After the loss of her boyfriend to a heroin overdose in March, Columbia resident Arielle Sokoll-Ward, 24, is creating a new chapter of the Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing organization.
The Columbia group will be GRASP's fourth Maryland chapter alongside Perry Hall, Pikesville and Cecil County, and will meet the first Monday of every month starting July 6 at the Central Branch library.
With more than 80 chapters across the U.S., Sokoll-Ward said the nonprofit organization provides an outlet for families to grieve and cope with the loss of a loved one who struggled with drug addiction or abuse.
Sokoll-Ward graduated from Towson University in 2013 with a bachelor's degree in family studies and human services and is in the midst of earning her master's degree in clinical social work from the University of Maryland School of Social Work.
"What I think is nice about this type of group is that, although I'll be a facilitator, I can talk about my experience, where in the other groups I facilitated, it wasn't appropriate because I was the therapist," Sokoll-Ward said.
"I like being supportive, I like being the therapist, and I like helping other people," she said. "This will give me the opportunity to do what I love as well as heal myself."
Three months ago, Sokoll-Ward said her life "went up in flames" when her boyfriend, 24-year-old Drew Weston, died of a heroin overdose in Baltimore.
"When I tell people about it, I feel like the term 'boyfriend' didn't really fit because, even though he was my boyfriend, we were partners," she said. "We both knew that this was it for us. We found each other, so we were planning on spending the rest of our lives together, having kids and getting married."
During their time together, Sokoll-Ward said Weston told her about his traumatic past with drug abuse and how his sobriety was a priority. Sokoll-Ward said she was impressed by Weston's heartfelt determination but saw a decline in his efforts during his final six months.
On the snowy morning of March 5, Sokoll-Ward said she "knew he was getting high" when Weston suddenly stopped answering her texts and numerous phone calls. The next morning, while brushing her teeth, she received a phone call from Weston's roommate that turned her world upside down.
"He said, 'I'm really sorry to tell you this, but Drew passed away this morning,' " she said. "I remember coming out of my body almost as if I wasn't real. I fell to the ground, screaming and crying. Drew being dead didn't even go through my mind before. That was not an option."
According to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, between 2008 and 2013 the number of heroin-related emergency department visits in the state tripled, with 1,200 visits in 2013. In 2014, the department reported an increase in heroin-related deaths within the last year from 464 deaths in 2013 to 578 deaths.
GRASP Executive Director and Grief Recovery Specialist Denise Cullen said with the numbers rising, the organization is striving to change government policies and implement overdose prevention.
"When my son died of a heroin overdose in 2008, you didn't hear about [drug overdoses] in the news," she said. "Everyone talks about it now and how we need to change the treatment. A lot of us have testified in getting legislative bills passed. We do things to bring more attention to all the people that have died from drug addiction or abuse."
Joan Webb Scornaienchi, executive director of HC DrugFree in Columbia, said their program provides drug and alcohol education to people of all ages in Howard County and has partnered with the Howard County Police Department to tackle the rise in prescription drug abuse.
"When you talk to people who are addicted to heroin, what they will tell you is that they started with pills," Scornaienchi said. "That's why the big push is on educating about only taking the medication as it's prescribed, not sharing medication and, again, getting it out of your home so that your children, your grandchildren and other people don't start with grandma's pills in the medicine cabinet."
At the northern and southern district stations and the community center in Glenwood, HC DrugFree and police set up blue permanent medication disposal boxes, where anyone can dispose of unwanted medications.
"This prescription drug epidemic really includes older people because they have more medication than most of us," Scornaienchi said. "If we can educate them as well as everyone else on not bringing medications home that you do not need, then that is a huge start."
It's also one step closer to decreasing heroin use in Maryland, Scornaienchi said.
After suffering a loss, Cullen said many people, including parents, shift from support to activism, recognizing the need to prevent further loss.
"Now, we're having people come to [GRASP] at two weeks and three weeks out after having a death in their family," Cullen said. "I think that's really an improvement. We have three or five calls or emails a week from people who are looking for chapters or want to start chapters."
With the help of her therapist, Sokoll-Ward said she knew it was up to her to establish a chapter in Columbia.
"I think a lot of people have this idea that hard or bad things, like drug abuse or domestic violence, don't happen in Howard County because Howard County is one of the richest counties in the state," she said. "But, in reality, there's this overflow population and they're not being served."
Stigma of drug abuse is also an issue, Sokoll-Ward said.
"People have this idea of what heroin addicts look like or what a drug addict or alcoholic looks like when, in reality, it could be anyone," Sokoll-Ward said. "Using Drew as an example, he had a history that no person should ever have, but when I met him, he was an incredible, incredible human being. He completely gave himself to other people. Looking at him, I think you wouldn't know he had this constant struggle going on in his mind."
"We don't fit in with regular bereavement groups," Cullen said. "There's so much shame with people who have died from drugs. There are not a lot of sympathies. We want to talk about this out loud and not be ashamed."
As Sokoll-Ward and Weston's family plan their trip to the Grand Canyon in Arizona to spread Weston's ashes, Sokoll-Ward said she hopes to find acceptance.
"When people say he died, I know that, but it's like I get a little cut every time it happens," she said. "I don't think people can tell it in my face or my body language, but I feel it. I still want to make him proud. I know he would be proud of me. And, I want to help people who might not know that there is help out there."