RICHMOND, Va. -- The governor of Virginia has declared the heroin epidemic a public health crisis in Virginia. The people who lost loved ones from opioids have found support in one another’s struggle, and in particular, an innovative way to cope.
Annie Calloway lost her daughter April Louis on March 12, 2014. As spring blooms all around, you can find Calloway tending to her yard, especially the young magnolia out front. It's a daily reminder of the precious daughter no longer in her life.
"This is her tree,” she said. “It was planted in her memory."
"She was kind, loving, quick to help others,” Annie said. “But she didn't know how to help herself."
"She never saw her beauty inside or out.”
Painkillers prescribed eight years before April’s death led her to an addiction, which then lead her to heroin. Next, by the age of 30, the young mother was dead from an overdose. She left her family heartbroken, with few answers and many regrets.
"I couldn't save my daughter so I was trying to save my granddaughter,” Annie said, as she explained why she walked away – though she is wracked with guilt.
“I wouldn't let her be a part of her child's life and I think back now, I lost all that time with her that I should have had, that I can't get back but I didn't know what else to do."
Desperate to reach out to other families, and take root in their shared experiences, Calloway started a Facebook page in memory of her daughter.
Her online connections led her to Jeremiah Lindemann, a Denver man who lost his 23 year old brother to an opioid addiction.
"When he passed away, I really shut down and I didn't want to talk much about it," Lindemann said.
To facilitate healing, Lindemann started a project which mapped, through an online picture gallery, all the families across the country who've lost someone they loved to opioids. It's called Lost Loved Ones. [Click here to listen to an interview about the map.]
And in charting that course, the families left barren found connection.
"The one map that's been really popular is where families contribute and upload a photo and a short paragraph about that individual person they lost,” Lindemann said.
Lindemann believes the map puts a face to addiction, and visibly charts how the disease has snaked through and around Americans everywhere.
He hopes to help erase the stigma that keeps others from reaching out for help.
For many years, Meredith Wolf said her addiction and shame kept her isolated.
"That was my rock bottom, I was very desperate- I tried to commit suicide,” she said.
A few months ago, the 27 year old finally turned to the McShin Foundation, a recovery and addiction center based in Lakeside.
"I literally had a jacket and the pair of pants I was wearing, and I stuck out my thumb and I made it to Virginia,” Wolf said.
She said that hearing the struggle of others has given her the strength to fight for her own life.
"That's someone's child- somebody's mother, somebody's daughter- somebody's son,” Annie said, but added that helping other families doesn't numb her pain.
She said she does pray that her story of loss, like Lindemann's, will be someone else's message of hope.
"I share April's story in hopes that maybe it will save one life, if it saves one- April didn't die in vain,” she said.
Addiction numbers skyrocket
The numbers are startling — in 2015, 52,404 people died from drug overdoses according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sixty-three percent of those deaths involved an opioid.
More people die from drug overdoses than from guns or car accidents. At the peak of the AIDS epidemic in 1995, 43,115 people in the United States died from the disease.
Furthermore, since 1999, the number of overdoses from prescription opioids like oxycodone and hydrocodone, as well as illicit drugs like heroin, have quadrupled. In fact, heroin now accounts for one in four overdose deaths in the United States.
Now, a new study in the journal JAMA Psychiatry looks beyond the total number of overdose deaths to get a better picture of how heroin use patterns have changed since 2001. Since then, the number of people who have used heroin has increased almost five-fold, and the number of people who abuse heroin has approximately tripled.
The greatest increases in use occurred among white males.
***Some reporting from CNN wire contributed to this report.