There is an idea circulating throughout this country, one that goes something like this: “Drug use? Drug overdose? Death? Those must be bad people, from bad families.” Not only is this view uninformed, it also allows us to dismiss the devastation of Substance Use Disorder and resulting death, and the rippling damage done to families. It’s a way to avoid facing a seemingly unsolvable problem.
Sadly, it’s not until the disease of addiction or the evisceration of a death touches our own family, that we truly understand the depth and the breadth of the cancer of Substance Use Disorder. It is a disease of people, of human beings, of communities and of families.
As dire as the scourge of substance abuse, particularly opioids, is in the United States, a malevolent new player has stormed the field, and it has changed everything. It has raised the stakes. Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic pain medication and central nervous system depressant, is being used to cut illicit drugs such as heroin, cocaine, meth, and even marijuana. It is being added to counterfeit pills bought and sold on the internet. Not surprisingly, adding fentanyl to illicit substances greatly increases profits for traffickers and dealers. It also kills a great number of those who ingest it, and many ingest it unknowingly.
Fentanyl has quickly become the number one killer of people ages 18-49, surpassing auto accidents, shootings and COVID-19. Law enforcement and other first responders are endangered and overwhelmed by this crisis. Hospitals are straining under the weight of substance abuse, treating overdoses at a steadily climbing rate. Families are losing people they love.
Katie, age 30
Meet Katie Schrader, an all-American girl, according to her mom Kathy. Bubbly, vivacious and bright, she loved sports, including competitive cheering in high school in Duluth. Katie was also a talented artist, creative and passionate. Her drawing of “What the Olympics Mean to Me” was selected for display during the 2004 Olympics in Greece (when she was just 12 years old), and later at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.
“I think she got her first taste of opiates when she was cheering, as the result of an injury,” Kathy said. Kathy Schrader is a former Gwinnett County judge who became nationally known for her innovative and effective Drug Court, even featured on A&E’s popular television show Intervention. Schrader is passionate about addressing the problem of addiction as a disease, and not a crime. Her involvement with youth in crisis and advocating for the struggling population came well before her daughter was ever introduced to any addictive substance.
Katie was in college when she met a boy whose brother introduced her to heroin, a powerful opioid known for being highly addictive. “We got her into treatment immediately,” Kathy said, and that’s when her family learned that even some treatment centers take advantage of families terrified of losing their loved ones. “They tell you things like, ‘If you don’t do this, you’ll lose her,’ and all the while your loved one may need a different level of care. Then you write a large check, because that’s what you do for someone you love,” Kathy said. “It is no different than if Katie had been diagnosed with cancer, you do what you need to do to obtain treatment for your loved one. The problem is that there is no oversight in this industry to prevent the fraud inflicted on individuals and families – even on our family with all the training and experience that I have.”
Once the appropriate treatment was found, Katie completed her recovery and was doing well, when she met another young man. When that relationship soured, Katie turned to the numbing effects of heroin for comfort. She entered recovery treatment again, and once she completed that program, she was doing well. In fact, she was thriving. Katie was accepted to Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, a premier art school.
When Katie moved back home from school to Gwinnett County, she decided to get an apartment in Atlanta. She met another young man, and used heroin once. Immediately realizing her mistake, she moved back home with her parents and began working at Lightway Recovery Center, helping other young women fight the demon of substance abuse. Katie was a certified trauma and life coach. She was admired, loved and respected by her peers and colleagues, and had even begun achieving her goals of becoming a licensed therapist. “She was fierce in fighting this disease and wanted to help others with it,” said Kathy.
Last fall, Kathy and her husband went out of town for a few days, staying in close contact with Katie via phone calls and texts. When she didn’t answer their calls or texts, her parents grew concerned and asked Katie’s brother to check on her. She was found deceased in her bedroom.
“We will never know exactly what happened or why,” Kathy said. “We think maybe she found some of the drug while she was cleaning and used it, thinking it wouldn’t be a problem.”
And perhaps it wouldn’t have created an insurmountable problem, but the heroin contained fentanyl. Katie didn’t stand a chance against fentanyl.
Not one does, against a deadly dose of the powerful drug. And no one knows whether their dose of illicit substance has no fentanyl, has just enough to get high, or has enough to kill several people.
“We have to remove the shame and the stigma that surround Substance Use Disorder. We have to be transparent and honest,” Kathy said. “I’ve been on this soapbox for fifteen years, and fifteen years ago the problem was huge. Now, it’s so much worse,” because using street drugs has become a deadly game of Russian roulette, every single time someone uses.
LaMontre, age 42
LaMontre Lewis was a businessman, thriving in his career with Restaurant Depot. Well respected by his colleagues, executives, friends and family, LaMontre was on his way up. A single man who was building a life he envisioned for himself, he had everything to live for.
“He made all celebrations fun, and was the life of the party,” said his mom, Bridget Maddox. “We miss him so much.” LaMontre had three siblings, four nieces and one nephew. His absence leaves a gaping hole in the family.
The Gwinnett County Medical Examiner’s office declared Lewis’s time of death to be 10:45 a.m. on October 15, 2022. He had been celebrating a friend’s birthday in his Norcross apartment along with several other people. “LaMontre would drink, but he would never in a million years use drugs, to my knowledge. I know I’m his mom, so maybe I wouldn’t know everything about that, but his uncle and lifelong friends said the same thing. The Medical Examiner said marijuana was overwhelmingly present in the residence, but wasn’t found in my son’s body during the toxicology screen. In addition, there was no heroin, or any other opioid present in his body.He didn’t even like to use marijuana,” said Maddox of her son. Still, the Medical Examiner’s toxicology report indicated that fentanyl and ethanol were in his system, and the cause of death is listed as “Accidental overdose of fentanyl.”
Maddox believes her son was poisoned. She still has many unanswered questions about her son’s death, and she is hoping an investigation will answer those. Conflicting reports about the events leading up to his death just pose more questions and fuel more angst for the family. But the fact remains that a deadly substance was found in LaMontre’s body, and it was fentanyl. He was the only person found dead in his apartment during that weekend that was supposed to be a celebration of friends, and his death leaves a gaping hole in the lives of those who loved him.
Maddox has been through grief counseling provided by her place of employment, and she expresses concern for families who don’t have that resource at their disposal. “It’s so important,” she said, to be able to talk and work through the shock and the loss that is so cruelly senseless.
Jonathan Taylor, age 18
Parkview High School graduate and college student Jonathan Taylor knew what he wanted in life. An accomplished athlete, he played baseball, football, golf, and he wrestled in high school. He loved to hike. While in college, he planned to study business. He and his brother already worked for a company selling tee shirts. He was industrious, ambitious, and looking toward a bright future.
“He had a great sense of humor, and he was so smart,” said mom Jennifer Taylor. Jonathan graduated high school in 2020, and he had been diagnosed around the same time with Graves’ Disease, an immune system disorder that results in the overproduction of thyroid hormones. “One of the side effects of this disease is anxiety and depression,” said Jennifer. He was being treated for the disease and the symptoms by a physician, but then something happened.
“We don’t know if his thyroid condition had changed, but his symptoms got worse. He eventually found relief in Xanax as a source of comfort,” Jennifer said. Xanax is a drug used to treat anxiety and panic disorders. His family initially offered to take Jonathan to a physician to seek help with his anxiety, but Jonathan turned to an online supplier of the anxiety-relieving prescription pills. He easily found a dealer who would sell him Xanax. The dealer’s last sale to Jonathan was the drug Percoset, as he was out of Xanax (Percoset is an opioid-containing pain reliever).
“Jonathan asked the dealer if the pills were pressed (counterfeit),” said Jennifer. On his phone, his mom found pictures of the pills on Instagram, and that indicated that Johnny was trying to find out if they were real or pressed before he took them.
Some research indicates that as many as six out of ten pills bought online are laced with fentanyl. The powerful central nervous system depressant is also found in marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy, molly, heroin, and other recreational drugs. It is about 50 times stronger than heroin, and about 100 times stronger than morphine.
Jonathan, who lived at home, took the Percoset when he returned from buying it that evening. Jennifer, sleeping and unaware of what was happening, found her son deceased the next morning.
“These aren’t bad people. They are people who are looking to just not ‘feel’ for a brief time, for whatever reasons,” said Jennifer, who went on to state that she believes that COVID-19 and the mandated shutdowns, isolation, fear and frustration just fueled this fire of mental health struggles that plagues so many people today.
“Jonathan loved to hike. He was a foodie who enjoyed cooking. He loved to travel,” Jennifer said. “Young people are going to try things. They are going to experiment. They always have. But that has all changed now. Johnny thought he had it all figured out, as many young boys do.” Fentanyl has taken away the option of trying something experimentally, as there are too often no second chances, no opportunity to make a better decision tomorrow.
If your family has been affected by the deadly drug fentanyl, visit the national, non-profit memorial website www.becometheirvoice.org.
Recent studies have demonstrated that Substance Use Disorder results from real changes in a person’s brain chemistry, not a lack of willpower or resolve. The studies on human brains, particularly those aimed at better understanding of concussion injuries in NFL players, has revealed chemical changes and their effects on behavior with respect to substance abuse and injury.
People who struggle with addiction and fight so hard in recovery, also wrestle with depression. They hear all too frequently that another friend who was on the same path as the one they are walking, has died. They lose people they love, often at a young age, and at a sadly accelerated rate. They are wracked with shame and guilt. They feel self-loathing, because they fear disappointing those who love them. They heap guilt on themselves, believing that a lack of willpower stands between them and recovery.
Recovering from Substance Use Disorder is not an easy road, but it is one worth walking, and it can be successful. Many who have recovered share their stories with others in an effort to bring hope to a dark and seemingly hopeless world. But the addition of fentanyl (and even stronger drugs like carfentanyl and Xylazine) to already dangerous illicit drugs robs everyone of that hope. As Gwinnett County’s District Attorney Patsy Austin-Gatson explained, “The conversations have to change. We can no longer say ‘Don’t use drugs; they will mess up your life. Now, we must say ‘Drugs will kill you. Truly, one pill can kill.’”
Substance Use Disorder is a cancer of all communities, all families, all of us. Drugs are at the center of many crimes, including homicides, robberies, home burglaries, carjackings, and human trafficking. If this disease was ever “someone else’s problem,” that has changed forever. It is everyone’s problem, and while the solution isn’t evident right now, it surely lies in first acknowledging and accepting this fact.