The Facebook post about Jordan Roche was startlingly frank: “As you may or may not know, my son Jordan passed away September 26th from a heroin overdose,” his mother wrote. “Jordan was a sweet young man with a great big heart. Even while struggling with addiction, he still took the time to help others with their struggle with addiction and with their music careers.”
Ryan Hawe’s death notice appeared in The Washington Post. “Our charismatic and beautiful son and brother Ryan died Saturday morning,” it read. “. . . We loved Ryan with all of our hearts, but we now know that was not enough to shield him from the world. . . . While we always felt we had some grip on Ryan’s issues, his ability to hide and disguise his addiction proved superior to our parental control. . . . To all parents, pay attention to your children and the world that revolves around them.”
Kelsea Brandt’s death announcement was simple and blunt: “She will be best remembered for her free spirit, love of life, and the incredible strength she had while enduring so much pain that came from her struggles with addiction.”
As opioid abuse rages and its legacy of overdose deaths continues to climb, more bereaved families are responding by publicly exposing addiction as the demon. Swapping openness for ambiguity in death notices – “died after a long struggle with addiction” replaces “died suddenly at home” – they are challenging the stigma and shame often bound up in substance abuse. Maybe more important, they’re sounding alarms about the far-reaching grasp of addiction.
“We want people to know that this can happen to anyone,” says Rosemary Roche, the mother of Jordan, who died last year at age 21. “Nobody is immune.”
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The spike in opioid addiction rates in the past two decades is rooted in the overprescription of pain medication such as Oxycontin, says Andrew Kolodny, a psychiatrist and senior scientist at Brandeis University. The medical and recreational use of these drugs derived from opium – and their illegal and vastly more affordable sister, heroin – is affecting the families of police officers and lawyers and politicians, he says, “and you’re seeing a very different response that says that this is a disease, not a moral failing, from families who want to spare others the pain.”
Addiction and overdose death go hand in hand, and fatalities related to opioids hit record levels in 2014, mushrooming by 14 percent in just one year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There were 10,574 heroin-related fatalities nationwide in 2014 – an increase caused in part by the influx of a deadly elixir of heroin and fentanyl, a potent analgesic.
Jordan Roche’s journey to addiction took a rambling path. He started using marijuana during his sophomore year in high school, he later revealed to his parents at his Bel Air, Md., home. Its effects soothed his social anxiety and gave him entree into a desired peer group. By the end of 11th grade, he was attending raves – events that the Roches now believe were the venue for his initial exposure to narcotics.
“Jordan got involved in the music scene that is the worst one for drugs,” says his father, Matthew Roche, an entrepreneur. By the summer of 2013, when he was 19, he was snorting heroin.
The parents became convinced of their son’s drug use in April 2014 and persuaded him to seek help – outpatient treatment at first, and later a 28-day inpatient program. Last fall, nine months sober, he returned home. He planned to go back to his old job, figure out what to do with his life. He was the sweet son again, watching comedies on the couch with them and laughing his goofy laugh.
But Roche continued to face an uphill battle for his sobriety. Opioids are lavishly addictive, and users risk a high chance of relapse in the first year, Kolodny says. Relapse overdoses often are fatal because the user’s tolerance level has dropped with abstinence.
The parents had just left for vacation in Hawaii when they got the call that their son had been found lifeless in the guest bedroom of his sister’s home. He was one of 78 Americans, according to CDC numbers, who die every day from an opioid overdose.
“But Jordan is not a statistic,” his father says. “He’s our beautiful boy. We chose to be honest about our son’s death because people need to see this for what it is: a scourge that’s taking our children.”
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“Judge me if you want, but at the beginning I didn’t see what was happening to him,” says Ryan Hawe’s mother, Lorretta Hawe, a retired business owner. She had a car accident in 2003, and doctors had prescribed Oxycontin for her neck and lower back pain. Soon after, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer, and within a month she had a double mastectomy.
At first she didn’t notice that any of her Oxycontin pills had gone missing. She saw no reason to hide her medication “since our children were trustworthy,” she says. And Ryan was only 13, a boy who adored his family, a shy and good child who didn’t believe in lying.
He’d recently become friendly with older kids in the family’s Manassas, Va., neighborhood. “I should have said no to these boys, but I didn’t realize they were swarming down on Ryan because they knew his mom was sick and would have opioids in the house,” she says.
Soon Ryan was smoking cigarettes, and then drinking beer and using marijuana. “Before we knew it, he’d become addicted to drugs.”
Heroin eventually became Ryan’s substance of choice – and now 21, he begged for help to defeat his addiction. Hawe says that her son, always compliant, completed more than two years’ worth of treatment and seemed to be on the right track.
On a bitterly cold afternoon in February, Ryan came home – happy and loving as usual – after a day on a construction job mixing mortar. He showered, grabbed his keys and headed out for a few errands – first to the bank, and then to the mall to buy his fiancee a Valentine’s Day gift.
At 6 the next morning, the phone rang in the Hawe home. It was a friend of Ryan’s, telling Hawe that he couldn’t rouse Ryan. “But there was no waking Ryan,” she says, “because he had been dead for hours.”
His cause of death was accidental fentanyl poisoning. Hawe says her son had injected the narcotic between his toes.
Within days, Robert Hawe had modeled his son’s obituary after one he’d seen elsewhere. The couple agreed that was important to tell people how Ryan died, to maybe change some minds about drugs.
“I had many miscarriages before he was born,” Lorretta Hawe says. “I always thought God had a purpose for him. If we reach even one person with his story, then maybe that’s it.”
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Kelsea Brandt died on Christmas Day 2015.
Wendy Messner describes her firstborn child as fun-loving and intelligent, a girl who had always “pushed and pushed the boundaries.”
By the time Brandt reached her early 20s, she had been using heroin intermittently for about five years. She had completed several stints in treatment, participated in a court program for drug offenders in Harford County, Md., and received methadone maintenance therapy – but all these efforts only temporarily freed her from the clench of addiction.
Last year, Brandt had been clean for about six months and doing fairly well, says Messner, a paralegal who lives with her husband and her 10-year-old daughter in Forest Hill, Md. “She was waitressing, and we’d started having a relationship again, seeing each other for dinner once a week. I felt like she was becoming the person she was supposed to be.”
But in early December, Brandt, 24, became distant and unavailable. “I knew something was up,” Messner says. “I was so afraid that she’d started using again.”
On Christmas Day, waiting at home with her family for Brandt to join them, Messner got the call: Her daughter had been found by her boyfriend in the bathtub of the apartment the couple shared. “Narcotic intoxication complicated by drowning” was listed as the cause of death.
“I was devastated and heartbroken – if not shocked or surprised,” Messner says. “I’d been preparing emotionally for this for a long time.”
By evening, Brandt’s cousin had posted news of the death on Facebook. And a few days later, Messner chose to tell the world her daughter had passed via a transparent announcement.
There was no reason to obscure the truth, says Messner, who has founded a group called Rage Against Addiction to advocate for drug-abuse awareness and support.
“Addiction is not who Kelsea was,” she says. “It’s a disease that people should know about, and I won’t run and hide. She was my child, my love, my life – and she mattered.”