It wasn’t so long ago that Darlene and Dennis Martin’s family was living an ordinary suburban life together in Medina. Weekdays were occupied with work and school, and the family bonded over the weekend with camping and football.
All apparently was well.
But in November 2012, everything changed.
The couple was on vacation with their daughters, Brittnee and Ashleigh Johns, when they got a call that their son, 20-year-old Marc Johns, had overdosed and was in the hospital.
“That was the first time heroin entered our lives,” Dennis Martin recalled. “We had no idea he was using heroin.”
Marc’s first overdose sparked a 2 1/2-year journey in which care was needed for not one, but two family members battling heroin addiction. Eventually, heroin resulted in the accidental overdose deaths of Brittnee, 17, in May 2013 and Marc, 23, in July.
In an interview with The Gazette, Darlene, Dennis and Ashleigh shared what happened to their family to support others coping with drugs and treatment. They said their goal is to end the stigma of addiction and help people understand that trying to make good decisions can’t guarantee a child will avoid trouble — even death.
“No family should have to go through what we did,” Ashleigh said. “There needs to be a change, and it needs to be now.”
Following his overdose, Marc — who lived with a girlfriend — promised his family he would cease using drugs because his hospital stay had been a wake-up call.
The family thought its struggle was over.
But weeks after Marc’s overdose, Darlene and Dennis noticed 17-year-old Brittnee was missing work and acting out — marking a change in attitude for the happy and outgoing high school senior.
“We had a rule at the house: Everyone has to go to school and you have to go to work,” said Dennis, the children’s stepfather.
The family confronted Brittnee about her behavior a few times, and she denied using drugs. But in January 2013, Brittnee confessed her drug use to her mother and asked for help.
Ashleigh, now 21, said she remembers feeling shocked, heartbroken and angry about Brittnee’s addiction.
“She was not only my little sister, but she was also my best friend, my partner in crime, my everything,” Ashleigh said. “Knowing she had lied to me over something so serious broke my heart.”
The family learned Brittnee was suffering from depression and had been using heroin to try to self-medicate and manage her feelings.
Darlene called a number of facilities looking for a bed.
“It’s hard. So many facilities are full, and you have to go through a detox first before they’ll take you,” Darlene explained. “I looked up every place and number I could call.”
There are no in-patient drug treatment facilities in Medina County. Darlene said she was forced to look out of the county, and Brittnee got into a detoxification program in January 2013 at Windsor Laurelwood in Willoughby. The program aimed to ease physical symptoms of heroin withdrawal, such as nausea, vomiting and hypothermia.
While Brittnee underwent the weeklong detox, her mother began working to find a treatment facility for her to enter after she was released. Darlene didn’t want a gap between detox and treatment because of Brittnee’s depression.
It appeared to be good fortune that a spot opened up at New Directions in Chagrin Falls, a facility that specializes in treating adolescents.
“There were only 20 women in her program and two of them were from Medina,” Dennis said. “Brittnee wasn’t the only Medina kid getting treatment there.”
Brittnee was enrolled in the program from early February until April. Her family traveled to Chagrin Falls a few times a week to participate in group therapy programs and visit with her. The traveling and meeting times could have been obstacles for Darlene and Dennis, but they rearranged their work schedules.
Ashleigh, a college student, found it hard to visit because of her school work. She rarely saw Brittnee more than once a week.
“We did every single thing together,” Ashleigh said. “Not having her by my side, I was kind of lost and didn’t know what to do without her.”
Toward the end of Brittnee’s program, the family attended a celebration at New Directions to recognize the patients’ hard work. Ashleigh said she remembers sitting next to Brittnee and holding her hand tight.
“I noticed she kept grabbing her arm and rubbing it,” Ashleigh said.
Brittnee told Ashleigh her arm hurt, and that’s when Ashleigh noticed the track marks on her younger sister’s arm from the needles she had used to inject the drugs.
“That was the first time that I had ever seen that on her,” she said. “My eyes started watering and tears started to roll down my face, so I tried to look away so she didn’t notice.”
After that, Brittnee made a pinky promise to her sister that she would never use again.
“Brittnee and I had a thing with pinky promises,” Ashleigh said. “Our pinky promises meant everything.”
When Brittnee left treatment in April, the family got together and promised to support her recovery.
“We signed a family contract and we were all working together,” Darlene said, explaining that everyone agreed to abide by strict rules regarding heroin, phone use and curfews.
Brittnee began attending 12-step meetings in Medina at Cups Cafe, just north of Medina’s Public Square, and at Cathy’s House on West Liberty Street. Ashleigh said she was excited to have her best friend back and couldn’t wait to take silly pictures together and joke around at home as they did before.
To help Brittnee through recovery, Ashleigh accompanied her sister to most of her meetings.
“She went almost daily and I would always go with her,” Ashleigh said. “I wanted her to know that I was going to support and stand behind her through all of this.
“I didn’t want her to be alone.”
May 30, 2013, was to be a normal Thursday. Brittnee, who was about to graduate from Medina High School, had a graduation rehearsal scheduled, and it was a work day for Dennis and Darlene. Ashleigh, who normally stayed at home, spent the night at a friend’s house.
When Darlene got up to get ready for work, she noticed the light was on in Brittnee’s room, which was unusual that early in the morning.
“The alarm just went off,” Darlene said.
They entered Brittnee’s room only to find her unresponsive. Darlene, who was attending classes to get her bachelor’s degree in nursing, began performing CPR on her daughter and Dennis called for an ambulance.
“Darlene was just screaming Britt’s name over and over again,” he said.
Dennis called Ashleigh and told her to get to Medina Hospital as soon as she could. He said he didn’t think Brittnee was going to make it.
Brittnee was pronounced dead from an accidental heroin overdose at the hospital. Ashleigh, like Dennis and Darlene, still blames herself for not finding Brittnee sooner.
“To this day, I hate myself,” Ashleigh said. “I hate knowing that maybe if I would have come home that night, I could have possibly saved her.
“I could have found her before it was too late.”
Two days later, Ashleigh and Marc walked across the stage at Medina High School to accept Brittnee’s diploma on behalf of their sister.
At Brittnee’s funeral, Marc made a promise to his parents and sister to abstain from heroin use.
“He told us he was clean, and he promised us he would stay clean,” Darlene recalled. “I could finally begin to trust him and he was opening up to me.”
Ashleigh also began to get closer to her older brother, who had been distant since moving out of the family home.
“We hung out, talked on the phone almost every day, hung out as much as possible and took all sorts of pictures together, just like Brittnee and I used to do,” Ashleigh said. “We had already lost one of our siblings; we weren’t going to take for granted all that we had left.”
As the family coped with the loss of Brittnee, Medina police began investigating how the 17-year-old student got access to heroin. Police found no heroin in the family’s home, but they did discover a 30-year-old woman Brittnee met in 12-step meetings had provided her with the heroin.
On Dec. 5, 2013, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Heather Graham, charging her with corrupting another with drugs and trafficking in heroin for driving to Cleveland to pick up the heroin. Graham, an Army veteran, had been living at her father’s home in Medina while attending 12-step meetings for her opiate addiction.
A trial date for Graham was scheduled for summer. The criminal case complicated the family’s lives as the family was trying to enjoy the holiday season. For Christmas that year, the family adopted a dog named Brodie to bring laughter and joy into the home.
“It was just Ashleigh at home, and it was just so quiet around the house,” Darlene said. “We just wanted some excitement and smiles.”
Just after the holidays, Dennis made a trip to Marc’s apartment in Elyria to drop off a Christmas gift that he had left in Medina. After chatting with Marc, Dennis suspected he was using heroin again.
“We knew what to look for by then,” Darlene said. “He told us he wasn’t using, but he didn’t look right.”
By February, Marc was experiencing what the family described as a “full-blown relapse.” His live-in girlfriend pleaded with him to get help, as did Darlene and Marc’s grandparents.
Ashleigh said she felt angry that he was using again.
“How can you lose your little sister, see what it did to the family, and then go back and do it and put us through this again?” she asked.
Ashleigh said she still can’t fully understand Marc’s decision to use, but believes her brother’s addiction was stronger than his will to stay clean.
“That’s addiction. That’s what it does to you,” she said. “You don’t care about anything or anyone — you will do anything you can to get the high.”
After Marc agreed to go to treatment, Darlene struggled to find help.
Darlene couldn’t find anywhere that would take him. Marc was sick and experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms when Darlene took him to Medina Hospital. Staff at the hospital gave him medicine but couldn’t recommend any treatment centers. Doctors encouraged Darlene to look in Lorain County because Marc was a Lorain County resident.
Darlene reached out to Lorain County Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services, which was unable to get him in on the day she called because of a daily patient intake limit. After a tearful call to the receptionist at LCADA, director Thomas Stuber personally called Darlene and directed the family to a location in Avon where Marc could get an assessment. He then was able to receive medication for his withdrawal, which bought the family some time before he entered detox treatment at Stella Maris in Cleveland three days later.
After detox, he entered a 30-day treatment program in Orca House in Cleveland. After he finished treatment in April 2014, Marc was placed on a number of waitlists for Cleveland residential facilities, where he could receive support and some freedom while recovering.
In May 2014, Marc moved back into Darlene and Dennis’ home.
“We were reluctant,” Darlene said. “But he had nowhere to go, and so of course, we had him back.”
While at home, Marc began to heal his relationship with his family. Then, in July, Graham’s trial began, and the family was in court each day listening to testimony and rehashing the details of the days leading up to their daughter’s death.
“It was a struggle to go through that trial and have Marc back home,” Darlene said. “It was hard.”
On Aug. 5, Graham was found guilty and later sentenced to three years in prison. The family said they were relieved to have the trial behind them.
But the relief at home was short-lived: That fall, the family learned Marc was using drugs again.
“There were many sleepless nights,” Dennis said. “When you live with an addict, there’s not a morning you don’t wake up and wonder if your child is still breathing.”
The family struggled to figure out why Marc had returned to using drugs. They also struggled with how best to help him because they didn’t want him in their home if he was using, but they had been unable to find a treatment program for him.
“We didn’t want heroin in our home, but Medina County doesn’t have a treatment facility,” Darlene said. “And other counties take their own residents first.”
Finally, in January of this year, Marc again was admitted to Stella Maris for a detox program and then into its treatment program. He remained in treatment through April.
At the conclusion of the program, Marc had earned three months of free room and board at a sober- living residence in Cleveland. He began living there in May and was required to submit to random drug screenings and hold down a job. He was working and passing his drug tests, and he even went on a few camping trips with his family on weekends.
“He was brutally honest with us about his addiction, the things he did and the people he hurt,” Darlene recalled. “He had so much hurt and pain inside of him that no child should ever go through.”
During this time, Marc would text or call Darlene every morning and every night. One night, she was on the phone with him and something sounded wrong.
“Are you OK?” Darlene asked Marc.
He didn’t answer the question.
“I have to go,” Darlene recalled Marc saying. “I love you.”
She didn’t know that was the last conversation she’d have with her son.
The next morning — July 1 — Darlene didn’t get a text from Marc. She tried calling, but there was no answer. She went to work and received a text later that morning from one of Marc’s friends.
“So sorry to hear about Marc,” his friend said, asking if there was anything they could do.
It was then that Darlene knew her son was either in the hospital or dead.
She called hospitals, but he had not been admitted. As a last resort, she called the Cuyahoga County Coroner’s Office and found her son’s body was there. The worker she spoke with said they felt terrible because they were trying to contact Medina police to notify her of his death.
Marc was 23 when he died, and the family faced another funeral.
“I just could not believe we were there again, burying a child,” Dennis said.
By the age of 21, Ashleigh has had to write eulogies for two of her siblings.
“I have to go through the rest of my life without my two best friends by my side,” she said. “I’m still so young and have so much growing up to do, and now I have to do it by myself.”
The family likely is not so different from others who have lost loved ones to drug addiction.
Medina County Coroner Dr. Neil Grabenstetter said there have been at least 11 accidental drug overdoses resulting in death this year. More people have died in Medina County this year from drug overdoses than from car crashes.
“Marc doesn’t even count in that number because he died in Cleveland,” Dennis said. “That means there’s at least 11 other families here in Medina, suffering the same way.”
Brittnee and Marc’s legacy
After the deaths of their children, Darlene and Dennis created the BrittSTARR Foundation, a nonprofit seeking to establish a chemical dependency treatment facility in Medina County. The acronym STARR is short for “Stand Together for Awareness Rehabilitation and Reward.”
“In the past three years, we’ve lost 40 percent of our family to heroin addiction,” Dennis said.
Dennis said he supports a proposed Medina County office for Lorain County Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services. The agency had been planning since July to open an outpatient treatment center on the third floor of the Professional Building, 124 W. Washington St. in Medina, but objections from local businesses have placed the plan in limbo.
Dennis said he’s frustrated that the opening date has been postponed, adding he doesn’t care where the treatment facility is located, as long as it opens soon.
“I don’t care if we have to build it ourselves,” he said. “Whatever we have to do, we need a facility here.”
Dennis and Darlene said local officials they’ve spoken with have been receptive to the idea of a Medina facility.
“If that means there’s just one less person that has to go through this, then it’s worth it to share our story,” Dennis said.
Prior to Brittnee’s struggles, Darlene and Dennis became engaged. The couple put off their wedding after Brittnee’s death to take time to grieve for their daughter. In August, despite Marc’s recent death, the two were married in Cocoa Beach, Fla. They were accompanied by Ashleigh.
“Marc made a promise to be there, but he died 53 days before,” Darlene said.
The family decided not to postpone the wedding this time, and instead honored Brittnee and Marc’s memory during a special and tearful sand ceremony.
“Once again, it’s just Dennis, Darlene and Ashleigh,” Dennis said. “Once again, we deal with a loss. Once again, we try to move on with our lives.”