Chicago Tribune • 14 Sep 2016
by Alexandra Rockey Fleming is a freelance writer. By Alexandra Rockey Fleming
Ryan Hawe’s death notice appeared in The Washington Post. “Our charismatic and beautiful son and brother Ryan died Saturday morning,” it read. “... We loved Ryan with all of our hearts, but we now know that was not enough to shield him from the world. ... While we always felt we had some grip on Ryan’s issues, his ability to hide and disguise his addiction proved superior to our parental control . ... To all parents, pay attention to your children and the world that revolves around them.”
Kelsea Brandt’s death announcement was simple and blunt: “She will be best remembered for her free spirit, love of life, and the incredible strength she had while enduring so much pain that came from her struggles with addiction.”
As opioid abuse rages and its legacy of overdose deaths continues to climb, more bereaved families are responding by publicly exposing addiction as the demon.
“We want people to know that this can happen to anyone,” says Rosemary Roche, the mother of Jordan, who died last year at age 21.
The spike in opioid addiction rates in the past two decades is rooted in the overprescription of pain medication such as Oxycontin, says Andrew Kolodny, a psychiatrist at Brandeis University. The medical and recreational use of these drugs derived from opium — and their illegal and vastly more affordable sister, heroin — is affecting the families of police officers and politicians, he says, “and you’re seeing a very different response that says that this is a disease, not a moral failing, from families who want to spare others the pain.”
Jordan Roche started using marijuana during his sophomore year in high school, he later revealed to his parents at his Bel Air, Md., home. By the summer of 2013, when he was 19, he was snorting heroin.
The parents persuaded him to seek help — outpatient treatment at first, and later a 28-day inpatient program. Last fall, nine months sober, he returned home. But opioids are lavishly addictive, and users risk a high chance of relapse in the first year, Kolodny says.
Roche’s parents had just left for vacation in Hawaii when they got the call that their son had been found lifeless in his sister’s home. He was one of 78 Americans, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention numbers, who die every day from an opioid overdose.
Ryan Hawe’s mother, Lorretta Hawe, had been prescribed Oxycontin for her neck and back pain after a car accident. Soon after, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy.
At first she didn’t notice that any of her Oxycontin pills had gone missing.
Ryan was only 13, a shy and good child. He’d recently become friendly with older kids in the family’s Manassas, Va., neighborhood. “I should have said no to these boys, but I didn’t realize they were swarming down on Ryan because they knew his mom was sick and would have opioids in the house,” she says.
Soon Ryan was smoking cigarettes, and then drinking beer and using marijuana. Heroin eventually became Ryan’s substance of choice — and now 21, he begged for help to defeat his addiction. Hawe says that her son completed more than two years’ worth of treatment and seemed to be on the right track.
On a cold afternoon in February, Ryan came home — happy and loving as usual — after a day on a construction job. He headed out for a few errands. At 6 the next morning, the phone rang. It was a friend of Ryan’s, telling Hawe that he couldn’t rouse Ryan.
His cause of death was accidental fentanyl poisoning.
The couple agreed that it was important to tell people how Ryan died.
“I had many miscarriages before he was born,” Lorretta Hawe says. “I always thought God had a purpose for him. If we reach even one person with his story, then maybe that’s it.”
Kelsea Brandt died on Christmas Day 2015.
Wendy Messner describes her firstborn child as fun-loving and intelligent, a girl who had always “pushed the boundaries.”
By the time Brandt reached her early 20s, she had been using heroin intermittently for about five years. She had completed several stints in treatment, participated in a court program for drug offenders in Maryland, and received methadone maintenance therapy.
Last year, Brandt had been clean for about six months and doing fairly well, says Messner. But in early December, Brandt, 24, became distant and unavailable.
On Christmas Day, Messner got the call: Her daughter had been found by her boyfriend in the bathtub. “Narcotic intoxication complicated by drowning” was the cause of death.
There was no reason to obscure the truth, says Messner, who founded a group, Rage Against Addiction, to advocate for drugabuse awareness and support.
“Addiction is not who Kelsea was,” she says. “It’s a disease that people should know about, and I won’t run and hide. She was my child, my love, my life — and she mattered.”