Robert’s voice

Sherry Holly, whose son died from over­dose, is de­ter­mined to shine light on, fight opi­oid cri­sis

The Progress-Index Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - PHOTO] By Kelsey Re­ichen­berg Staff Writer

COLO­NIAL HEIGHTS It’s no se­cret that the opi­oid epi­demic has been on the rise over the past sev­eral years, im­pact­ing more and more Amer­i­cans ona na­tional scale.

But what some may not re­al­ize is how hard it is hit­ting right here in the Tri-Cities.

A lit­tle over a year ago, Colo­nial Heights res­i­dent Robert Holly died at age 26 from heroin over­dose.

In light of the re­cent Over­dose Aware­ness Day, Au­gust 31, his mother Sherry sat down with The Pro­gressIn­dex to talk about Robert’s mem­ory and the so­ci­etal changes that need to oc­cur if Amer­ica is go­ing to see a pos­i­tive change in the opi­oid epi­demic.

Robert’s story

As Robert grew up at­tend­ing school in Colo­nial Heights, he strug­gled with dys­lexia - a learn­ing dis­or­der char­ac­ter­ized by difficulty read­ing. Along with the dis­abil­ity came emo­tional dis­tress and a feel­ing of ex­clu­sion.

“I guess Robert started show­ing emo­tional prob­lems all the way through school… all the way through his el­e­men­tary school­ing he had prob­lems deal­ing with re­al­ity, hav­ing the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of hav­ing to at­tend school, and try­ing to fit in with groups of peo­ple, and he felt like he didn’t be­long be­cause he was dyslexic,” Sherry said.

Robert was taken out of the typ­i­cal class­room set­ting to work with an IEP teacher, and as a re­sult, he didn’t make many friends. Later in mid­dle school, the sit­u­a­tion got worse.

“It be­came worse, be­cause peer pres­sure got worse,” Sherry said. “Then when he got into high school, he ba­si­cally only went to school only be­cause the law re­quired him to go.”

While the scholas­tic en­vi­ron­ment wasn’t ex­actly Robert’s forte, he was in­cred­i­bly tal­ented at work­ing with his hands, and out of that, he dis­cov­ered a love for fix­ing ve­hi­cles.

“His com­pre­hen­sion was very poor, [but] you could show him any­thing to do with his hands, and he could do it. He was re­mark­able with his hands,” Sherry said. “And he loved to work on cars, ve­hi­cles - any­thing au­to­mo­tive he could do. He could take a car apart and re­build it.”

Robert be­gan us­ing his skillset to help other peo­ple, like the kids around the neigh­bor­hood who needed their bi­cy­cles re­paired. “Some­times he would have four or five bikes in the yard,

fix­ing them for all the kids in the neigh­bor­hood,” Sherry said. “He just loved it.

“He loved chil­dren as well; he loved be­ing with them, and in his teenage years and even in his twen­ties, he would still play games with them and go fish­ing with them and so forth,” she added. “He loved chil­dren. He adored them.”

Robert be­came well-known in the com­mu­nity, as he would walk the city’s streets and strike up con­ver­sa­tion with peo­ple of all ages and back­grounds.

“Most ev­ery­one knew him. A lot of peo­ple I run into now, they’ll say...’Did he walk down Lake­view Av­enue a lot?’ And I’ll say, ‘Yeah he did,’” Sherry said. “He would walk around, and a lot of peo­ple knew him that way.”

And he was never a judge­men­tal per­son, Sherry added.

“He al­ways loved to lis­ten to any­body that had some­thing to tell him,” she said. “He would stop and lis­ten to them, no mat­ter what it was. If he even thought it was a lit­tle strange or a lit­tle off, he would just sit and lis­ten to them and go about his busi­ness. But never did he turn any­one away. He was a spe­cial, spe­cial per­son.”

Robert con­tin­ued at­tend­ing school up un­til 11h grade. At age 18, he be­gan drink­ing.

“He would drink on and off with his friends, and be­cause he started to fit in with the crowd and peer pres­sure, he started tak­ing ben­zos off the street, get­ting them from var­i­ous places,” Sherry said. “And then he was about 21 when he got into a car wreck and got a DUI.”

Robert suf­fered in­juries to his back, leg and fore­head, and as a re­sult he was pre­scribed Per­co­cets for the pain, which the doc­tors con­tin­ued to re­fill for sev­eral months.

“As time went on - I guess this went on for about six months - the doc­tor said, ‘I can’t give you any­more Per­co­cets,’” Sherry said. “Of course he had be­come ad­dicted to the Per­co­cets, and he started pur­chas­ing them from a dealer.”

Sherry notes that at some point, Robert was told by his dealer or a friend that if he crushed and snorted the pills, he would get a bet­ter ef­fect from them, so he be­gan do­ing that.

And then, “I guess about two years be­fore he died, his dealer told him that he couldn’t get any­more of the Per­co­cets, and he said that he had some­thing that worked just as well, which was heroin,” Sherry said. “And that’s when he gave him the heroin.”

When Robert first started us­ing heroin, he was snort­ing it, but then on Christ­mas Day, 2016, he started in­ject­ing it. Robert shared the news with his par­ents about a month later.

“We asked him if he wanted to go get some help, and he said he was go­ing to try to get off of it him­self, which he did sev­eral times,” Sherry said. “And of course he would go through detox - which is so very, very hard to watch some­one go through. It’s hor­ri­fy­ing. And he would al­ways go back.”

Sherry now be­longs to 10 dif­fer­ent sup­port groups on­line where she has learned some­thing she wished she had known when Robert was alive fight­ing his bat­tle.

“I know now that if they con­tinue to stay around the same peo­ple that they’re al­ways around, they’re not go­ing to change. It’s not go­ing to hap­pen,” she said. “So he was al­ways go­ing back.”

When Robert lost his job in De­cem­ber of 2016, he got a new paint­ing job from a fam­ily mem­ber who did what he could to help Robert and keep him away from the life­style he was liv­ing. But things got worse.

“It got so bad that from March to June, it seems like ev­ery­thing went by like a blur,” said Sherry. “It went so fast; it was like, it just like flew by be­cause things got so bad.”

On June 11, Robert over­dosed for the first time.

“That’s when I found out how bad he was in it,” Sherry said. “And I found out that he owed his dealer so much money and that he had been threat­ened to not go back to his dealer’s house, so he was get­ting peo­ple to buy it for him.”

Robert spent the next five days detox­ing in the hos­pi­tal be­fore he was sent home. Sherry be­gan call­ing around try­ing to find a fa­cil­ity that would take Robert in.

“I called ev­ery­where. Ev­ery­where I could. I called South­side Re­gional, I called John Ran­dolph, I called District 19, I called Cen­tral State, I called ev­ery­where beg­ging peo­ple to please take him,” she said. “And he was sit­ting on my bed, and he was cry­ing and say­ing ‘I don’t want to be like this.’ And I know he was sorry that he had done it. I know he was.”

De­spite Sherry’s des­per­ate at­tempts, she couldn’t find a fa­cil­ity they’d be able to af­ford. Robert didn’t have in­sur­ance, and many places wanted around $7,000 up front to take him in.

“And they wanted us to pay like $1,500 a month to keep him in there,” Sherry said. “And we didn’t have that kind of money. We didn’t know what to do.”

Sherry took Robert to his coun­sel­ing ap­point­ment the next day, where he and his coun­selor talked about his abil­ity to beat the ad­dic­tion.

“I re­mem­ber cry­ing and beg­ging him, Robert if any­thing hap­pens to you, I’ll just die,” Sherry said through tears. “And he said noth­ing’s go­ing to hap­pen… and he died that night.”

The next morn­ing Sherry no­ticed Robert hadn’t been up for work. When she went to wake him, his door was locked, and he wouldn’t un­lock it.

“I was scream­ing and bang­ing on it, and we had to bust the door down, and he was sit­ting up on the bed, and he had died,” Sherry said.

Robert passed away at age 26, on June 11, 2017, leav­ing be­hind his griev­ing mother, fa­ther, brother and two sis­ters.

The af­ter­math

Robert’s pass­ing brought his fam­ily noth­ing short of bru­tal an­guish and suf­fer­ing. His mother de­scribes the bro­ken fam­ily dy­namic that has ex­isted since his pass­ing.

“The thing that peo­ple do not tell you, not only is it hor­ri­fy­ing for the peo­ple that die from this, it ru­ins so many fam­i­lies. It ru­ins their lives,” Sherry cried. “No­body thinks about that. Our fam­ily is torn apart. His sib­lings don’t talk to one an­other any­more. Our fam­ily get to­geth­ers… we don’t have them any­more. There’s no more Christ­mases, there’s no more Thanks­giv­ing, there’s none of that be­cause there’s a miss­ing gap there.”

Sherry’s hus­band has only been to Robert’s grave once since he passed.

“He is prac­ti­cally bed-rid­den from this,” Sherry cried. “He does not want to see any­body. He doesn’t want to talk to any­body… And I my­self have sui­ci­dal thoughts con­stantly on and off, and the funny thing is, this is how ironic it is... your child dies from drugs but they don’t tell you...that when that hap­pens, you your­self [have] to go to a doc­tor and get drugs to take ev­ery­day just to get up out of bed. They don’t tell you that. They don’t tell you all that goes along with this.”

Sherry her­self strug­gles to make it through the days with­out her son.

“When you lose some­one to such a tragic thing, you find out that you love them more when they’re gone than you did when they were here. And it’s so very sad. It’s so sad,” she said. “Be­cause you’re so scared you’re go­ing to for­get what they sound like, what they look like, what they felt like…

“You know when you get grown, it’s not that you ex­pect it, but you un­der­stand you may lose your par­ents or your sib­lings, even maybe your spouse,” she said. “You hope not, but you never ex­pect to lose your child. You never… you ex­pect them to bury you.”

Sherry’s days are now in­evitably full of re­mem­ber­ing Robert through the lit­tle things.

“If I go to the gro­cery store, I may see food that he used to eat that I used to buy him and he loved. Or, I could be driv­ing down the road, and hear a song he used to like or sing… turn the TV on and see a pro­gram that he used to watch and laugh at,” Sherry said. “Or go in a store and see a piece of cloth­ing that I think, ‘Oh, he would love that.’”

“You’re re­minded all day long of that per­son. And it’s tor­ture, it is tor­ture,” she cried. “They’re the last thing you see when you close your eyes and the first thing you think of when you open them up.”

Call­ing for change

Sherry has wit­nessed the heroin epi­demic first­hand, not only with her son Robert, but also with sev­eral of his friends. She notes that, since Robert’s pass­ing, 20 of his friends have fol­lowed, in­clud­ing three peo­ple he was babysat with be­fore start­ing school.

“That’s how close to home it is. That’s pow­er­ful. That’s hor­ri­fy­ing,” she said. “That’s more than one a month.”

Sherry is also wellinformed about how the opi­oid epi­demic is af­fect­ing Amer­ica na­tion­wide, and she be­lieves changes must oc­cur in so­ci­ety if the epi­demic is go­ing to turn around.

“They are spend­ing need­less money on things that are not of im­por­tance right now. This is im­por­tant: 198 peo­ple a day are dy­ing… do you re­al­ize, do you re­al­ize that if this were the flu that was killing 198 peo­ple a day, what would they be do­ing about that? They would be do­ing some­thing about that,” she said.

“Well, why can’t they do some­thing about this? This is im­por­tant. This is tear­ing fam­i­lies apart,” she said. “How many chil­dren are left with­out their par­ents be­cause their par­ents have died from drug over­dose, whether they chose to or not? They have no par­ents. How many fam­i­lies have split up be­cause they lost their child?”

Sherry went on to ex­plain that there isn’t enough help avail­able for those who wish to re­cover from their opi­oid ad­dic­tion, and that must change.

“I think so­ci­ety cre­ated a lot of this, be­cause they did not help peo­ple enough that wanted it. I un­der­stand there’s peo­ple out there that don’t want help, I un­der­stand that. I know there are some peo­ple on drugs who do choose to be there, but those who do want help and can’t get it, that ought to not be,” she said. “That should not be.

“Yes, they made a mis­take, they did some­thing and they made a mis­take, but my thing is, did you ever make a mis­take about some­thing that could have be­come tragic, and it didn’t? Only by God’s grace it didn’t be­come tragic,” she said. “This is Amer­ica. We take care of other peo­ple. We should take care of our peo­ple as well that need that help.”

Nowa­days, Sherry aims to serve as Robert’s voice. She put a sign up in her yard on Over­dose Aware­ness Day.

“No one is go­ing to tell me to be quiet any­more around here,” she said. “I’m not ashamed of what Robert died from, be­cause I know that Robert did not get up one morn­ing and say, ‘I want to be a drug ad­dict.’ He didn’t say that. And that cer­tainly wasn’t his goal as a child.”

Sherry will also soon be ad­vo­cat­ing on a larger scale, as she plans to at­tend the FED UP! Rally - a coali­tion to end the opi­oid epi­demic - in Wash­ing­ton D.C. on Oct. 7 with mem­bers from sev­eral of her on­line groups, as well as the march in Richmond on Sept. 22.


Colo­nial Heights res­i­dent Sherry Holly puts a sign in her yard on Over­dose Aware­ness Day, Au­gust 31, in re­mem­brance of her son Robert Holly who passed away from over­dose on June 23, 2017.


The late, 26-year-old Rob Holly and his mother Sherry Holly en­joy a meal to­gether a few weeks be­fore he passed away from over­dose.

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