I’m going to rerun this entire column that appeared in the West Bend Daily News today because it deserves it. Sometimes we forget that when we read a statistic like “13 people died of overdoses on Labor Day weekend” that they were 13 real people, with real families, with hopes, with dreams, with talent, with laughter, and with demons.
My brother may not have been a shining example for all mankind, but then again, few of us are.
But his death is yet one more clarion call to all of us about what’s going on in homes of every stripe across America.
On Labor Day, my brother Matt — Matty, to us — died at 41, one of 13 who died of probable drug overdoses in Milwaukee County over the holiday weekend, one of thousands across the nation who lost their lives in the whirlwind of opioid addiction. The sounds of my mother’s heart breaking, the sight of my father’s tears, the crushing feeling of seeing it coming and our worst fears being realized, will be forever etched on my heart.
And then, a week later, there he is on the TV news, footage from an incident involving him and his girlfriend in March. They were a previous version of what happened in Ohio last week, where a couple was photographed passed out in a car on drugs, with a child in the back seat. The people who found my brother contacted my friends at Channel 12 and there it was, video of them oblivious to their surroundings. Victoria shaking off the haze, coming to after getting a Narcan shot, while Matty is still splayed out on the sidewalk.
After that incident, both went into treatment. Victoria cleaned up, but had a bump in her supervision. I knew Matt had a relapse at least once. But when I saw him a week before his death, I could see he was much better, he’d been clean or much cleaner. And then Labor Day weekend — the rest of the family but me out of town, he got high, and the whirlwind came, the breath of God to take him home.
Matt was the third of four sons but always the biggest boy of the family, earning a short-lived nickname of House on the high school football field. Fittingly he was a headstrong man whose heart was always in the right place, someone willing to do almost anything for anyone he knew. He lived large, but loved larger, but despite his stubbornness was enslaved by opioids. The pull of addiction for most is stronger than the flesh, and even the spirit. Even Houses fall. Even rocks crumble under pressure over time.
He had the biggest shoe size of my brothers, and leaves deep footprints in the lives of many more than we know. And his shoes will be present at his funeral service next week. I want them there as a visual reminder when I deliver his eulogy, signifying that we can’t judge another man until we walk in his shoes — and, frankly, Matt’s shoes won’t fit most and can’t be filled by anyone.
In the job, I’ve seen this happening, knowing it could happen to us. Some numbers as of Thursday, in Milwaukee County, where we live: In 2015, there were 254 fatal drug overdoses; this year is on track for 288. In 2011, there were 180. Opioid-related deaths: 231 last year, on pace for 288 this year. Fentanyl, the powerful painkiller used as a cutting agent, was involved in 30 overdoses last year; this year it’s on pace for 75.
“But I think we’re gonna see a lot more than that. This does not take into account August or this month,” said Karen Domagalski, operations manager at the Medical Examiner’s Office there.
And the whirlwind is howling. In the last seven weeks alone, there were 71 probable drug overdoses in Milwaukee County — 10 a week, more than 1 a day. The city is on track for75 fatal car accidents this year. The overdose rate in that short time is about triple the annual murder rate.
“That’s what we hear from other families, it’s not a matter of if, it’s a question of when,” she said.
In Waukesha County, in 2015 there were 44 drug-related deaths; 21 of them were related to opioid medications — the legal pharmaceuticals. Another 18 were related to heroin. Kris Klenz at the ME’s office here tells me there have been 15 drug-related deaths so far this year, but there are numerous cases still pending, so that number certainly will rise. And it’s not just about counting the dead — so far this year in Waukesha County, 114 people have been charged with simple possession of narcotics. Will they follow my brother’s footsteps to the end?
Other members of my immediate family live in a rural area of the state. They see this up there in Westfield, too. It’s everywhere across the nation.
In my search for understanding, I reached out to District Attorney Sue Opper, whose job entails working with families whenever this happens to them. Her advice is useful to families everywhere, no matter whether their children have died from opioid use, or are using now, thinking it won’t happen to them even as it happens to their friends.
“Really the message I try and send to the families is there is no shame, there is no stigma,” Opper said. “I have met so many people from so many different backgrounds that this isn’t a look-down-your-nose-at-somebody type of issue where your loved one is a junkie or your loved one is an addict. It’s been so far-reaching and so many families and people from all walks of life. … These are good people who don’t wake up and say, ‘I am gonna be an addict today.’ These are good people with good families and good lives who are sucked in by this evil.”
But Opper said there are ways to break through. Treatment programs abound, and always are available even to people, like my brother, who encounter initial success and make measurable progress in improving their lives before falling off the wagon. There are success stories in such programs and in the county’s Drug Treatment Court of people getting out from under their addiction.
“I haven’t tried to kid anybody into thinking it’s easy. I’ve heard people describe it where your kid is in the deepest pit possible and your arm can barely reach down far enough to help them out,” Opper said. “There are success stories. There are people in recovery. It can be done. It is it easy? No. It takes every ounce of the addict themselves and the community. … They are in the fight of their lives.”
Opper told me that even though not everyone feels the devastation the way my family is right now, people are noticing the toll this is taking — churches, community groups, law enforcement, legislators. Klenz told me mine was just another of the families who have done all they can do to help a loved one who tries with uneven results to change his life. But there is no one thing we could have done differently, no magic bullet to stop this national epidemic. It will take a multifaceted approach beyond the many things we are doing now.
Yes, it sucks to have some of the family’s dirty laundry aired on TV. Yes, it hurt a friend and us to know people were trashing Matt’s memory. But I maintain that unless those people are themselves addicted to opioids, or lost someone like this, or have someone in their lives who could be lost like this, they mostly don’t know. Those people didn’t know Matt. They didn’t know his problems or his strengths.
But my family’s conviction is to let our hurtful truth be a warning to the world, to maybe break through to just one person, whose own footsteps can affect countless other lives, so Matt’s death won’t have been in vain.
Since this happened, I learned more people in my life than I knew were in a similar situation: the childhood friend who we lost touch with whose dad died at 44. The former co-worker of mine from my hash-slinging days whose longtime boyfriend was another of the 13. The middle school buddy of mine who had a friend succumb the same way years later. Klenz’s message hits the heart for mine and every family who lost a loved one this way: “The final outcome of a person’s life doesn’t define who they were.”
I hope all you Channel 12 viewers out there would agree.
Instead of haranguing a very good reporter who was doing his job, I called him asking to relay a message to his source. I told him to tell her I am sorry her kids had to see that, and, more importantly, that I said to thank her for making a difference.
We as a family, a community and as a nation are experiencing a range of emotions: Profound sorrow and piercing anger at our loss. Relief that our loved ones are free from their mortal suffering. Frustration that there are no easy answers.
The support of our friends and family from all our lives supports us as the whirlwind whips the waves around us. So are we all in this together, each connected to the others, the fabric that make up our human tapestry of any size.
In the maelstrom of the past two weeks, I heard from a friend of Matt’s I’d never known, who had lost his own mother just this way years ago. But he, too, got lost in the fog of addiction. He said he was the one to get Matt into a support group. Matt repaid the favor by offering the support his friend needed to find a way back to the light, where he has been clean six months running, even as Matt couldn’t find a way out of the fog. This man lost another friend to opioids, too, and he said simply, “This has to stop.”
So, when it’s your family, your son, daughter, sibling, or a friend or a child of one who may have, like Matty, been a Scout, an altar boy, a kind and funny man who lost his way and refused or ignored the voices pleading with him to correct his path, the only thing that matters is this: What will you do to make a positive difference? Brian Huber is an editor and reporter with the Waukesha Freeman