As Heroin Use Rises, More Families Struggle With Loss And Addiction

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Heroin use has exploded in Alabama, and heroin-related deaths more than doubled in Jefferson County last year. That means more and more relatives have to cope with the mistrust, deception and shame that come with addiction. Despite the stigma, parents are reaching out for help.

One afternoon in 2003, Susan Brawley turned into her driveway and saw her son’s car there. He was supposed to be at a new job. She was upset and stayed outside a bit to cool off. Once inside, she couldn’t open the door to a bathroom.

“I knew immediately, I don’t know why,” Brawley remembers. “The door was locked, I don’t know how I found something to pick the lock, but I did. He was slumped over the tub. I didn’t see a syringe, but the police told me later, there was a syringe.”

Her son had been battling heroin for several years. That day, he died of an overdose. Brawley is haunted to this day. For years, she was consumed with guilt, feeling somehow she could have saved him. She says her other two children have struggled with memories of their brother. It’s taken time for his siblings to understand, forgive and try to deal with their conflicting emotions.

“When Aaron was using, it’s hard to understand what happens,” she explains. “It’s hard to see the metamorphosis of your child that you raised turning into this lying, stealing, devious person. It’s hard to believe it’s your son, and it was hard to for them to believe their brother. He was stealing from them. He was stealing from me, lying. It was all about the drug.”

Brawley says not a day that goes by where she doesn’t think about her son. Looking at his pictures, she wipes tears from her eyes.

“What I see this all American young boy, he was a Cub Scout. Who would look at these and go ‘this boy is going to stick a needle in his arm and die from heroin’?”

Susan Brawley and her family aren’t alone. Heroin deaths are on the rise nationally, and increased by 140 percent in Jefferson County last year. Parents and relatives of users are reaching out for help. Mike Martin is a family therapist in the addiction and family unit at UAB. He conducts support groups for parents who have a child addicted to heroin. He says when a child is addicted to heroin, the entire house is thrown into a tailspin.

“They’re coming into a crisis. Not only is it a crisis for the individual who is addicted, but it is a crisis for the family,” he explains. “Families go through a similar process that patient does in terms of their denial, anger, their fear, guilt and shame.”

Barbara Brewster has been a member of Martin’s family support group. Her son has been fighting heroin addiction for years. He’ll recover, only to relapse again and again. She says she’s in the eye of an emotional hurricane, and sees how addiction affects the entire family. Trust is elusive.

“If I get a phone call in the middle of the night, I go straight to that scary place,” Brewster says. “He’s hurt or he’s dead. You hear ambulances, I always pray because that scares me.”

According to Martin, it’s an all-too-common situation for parents and families of users.

“Addiction breaks down communication. Part of the healing process means they have to start figuring out how to rebuild communication and deal with the dishonesty and manipulation, the lack of trust.”

Brewster says her son confided in his sister he was addicted to heroin. To protect her mother, she kept it to herself. Brewster’s voice shakes as she imagines the pressure her daughter was under.

“She had been left with having to carry that awful secret around,” she remembers. “When she would be home for Christmas, and things were crazy and we’d be arguing, I’d be trying to figure out what’s going on. She knew. But had sworn secrecy to him.”

Mike Martin, family therapist at UAB, says he sees partents reeling with shock and disbelief when they learn their child is addicted to heroin. Many don’t know where to turn to help them deal with the devastation the drug creates. As heroin use continues to rise, Martin says more resources are being created to help recovering users and their families find their way back from addiction.

Naloxone Helps Stop Heroin Overdoses in Alabama, But Still Not Widely Used

In Jefferson County, heroin abuse rose dramatically in 2014. The county coroner attributed more than 140 deaths to heroin. Law enforcement and the state have been rushing to respond. Last year, the state legislature approved access to a heroin antidote: naloxone, more commonly known as narcan. If used properly, naloxone can reverse the effects of a heroin overdose. Public health officials in Alabama are trying raise awareness and get the potentially life-saving drug to the people who need it most.

High Costs of Heroin Addiction Treatment Put Significant Strain on Families

Heroin abuse continues to rise nationally and in Alabama, leaving more people searching for ways to kick addiction. Families ask friends, professionals and scour the Internet looking for the best, and most affordable, treatment for their loved one. But the financial burdens can be crippling, sometimes thousands upon thousands of dollars.

The Low Price and High Cost of Heroin

Heroin overdose deaths are on the rise nationally. In Jefferson County, deaths increased by more than 140 percent in 2014. The numbers were shocking: Heroin caused or contributed to 144 deaths in 2014. Area law enforcement responded by increasing efforts to get traffickers and drugs off the streets, especially in Birmingham.

Uncovering Alabama’s Hidden Hepatitis C Problem

Injection drug use is on the rise around the country, feeding an increase in cases of the blood-borne liver disease Hepatitis C. The Centers for Disease control says that, nationally, Hepatitis C infections rose 150 percent in the last 3 years. But the spread of the disease in Alabama is hard to measure. Doctors and health care officials are trying new ways to determine the true spread of the disease here in Alabama — doctors like Jim Galbraith, an emergency room physician at UAB.

UAB Program Expands Access to Heroin Overdose Drug

Police and public health leaders in Alabama are trying to deal with a spike in heroin use in recent years. Naloxone — or narcan — is a drug that, when administered correctly, can reverse the effects of a heroin overdose. A bill passed the Alabama Legislature this week that would allow first responders to give narcan to someone dying from an overdose. But some don’t think the bill goes far enough. UAB researchers are working on a crowd-funded study that puts narcan directly in the hands of users’ and family and friends.