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Mothers Who Lost Children to Overdose Find Hope

It's hard to imagine a greater loss. But bereaved mothers all over the US—like these four—are bravely campaigning for change, to prevent others from suffering the same.

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By Tessie Castillo

05/09/13

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What does it feel like to lose a child? Thankfully most of us will never know. But for Diannee Carden Glenn of Weston, Florida, the dreaded news arrived on May 9, 2012, four days before Mother’s Day. Her 40-year-old son, Michael, had died of a heroin overdose.

“Nothing is ever the same again,” Diannee says. “Every facet of your life has a memory. You go to the grocery store and walk past a box of HoneyComb cereal and burst into tears. You beg, you bargain, you plead to wake up and find it was just a nightmare. You talk to the dead. You work on your religion because you have to believe that there is a better place.”

Losing a child at any age, by any means, is agony. But losing a child to drug overdose carries a unique grief, often compounded by accusations and blame. When Diannee finally told a next-door neighbor that her son had died of a drug overdose, the following day the neighbor’s husband erected a five-foot wall between their houses.

BJ Sanders of Lumberton, North Carolina, also felt the sting of judgment after her 19-year-old daughter, Shelly, overdosed in her college dorm room in 2005. BJ recalls visiting a grief group for parents and hearing, “Well, my child didn’t deserve to die—she didn’t do drugs.” The experience was so humiliating for BJ that for a long time she would not openly speak of her daughter’s death.

But after years of silence and shame, BJ is finally ready to speak the truth about Shelly. In February she and her son Chad testified at the North Carolina General Assembly in favor of a 911 Good Samaritan bill, which grants limited immunity from drug or paraphernalia charges to a person who seeks help for an overdose. “Shelly was a beautiful, spontaneous young woman who loved adventure, travel, dancing, and helping others,” BJ said to the gathered legislators and community members. “She also struggled with addiction and depression, which was diagnosed too late.”

“The day before he died, Glen was sick. I asked him several times if he wanted me to take him to the hospital and he said no. I thought he was just detoxing."

Studies show that more than half of overdoses occur in the presence of another person, yet in most cases, witnesses do not call for help due to fear of police. In recognition that saving lives is more important than arresting low-level drug offenders, 12 states have so far passed 911 Good Samaritan laws, including New York, California and Florida (and, just last week, New Jersey). In April, thanks to the efforts of BJ and community groups like the NC Harm Reduction Coalition and Project Lazarus, North Carolina became one of them.

Unfortunately, the new law came too late for Shelly.

The night of her death, Shelly and a friend were using heroin in her dorm room. When she passed out, the friend panicked. He’d recently been released from jail on parole and feared that a 911 call could lead to his arrest. So instead of calling for help, he left. By morning, Shelly was dead.

Rosie Goldensohn, policy associate at the Drug Policy Alliance, is part of a national network of experts who track, strategize and support drug policy reform around the country. She’s been monitoring the rapid spread of 911 Good Samaritan laws and other overdose prevention efforts. “Lawmakers are realizing that drug overdose now causes more deaths per year than auto accidents, meaning that this issue is touching an increasing number of people personally,” explains Goldensohn. “Combined with other measures such as overdose awareness and education, 911 Good Samaritan laws are a critical part of comprehensive prevention efforts.”

911 Good Samaritan laws aren't the only option on the table to prevent tragic deaths. Other national prevention strategies include expanding access to naloxone, a non-addictive antidote that reverses the effects of opioid OD. Naloxone is currently available by prescription, but legal barriers, such as fear of civil liabilities, often prevent physicians from prescribing naloxone to opiate-using patients, and bystanders from administering it to someone experiencing an overdose.

Atty. Corey Davis, a national expert on overdose prevention and public health law, says, “In the past few years nine states have explicitly changed their laws to make it easier for people to access naloxone and to encourage them to use it in an overdose situation without fear of legal repercussions.”

Access to naloxone and overdose recognition training might have helped California mom Margaret Alexander, who lost her son Glen when he was 23. Margaret didn’t know that when a person overdoses on opioids they often appear to be sick or sleeping. And because she didn’t know, she watched her son die.

Glen was the youngest of six children, a strapping young man who loved fishing, hiking, rock climbing and dirt bikes. But after a serious motorcycle accident in 2008, he was given a prescription for the painkiller OxyContin, and became addicted. Glen tried to get into treatment, but ran into the same problems that confront many who seek help: There aren’t enough beds available; few treatment facilities take dual diagnosis (patients with a history of substance abuse and mental health); and costs are prohibitive. His addiction continued until one summer day when he took a fatal combination of opioids and methamphetamine.

“The day before he died, Glen was sick,” says Margaret. “I asked him several times if he wanted me to take him to the hospital and he said no, but I stayed home all day regardless in case he needed anything. I thought he was just detoxing."

Margaret spent the day bringing water to her son and adjusting a fan to make him more comfortable. But by morning, he had passed.

That she didn’t recognize Glen’s overdose or call 911 is a regret that Margaret will live with the rest of her life. But pain and grief have not paralyzed her, nor have they stopped Dianne, BJ, and countless other mothers from turning tragedy into hope. Each of these women has become active in overdose education and prevention, so that they might spare others their fate.

Diannee, BJ and Margaret are vocal advocates for 911 Good Samaritan laws, naloxone access, expansion of drug treatment services, and overdose education, but they also believe it is crucial to combat stigma and to challenge the misperception that overdose only happens to “other people’s children.”

“People think that [drug users] are worthless, life-long addicts who no one ever cared about anyways,” says Margaret. “This could not be further from the truth. The majority of people who use drugs are caring, sensitive souls who are well-loved, and each life lost leaves so many in grief.”

“Most people experiment, especially as teenagers,” says Diannee. “And most will be able to let it go and move on with their lives. But for many, once they open Pandora’s box they can never close it. They aren’t bad people. They aren’t weak. They aren’t worth any less than the kids who didn’t become addicted. They are human beings with feelings and families who wish they could turn back the clock.”

The message of grieving mothers is simple: Not all of us are addicted to drugs, but most of use don’t eat as well as we should, don’t exercise often, don’t treat people with enough kindness. The common cycle of an addicted person—hopeful periods of sobriety followed by devastating relapse—is one we all experience as people who often fail to live up to our own ideals. People with addictions are no worse than the rest of us. And their passing leaves no less a wound.

If we are serious about preventing overdose, we must spread awareness of its dangers and increase access to life-saving tools. We must promote laws that save lives regardless of how they were endangered. And we must foster an environment in which people no longer feel ashamed to talk about how addiction has affected them and their loved ones.

Rather than blame, a death from overdose should invite reflection. After that, it’s time to speak.

Tessie Castillo is the program coordinator at the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition. She works, writes and does public speaking on overdose prevention, drug policy, HIV/AIDS, law enforcement and public health. 

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