It was just before Halloween when the impossible happened to Karen’s family.
Her step-son was dead. After months of sobriety, Butchie had died of an overdose.
Karen and her husband, Butch, were enjoying an enviable life with busy careers in radio and advertising and a shared love of music and performing, a warm and happy second marriage with four grown children between them. Their home was filled with young grandchildren, dogs and lots of laughter.
Butchie, Butch’s only son, was 30 years old, a father himself with a young daughter and a newborn son. “Butchie was a kind soul. He was funnier than heck and could sing like an angel,” Karen remembered. His addiction caught them by surprise. “We were not educated! We were not prepared to handle it. And I’m not going to lie - we also spent a short time with our heads buried in the sand. I suppose we were just hoping that ‘this too shall pass.’” For Karen, it was an eye-opener about herself. She was raised by a Marine Corps major, a self-described ‘naïve Mary Poppins’ who never tried drugs. “I honestly figured only losers used heroin. Only weak people would do that to their bodies.” She told herself that she didn’t know any addicts. “That was a bald-faced lie - I was lying to myself! My dad was an alcoholic, which made me even more raw and judgmental about those who were ‘weak.’”
Butchie’s disease changed her outlook. She and her husband became a supportive team, learning about his disease and researching programs, offering hands-on help by caring for his children and Butch rising early to take him to work each day.
“He was in and out of so many treatment facilities. We tried tough love and intervention. We tried just love,” said Karen, but they could never cure the root of his addiction. “Self-esteem plays a huge part in this. A mixture of low self-esteem and depression seems to be the perfect pre-cocktail to the main course of heroin. I’ll argue forever that addiction is a sickness. It’s used to calm tortured minds. It’s an escape. An escape where there is no turning back.”
By that Halloween, the family was finally feeling hopeful and things were looking up. Butchie had a new son and he was working, life was returning to a routine. And then, suddenly it wasn’t. “The kicker? He’d been clean for a while. He had his act together. He was on the road to being mature and happy. Then one person offered him free heroin which ended up being 100% fentanyl. It probably killed him instantly.”
Every family dealing with addiction knows that it could happen, drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in the US according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine. Opioids, heroin, and fentanyl are behind the higher death count. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports a nearly six-fold increase in the total number of deaths Involving Heroin and Non-Methadone Synthetics from 2002 to 2015. Among the more than 64,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016, the sharpest increase occurred among deaths related to fentanyl and fentanyl analogs.
Karen and Butch shared their grief with friends and family and never hid their son’s cause of death or the struggles he had faced.
“I’m not embarrassed to say how my stepson died. I will forever push people to give up their stigma,” she said, and their friends were compassionate and supportive. “We felt no judgment. Only support, pain, sadness, love, and helplessness.”
Karen and her husband funneled their grief into action, establishing a non-profit and reaching out to local agencies and law enforcement. They enlisted friends and family to donate and share the message through social media.
“We work with the DEA, sheriff, support groups, and schools. We try to use our position in media for good. And our friends in the media are forever attempting to tackle this ridiculously growing problem,”
Addiction forever changed our dynamics. His dad and I are a United Front. It’s made us stronger than ever. We will fight the fight forever - and honor his legacy in any way we can.”
IS THERE CLOSURE?
“My heart still breaks and always will. I lost someone I truly loved and helped raise. His two children lost their daddy. It’s changed his dad forever. He lost his only son,” Karen discloses. “The rest of our family grieves as well, but we always think of him with fond memories. Not a family get-together goes by that we don’t tell funny stories about Butchie.”
“I can never erase the sadness in my husband’s eyes. It’s not there all the time - but I hope it doesn’t go away altogether because I’m happy he thinks of him and remembers him. Every hour of every day. We share stories and laugh and cry. We look at his children with awe - the miniature “Butchies” in our lives.” Karen and Butch now have 10 grandchildren. “I can’t help but think what a wonderful uncle he would be. They are all missing out. I’ve no doubt he’d be singing, entertaining them and making them all laugh whenever he could. I feel his presence daily.”
Today Karen ‘doesn’t give a lick if people judge my family’ but she does beg for compassion and understanding and she offers five ‘recommendations’ for other parents.
1) Don’t judge
2) Don’t judge
3) Help rid the stigma
4) Know it can happen to anyone and might be happening under your own nose.
5) Don’t judge
“This should not have ever happened. But it did. My prayer is that we can somehow prevent others from going through this incredible heartache.”
Families do not have to face this alone. Partnership for Drug-Free Kids ( https://drugfree.org/ ) offers parent guides for talking to family members about addiction, finding treatment help and other resources.
Lora Lewis is a multi-platform content creator who covers a wide variety of topics and loves the art of conversation.