Families share stories during drug overdose awareness event


Every time Chandra Campbell hugged her brother, she has worried that it may be the last hug she gets from him because of his 15-year battle with drug addiction.

The last time Neal Langley overdosed on drugs, it left him in a hospital bed hooked up to a ventilator and near death.

Debbie Pettay will never again get the chance to tell her son she loves him after he overdosed on fentanyl and died earlier this year.

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All three Seymour residents’ lives have forever been changed by drug addiction, and they are only a few of the many in Jackson County.

Although their situations and viewpoints are different, there is one element that is the same — hope; hope that by speaking publicly and reaching out to others, they can make a difference in fighting back against the drug problem that continues to destroy lives and ravage their community.

On Friday evening, Campbell, Langley and Pettay shared their stories during the annual International Overdose Awareness event at the Crossroads Community Park pavilion in downtown Seymour.

Around 75 people attended the event, which was organized by the Jackson County Drug-Free Council and Jackson County United Way. The theme this year was Keeping Hope.

“This is a very important and powerful way to stand together to remember people who have lost their lives due to overdose,” said Jackson Superior Court I Judge AmyMarie Travis, who also serves as president of the drug-free council.

A total of 17 Jackson County residents died from drug overdoses in 2017, Travis said.

“We believe that it is also paramount that we all learn about supportive services and recovery options, and most importantly, we as a community, come together to keep hope for those who want to overcome their addiction,” she said. “We’re here tonight for a time to remember and a time to act.”

In sharing her story, Campbell said her world stopped about five years ago when her dad called to tell her that her brother had been found face down in a parking lot in the middle of winter, and he was going to be put on life support.

Campbell said at first, she was sad at the thought of losing her brother, but that sadness turned to anger over the addiction and guilt that she couldn’t help him.

“I remember physically dressing him some days so that he wouldn’t be late to work, hugging him, begging and pleading him to get clean,” she said. “He would hug me, crying, saying that he wanted to get clean but that he doesn’t think he’s strong enough.”

Addiction didn’t always define her brother, however, she said.

“He was full of life. He was amazing at sports,” she said. “I used to pray that he would be able to see himself through my eyes and truly know his self-worth and know that he is so much better and so much more than the life he was living.”

Her brother’s story does not end in loss, though. Looking healthy and happy, Cody Bearden joined his sister in front of the crowd and hugged her to much applause. He currently is enrolled in a recovery program in Washington County.

“I can happily and proudly say that my brother has chosen to stand up and rise above all the bad,” she said. “For all of you here today, I hope that my family’s experiences have shown you that the pain is real but so is hope in the future, and Cody, you are living proof of that. I love you so much, and I’m so proud of everything you have accomplished.”

Pettay’s story doesn’t have a happy ending, but it’s important for people to hear the truth, she said. She and her husband, John Pettay, stood, holding an enlarged photo of Zak Klakamp and herself smiling.

There are many words Debbie uses to describe her son, including loving, mischievous, joking, loyal, a country boy, a cutup, a clown, a sweetheart and a saint saved by grace.

But there are other words to describe Zak, too, she said.

“Liar, felon, addict, substance abuser and drug overdose victim,” she said. Zak died March 2 at the age of 23.

Had it just been a matter of willpower, Debbie said her son would have been clean long ago.

“It’s clearly not that easy,” she said. “Drug use affects the abuser’s brain, making the brain think that the drugs are needed to survive, just like your body needs water and oxygen.”

Zak had tried to quit using drugs on numerous occasions.

“Three months seemed to be a stumbling point for him,” she said. “A 28-day stay in rehab is a start, but it’s not the end, and even with that, relapses (happen) so easily.”

She said his addiction started with drinking and smoking as a teenager. He then started using prescription painkillers, smoked methamphetamine at times and then would shoot up heroin and cocaine.

Debbie believes his drug use was a way to self-medicate for anxiety and depression.

“I know that he did not want to die,” she said. “He had plans for the future.”

But she also knows that she couldn’t make the changes for Zak.

“The user has to want to change,” she said. “Make sure your loved one knows how much they are loved and that when they’re ready to change that you’re behind them 100 percent. Be strong, calm, steady and loving with your addicted loved one.”

As a recovering drug addict, Langley said he is lucky to be alive and no longer takes his life for granted. He currently is a resident at Todd’s Place in Seymour, which helps men overcome drug and alcohol addictions.

In June, Langley was hospitalized and on life support for three days after an overdose. His girlfriend attended Friday’s event, too, for support and held up a poster-sized photo of him showing him hooked up to a ventilator.

He started smoking marijuana at age 12 and was taking pain pills at 14, he said.

“I loved how it made me feel,” he said. “I didn’t worry about what people thought of me.”

By 16, he was addicted to OxyContin, which led to the use of Opana and then heroin.

At his lowest point, he was stealing from family and friends to have money to feed his addiction, he said.

“I would wake up and feel like I couldn’t live without it,” he said of the high.

His addiction eventually led to a prison sentence.

When he got out, he stopped using heroin but started using methamphetamine.

“I carried all this guilt and shame for what I did to my family and friends,” he said. “It ate at me and ate at me. This eventually led to me wanting to take my life, and I overdosed.”

Without the support of his girlfriend and family, Langley said he would have given up. He also said his faith and his friends at Todd’s Place have helped deliver him from the guilt and shame and has restored him to a person he didn’t think he could be.

“I spent 12 years of my life destroying it and the people who love me,” he said. “It’s time to stop that. It’s time to start rebuilding my life and help others rebuild their lives, and I can do that with God in my corner.”

Now, Langley said there’s a peace in his heart that he hasn’t felt since he was a little kid.

He has goals that include staying in Seymour to complete his recovery, moving his girlfriend and kids here and becoming a recovery coach to help others.

Seymour Police Officer Jeremy Helmsing said it’s people like Langley and Bearden that give him hope that people can change their lives.

“As a first responder, my experience with overdose awareness is a bit different than many,” he said. “We’re the ones people call for answers and solutions. When problems are too large for others to handle, we step in.”

But they don’t have the answers or solutions when dealing with overdose victims, he said.

Helmsing said he and other first responders are haunted by those calls.

“I wish I could explain to you what it’s like to arrive on the scene and a hysterical parent is begging you to do something about their teenage son lying on his bed and knowing there’s nothing on this Earth you can do to help,” he said.

“I wish I could explain to you what it’s like to go to the same house three times in five days and find the exact same subject lying overdosed in the same exact spot on the couch lifeless and then watching Narcan bring them back to life only to leave the home praying that intervention occurs,” he said.

“I wish I could explain to you what it’s like to place someone under arrest and have them tell you they wished you’d have just shot and killed them because the withdrawals in jail most likely will,” he said.

“I wish I could explain to you what it’s like to watch someone fight against Narcan because when they’re overdosing, they want to ride it out because they worked so hard to get those drugs in their system,” he said.

But it’s the success stories of people getting clean that give police and other first responders hope in what they are doing and that people can change.

“At the end of the day, although our points of view and experiences are different, we’re all in this together,” he said. “A loss to our community is a loss to us all. We must continue to find ways to create a path to recovery. We must continue to find innovative ways to fight addiction as a community.”

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