Listener Essay: Dianne Olsen

Mar 17, 2016

Our grandson, Liam, died last year of a drug overdose. He was 26. Everything we thought we knew has changed.  

Liam was a college graduate, the son of loving parents with a devoted younger sister.  He had gone to Catholic schools, had been an altar boy. He had a stable, loving home life with educated, intelligent and caring parents and a huge extended family close by.  He didn’t belong to a gang, didn’t grow up in a slum, hadn’t been deprived or neglected . . . but he did become an addict.

We searched for answers, but when we looked back on his life, found only questions.  He had an inquisitive mind.  He was an athlete, a regular kid.  But he became an addict.

Liam had been struggling with addiction, starting in college, for more than five years.  There’d been long nights of blinding worry.  He would disappear for days, then weeks. His parents tried counseling, both private and with family.  He finally agreed to enter a residential treatment program that called for a month-long stay.  Liam stayed for a week, and then wanted only outpatient counseling.  He promised “this time would be different.”  He said he knew he needed to stop taking drugs.  He stayed “clean” for about four weeks.  

You could lose 5 pounds in 4 weeks.  You could probably paint four rooms in four weeks.  But you can’t quit drugs in four weeks.  Liam relapsed.  

The night he died, he told his parents he was going up to his room to take a nap, and to call him for dinner.  When he didn’t come down, they waited a little, called upstairs again. They went to his room, and found him, lifeless, on his bed.  They tried CPR. They called 911.  The EMTs could not revive him and neither could the hospital.

When your child dies, you are forever changed.  His parents will never recover.  My daughter-in-law and I talk often now – it helps us comfort each other. Our granddaughter, Liam’s sister, now takes a deep, painful breath before answering the question “Do you have any brothers or sisters.”  It's always a dilemma, because the subject of his death is so painful, and anything else is denying his life.  

The addiction problem is not confined to certain neighborhoods. Indeed, it is endemic even in well-off suburbs. News that President Obama has committed more than $1 billion to address that drug epidemic is welcome, but I’m afraid it’s merely the tip of the iceberg.

If it’s such big news, why my story, and why now?  Because I want people to be more aware that addiction is not in some other family. It’s in my family and it could be in your family.  

After decades of anti-drug education, the market for drugs continues to grow. Doctors legally prescribe narcotic, addictive painkillers to hundreds of thousands of patients.  Last August, the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of OxyContin for children over 11 years of age who have already been on another opioid for five or more days.  

Susan Salamone, of Drug Crisis in Our Back Yard, told me that law enforcement can’t do much about this, because drugs are everywhere, as easy as ordering a pizza.

But we can help. In your family, pay attention to warning signs like oversleepiness, inattention, weight loss, poor grooming, many new “friends” and frequent overspending.  In your community, don’t assume law enforcement already knows about a drug location. If you see many cars driving up to a home, stopping for a few minutes and driving off, there’s a good chance drugs are involved.  Be the busybody. Every time a drug deal happens without legal consequences, the dealers assume they can get away with it again. Don’t let them get away with it.  Call the police.  Talk to other parents.  If there’s a chance to speak up at a public meeting, take it. If your family has had experience with addiction, tell your story.  

Liam is gone, and our family is forever changed. I’m telling our story, because I believe it can help reduce drug deaths. I am no longer satisfied to let someone else handle it.

Dianne Olsen is a resident of the Hudson Valley.

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