- Associated Press - Monday, June 23, 2014

STEWARTVILLE, Minn. (AP) - As Ward and Deb Brossoit prepared to welcome people to the family support group they’ll facilitate, they had a few wishes.

“Well, first, we hope these people still have living addicts,” Ward said. He knows that’s not a given in this group, designed to offer hope to families who have been affected by addiction.

His own son, Alex, died of a heroin overdose on Feb. 25, six months after his release from a residential treatment program.

Brossoit also knows something few others know: On that same day, roughly 100 other Americans likely also died from drug overdoses -statistically speaking.

“Unfortunately, 105 people overdose on opiates every day,” he said.

There has been a significant increase in fatal overdoses over the last 15 years. In 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 38,329 fatal drug overdoses in the United States - more than double the 16,849 fatal overdoses observed in 1999.

Overdosing is now the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, accounting for more deaths than traffic fatalities or gun homicides and suicides.

Rochester Police Capt. John Sherwin said that local authorities see an overdose - though not necessarily a fatal one - “about every other day, and it’s only going to get worse.”

Alex was born March 17, 1988, the youngest of three children, and the only boy. The family was happy, “normal,” Deb Brossoit said.

Things changed in junior high, when “he was bullied terribly in eighth grade,” she said. “It just hurt him, tore him apart. That’s when he started to (self) medicate,” first with marijuana, then moving on to other, harder drugs.

“He’s been struggling since he was 14,” Brossoit told the Post-Bulletin (https://bit.ly/1lxCT6U).

Those struggles included alcohol and, eventually, heroin. He sought treatment multiple times, from Mayo Clinic’s Generose treatment center to Mayo’s Fountain Centers in Albert Lea to two stays at Hazelden Foundation, the last one from May to September 2013.

“It was very tough when he first went to treatment,” his mother said, “but burying (the fact) just brought more chaos. The stigma of the drug addict is still out there.”

Years passed, she said, before she finally understood her role.

“I told one of the drug counselors, ‘I’ve finally let go of my control,’ and he said, ‘Deb, you’ve never had any. This isn’t your fight.’”

“Until we understand that addiction is a disease, we don’t know how to react,” Brossoit said. “And when I did, I was able to go to my son and ask for forgiveness.”

For what?

“For not understanding,” she said, crying. “For not knowing what he went through all those years, that I wasn’t there for him. I told him he was my hero; I couldn’t imagine living the life he’d lived.”

Alex apologized, too, she said, “and we forgave each other. I fell in love all over again with my son that last year of his sobriety. It was the best year we ever had, because of our honesty.”

After leaving Hazelden last fall, Alex went to a recovery home, then another “step down” to a transition house before finally striking out on his own in Asheville, North Carolina.

“That was his new beginning,” Ward Brossoit said, adding that though Alex was “afraid to leave” the watchful eye of treatment, he knew his recovery depended on it.

“This was his new life,” Ward said. “He came home at Thanksgiving, and it was just wonderful. We had more ‘I love yous’ in the last year than ever. But he said to me, ‘Dad, I know there’s another use in me, but do I have another recovery?’ He had such broad shoulders - for everyone but himself.”

The day Alex died, his parents knew something was wrong. He hadn’t called or texted, something he did at least daily. He didn’t show up for work.

A friend went to his apartment and found Alex dead, face down on his bed. His parents called their daughters and flew to North Carolina. They had their son cremated, and had to clean out his apartment and plan a memorial service for him in Stewartville.

They asked a friend of Alex’s to speak at the service. He, too, is an addict, and spoke of the constant battles.

“You wouldn’t have believed the number of people who thanked us for doing that,” Deb said. “We decided we’re going to be open about this.”

“Though our experience didn’t turn out how we wanted, we can offer what we’ve been through,” Ward said.

The family support group they’ve organized will meet at 7 p.m. the first and third Thursdays of each month.

“We don’t want to talk about the addiction, necessarily,” Ward said. “This is for people who are afraid or embarrassed, who don’t want to talk about it or don’t know what to say. Being able to speak about it is a healing process.”

It’s sponsored by Fountain Centers, a Mayo Clinic Health System program for substance abuse and addiction that’s been helping individuals and their families who have alcohol and other drug problems for 40 years.

“We’ve been a part of other groups, Al Anon and Compassionate Friends, and we’re not in any way telling them not to go to those, too,” Deb said. “We’re not trying to take anything away from any bereavement group or Al-Anon, because that was our savior. This is just structured a little differently.”

Jenine Koziolek, the outreach director for Fountain Centers, wants families to let go of the shame and chaos that surrounds addiction.

“It’s important for them to realize that no matter what their loved one is doing, they can still take care of themselves and feel OK in their own skin,” she said. “They don’t have to be ashamed, it has nothing to do with them; there’s no fault in this matter. Some people need that listening ear, and to know they’re not alone.”

And that’s the point, Deb said.

“We want people to be able to sit with others who understand,” she said. “We want them to say what’s in their heart.”

Beth Lawrence, clinical supervisor at Fountain Centers, has a sadly personal stake in the group.

Alex Brossoit was her brother.

She’s been working in the field for 10 years, though it wasn’t because of that family connection. Six years older, Lawrence was already out of the house when Alex’s use began.

She admits the “roles got blurred” when his addiction became a concern.

“Because of me working in the field, I was kind of ‘it’ for the family” she said. “My parents would come to me quite often, looking for guidance. I started having my parents call his counselor, to stay in contact, so they started calling him instead of me.”

Still, Lawrence acknowledged the strain of her role.

“It was difficult,” she said. “Professionally, I could say one thing, but having it be a family member, and my brother, it was difficult to follow through on those actions.

“There were times where I called law enforcement on my brother, and called his (probation officer),” she continued. “Looking back on it, I wouldn’t change anything, but those are hard decisions to make, and professionally, I knew that’s what needed to be done.”

Alex knew, too.

“During the moment, when there’s chemicals on board, he’d be very upset, vocal,” Lawrence said. “But a couple weeks down the road, when he was sober, he was very grateful that I was there to make those calls that forced him back into sobriety.”

Not surprisingly, she knew the reality of Alex’s situation before anyone.

“I’ve always believed addiction is a disease,” Lawrence said. “It took my parents a while to fully understand why he does these things.”

She said her family “for the longest time, didn’t talk about Alex, didn’t bring up anything. We didn’t start to talk about it until my family members were fully able to grasp the concept of addiction being a disease.”

Lawrence said she’ll likely not attend the support group.

“This is something I need to stay out of,” she said. “This is my parents’ big grieving thing right now. It would come much more naturally to them if I’m out of the picture a little more.”

As in Alex’s case, overdoses are rarely caused by unusually strong doses of a drug. In fact, toxicology tests conducted after a fatal overdose usually indicate that the victim had consumed either his typical dosage level or a dose slightly lower than his typical level.

An overdose usually occurs because the users experienced a loss of tolerance. As in Alex’s case, it often arises because they haven’t used for a while.

Either way, the Brossoits knew what to do after finding Alex had called unfamiliar phone numbers on his cellphone in the hours before his death.

“I took his phone to the police,” Ward said, “and said I don’t want to be anonymous. This is who I am, this is who my son is. I want you to find these people.

“I don’t totally blame the dealer for killing my son,” he continued. “My son knew what he was doing; it was like Russian roulette.”

A few weeks ago, an investigator from Asheville contacted Brossoit. The drug dealers in Alex’s case had been arrested.

“We’ve been through everything with him,” Deb said of her son. “Now I go through in my mind what his last couple of months were like, how hard it was for him. His buddies said it would have just torn him up to admit that he’d relapsed.”

Alex’s father, a junior high teacher, began teaching classes about drugs and addictions soon after his son’s death.

“When I’m in front of my kids, it’s my best, because I’m busy,” Ward said. “But as soon as they walk out the door, Alex is on my mind.”

It’s important, he said, to educate them early about addiction.

The support group, too, is an important part of educating others.

“I lived in fear” during Alex’s addiction, Deb said. “If I can help one or two or three people to be able to share with other loved ones, and to know it’s out of their control, that’s the goal. Though our son didn’t make it, there’s recovery every day. Recovery is lifelong, and those people are my heroes.”

Lawrence said she “definitely would like to be able to expand (the support group) to other sites; I think my parents would be on board to talk to other families to share” the group’s purpose and reach.

“I think this is going to be a huge step in their grieving process,” she said of her parents, “to be able to turn Alex’s death into something that can be so positive for other people.”

As for the people who may attend, “I want it to be a safe place for them, where they can just talk and share, and ultimately know they’re not alone,” Lawrence said. “It’s a big reason why people are so hush-hush in the beginning, because of the stigma, the stereotype.”

Today, just a few months after Alex’s death, Deb said she and Ward are “still numb. It’s still early, but we just have to get going.

“Alex would be so proud of what we’re doing,” she said. “I wish he’d had a happier life. He hated the disease, and we want to be his voice.”


Information from: Post-Bulletin, https://www.postbulletin.com

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