On the Opioid Epidemic, Part 2: An Interview with Cecilia Brown, Mother and Advocate

In the second installment of a four-part series on how Americans have begun to battle the opioid epidemic, Arka Gupta interviews Cecilia Brown.

As the opioid crisis continues to sweep across the United States, countless Americans have lost their lives to addiction. In their wake, they leave heartbroken friends, families, and loved ones. Mothers, above all, are especially stricken by the loss of a child to opioids. Mrs. Cecilia Brown, a parent and advocate, tells the story of her son Ryan, whom she lost to an overdose on heroin.

The Politic: Can you discuss Ryan’s story?

Cecilia Brown: Ryan was your age, 19, when we found out he had an addiction. We sent him to college for a degree, and he came home with an addiction. We sent him to WVU, and his struggle [with heroin] was 7 years. He had an overdose on April 25th, 2014. He died in Macy’s in the bathroom. He had actually been doing well prior to that. When he died, he was actually on the waitlist for two programs. He got a Medicaid card three days before he died. When he got that, it was through Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act. We were happy about it because if you don’t have access to healthcare coverage, it limits what you can get treatment-wise. We were very excited about it. The night the detectives came to our home when they told us [about Ryan’s overdose], one of the first things I said, “I don’t want one more person to die”. And since that time, my husband and I have been working very hard to raise awareness about addiction and overdose because we didn’t want to lose one more person.  So we have been pretty active in the community with trying to make a difference.

Ryan’s struggle was for seven years. If somebody would have told me this would happen, 10 or 15 years ago, I would have said: “you’re crazy”. We never had any trouble with Ryan in school. He ran track in high school, played Little League and Soccer. He had a scholarship going to college. He helped with the sound system at church. So he wasn’t the type of kid you would have suspected.

We were devastated by this whole thing. He had three overdoses before the fatal overdose. The first overdose we had was in our kitchen. We heard he had been eating and put the dish in the sink, and then we heard this crash and it was him. It was traumatic for my husband and I. Luckily, we have a neighbor who is a nurse. We called 911 and my husband ran next door and got our neighbor who performed CPR. They were able to keep him alive until the ambulance got here.

What happened a lot of times when we took him to the hospital and into the ER was that he didn’t have any coverage. There was a unit there that could have admitted him but they didn’t. They were almost relieved when the parents showed up to take him because they didn’t know what to do with him. And so we would have to get him. He wasn’t admitted. We tried everything we could think of. We tried to get him committed and that didn’t work. My husband tried to get him arrested because after he had overdosed another time we were just desperate to get some help because we wanted to him to be safe. One of the things that happen as a parent is that you don’t know what to do when you find out your child has a heroin addiction. I didn’t even know anybody who has a heroin addict. That’s why even after he died, we found out that there was a place a few miles down the road he could have gone to. It seemed every time we turned around, we had trouble getting him treatment, just getting him somewhere. You had to turn into an advocate a bit to try to get him into places.

What were some of the challenges of finding help for your son?

First of all, you can’t get into [treatment centers].  Access and capacity is an issue in the state. Trying to get in and knowing where to call were problems. The other thing was getting someone on the phone. I know it sounds pretty simple, but often times you would call and not get anything.

There is a window of opportunity with a heroin addict. You have to get them when you want help, or you lose them. And what happens is that if you don’t get help now, then they are going to use again. The other thing is that there’s a lot of stigma around it. You could tell that people aren’t really willing to help people who are addicts. They see it as a choice instead of a disease. The time the person makes a choice is the first time they do it.

People can be pretty cruel about what they say in response. Ryan didn’t really want to talk to a lot of people about it. I think because he felt ashamed. The other thing that was a challenge for him was that once you begin to get clean and sober, you start pulling away from your drug friends. You begin trying to find new things to do. It’s a very lonely time since you focused all this attention and time around drugs.

Are you satisfied with what the local or state government is doing to address this problem?

I’m probably the wrong person to ask that, because I’m never satisfied. We didn’t get to this place overnight, or by just one person doing it. Even as citizens, they [local and state officials] have a role to sit at the table. I don’t think we have nearly enough beds. The other thing is that, we have to look at outcomes. One of these outcomes is overdose fatality. And that is going up. We had 844 overdose deaths in WV last year, and that doesn’t even include December’s. If this was any other disease, people would be jumping up and down if we had this many deaths. A part of this is stigma, people think that they [addicts] deserve to die. Or, they think it is a choice. I don’t know anybody as a child who say they want to grow up and be a heroin addict.  Looking at that, I don’t think it’s a choice. I think that is something that needs to be worked on. Another thing we need in terms of resources is a focus on prevention. We could increase our efforts on prevention, recovering homes, and recovery coaches. I will say, with a lot of people talking about the health care plan, I would like to see addiction included in it. We’re in bad shape, and we have more resources. Imagine stripping all these resources away.

Do you believe being on Medicaid is important in receiving treatment? 

You have to have Medicaid. Of course there are grants, but they only go so far — Charity Care is what I call it. These facilities, they need funds to run them and keep the lights on. And if you don’t have coverage, you’re not going to get in. That’s clear. When we took Ryan to the hospital, I remember calling. And this was after his first overdose when he didn’t have insurance at that time. My husband had taken him down there and he came home. And they had given him a little card. He had overdosed and almost died, and they just gave him a little card to call. I talked to Ryan, and asked, “do you want to go in somewhere?” He said he did, so I started making some calls. So I talked to this lady and she said, “well, we don’t have any beds.” And so I said to her, “do you not have any beds or do you only have Medicaid beds? She said, “I’ll call you back.” She finally returned the call and said to bring him in Saturday. And so they didn’t want to admit him until I called them on it because he didn’t have Medicaid. They didn’t want to admit it. I mean I knew it was; because he didn’t have a way to pay. You can get some Charity Care, but it doesn’t pay for much.

 Have you heard about other families or neighbors who have also suffered from the epidemic?

Oh my, yes. Initially we didn’t. We knew nobody who had lost a child to addiction when Ryan died. We knew no one. My husband and I were kind of isolated. We decided we were going to speak out. As we started to do that, we started meeting lots of people. For the first year, I started doing research. I found that there’s an international overdose awareness day, and I wondered why we didn’t have one here. So I kept waiting on that to happen, and it didn’t. So I just said I’m just going to start one myself. So I wrote a letter to the Governor asking if he would do an overdose awareness day for West Virginia. And he said okay! Then one of Ryan’s friends who is in and out of recovery asked me, “are you going to have a rally?”. I had never thought of that, but I said yes. I had no idea what I was doing since I had never done anything like this before. Last year, we had a tribute on the [West Virginia] Capitol steps. We asked people to bring shoes of the people they lost. I thought we would have about a dozen people, but over three hundred showed up. It was bigger than what we thought. The first part we wanted to be a remembrance to show respect for those we had lost, and we had a reading of the names. The second part we wanted to honor family and friends. In the last part we wanted people to walk away with a feeling of hope. We had people talking about their story and how they were in recovery and what had happened. 

As a mother who lost her son to the opioid epidemic, what is one thing you wish the public knew?

I want them to understand how devastating it can be and how much of a struggle it is for a person. I also want them to know there is hope in recovery. People can and do get better. One of the things that I have said, the reason we’re called Ryan’s Hope is when I told Ryan: “another day you don’t relapse is another day of hope.” And we could have let that hope die with Ryan, but we chose to share that hope with others. Also, it is important for the recovery community to understand that it is not a hand-out, it’s a hand out. For the person who goes into recovery, they reach a hand to somebody else, or somebody reaches out a hand to them. And then they reach a hand to somebody else, and then they reach to another. So it is not a hand-out, it is a hand out, which is different. I have seen so many people turn their lives around. So we can stay where we are at it, or we can make a difference.

Often enough, we conjure up an image of what an opioid addict looks like: maybe homeless, unemployed, desperately impoverished, and/or violent. But Ryan shatters that stereotype. As a former track star and active volunteer with his church, Ryan was attending West Virginia University on a scholarship. Ryan was a normal kid raised in a loving environment. Learning Ryan’s story, as told by his mother, illuminates that the opioid epidemic is not limited to people from a certain socioeconomic class, race, or background. It has taken its toll on individuals from all walks of life. In addressing this epidemic, demonstrating compassion towards recovering addicts in how we perceive them as well as in how we treat them will be crucial. While we may discriminate, addiction frankly does not.

Arka Gupta is a sophomore in Branford College.