Last week, thousands of families honored their loved ones lost to addiction on Black Balloon Day, March 6th, 2018. The movement started two years ago by Diane and Lauren Hurley after the sudden loss of Diane’s son-in-law, and Diane’s brother-in-law, Greg Tremblay. Tremblay was a father of four who died of an overdose when he was 38 years old on March 6, 2015.
Each year, loved ones of those lost to overdoses across the US now come together on March 6th hanging black balloons outside of their homes signifying that they too have been affected by this widespread epidemic.
At this point, if you’ve been following my blog, you probably already know that overdose losses outnumber any other cause of accidental death in the United States. Yet, families and those struggling with addiction still face stigma, difficulty finding and then affording, proper care and treatment, and the love and support needed from our communities to overcome this affliction. I witnessed it personally with Matt, and as I meet with others, from all backgrounds, the pattern remains the same.
I was honored to join Gina Allgaier on Black Balloon Day where she was hosting an awareness event at the University of Arkansas with her new organization, Speakup About Drugs. Gina lost her oldest son, Tristan, last June to an accidental overdose of cocaine mixed with Fentynal. She and Tristan’s long time girlfriend, Chloe, shared his story and their efforts now to channel their grief into preventing other families from going through this. Tristan sounded like an incredible young man, with a passion for the outdoors, mountain biking, adventure and compassion in his heart. He sounded fun, and lovable, sensitive and kind, he sounded a lot like my Matt. Talking to her made me realize that on this journey, I will be crying a lot with people I just met, not just about Matt’s story but about these common tragedies and beautiful lives lost. Despite her pain, Gina has not collapsed into despair, instead during these past difficult eight months, somehow this inspirational mom has managed to found and grow a nonprofit in his honor, focusing on real education for our young people about drugs, and equip others to speakup and save lives. Gina’s resounding message is to speak up about drugs, talk to your friends, talk to your loved ones, encourage your friends to get help when they need it, it could save their life.
One thing I often get frustrated by is the lack of tools and knowledge our generation was equipped with. I went to three different high schools across the country. Those that had some sort of drug education program, at least during my attendance, focused on marijuana, period. In not one of them did I ever learn anything real about opioids, even though back in 2008/2009 that was already wrecking havoc in our communities. I didn’t learn what to look for in a friend who may be using. Pinpoint pupils, slowed speech, track marks – I was taught all this from Matt who wanted me educated so that I could trust him.
I especially didn’t understand the depth of opioid addiction, and addiction in general. Before we were together, I took care of and comforted Matt during a nasty withdrawal when he was trying to get clean once and for all. He sweat, shook, and clawed. Couldn’t eat or sleep. I brought him soup, darkened the basement and kicked anyone out so he could have peace. I cleaned his room of any paraphernalia. After a few miserable days, his eyes cleared. I thought that was the worst of it. He survived withdrawal, he’d have to stay away from drugs but my dear friend was going to be ok, right? What I didn’t understand was that was just a blip of the struggle. The daily mental game was so much deeper and haunting to him. According to science, opioids rewire the brain, Matt told me once that after his first use not a day went by where he didn’t think about using.
I felt he needed more support, therapy. I tried to get him to go to NA but he was turned off by it since he’d had dealers push drugs on him after a meeting before. He didn’t want to go to the Doctor’s, or therapists because he was scared of being prescribed anything. So I stopped pressing. After all, he was staying clean and he was so happy. He no longer came home with a glazed look over him. His erratic behavior ceased.
We started hanging out more and more, then dating, and were together 24/7 except for work. I naively thought that while it would always be part of his past and who he was, it was in the past. The reality was I did not know anything real, anything medical about opioid addiction. I was using the tools I had, but they were not enough, and while I try not to blame myself for what happened, often I feel I didn’t know enough, I didn’t do enough, I loved him but it wasn’t enough. I was blindsided, but I shouldn’t have been, I should have been smarter, keener, had an eagle eye for it and seen subtle signs his last month, made him get treatment, saved him. But I wasn’t, and I didn’t. Though I do know the problem is so much deeper than just myself, I will forever regret not knowing more, and not being able to catch him when he was falling.
And this is where it all comes full circle. I believe Gina’s work can help prevent another tragic situation like Matt and my story. Like Tristan’s story. We need to equip our youth will real knowledge about drugs, the hard scary drugs too, because guess what – they are more prolific than ever. With the rise of fentanyl in cocaine, pills and other ‘party drugs’ kids are at risk everyday. Her organization seeks “to provide education about this horrible disease and equip adults and youth with the tools they need to SPEAKUP ABOUT DRUGS to save lives”. Partnering with a former Executive Director for MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) her organization is launching publicly in April, and she is organizing a state level task force that will propose and support legislation as well as her educational campaigns.
I also had the honor of meeting Tristan’s girlfriend, an inspiring young lady at the University of Arkansas who has heartbreakingly joined this club that no one wants to belong to; the one where we’ve lost the love of our life to overdose. She wrote a powerful piece for the Hill Magazine in Arkansas about her loss and her message to her peers to not turn a blind eye to our friends using drugs. She then bravely told her story out loud to her community, something I don’t know if I’d have the courage to do. I encourage everyone to click through and read the whole piece here, (this is bold because the piece is a beautifully written, important message… show your son, your daughter, your niece your nephew, your god child, your grand children) but I wanted to write out her closing statement which echoes deeply in my heart too.
“After a tragedy like this, people will say to you, “Let me know if there’s ANYTHING I can do to help!” Well, I don’t need you to feel bad for me. Here is what I need – talk about Tristan and all the faces of drug abuse. Have hard conversations with people whether you think they’re falling into a bad lifestyle or not. I’m well aware that my peers don’t listen to D.A.R.E., their moms or scary statistics on this topic. Rather, at this age we tend to trust our friends’ judgements and experiences. Please, don’t justify a gamble of a decision by putting faith in the experience of someone who hasn’t been burned quite yet. Tristan was 21 and the fourth from his high school graduating class to die of an overdose. Unfortunately, it happens more than we’d like to believe. Every day I am reminded of this painful truth. I hope by sharing honestly and continuing to speak out that I can help the public understand the ugly and disgusting reality that is drug abuse, addiction and what it does to families. When I say this is Tristan’s message, it really is. In the last month or so of his life, he said repeatedly how badly drug education is needed and that maybe if his friends had asked him to go to rehab, he would have. In this college atmosphere and beyond, please consider using that same influence to help your own friends.”
This was my first meeting and post along my upcoming journey to hear these stories and share how people are turning their grief into hope, their stories into change. I know I’m going to be crying… a lot. But that is part of this path, it is devastating but also inspiring. So incredibly, deeply sad, but also heart warming to see a community coming together, supporting each other and fighting to end this.
To learn more and provide support for Gina’s organization, SAD, Speakup About Drugs, please visit their site HERE.
If you are along the path of the Appalachian trail (map HERE) and would like to share your story and/or efforts for recovery, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me, I’m compiling a list.
Get a Purple Bandana to Support Opioid Recovery