Epidemic is an Understatement

This is a long article in a world of gif conversations. I ask you to try and stick with me here.
Picture an NFL stadium holding a capacity crowd of somewhere around 70,000 people, like this one.

Capacity: 66,829

Now picture every one of those people dead.

Hard to imagine, right? Yet, according to a preliminary estimate by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 72,000 Americans died in 2017 from drug overdoses. Almost half of those deaths involved the drug Fentanyl.

And that was one year.  It can’t get worse. Or can it?

Opiate overdose deaths have become so common that the state of Rhode Island has an entire website dedicated to the crisis.

According to the Prevent Overdose RI website, “Fentanyl, a highly potent opioid, poses a great threat and worsens our overdose crisis. The number of overdose deaths related to illicit fentanyl has increased by almost 30-fold since 2009. In 2017, over 60% of overdose deaths in Rhode Island have involved illicit fentanyl.”

This chart from the National Institutes of Health shows the dramatic increase in fentanyl-related deaths, particularly since 2013.

Every day, more and more stories about overdose hit the news…or am I just now noticing them? It seems there is a flood of these stories now, but maybe I just didn’t notice hear them before.
If you are anything like I was, even a little bit, this realization will come as a total shock:

There is an epidemic in this country, a lot of stigma, and only a little bit of education.

Those of us who are not in the world associated with this stigma are not really even aware of what is truly happening–and each region of the country has specific and varying levels of invasion. Too often, the word “addiction” is thrown around with words such as “better choices” and “being a teenager” and “experimentation.” And we are a culture built on self medication. You can’t watch 30 minutes of TV–even cartoons–without an advertisement for some sort of medication or alcohol. Opiates have been used in the U.S. since the 19th century and were long labeled “non-addictive”. In the 21st century, of course, we know that label isn’t true.

Zachary Bennett Brearley

It is more common for adults to have a drink on the weekend and include alcohol at a party than it is for there to be a party without any beer, wine, or liquor. But can that lead to an entire stadium full of people dead? Most people wouldn’t think much about that…until….

I had that “until” moment on July 19, 2018, when my son–at the age of 22–died of what I now know was a drug overdose involving Fentanyl. Since that time I have been, and will continue, researching everything I can to get a better understanding of how this could have possibly happened to my bright, college-educated, funny, and untouchable boy.

My son, like most about to leave high school, did not have any idea what he wanted to do with his life. Sure, if given the choice, he would have played basketball. He was a two-time district champion and practiced basketball all year, even if he was not playing at school. He loved the game. He was good at it and, even though I may be biased, he had incredible court vision. He could see the floor, the players, and the movements, and he could think one step ahead. So why didn’t this long vision work off the court?

Zach graduated high school just a few credits shy of his associate’s degree. He applied to three schools and was accepted to all three with scholarships. He chose Florida State University. After one semester, the school informed Zach that going to class was sort of required and suggested that he come back when he was ready. I am 47 and I still say that I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, so I get it. I have always been the type of parent who encourages, maybe even pushes…OK, yeah, pushes..my kids to strive for greatness–but I’m also one who supports THEIR dreams. My daughter chose to attend the University of Central Florida and has already produced an incredible student film, and I could not be more proud that she is chasing her dream. Of course, unlike Zach, she knew what she wanted to do since she was about eight years old.

So what do you do when your child has no idea what they want to do? You encourage them to keep trying things, maybe travel, visit family, or do something to see what it is out there that might fit. One thing Zach knew for sure was that he wanted to make a lot of money, so he tooled around with a little work to fill some time. After a job working in an arena setting up an ice rink or a concert floor, he was offered a job painting on one of the most beautiful places on earth, Block Island. He took it and ended up eventually taking up cooking on the island. I mean, why would a 20-year-old NOT  want to be on an island with sandy beaches and warm weather?


He got paid pretty well and he fell in love with the place, both the culture and the “party life” that–now that I have seen it–reminds me of cruise ships: beautiful scenery, fun people, cultures from all over the world…and drinking and drugs. The thing is, though, that people go on a cruise ship for a week, maybe two, but this was an entire summer. Of course, at the time at least, I was not aware of the extent of all the partying. I saw bits of it, but Zach was 20, and everyone seemed to think I was just an overcautious mom and he was just having a little fun. I heard from many people that he was just “seeing what’s out there” and “everyone does it at that age.” Zach and I had many conversations, and he always responded with some version of “Maaaaa I’m fine” with a wink and a flash of the dimple. Or sometimes I would get a snap of annoyance that led me to wonder more. He got arrested with drugs at one point, but they were ADHD ones that he “swapped” with a friend when a prescription ran out. Signs, maybe–but then not. With all my research and talking to people who spent time with him from that first summer and onward, I do think he started out like most of us did in our youth–just having some fun and drinking with friends; hey, I avoid anything peach flavored now due to a certain schnapps from back in the day. So what happened between that first summer of island life, hanging out with people from all over the world on a small island filled with sand, yachts, endless working hours, and a nightlife of drinking, to one year later advancing to trying cocaine and regularly taking Xanax to sleep, and then one year after that not being able to show up for work on time?

I have some ideas. The most prominent one starts with a pretty bold statement: THE WORLD IS A DIFFERENT PLACE NOW. Things move fast, people move fast, teenagers are advanced, and young adults are at a new level of awareness and stress, looking for ways to either check out or keep up. And–to add to the horror–I am pretty confident that he did not know that what he took that last day had fentanyl in it at all. This is more common than people realize, even people that are “dabbling”. Fentanyl is being added to street drugs without buyer knowledge, with dealers using it to replace drug components and make tons of money because of its potency, and the tiniest doses are deadly. The “experimentation” that kids did in the 70s/80s/90s is killing kids now. “Experimentation” can be deadly.

And that says nothing about the disease of addiction–how you get there and what it does to you. Having a few drinks with friends can very quickly progress to trying new things–and, before you realize it, someone is telling your mom that there was a medical emergency and you died that morning. A medical emergency. When I first heard those words, I thought maybe he went scuba diving and spontaneous pneumothorax caused his lung to collapse again. I didn’t realize just what “medical emergency” meant in the shock of that phone call. But it IS a medical emergency, because it is a disease. It took my son, and I share all of this because if I can save one person from having to endure this pain, it’s worth it. Please help by becoming more educated so that you can help prevent more senseless loss of life. And if you are a parent, a friend, anyone who is watching someone you love “change” and you just don’t know or see enough to really know what’s going on: find out. Dig deeper, ask questions, and, yes, if you KNOW someone is using drugs, help them get help; they are not “adults” anymore–they are adults with a disease and they need treatment. This is the worst part for me as a parent. I have talked to so many people who loved him, and they knew.  The stigma of addiction versus the acceptance of drug use as “casual” and “normal” by people in Zach’s age bracket is simply not OK. As a society, we have to be aware of what drugs are being brought into the street and made available. We need to educate our youth, and–maybe more importantly–provide them an outlet. Young adults need something in their life that takes the place of “the party” and fills their need for connection. I developed Wave22 to be a positive place full of fun that is so awesome that kids WANT to be a part of it, to be there and hang out, to grow and discover what they might want to do in life, but to also “play” in a way that brings them a sense of community and a feeling of empowerment that they get from life and not from a narcotic or a bottle.

We have an epidemic. There are organizations out there in the business of education. Use them, and help your family and others. We are all at risk. As for Intentional Heart, we are here to empower people of all ages, but our first program in development will be for this age bracket because everyone–and I mean everyone–I talk to says the same thing…there is nothing out there for these kids. Well, soon there will be. I will try every moment not to dwell on the one bright light that won’t be there to enjoy it. I love you bud, moon and back.

Shannon Tibbetts
Zach’s Mom and Executive Director of Intentional Heart
Coryne Tasca, editor ( for which I am extremely grateful)

Below are just a few stories, a few lives shattered, that were shared publicly for the same reason I chose to share with you all. There is also a bit of information about the disease and links for further reading. Please consider continuing below for a few snippets. You can click to read the full articles. 



I think it is important to understand a few things. Everyone is someone’s son or daughter and therefore compassion and empathy can never be used enough. It is possible to be part of these statistics on your first “try” of an illegal drug. The market is flooded with contamination in many forms. It is easier than most realize to go from “having a drink” to addiction, especially in today’s climate, and that addiction is indeed classified as a disease.

The NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse defines drug addiction as a disease.

“The initial decision to take drugs is voluntary for most people, but repeated drug use can lead to brain changes that challenge an addicted person’s self-control and interfere with their ability to resist intense urges to take drugs.” (National Institute on Drug Abuse)

Why has drug and alcohol abuse been labeled as a chronic medical disease? ( presentation )

Think of addiction like another disease, cancer:
■ It is deadly if you get it and do not get treated
■ If you do get proper treatment, it could still come back
■ It is similar to other diseases (Asthma, Diabetes, High Blood Pressure) that have to be managed throughout our lives

Typically, substance abuse is the result of or a part of other behavioral health disorders such as depression, anxiety and ADD/ADHD.

Bill Sternberg, USA TODAY Editorial Page editor, hopes that talking about his son’s death can help others and shed light on flawed system.

Our son Scott fatally overdosed last November. Nothing can bring him back, but I’ve learned some things that might help others cope with this affliction.

A hole in our hearts

(Photo: Family photo)

Two months before he died, Scott came home for the weekend. Sunday was a beautiful autumn day. Scott went to visit his grandmother in the nursing home and spent quality time with Duncan, the aging cockapoo he loved like a brother. We bought a laptop computer to celebrate his five months of sobriety and to help him find a better job.

That afternoon, Scott and I played golf. He drove the ball long and straight.

 He beat me by a stroke on the last hole and I lost $5 to him, and I was fine with that. We went to dinner at one of his favorite restaurants, with one of his best friends from growing up. Then we came home and watched the season premiere of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and we all laughed together.

On that perfect day, we dared to imagine a happy ending to Scott’s troubles. But it was not to be. Addiction is cruel. As one therapist put it to us, it hijacks your brain. The longer you are clean, the more your tolerance changes. If you relapse, a dose you used to be able to handle can be fatal.

read full article by Bill Sternberg

Brain Neuroscience
Drug and Alcohol use creates profound changes in brain metabolism.

She reported on the opioid epidemic for years. Then, her daughter died of an overdose

(Photo: Angela Kennecke)

On May 16, Angela Kennecke was working on a story about the opioid epidemic for TV station KELO-TV in Sioux Falls, S.D.

The story was about good Samaritan laws and drug overdoses. She spoke to three mothers whose children had died of overdoses.

After work, she got a call from her ex-husband: Her own daughter, Emily, had suffered what would be a fatal fentanyl overdose at 21.

“I just felt like I had an obligation to come forward and say this happened to me, this happened to my family, this could happen to you,” Angela Kennecke said. “This could happen to anyone.”

Kennecke describes Emily, the oldest of four children, as gifted, creative and outgoing, enjoying sports, the arts and other pursuits.

“She really was just a simply amazing person,” she said.

read full article by Brett Molina

“She was a beautiful girl and she deserved to live. And she deserved a chance to get help. And she engaged in risky behavior. But she didn’t deserve to die.

By telling Emily’s story and my story of loss and pain and suffering, I’m opening myself up. I’m being vulnerable to our audience in a way I’ve never been before. But I do feel it’s super important I do that. Because if just one person hears me. If just one person does one thing to save a life, then I don’t care about a million naysayers or people who don’t understand. I just care about that one mother that I can stop from experiencing the pain that I have.”

read full article by Angela Kennecke



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