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One morning last June, Colorado mom Patricia Byrne went online to read her Canton, Mass., hometown newspaper. What she read changed her life: an obituary for a 26-year-old young man who was a childhood playmate of her children. The cause of death: heroin overdose.
Her son, Kurt, is a recovering addict, and Byrne thought about how the Massachusetts family must be suffering. She knew too well about the guilt and embarrassment that parents of addicts endure in silence. After reading the obituary, she decided to vent her anger and frustration and started a blog. “It’s time to Stop the Silence,” she wrote. “It’s time to Speak the Truth. My son is a heroin addict. I want to wear a T-shirt, a hat, a pin, something. I want a suffering family member or addict to see me in the grocery store and be able to walk up and say ‘me too.’ ”
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At first, her post gathered several thousand views and then kept mounting until hitting more than a million, with hundreds of comments from addicts and their families. Although Byrne had no intention of anything more than sharing her thoughts, she has now joined a larger movement to raise awareness about addiction and to link families to help each other. She plans to be in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 4 to join the expected thousands of others at the United to Face Addiction rally on the grounds of the Washington Monument.
We spoke to Byrne recently about her journey as the mother of an addict.
Q: Until you moved to Colorado six years ago, you lived in Canton, Mass., where your children grew up. What was it about reading that obituary that compelled you to speak out for the first time?
A: It was not only the boy who died; there were other overdoses there in this lovely bedroom community. I can still see their little 7-year-old shining faces and them riding their bikes in pack, and now they are drug addicts. I decided it’s got to stop, that someone had to talk about it. I had been suffering in silence for 10 years.
Q: What was your reaction to your post going viral, and why have you continued to write?
A: I didn’t think anyone beyond some friends and family would read it. I was surprised at the reaction and especially the number of comments. At first I tried to keep up with the comments. I have written “I am sorry for your loss” so many times it’s horrific. I’ve heard many stories of addicts who want to get treatment but can’t because of lack of insurance, or from parents whose child died of an overdose while waiting to get a bed. I knew I had to keep writing and speaking out.
Q: Your son, now 30, has been in recovery for almost 20 months, works at a recovery center and plans to start training to become a counselor. It’s been a long journey for you. How did it start?
A: My son first asked for help six years ago on Thanksgiving 2009. I got a call from him that he wanted to get clean from Percocet. He wanted to do in-patient and was told there were no beds. He got into an outpatient detox facility and after five days, they released him and pronounced him clean. We have since learned that there’s a lot more to recovery than just getting you clean and sending you on your way. They need to remake their lives.
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Q: That first rehab facility was just the beginning. You wrote that it’s “a slow, slogging, exhausting crawl out of the muddy pit that addiction digs under you.”
A: Yes, after that detox he became addicted to heroin because it’s cheaper and more available. Finally, in February 2014 he went into the University of Colorado hospital program for 30 days, then two months in their step-down program, then five months in a transition housing and treatment and then finally a sober house. It has exhausted our savings, but he has really worked hard at recovery, so it’s been worth it.
Q: What’s your hope going forward?
A: I want people to know that addicts’ parents are doctors and lawyers and teachers and police officers and everyone from all walks of life — not losers. I want people to stop suffering in silence behind closed doors. If you share, you will find that you’re not alone and that your neighbor is going through the same thing as you. Maybe she’s six months ahead of you in dealing with this crisis and can tell you if they have tried an interventionist or can recommend a rehab program. Neighbors can get help from neighbors, not just from me through a computer screen. Addiction is a life-altering event for the whole family.
Mary W. Quigley’s blog, Mothering21, tackles parenting of emerging adults and beyond.
Photo: Courtesy of Patricia Byrne