By Stephanie Thomas
Nashville Mayor Megan Barry lost her only son, Max, to an opioid overdose on July 29. As she mourned Max’s death, the people of Tennessee’s capitol wept with her. And when Barry returned to work, she sought to mobilize the country in her fight to help those struggling with addiction.
The opioid crisis spans from coast to coast and touches all kinds of people in between. In just one week following your reading of this article, an estimated 630 Americans will overdose on opioids.1 Some will abuse prescription painkillers and others — who often started there, taking extra pain pills — will die from heroin use.1 Or, in growing numbers, from the use of fentanyl.2
While some users intentionally seek out drugs, for many the addiction begins innocently enough. A patient is injured or has surgery and is given a medication like Vicodin — a common painkiller — to ease recovery.3 No harm done unless the body craves more.
Research shows that one-fourth of people who receive an opioid prescription take them in higher doses or for longer periods than directed. And the numbers only get worse from there. Around five percent of those who abuse opioid pills move on to heroin. In fact, eight of every 10 heroin users started with prescription pills.1 Gone are the outdated stereotypes that say addiction can only be found in drug dens or out on the street. People with opioid addiction are on your street, in your community and maybe even in your home.4
In the specific case of Megan Barry’s son, Max, we don’t know how his addiction began. We do, unfortunately, know how it ended. An autopsy report showed a lethal concoction of opioids — liquid methodone and hydromorphone — as well as Xanax and marijuana.5
He’d sought help last summer, through a rehab program in Florida, before returning to college and graduating just a few months ago. Max then moved to Colorado. It was there with his friends that he was found unresponsive and later pronounced dead.6
Mayor Barry learned of her son’s death in the early morning hours, and, even as she grieved, she knew that this family matter would be part of the public conversation. Of her decision to be so open, she said, “My hope is that it may inspire and encourage other parents out there to have frank conversations with their own children about this. If that saves one life, then what a blessing.”6
After all, if there is any lesson to be learned from this story, it is that we should set aside all of our assumptions about opioid addiction. There is no one-size-fits-all image here. By her own assessment, Barry recognizes that Max enjoyed a life of benefits and good fortune of which others can only dream, and yet that wasn’t enough to save him.7 He went to rehab, but it wasn’t enough to save him. He was given Narcan — a drug used to counteract opioid overdose — but it wasn’t enough to save him.6
That’s why Barry considers an openness about Max’s life and death the best way forward. She said, “As we continue to think about what we can be doing as a community [to prevent fatal overdoses], it’s not that last moment. It’s all those moments that come before.”6
This is especially true with the rise of the drug fentanyl — a synthetic and supercharged version of heroin. Dealers often hide fentanyl in heroin because it looks the same and packs an extra punch. It’s also fatal in extremely low doses — just 3 milligrams of fentanyl provide the same lethal danger as 30 milligrams of heroin.2
What’s worse is that opioid addicts who overdose on fentanyl are much less likely to be revived by first responders using Narcan. In some cases, emergency crews administering more than 10 doses of the medication saw no response from patients — a sobering thought for anyone dealing with opioid addiction in the family.4
By sharing her pain from the public office, Mayor Barry is essentially saying, “Me too.” You’re hurting? Me too. Your loved one struggles with addiction? I understand what that’s like. You’re embarrassed for others to know what you’re going through? Please, don’t be.
Instead, take a note from Barry’s story. Reach out to your loved one. Don’t assume everything will somehow work out. Be hopeful, yes. But first, be wise and get them the help they need. As Bruce Barry, Megan’s husband, explained during a remembrance of Max, “We’ve all made incredible mistakes that we could almost always walk away from. [Max] made one he couldn’t walk away from.”8
1 “Opioid Crisis.” National Institute of Drug Abuse, June 2017.
2 Bond, Allison. “Why Fentanyl Is Deadlier Than Heroin, in a Single Photo.” STAT, September 29, 2016.
3 “Symptoms of Opiate Overdose: Vicodin, OxyContin, and Morphine.” American Addiction Centers, Accessed August 30, 2017.
4 Katz, John. “Drug Deaths in America Are Rising Faster Than Ever.” The New York Times, June 5, 2017.
5 Garrison, Joey. “Max Barry Died from Combination of Several Drugs, Including Two Opioids, Autopsy Says.” The Tennessean, August 9, 2017.
6 Garrison, Joey. “Mayor Megan Barry Opens Up About Son’s Drug Use and Death in Return to Work.” The Tennessean, August 7, 2017.
7 Barry, Megan. “Mayor Megan Barry: Thank You, Nashville.” The Tennessean, August 7, 2017.
8 Gutierrez, Gabe. “Nashville Mayor Reveals Son Overdose on Opioids and Other Drugs.” NBC News, August 9, 2017.
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