- Laura A. Bischoff Columbus bureau
Ohio Lieutenant Governor Mary Taylor was in Columbus in 2012 when a call from her son Joe caused her to drop everything: he had a drug problem.
“I don’t know if I left Columbus the second I found out, but I know the next day we went to a facility in Cincinnati,” Taylor said.
Three years later her younger son Michael crashed a car in the driveway of the family’s home in Uniontown. Joe told his dad, Donzell Taylor, before he left for the hospital with Michael, “Don’t let them give him anything. He has already had enough.”
Opioid addiction has gripped families throughout Ohio, resulting in the deaths of 21,003 people over the past 10 years. But perhaps there is no better example of how pervasive the problem is than the experience of the Taylor family, whose wealth and political standing provided no protection against the addiction’s suffocating hold.
Failed drug rehab programs, two overdoses at home, and urgent calls for ambulances over the past five years are among the harrowing moments endured by the family of one of Ohio’s most well-known political figures.
Both sons – Joe, 26, and Michael, 23, — are now doing well, according to Taylor, though one remains in drug treatment. But every step on the road into addiction, treatment and recovery was marked with worry, anxiety and terror, she said.
There were so many traumatic moments, Taylor can’t even isolate one single event that stands out.
“Honestly, I don’t know that you could say one thing was worse than another,” Taylor said in an exclusive interview with this news organization. “I know people who have lost their kids. I’ve been to a funeral of somebody, a young person, who died of a heroin overdose. It’s not pretty. Until we found the treatment that worked for (our sons,) the voice of worry was very loud and it was very scary. Very scary.”
Taylor, a Republican who is running for governor, isn’t hiding her sons’ drug addiction. Her staff, friends, family and boss, Gov. John Kasich, know the details.
“Mary and I have discussed this situation for an extended period of time,” Kasich said in a statement. “As a dear friend I have encouraged her and her family during this extremely difficult journey, and I will continue to lift her family up in my prayers.”
But Taylor’s family’s struggle isn’t publicly known. She agreed to an interview request from the Dayton Daily News, in part with the hope that her story will help other families. Both sons declined to be interviewed for the story but agreed to let Taylor talk about their experience, she said.
During the hour-long interview in her Ohio Statehouse office, Taylor was careful not to divulge personal details, such as how each got started with drugs, whether they started with prescription pain pills and switched to heroin. She was mindful of boundaries set through years of drug treatment and family therapy sessions.
RELATED: Dayton No. 1 in drug overdoses
“When you’re in a crisis mode, every day is ‘just get by, get through.’ And we are not there today,” Taylor said. “We are not out of the woods, but we’re not in a crisis mode. And I did ask my family if they felt comfortable with me having this conversation. And Michael, I mean they both to their credit, both of them said if it helps somebody, then it’s worth it.”
Ohio ranks number one in the nation for unintentional drug overdoses. Despite investing almost $1 billion a year to fight drug abuse and addiction, accidental overdoses claimed 3,050 lives in Ohio in 2015, up 20.5 percent over 2014. Preliminary data from the Ohio Department of Health shows 3,835 fatalities in 2016 — a 25.7 percent hike over 2015.
Since 2007, accidental drug overdoses have been the leading cause of injury-related death in Ohio, outstripping car accidents.
Taylor has the connections and financial resources to deal with the drug addiction that came to her doorstep. Her husband is a successful builder with 43 businesses. With a single phone call, Taylor could reach the top experts in Ohio on drug abuse and addiction.
Still, she felt lost.
“It’s awful. It’s – there is something wrong with my son and I don’t know what to do about it,” she said. Google searches didn’t bring her what she needed to know. She hesitated to call state experts who work side by side with her in the Kasich administration.
“I don’t really know (why.) It may have been the stigma. I think our general public understanding of this addiction crisis that exists in Ohio today is a lot different than it was five years ago, four years ago,” Taylor said.
Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, associate dean of public health at Johns Hopkins University, said addressing stigma head on is crucial to fighting the crisis. As painful as it might be, families must get past any shame they may feel and recognize the importance of seeking help.
Taylor’s experience speaks volumes about the reach of the epidemic, said Sharfstein.
“It shows that addiction affects everyone. Addiction does not discriminate. It illustrates the challenge that every mother and father has worrying about their children and whether they can fall victim to this horrible problem,” he said. “It is incredibly important for people to talk about the experiences that their families have had. It’s difficult and it’s courageous.”
Over the past several years, Taylor has had a crash course on addiction.
“I’ve learned a lot about addiction that I certainly didn’t know before. Addiction is a brain disease and it needs to be treated that way. That’s what we’re dealing with. We also know that addiction, it’s there forever,” she said.
Taylor hesitated when asked what advice she has for other Ohio families going through this. “Oh, my gosh, I don’t know if I can give advice,” she said.
After a pause, she said, “Just because a doctor prescribes a pain pill doesn’t mean that you don’t have to be vigilant about its use.”
Another tip: Talk to your kids about the dangers of drug use, she said. “And I guess the only other advice I would give maybe would be: if you’re facing a crisis like this in your family, don’t be ashamed to talk about it because there are people walking in your shoes that can help.”
Taylor isn’t the first Ohio politician to talk openly about a private family matter. Just as some Republicans were floating his name for president, Sen. Rob Portman in March 2013 disclosed that his son Will is gay and that he was reversing a long-held position against gay marriage in support of his son and other gay couples.
Taylor’s revelation, while on a completely different topic, adds a new dimension to a 2018 governor’s race in which the opioid crisis is already taking center stage. On Wednesday, Attorney General Mike DeWine, like Taylor a Republican running for governor, sued five pharmaceutical companies, including household names like Purdue Pharma and Johnson & Johnson, for their roles in hooking people on powerful painkillers that can escalate into a deadly addiction.
Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, one of the Democrats running, earlier advocated going after drug companies, and also says Ohio should consider a surcharge on each pill dispensed in the state. Other candidates, such as Republican Jon Husted, have advocated for more treatment facilities and research into non-opioid medications, and making priorities on spending.
All the candidates — four on the Republican side and four on the Democratic side — have talked about their plans for addressing the addiction crisis in Ohio.
Despite her personal story and six-year service in the Kasich administration, Taylor does not yet have a detailed plan on how she would fight the opioid epidemic if she is elected governor.
“We need a comprehensive solution and it’s going to involve the feds. It’s going to involve everybody,” she said. “We need law enforcement, we need community activists, we need churches and faith-based groups. A comprehensive solution is going to be just that.”
Taylor pledged to build off work done by Kasich: setting strict limits on how much opiate medication can be prescribed for short-term pain, pushing a public awareness campaign aimed at children, making naloxone — an antidote drug also known as Narcan — available to save those in the midst of opiate overdoses.
A centerpiece to Kasich’s approach, however, is opposed by Taylor. Kasich initiated an expansion of Medicaid, made possible by Obamacare, and has been accepting federal funds to serve an additional 715,000 low-income Ohioans, including roughly 215,000 with drug abuse and addiction issues.
“Right now, Obamacare, including Medicaid, is not sustainable,” Taylor said. “So, the ball is in the court of Washington now. They have to figure out what they’re going to do going forward with regard to any provisions related to Obamacare.”
Sharfstein said Medicaid is the largest payer of addiction treatment services in many states and its expansion has given millions of adults with drug problems access to treatment.
“There is no substitute for Medicaid. There is no huge source of money that is going to be available to supplant it,” he said. “I think this is important for anyone that wants to help on addiction to take a clear-eyed, non-ideological, evidence-based look. What is it that is providing treatment that can save people’s lives? Bottom line is it’s Medicaid.”
Taylor doesn’t buy that throwing money at the problem will solve it.
“I’m prepared to fund the plan that I put in place but I don’t think right now there is a comprehensive plan that I have seen…that actually is going to make progress,” she said. “At the end of the day, we want to save lives. We want to get it off our street, get it out of our state and save lives — all three of those.”
Taylor urged those in the throes of addiction not to give up.
“If you’re a parent in a family and you are struggling with this crisis, I think it’s important to always have hope,” she said. “There are resources available. I can tell you as a parent I felt at times that there weren’t and I think the most important thing as a family truly, truly is to believe that there is hope.
“There can be a light at the end of the tunnel where you may today feel like you can’t see the light.”
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