Ten years ago, my wife, Kathy, and I lost our 21 year-old firstborn, Will, to a heroin overdose. He was a competitive skier (graduating from Carrabassett Valley Academy in 2006); a successful third-year molecular genetics major at the University of Vermont; and a caring, affectionate and attentive son. We noticed absolutely no manifest signs of opioid use. Will was extremely bright and was beginning to investigate applying to medical school. His goal was to use his undergraduate and medical degrees to do medical research, but whatever discoveries he might have made will never be known.
Time is supposed to mitigate grief, but those of us who choose to survive the unexpected loss of a child (and many of us do not) must learn to coexist with a permanent hole in our hearts. If you are a user, please know that a mistake on your part will forever and profoundly impact the lives of those of us who love you.
In Janet Mills’ Maine, help is available. Please, please avail yourself of this opportunity. Many of us that you leave behind will simply not be able to survive living the unthinkable. Can you live with that? If not, pick up your phone and dial 211 to learn what your options are. Help is available.
If you are a parent, I urge you to follow President Ronald Reagan’s lead, “Trust, but verify.” I am reminded of a friend, a central Maine school superintendent, whose daughter was the “perfect student.” Honor roll every quarter, member of the Math Team, class officer and secretary of the school honor society. She was attending a senior party when her father — the superintendent — walked in at midnight without knocking. “Dad!” she exclaimed. “You are embarrassing me. Don’t you trust me?” “Honey,” he answered, “I love you too much to trust you.”
I encourage you, I beg you, I beseech you to love your children too much to blindly trust them. I can hear you now; “Not my kid!” Bullshit. Get your head out here in the sunshine and read the statistics while you still have time.
Overdose deaths occur across the socioeconomic spectrum. Athletes, scholars and outstanding high-achieving young leaders, just like our William, are all at risk. Many become accidentally addicted, often after a legitimate prescription. (Will had surgery to repair a separated shoulder in 2006.) I believe that some individuals are so susceptible to the Opiate Effect that they are essentially addicted after just one exposure. “The first time I did heroin, I felt like I touched the very hand of God!” is how a 17-year-old addict, now deceased, tried to explain his addiction to his mother.
It is your job to be a parent, not a buddy to your child. Be vigilant, be tireless and be resourceful. Track their movements, search their rooms and vehicles, randomly drug test them, and show up unannounced when and where they least expect you.
I would give up the rest of my life for the opportunity to walk into Will’s Burlington, Vermont, Hyde Street apartment 10 years ago, but that is not a possibility. What is possible is for you to heed my advice and not wake up to find that you are a new member of the club that absolutely no one wants to join. The choice is yours. I wish you luck.
Skip Gates lives in Skowhegan. The Department of Justice-produced short documentary, “ The Opiate Effect,” loosely based on Will’s death, is available on Vimeo.