Stories that Connect


Today’s guest blogger, is a Lori Lewis, a featured speaker from yesterday’s conference on the underlying issues of youth substance use. Lori’s story share some unique connections: both our sons are named Ryan; both about the same age; both were overdosing at the same time. From there, her family’s story takes a different path. She frequently shares her story at community forums and we are grateful that she shared it at #fsts16. MWM

On July 10th 2014, my son Ryan died of a heroin overdose. He struggled with the disease of addiction for a year and a half to two years. An addiction that began with opiates and moved to heroin.  The progression was rapid.

Never would I have thought I would be sharing Ryan’s story with you tonight.  But my husband and I along with our children feel that if it can help one family or individual, then we will share.

I’d like to share Ryan’s story, our story, in hopes that it brings more awareness to our communities that this wicked drug heroin as well as other opiates are here in our communities.  There’s no town that hasn’t been affected by heroin and our loved ones are using this drug and they are dying.  This can happen to anyone of us. It can start by using pain meds for a simple dental or medical procedure or with the recreational use of pain meds and it can easily and quickly lead to addiction.

These drugs are just a Tweet, text or Snapchat away and can be delivered right to your door at any time of the day or night.

Ryan was the oldest of our 4 children.  Just 23 years old.

If you asked anyone to describe Ryan, they would tell you he was intelligent, artistic, creative, energetic, had a goofy sense of humor and a passion for music. He was so much fun to be around.

Ryan excelled in music, art and photography.  He was most content when he was playing guitar, painting, drawing or taking pictures.

Ryan had much to offer.

Ryan’s substance use began towards the end of his junior year here at Tartan in 2008, we had suspected he had be smoking pot. This assumption proved to be right. 

At that time Ryan entered a 30 day outpatient treatment program at New Connections.  He attended school and treatment there during the day.  After the 30 days he returned to Tartan to finish out his junior year. He graduated in 2009 and the next few years were uneventful.

In December 2012 Ryan’s girlfriend called.  They had been living together for a year.  She stated Ryan was feeling a little depressed and she was worried about him. Ryan then called stating that nothing was going right and he just wanted to end everything and nothing was worth anything anymore.

I immediately drove over and realized the situation was not good.  I convinced him to go the ER.  It was during this ER visit we learned that Ryan had opioids and benzos in his system. He had anxiety so the benzos I understood but the opioids?  Where did he get them?

One of the places was from me.  I had had back surgery a year earlier and he had taken the left over pain meds.  We did not have them locked up.  Why didn’t we?  These meds can kill.  Guns kill.  We keep those locked up!  I didn’t think about it.  Didn’t think we had to worry. Not my kid! Not my family. How could this have happened?

We addressed the issues and Ryan told us he had not been happy with many things.  There were financial issues as well and he asked if he and his girlfriend could move in for a couple months.  We agreed.

Within the month they moved in.  Things were a little rocky as they had to follow rules as we had kids that had to get up for school, we had to get up for work, etc. The usual rules.

In the months that followed Ryan seemed to get angry and irritated more easily.  It was hard to even have a conversation.  Again we had questioned the substance use and he denied.  I had also noticed that he was often ill with ‘flu-like’ symptoms in the morning but never put all the pieces together that these were withdrawal symptoms.  How could I miss this?  And I’m a nurse. I don’t know.

Again I would ask him all kinds of questions, how could you be so ill this morning and feel better in the afternoon?  No one gets better this quickly!

Ryan finally got tired of the questions from us as well as his girlfriend and he moved out and they broke up.

This was difficult for us as we had no way to know for sure how he was doing.

One day Ryan brought his clothes over to wash.  I thought I would be nice and start his wash for him.  I went to grab the items out of the wash to put in the dryer and felt something in one of his socks.  I pulled out a needle. I didn’t get it.  Why was this in his sock?  I called Ryan but no answer.  I called his girlfriend and asked if she knew anything about this.  She had been talking to his roommate and friend that morning and his friend had told her he was acting strange and that he suspected Ryan was using heroin.

How could this be?  This is the kid who cried every year when he had to get a flu shot up until the time he was 17!  How could he be using IV drugs?  We couldn’t wrap our heads around this but knew we had to get him help.

We moved Ryan back home and made a visit to St. Johns ER. The Chem/Dep counselor recommended Inpatient Treatment at that time and yet there were no beds available in the Twin City area.  No beds!! They were all full. So we brought him home and helped him through his withdraw symptoms and literally watched him the entire weekend 24 hours a day.  We did not let him out of our site.  It was exhausting.  On Monday we got him into St. Johns Intensive Outpatient Treatment along with AA meetings several nights a week.

During the 2nd week of outpatient treatment we got a call that Ryan was in the ER.  He was having withdraw symptoms which meant he had been using while in treatment.  St. Johns again recommended Inpatient treatment and would not accept him back in outpatient because of the use.

My husband and I were not on the same page for the recommended option.  I wanted him to be admitted and my husband, and Ryan, felt we could do this together with AA meetings, counseling and outpatient treatment at Canvas. And so we went this route for a while, had random UAs done, and had him check in with us multiple times a day.

This did work for a few weeks and then again Ryan relapsed.  At this point I could not stand by and watch this anymore and I contacted the counselor at St. Johns and asked for help.  Because this was on a Friday our only option was another ER visit and a 72 hour hold.  We just did not want to do this and instead stayed home again the entire weekend and watched Ryan round the clock. He went everywhere with us, he slept in the same room with us, we stood outside an open bathroom door.

On Monday we got him in for a Chem/Dep assessment and after many hours and much red tape there was a bed open and we were able to have Ryan admitted to Hazelden in Plymouth. By now it was early October.

Our son was safe for the time being.  We were exhausted.  During this time all or energy was focused on Ryan and keeping him safe and in recovery.  Our other three children lacked our attention.  What they did receive was the little bit we had left and most of the time that was not much.  We didn’t have the patience for even the smallest of their needs.  There were times when I would lie down in bed at the end of the night and ask my husband if the other kids were even home safe in bed.  This disease affects the entire family and it’s so very isolating.

During his first stay at Hazelden we all attended a 4 day Parent and Sibling group and learned much about this disease.  After the 28 days at Hazelden Ryan had gained 23 pounds, was back to his old self and was again full of life and fun and in recovery.  Within the week he had relapsed, in fact we would find out later that he had used the same night he came home. So back he went for another 14 day stay.

This time Hazelden Center City had an opening and they felt this would be better for him to be with adults.  After this discharge, Ryan had been in recovery for approximately 5 weeks when I received a call from my daughter stating that her car would not start and she had to get to work.  I told her to go downstairs to see if Ryan was home and to see if he could give her a ride.

Within minutes she had called back frantic.  She was talking to me on one line and 911 on the other.

Ryan had overdosed. 

She found him unresponsive, blue and barely breathing. He was brought to Regions where I met them.  As I sat in the room with Ryan, reminding him to breathe every time the alarm went off on the cardiac device and I just cried.  I felt so helpless.  How do I help my son? What is his rock bottom because I’ve hit mine.

When his dad got to the ER we talked with the doctors, nurses and councilor’s and asked them what we could do.  They told us to tell him he could not come home and that we should leave the ER and have him figure out a way home and a place to stay as we were enabling him and we were not helping.  To hear this is hard, and it goes against everything you know and do as a parent.  But we told him all of this and we left.

This was unbearable but we went home and packed a bag for Ryan and left it by the front door.

Ryan showed up at home and thought he was going to stay.  It was hard to stick to our guns and tell him that we had his suitcase ready and he needed to find a place to stay.  He left that night and if you remember it was bitter cold a year ago in January.  Neither my husband nor I slept that night wondering where he was and if he was safe.

Ryan called a day or two later and asked if he could come home.  Our terms were he could but that it required treatment.  Ryan reluctantly agreed.

Again we felt relieved that Ryan was in treatment and safe.

Ryan was in recovery for longer this time.  The recovery time was longer but the relapses were more severe.

During recovery Ryan and his girlfriend had got back together, he was hanging out with his friends again, having fun with his siblings, making music, drawing, and painting and laughing.  Our Ryan was back. It was so good to see this.  After discharge he was attending Intensive Outpatient Treatment at Hazelden in St. Paul, going to AA meetings and doing what he needed.

Ryan so very much wanted to get better.  When I asked him what was so hard and what I could do to help he just said, “Mom the physical and psychological cravings are just unbearable at times.”  This was even with the monthly Vivitrol injections that are supposed to help reduce cravings.

It was around end of May when I suspected Ryan was using again and we confronted him.  He had been slipping on his meetings and did not want to continue attending day treatment.  We were right.

As parents we were at our wits end, exhausted and in need of help for our son. 

Again he went back in to Hazelden at the beginning of June.  This time we told Ryan that what we were doing at home was not working and on the advice of his coucelors he would need to move in to a Sober House when he was discharged.  He was extremely angry and would not talk to us for about a week.

When he and my husband did talk one night Ryan said “Dad am I ever going to get better?” “Yep were going to get through this together buddy.  We can do it.”

On Monday July 7th my husband picked him up from Hazelden and helped move him into the Sober House in St. Paul.  He was still very angry with us about this situation and decided not to talk with us that day/night.  We gave him time and on Tuesday he called us to talk.  On Wednesday I went and picked Ryan up after work, brought him some clothes and bedding and we went grocery shopping.  We talked about how things were going and made plans for the next day.  I gave him a hug and a kiss, told him I loved him and how good he looked.

On Thursday afternoon at 12:30 PM I received the call from a man who identified himself as a St. Paul Police Officer and asked if he could come talk to me a work.  Why do you need to come talk to me?  What is going on?  Why can’t you tell me what is going on over the phone? My mind started racing.  Where is my husband, where are my kids, is Ryan in trouble?  How could he be in trouble he is at the Sober House?  I then just asked him if this has to do with one of my kids and please just tell me.  He then told me that my son Ryan had overdosed that morning.

What did that mean?  Ryan had overdosed before.  What did this mean I asked him but not wanting to hear the answer?  He then told me that my son was dead.  He had died at 9:30 that morning of a heroin overdose.  I just kept screaming ‘No’ over and over. This is not how this was supposed to be.  He was supposed to be at a Sober House in recovery, safe.  We were supposed to work through this together.

The officer met me and drove me to my car.  He told me they had talked to my husband and gave me as many details as he could at that time.

On the way home I was in shock.  My phone rang and rang with my husband trying to reach me but I just could not talk to him and hear his voice.   This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be.  Ryan was supposed to be in recovery, get the job he so hoped for, marry the love of his life, and celebrate all of those firsts.  He was robbed and we were robbed.  There is such a void in our lives now. We miss him terribly.

As parents we feel that we have failed.  We could not protect Ryan. 

Our healthcare system failed him as well and our family is still frustrated by this. 

His treatment was not individualized but rather followed a set process.  There were roadblocks every step of the way.  No continuity of care, gaps in information or lack of information, lack of knowledge of available resources and prescribers.  Every provider’s progress note stated “At high risk for relapse” and yet he was discharged.  There is much room and need for improvement!

The face of addiction has changed. It can be any one of us.  No longer can we say “This will never happen to me” as it can and it does.  No one chooses to become addicted.  The person chooses to use that first time.  The drug then chooses them.  We as a community can recognize this, educate ourselves and support people that suffer from this disease just like we support someone who has cancer or diabetes or one of the many other chronic diseases.

We need to take action and make change happen.

Lori Lewis


















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