As a teen, Clifford Sheehan was a celebrated horseback rider in Wellington’s 4-H chapter and seemingly fell outside of what many consider risk factors for addiction.
He rode horses at the Lorain County Fair, attended school, made friends in the community, and was part of a stable, middle-class family.
On March 16, 2015, Sheehan died of a heroin overdose at age 34.
His sister, Justina Miller, now works as an occupational therapist assistant and spent 12 years as a paramedic in North Carolina. She has painful perspective on the opioid epidemic from both a personal and professional standpoint.
Family members still think every day about their “Cliff” and factors that played into his spiral into heroin abuse, including depression.
“It’s like Cliff was always fighting and trying to find a way to be the person he wanted to be,” Miller said. “I think he turned to drugs to self-medicate, to make himself feel normal. He was trying to do whatever it took to feel that normal. There were moments in his life where he felt it, but then something would push him down.”
Sheehan’s mother, Charlotte Hrehocik, said mental illness reared its head early in her son’s life.
“Clifford was bipolar and had high-anxiety,” she said. “He was diagnosed with all of that in his early-2os. When he got in trouble in school we were told he was just a bad kid, but there was an underlying problem there. They didn’t talk about stuff like that back then. You were just told your kid is bad.”
“I always felt like I was trying to protect him from all of these things,” Miller said. “I’m super grateful for the last six to eight months of his life. It felt like I had my brother back, like when we were kids.”
After Sheehan injured his shoulder in a motorcycle crash and required surgery, family members worried that pain medications could bring his addiction back to the surface. However, that wasn’t the case.
“I thought he had passed this big hurdle,” said Miller. “Painkillers are such a huge gateway for so many people. It’s speculation on my part, but Cliff did have a relationship fall apart very quickly, a relationship that seemed like it could move toward marriage. I really don’t know, though, what happened. Maybe it was a matter of him thinking he could have drugs one last time and it’d be OK.”
Miller said a correlation exists between attempts to minimize physiological aspects of mental health and those of addiction.
“I think a lot of people try to dismiss problems because they want to say, ‘That doesn’t happen in my family,”’ she said. “They think it only happens to bad people and their families. More people just need to face it head on instead of pushing it away. If they look closer, they’ll probably find out they know or went to school with someone this has happened to.”
According to the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders, those addicted to heroin have an increased risk of developing persistent and sometimes major depressive disorders.
It also estimates that nearly half of all opioid addicts have experienced some degree of depression in their lives.
Post-traumatic stress disorder has also shown itself to be a huge factor in opioid addiction, with heroin’s ability to trigger pleasure pathways in the brain creating a huge incentive to abuse the drug.
Miller encouraged families who’ve gone through similar situations to step forward and share their stories.
“We all just wanted to protect Cliff and make sure he wasn’t sad,” she said. “I knew how easily he could be knocked down into sadness. We can all turn this into something where we’re bringing more awareness to this. Don’t be ashamed of it. The more you share and build real-life connections, the more people will have empathy and realize how this is affecting everyone.”
Miller’s 19-year-old son, Dakota Miller, recently won a 4-H horsemanship award named in Sheehan’s honor. As he stood on the stage to accept, he thought about his Uncle Cliff.
“It feels good to carry on his torch,” he said. “He had so many skills and I want to live up to them. You have to always try and look at what’s good in life, look forward to something. You can get help if something gets to that point. People care. I don’t think anyone should put themselves through more pain when they’re already in pain. Your family wants you to keep going.”
“Clifford had goals, big goals,” said Hrehocik. “He would’ve achieved those goals if all of this hadn’t gotten in his way. As an addict, you have no control over it. You know what you’re doing is wrong. You know you’re tearing your family apart. Then the drugs still take you in that direction.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.