‘Where is the out­rage?’

Mothers seek so­lace, in­ter­ven­tion in quest to end drug over­dose deaths

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NATION - By Claire Galo­faro

MARL­BOR­OUGH, Mass. — The moms meet in a park­ing lot over­look­ing the lit­tle white fu­neral home and watch the mourn­ers drift­ing to­ward the chapel doors — a fa­mil­iar scene, be­gin­ning again.

Ch­eryl Juaire taps ner­vously on her steer­ing wheel.

“Are we ready?” she asks the two other mothers lean­ing into the win­dow of her SUV.

The wake start­ing in­side is for a stranger, an­other young man con­sumed by the great Amer­i­can plague. Th­ese women drove nearly two hours to shep­herd his mother into their club, its thou­sands of mem­bers all bound by the same hell: They are par­ents of the dead from ad­dic­tion, who must go through with the un­nat­u­ral act of bury­ing their chil­dren at a rate un­prece­dented in mod­ern Amer­i­can his­tory.

Ch­eryl, the leader of this un­happy wel­com­ing com­mit­tee, fishes a sym­pa­thy card out of her purse. She bought some in bulk not long ago and was stunned to find this was the last one left.

Each card equals an­other set of par­ents, their lives clawed apart by the opi­oid epi­demic. Many are broke from pay­ing for treat­ment or rais­ing their grand­chil­dren at re­tire­ment age. Some have been di­ag­nosed with post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der.

The chaos of ad­dic­tion con­sumed their lives. Then the chaos ended with a fu­neral, and the quiet proved far worse.

Ch­eryl reads news­pa­pers hunt­ing for obit­u­ar­ies and searches so­cial me­dia for the newly be­reaved, to in­vite them into the fold. You are not alone in guilt and grief and re­gret and rage, she wants them all to know. It has be­come her own kind of ad­dic­tion, a habit to quiet the demons.

Her son, Corey Mer­rill, was 23 when he over­dosed on heroin in 2011, just as the cri­sis was turn­ing into catas­tro­phe. She had thought us­ing drugs was a fail­ure of moral­ity and gump­tion. Back then, much of Amer­ica thought the same — that ad­dic­tion was merely a bad choice.

So, no, she had told Corey, he couldn’t stay with her be­cause she hadn’t raised him that way, and he’d slept in­stead on a park bench.

Then he died alone, and she slowly ar­rived at the sick­en­ing re­al­iza­tion that ad­dic­tion is a dis­ease she hadn’t un­der­stood, and be­cause she hadn’t un­der­stood it, she couldn’t save him. She didn’t even know he needed sav­ing.

Now this is her penance: wake af­ter wake, mother af­ter mother, try­ing to spare them the soli­tary tor­ment that al­most killed her.

Ch­eryl straight­ens the gold cross around her neck, smooths her hair and climbs out of the car.

“That mom gave birth to that child,” she says. “When those doors close to­day, and they put her son in the ground, it’s not the end for her. It’s just the be­gin­ning.”

be­reaved mothers who make up the board of Ch­eryl’s non­profit met pool­side at one of their homes on a sub­ur­ban cul-de-sac. A white sign

Ear­lier in the week, four

was staked out front in the grass, with #2069 printed in black. That’s the num­ber of peo­ple opi­oids killed in Mas­sachusetts in just one year, one state’s slice of the more than 400,000 who have died in the U.S. since the epi­demic be­gan in 1999.

Over­doses now kill more each year than guns or breast can­cer or AIDS at its peak. They kill more than the en­tire Viet­nam War. They kill nearly 200 peo­ple a day on av­er­age.

“One anal­ogy that can some­times get peo­ple’s at­ten­tion is that it’s like an air­plane full of com­muters crash­ing ev­ery sin­gle day,” one mother of­fered as the group strug­gled to some­how de­pict the mag­ni­tude of its mis­sion.

And yet it feels to th­ese mothers that the world is get­ting tired of hear­ing about all their dead kids.

They led a cam­paign of thou­sands across Amer­ica to send Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump pho­tos of their chil­dren, all mailed last Feb. 10 to reach him by Valen­tine’s Day. They ex­pected the pres­i­dent to say, or tweet, that he heard them and would do some­thing. They ex­pected me­dia cov­er­age from coast to coast — that peo­ple would look into their chil­dren’s eyes and be so en­raged they’d march in the streets.

But there were no marches for them.

That Valen­tine’s Day, 17 peo­ple were gunned down at Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High School in Florida, con­sum­ing po­lit­i­cal and pub­lic at­ten­tion. Ch­eryl grieves for the par­ents who lost a child there. But she did the math, and that many peo­ple will die from drugs by the time this three-hour meet­ing ends.

“Where is the out­rage for us?” she asks. “Our kids are still dy­ing, and the only thing I can do is try to pick up the pieces for the moms once they do.”

Her or­ga­ni­za­tion’s of­fi­cial name is “Team Shar­ing.” But she usu­ally just says: “My Moms.”

When she started the group on Face­book three years ago there were only seven mem­bers, all mothers near her home in Marl­bor­ough. Then an­other par­ent joined and an­other, as over­doses be­came the lead­ing cause of death for young Amer­i­cans, drag­ging down the na­tion’s over­all life ex­pectancy three years in a row for the first time in a cen­tury.

Now Ch­eryl, 60, be­gins each day at dawn in her re­cliner, be­fore her part-time job as a re­cep­tion­ist at a church, study­ing a 25-page doc­u­ment, sin­gle-spaced, that lists the hun­dreds of Team Shar­ing mem­bers and de­tails about their chil­dren. Some on her list have lost two chil­dren to drugs. One lost three. One lost four.

On a re­cent Sun­day, Ch­eryl got a call from a mother who had al­ready buried one ad­dicted son, and she was scream­ing, in­com­pre­hen­si­ble. Ch­eryl sped to her house to find that her sec­ond son had over­dosed in a bed­room up­stairs. The paramedics were still there, and Ch­eryl held this mother as his body was car­ried into the coro­ner’s truck.

to chan­nel their grief into change. The na­tion knows how to fix this, they in­sist; all that’s miss­ing is the will.

“Let the junkies die,” they’ve heard peo­ple say, even though the Amer­i­can Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion, the Amer­i­can So­ci­ety of Ad­dic­tion Medicine and the sur­geon gen­eral all de­fine ad­dic­tion as a chronic brain dis­ease that is, like some can­cers and di­a­betes, fu­eled by a mix of ge­net­ics, be­hav­iors and en­vi­ron­ment. The sur­geon gen­eral notes that un­like those with can­cer or di­a­betes, only about 10 per­cent of those with ad­dic­tion get ef­fec­tive treat­ment.

This coali­tion of mothers be­lieves the epi­demic is un­fold­ing much like AIDS did, with a so­ci­ety in­dif­fer­ent to­ward peo­ple be­lieved to have brought their deaths upon them­selves. That dis­ease killed un­abated by the thou­sands un­til masses started protest­ing.

So th­ese par­ents tes­tify be­fore Congress, tell their sto­ries in school gyms and cry on lo­cal tele­vi­sion news. They pros­e­ly­tize at ral­lies, warn­ing that any fam­ily could be next, and see crowds filled with peo­ple who’ve al­ready learned that the hard way. Ch­eryl led a picket out­side Pur­due Pharma, whose mass mar­ket­ing of the pow­er­ful painkiller OxyCon­tin helped un­leash the cri­sis.

“What more do we have to do?” she won­ders.

Ch­eryl doesn’t like to talk about pol­i­tics. Both Repub­li­cans and Democrats have failed to stop this, she says. She voted for Trump, who de­clared a pub­lic health emer­gency

Many par­ents of the dead try

in 2017, and re­mains hope­ful that he’ll keep his prom­ise to end the scourge.

Last year, Congress passed a leg­isla­tive pack­age de­signed to com­bat the cri­sis and ap­pro­pri­ated $8.5 bil­lion, a fig­ure ex­perts say is a wel­come step but far short of the sus­tained fund­ing re­quired to build the nec­es­sary treat­ment in­fra­struc­ture. Dur­ing the AIDS cri­sis, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment in­creased fund­ing by tens of bil­lions, says Keith Humphreys, a Stan­ford Univer­sity pro­fes­sor and drug pol­icy ex­pert. “The opi­oid epi­demic is as se­ri­ous as that one and will re­quire sim­i­lar re­sources.”

It over­whelms Ch­eryl to think of all the things the na­tion needs to do to solve this, and so she tries to fo­cus on what she knows.

She knows par­ents with no money left to bury their chil­dren; the ashes sit in card­board boxes. So the first agenda item at her board meet­ing this week is to de­cide how much to do­nate for head­stones and urns. Her board mem­bers gri­mace.

There’s Cindy Wy­man, who used to knock on drug deal­ers’ doors car­ry­ing a photo of her daugh­ter. And Lynn Wen­cus, whose son emp­tied her bank ac­count and pawned her wed­ding ring and still she bor­rowed against her 401(k) to pay for treat­ment. She once drove him to buy heroin be­cause he was des­per­ate to get into a detox fa­cil­ity that would only take pa­tients with drugs in their sys­tem. She sat next to him as he shot up, hold­ing over­dose re­ver­sal med­i­ca­tion and weep­ing.

“That’s what we were will­ing to do to save our kids,” Lynn says. “And even at that, it wasn’t enough.”

They dreaded the phone call for years. For Ch­eryl, it came in the mid­dle of the night, from her old­est son, Bobby, a po­lice of­fi­cer.

“Mom, Corey’s dead,” he said. Ch­eryl felt her knees buckle.

That call is her marker in time: There was her nor­mal life be­fore it and her life now, which in­cludes an un­wanted ex­per­tise in bury­ing young Amer­i­cans.

will for­get their chil­dren or pre­fer to pre­tend they never ex­isted, so Ch­eryl be­gins each morn­ing ac­knowl­edg­ing the par­ents whose kids were born that day, and the ones who died on it. She feels their rhythms: The first year is numb­ness, the sec­ond pure hell. She can tell which moms have been drink­ing, which have stopped leav­ing the house.

“She’s a hard one,” she’ll say, mak­ing a men­tal note to keep a close watch.

She does this from the mo­ment she wakes up un­til she falls asleep, some­times phone in hand. Stay­ing busy with other mothers means she doesn’t have to think about what she didn’t do for her son.

All of that is what brought Ch­eryl to the lit­tle white fu­neral home in New Hamp­shire, a state with the na­tion’s fifth-high­est rate of over­dose deaths.

She had called in the troops: Cyndi Wood and Kay Scar­pone, mothers of Marines who came home from the ser­vice changed men. All three women grew up in the same town, but they were never friends un­til heroin claimed their sons..

“All th­ese beau­ti­ful lives,” says Cyndi, who de­cides she can’t bear an­other wake and re­treats back to the car.

Ch­eryl draws close to Kay as they walk to­gether into the chapel, and she drops the sym­pa­thy card in a bas­ket. She avoids set­tling her eyes on the pho­tos of the per­son this young man had been or the mourn­ers shak­ing their heads be­cause it didn’t have to end this way.

In­side the lit­tle chapel, she folds her arms around this griev­ing mother. There is an elec­tric­ity be­tween women who’ve lost their chil­dren that no one else can feel, Ch­eryl swears, like they can sense each other in crowds.

“I shouldn’t be bury­ing my son,” the wo­man says.

“You are not alone. We lost our kids, too,” Ch­eryl tells her, and the mother nods.

“We’re not go­ing to have any­one left,” she says.

Many par­ents worry peo­ple

The Amer­i­can Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion, the Amer­i­can So­ci­ety of Ad­dic­tion Medicine and the sur­geon gen­eral all de­fine ad­dic­tion as a chronic brain dis­ease that is, like some can­cers and di­a­betes, fu­eled by a mix of ge­net­ics, be­hav­iors and en­vi­ron­ment.

STEVEN SENNE/AP 2018

Ch­eryl Juaire, at her son’s grave in Chelmsford, Mass., started a non­profit for fam­i­lies who lost chil­dren to opi­oid over­doses. “You are not alone,” she told a mother.

JES­SICA HILL/AP

Chris­tine Gagnon — along with oth­ers who have lost loved ones to OxyCon­tin and opi­oid over­doses — holds a sign dur­ing a sum­mer protest at the Pur­due Pharma head­quar­ters in Stam­ford, Conn. Her son died in 2017.

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