Pain of losing children to overdose leads parents to act
BY DEBBIE PAGE
International Overdose Awareness Day is personal to some people, a painful reminder of what they have lost.
Three mothers stood in the square in Downtown Statesville in sweltering heat on Friday at noon, holding up pictures of their sons, all promising young men who fell victim to addiction and overdose, leaving holes in their families’ hearts forever.
These dedicated women, along with others in the community, are working to raise awareness about the toll that substance use disorder and overdose is taking on the Iredell County community.
Gary West, whose son Paxton’s addiction began when he was prescribed hydrocodone for treatment of a high school injury, was also out passing out purple bracelets and information to passersby along with wife Patti, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Case Manager Kayla Moore, and LEAD Peer Support Karen Lowe, and other volunteers.
“All of these folks here have directly or indirectly suffered something related to opioid overdose. Some have lost a child. Others have a child in prison because they are an addict and broke the law to feed their habit,” said West, acknowledging his son's incarceration.
“In the case of our son, there is nobody more gracious or compassionate that you could find anywhere as long as he’s clean, but if he falls off the wagon, it changes him. Afterward he is very remorseful,” he added.
West insists substance abuse is not a moral issue, though he acknowledges “moral things are a part of it, of course, if you break the law, hearts get broken -- but it very much is a disease of the brain. We need to see that and come up with more ways to treat it and remove the stigma of addiction.”
He and Patti, who operate Fifth Street Ministries, “just made our minds up several years ago that we were going to talk about it.”
Laurie Pettit, who is a member of the Drug-Alcohol Coalition of Iredell (DACI), lost her son Dawson four years ago to overdose at her former home in Virginia. He became addicted after taking pain medication for injuries suffered during a home invasion while he was still in college.
When the opioids no longer worked to relieve his pain, Dawson turned to stronger illicit drugs and underwent a complete personality change. He was in and out of intensive outpatient rehabs for years, and, in 2014, at the age of 26 years and just three days after leaving a stint in an inpatient rehab, Dawson suffered an accidental heroin overdose and died.
“We miss him every second of every day,” said Pettit.
“I have spent the last four years of my life learning as much as I can about addiction,” she said. “I knew nothing about it. I didn’t know it was a disease. I told my son just to stop. I don’t want this to happen to anyone else, but unfortunately the numbers just keep going up and I’m heartsick about it.”
“I want to raise awareness,” Pettit continued. “I want people to see the faces of drug addiction because it can happen to anybody. It doesn’t discriminate, and there shouldn’t be a stigma about it. Some people say that my son had a choice to take drugs, but he did not ‘choose’ to be a heroin addict.”
Pettit also lost a 52-year-old friend just this week to opioids. He accidentally overdosed on his pain medication as he tried to control his pain while awaiting a surgical procedure.
“My motto is ‘Not one more!’ ” she exclaimed. “We need to get the word out and get people educated about addiction to reduce the stigma.”
Debbie Lindley lost her middle son Joe, a former Army sergeant, who was an “awesome beautiful spirit who gave big bear hugs and was full of laughter.” After the military, Joe went on to study at Western Carolina University and later became an entrepreneur, starting a successful plumbing business.
Joe began battling the demons of addiction and died in April of 2015 from an opioid overdose. He had stayed clean for a number of months, but when he was tempted to use again while returning to his former haunts, the drug killed him after a stint in rehab.
“When Joe passed, I realized I need to get more information about how these drugs work, what killed my son,” declared Lindley.
“I miss him dearly. I’m a changed person after losing my son. I’m more grateful for a lot of things. My priorities and perspectives have changed. I will always be on this grief journey, but if I can give awareness so people can see the faces of these beautiful children taken away too soon.”
Lindley warned that parents must be vigilant and intervene as soon as possible if they suspect drug use. “Parents need to pick up on the signs and symptoms, push for rehab, then perhaps we can save more lives.”
Sandy Tabor-Gray, who serves as chair of DACI and is a recovering substance user herself, held a picture of her eldest son Michael, who died five years ago after overdosing on heroin. Michael became addicted after taking opiates for pain after a broken arm.
After lies, theft, and escalating drug use, Michael went into treatment in Tennessee, after which he met a female addict with whom he had twins. He moved back home with the twins, relapsed, but then had successful treatment in Asheville. He was living in a sober house, making friends, and working.
On a visit home to see his twins, Michael talked with his mom for an hour, kissed her good night, and went to bed.
The next morning, Tabor-Gray and the children found him in bed, dead from a heroin overdose, Her life was shattered, but she has chosen to use her painful experiences experience to bring something positive, a message of hope as an addict who found recovery, through her work at DACI and her participation in awareness events like Friday at the square and at the Lake Norman-South Iredell game Friday night.