I could to turn his life back around.”
It wasn’t easy she admits, hearing her son yell “I hate you!” as he was hauled off by police, but it felt necessary. The lying, the distrust, the secret drug use had motivated this, she told herself.
Young thought treatment might help, and maybe it would have. Maybe professional help and law enforcement intervention could have created a lasting impact in Moss’ life.
But, as often happens in 21st century America, a medical issue introduced pain medication prescriptions into the life of someone already susceptible to addiction — starting the inevitable progression to street drugs like heroin.
When Moss was 20, said Young, he fell off scaffolding on a work site, plummeting 20 feet to the ground and crushing his ankle.
Pain meds became the solution and evolved into “a trigger for what was to come.”
Notably, Howard County ranked sixth in the state in 2016 in opioid prescriptions per 100 residents, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That year, an estimated rate of 122.7 opioid prescriptions were distributed per 100 residents. The state average in 2016 was 83.9.
Howard County has over the last decade consistently been well above the state average. Kokomo's highest point was 174 opioid prescriptions per 100 residents in 2012, when the state average was 110.5.
That year would've fallen within the heyday of the Wagoner Medical Clinic, which was raided in 2013 by Kokomo police and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and contributed to the deaths of more than two dozen people caused by illegal prescribing practices.
But it's what comes after the prescription that often brings fatal consequences.
“If they can’t get it from the doctor, they’re going to go straight to the streets,” explained Young. “And on the streets, you don’t know what you’re going to get.”
At some point in his 20s — Young acknowledges the difficulty in pinning down the timeline of her son’s life — Moss took the predictable step into heroin addiction.
And while the timing of his first experience with heroin is unknown, the addiction became a focal point during the early years of his daughter’s life, who is now 6.
“This was not even the same person. There was days that he was like a zombie,” said Young. “You couldn’t talk to him. He would only tell you what he thought you wanted to hear.
“That’s when the stealing and all that started. Couldn’t keep a job.”
Court documents show a bevy of arrests for Moss, most attributed to theft, drug use and traffic violations. His name, like most addicts, became commonplace in the courtrooms of the Howard County Courthouse.
The thefts also involved family members, creating a rift between Moss and his two older siblings, a brother and sister, which would remain until the day he died.
And the addiction – physically, mentally, emotionally – inundated his life.
“Their faces change,” said Young about addicts. “Their eyes, they just don’t — it’s like a hollow. When you’re looking at them, like you’re looking straight through them. Like it’s a hollow look.”
Before long, though, Moss entered rehab at the Home with Hope in Lafayette.
The tide started to turn, creating hope for Young and the rest of her family. It seemed like the true Moss had returned.
“He had graduated from the halfway house there in Lafayette and was out on his own, doing really good. Really good,” she said.
And even during the heroin use, Young felt sure her son, unlike other sons and daughters and fathers and mothers, would never overdose and die.
She believed that because he told her it wouldn’t happen.
One of Moss’ friends died of a heroin overdose only weeks before his own relapse, said Young, and she remembers vividly her drive to the funeral home, where she expected to meet her son.
Moss, already there, called his mother before she could arrive, telling her he had to leave. He couldn’t stand the grief, the emotion that had taken over the funeral home.
“He promised me that he would never, ever do that to me after seeing what his friend’s mom was going through,” said Young.
Then came March 9, 2017.
“I don’t know what triggers [addicts], but that must’ve been one.”
Young would later learn that her son had been saved by Narcan only five days earlier.
Initially, she thought his death had been the first relapse, but in reality he was lucky to be alive that long. Moss had overdosed at a home on North Union Street and was saved by the ubiquitous opioid-blocker.
In fact, Moss had been preparing to return to rehab, Young learned, shaken by his near-death experience.
But when Seele arrived at her door that night, she only knew that her son was a recovering addict. Instead, she was left to piece it all together – the hospital bracelet he wore to her house days earlier, the explanation that he had been there for depression-related treatment.
The unknowns caused Young to initially enter denial, telling herself and others that the dead body wasn’t Moss.
“I just knew that they had the wrong person. And he said something about a car, and I thought, he doesn’t have a car, so that’s not him. … I didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t want [Seele] to tell me that.”
“I don’t know why, because it wasn’t going away.”
When the first officer at the Marathon scene, also her step-granddaughter’s boyfriend, arrived at the home, the truth became clear – and left Young with a new existence.
A man and a woman lay on the banks of Wildcat Creek, faces obscured at the angle the photo w…
“I don’t think he could deal with it anymore,” she said. “I think that he went through so much pain and suffering, that he just couldn’t do it again. He probably didn’t know what everybody was going to think of him, because everybody was so proud of him.
“But I really think he just got tired of fighting the fight. … It’s something you have to fight every day. So I just don’t think he wanted to fight that fight anymore. I think he gave up.”
Now Young is left in a recovery of her own, handling the majority of emotions alone, she said, coupled with the occasional conversation with family members.
The anxiety she’s had since her father’s death has surged, and hits a crescendo each day at nightfall – something she attributes to the timing of Seele’s visit.
“The thought is in my head every day, all day long. …There’s nothing – nothing ever will compare with losing a child.”
Young’s only respite comes in the form of Moss’ daughter, who visits her grandmother every other weekend. The girl’s mother, who divorced Moss because of his drug abuse, has custody.
“She put a picture on our back door the day after he died and won’t let us take it down,” said Young about her granddaughter, who also bought a heart-shaped balloon on Valentine’s Day to write a message and “send to heaven.”
“She reminds me a lot of him. She looks like him, and her actions.”
But like many affected by the drug crisis, Young wants to do her part to create a difference, to bring some form of change.
And her message is clear: Don’t judge.
“I don’t think people that have never had anything like this happen to them can fully grasp it, what drugs do,” she said. “I see comments, when they have it on [police scanner Facebook pages], where someone overdosed, all the nasty posts about the Narcan. They just don’t know.
“If people just understand that it’s not just a certain age, it’s not a certain race, it’s not a certain sex. It happens everywhere, and it could happen to them. At any time.”