Marshon Whitley got down on her knees in October 1988 and asked God to take the taste of drugs out of her mouth. Nearly 28 years later, she is still sober and giving back as a licensed chemical dependency counselor.
“There is hope. I’m proof,” said Whitley, 63, of Akron. “It’s a fight. But it’s a fight you can win, if you are willing to put in the work to make a lifestyle change.”
Whitley’s descent into addiction started at the age of 14 with a drunken binge that she still doesn’t remember. It continued for 19 years, with the use of alcohol, acid, marijuana, codeine, cocaine, heroin and crack. Much of her drug use was fueled by her need to erase the pain that she felt from seeing her then drug-running boyfriend gunned down in a Michigan living room in 1973.
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“I had underlying issues that were not being addressed. I was trying to numb the pain and stop the memories. When you’re in your addiction, all of your intellect and values go out the window. The drugs are making the decisions for you,” Whitley said. “My journey has been real clear, when I look back. I’ve never shut the door on my past because it gives me the empathy I need to help other people, and it shows me that God’s will is greater than mine.”
Whitley came into contact with heroin in the early 1970s, while helping her then-boyfriend sift what is called Mexican tar (also known as black tar heroin and Mexican mud). At the time, she was not using the drug.
“I was having constant flu-like symptoms — runny nose, watery eyes, cold sweats, and my body just ached. One day, I said, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me,’ and this lady said, ‘You’ve got a jones for that heroin,’ ” Whitley recalled. “I didn’t believe it, but I took a little bit and snorted it, and all my symptoms cleared up. It became my new Tylenol.”
Whitley said heroin addicts can be just as functional as alcoholics. Signs that might indicate someone is using the drug include wearing long sleeves in the summer to hide needle marks, sweating and nodding off.
“Most heroin addicts stay around heroin addicts. They have a preoccupation with getting the drug because it’s something that keeps them from being sick,” Whitley said. “A heroin addict is in more of a survival mode. A heroin addict just wants not to hurt.”
Whitley and her colleagues in drug counseling say that heroin problems have been around for decades. They said street heroin has typically been “cut” with other substances, like sugar, starch, powdered milk or quinine.
But the new wave of heroin, laced with fentanyl, is more deadly. It takes very little for someone to overdose or die.
“The difference today is you can use it, and it will kill you. There is no way for a heroin user to know the contents or strength of the drug,” said Preston Flynn, a licensed independent chemical dependency counselor. “There are no certified chemists on the streets, so people are risking overdose and possible death every time they purchase the drug.”
Whitley, a semiretired licensed drug counselor, is a member of the treatment team at Akron-UMADAOP (Urban Minority Alcoholism Drug Abuse Outreach Program) Inc. That team has a total of 147 years of sobriety. Before coming to the program, Whitley — who earned her undergraduate degree in social work at the University of Akron — worked at Oriana House.
The minority outreach programs were established in 1980 to meet the substance-abuse education, prevention and treatment needs of African- and Hispanic-Americans throughout of Ohio. Although the target population is specific, the agency serves all races and ethnicities (http://www.akronumadaop.com).
“We have an incredible staff that is second to none. Three of our staff came through this program. Everything we do is consumer-centered,” said Janice Mercier Wade, Akron-UMADAOP president and CEO. “Marshon is an integral part of our team. She has so much compassion for giving back and she is bold in her commitment to help clients leave here better. She is always willing to go that extra mile.”
Whitley said she is motivated by the grace of God and the determination to reach out and help someone else out of the darkness of addiction into the light of recovery.
“I believe that God put people in my life who loved me and believed in me, when I didn’t love myself or believe in myself. Those people were instrumental in getting me into treatment, and I want to be that person for someone else,” Whitley said. “Stopping the use of drugs isn’t enough. To stay clean, you need treatment to get the skills to maintain sobriety. You need to learn how to make good choices. You’re going to need some prayer and some support from people who know what to say to you.”
That’s why Alcoholics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and sober clubs are so important for support, she said.
One of the places Whitley frequents is the Java Shoppe, located at 1078 Brown St., which she describes as a safe place for people in recovery to go and socialize.
Jessie Jones, better known as J.J., manages the sober club. She met Whitley nearly 28 years ago, when they both began their recovery journey. On Oct. 16, the club is planning a birthday party for everyone who became sober in the month of October.
“Marshon is one of quite a few drug and alcohol counselors who come in regularly. She genuinely wants to help other people recover and maintain sobriety,” Jones said. “This club is here to give people somewhere to go where they are safe. Our goal is to help people realize they can have fun without the alcohol and drugs and remember what they did the night before.”
Jones, like Whitley, said that once she admitted and accepted that she was an alcoholic, the goal was to live a sober life. They both credit God and Alcoholics Anonymous for nearly 28 years of sobriety.
“You have to substitute the old people and places that allowed you to stay in your addiction with new people and places that encourage you to stay sober,” Whitley said.
When it comes to addiction, Whitley said it doesn’t matter if “it’s wet or it’s dry or whether it hypes you up or it depresses you. A drug is a drug is a drug,” and treatment is the key to beating it.
Whitley sought treatment in 1988 at the request of her ex-husband. She said because the counselor who did her initial assessment was so empathetic, she felt confident something was going to change in her life.
That assessment ended with a referral to a residential treatment program in Mansfield, where Whitley spent five months. In the program, she heard another client share that God answered her prayer to take the taste of drugs out of her mouth.
“I said to myself: ‘Oh, yeah? Well I’m going to see if God does it for me.’ I got down on my knees and I asked God to take the taste out of my mouth, and I felt like a new person. I wasn’t drug sick anymore,” Whitley said. “Sobriety is empowering, and I just want to use this gift that God gave me to inspire people and give them hope.”