SWARTZ CREEK — These days, the grief comes in waves.
“Anything can set you off,” said Lisa Harms Lewis, of Swartz Creek. “If I see someone who resembles him, or dresses like him, anything will do it. I’m fine one minute, I’m not the next. We’re hurt. We’re angry. We’re frustrated. All of it. It’s a rollercoaster.”
Lewis and her husband, Rick, have lived that rollercoaster for years. They are sharing their story now in hopes of saving another family from the same pain.
Lewis’ son, Brandon Vaughan, died of a heroin overdose April 16. He was 26 years old.
It’s no secret that the Swartz Creek community, like many suburbs of Genesee County, has a drug problem, with heroin being one of the top drugs of choice.
It’s not something that anyone wants to talk about, except perhaps in whispers. It’s a problem that has touched many families, including the ones who did everything by the book.
In many respects, Brandon Vaughan was a typical kid. He started playing travel hockey at Iceland arena when he was 4 years old.
“He was the team enforcer,” said Lisa. “He protected his players. But off the ice, he was just very kind, and funny.”
He had a natural talent for sports, including soccer and football.
“He was handsome,” Lisa said. “He took pride in his appearance. He was mamma’s boy. He was very witty; he always had some random oneliner that would crack you up out of nowhere. And he had the cutest laugh.”
But at some point, in high school, the kid they called “Bug” (because he was born with thick, black hair that made him look like a wooly worm), changed.
“He went from having this amazing group of friends, who we considered family, to hanging out with people the dog didn’t even like,” Lisa said. “We were blindsided. We said, ‘why us?’
“We knew it was a big problem, we’d heard the rumors, but we were in denial. We told ourselves that it doesn’t happen in little town, it doesn’t happen to a middle-class family. But it’s everywhere. If you want it, it’s available and it’s walking down the hallways in the schools.”
Addicts become skilled manipulators, and parents are often deep into enabling before they realize it, and even then, they often don’t know what to do about it.
“Addicts are great at pulling at parents’ heartstrings,” said Lisa. “They say they need money for gas, or to go to a movie or golfing or out to eat with friends. You fall for that. You hope that they really are going to a movie or out to eat.”
Parents go through ups and downs, times when they have hope for recovery, and times when their hearts sink because something happens that tells them, not this time.
“Brandon had had three DUIs,” Lisa said. “Once, he lost his driver’s license and we thought, ‘OK, we can keep a closer eye on him now, get a better grip on things.’”
Brandon overdosed at least six times, twice at home.
“Once, not five minutes after I went to bed, I heard a boom and found him on his bedroom floor,” Lisa said. “Imagine screaming and giving your child CPR and begging them to come back to life. I’ll never get that vision out of my head. Thank God I was trained, and I could keep him going until EMS got there.”
Brandon also went to rehab, eight to 10 times.
“They will say they’re done with it, they’re sick of being sick, so you jump on the bandwagon and say ‘we’re here for you,’ and you give them more money because you think you’re rewarding them (for getting better). I trusted him; he promised. But you still sleep with the phone by your side because you know the possibility is always out there that you’ll get that call. And you become afraid of the sound of the phone. You never feel safe.”
In the end, it wasn’t a phone call, but a knock on the door that preceded the devastating news.
“It was 10:18 on the 16th,” Lisa said. “My husband opened the door. I could see the (police) uniforms. I said, ‘He’s gone, isn’t he?’ And they said, ‘I’m sorry to tell you.’”
Rick and Lisa had spent years praying for the best and preparing for the worst.
“But when the police showed up at our door, we realized we weren’t really prepared for it at all,” Rick said.
Rick and Lisa found help through Narcanon and the United Community Action Network (UCAN).
“We met other parents who are going through or went through the same thing,” Lisa said. “We have to be able to help people’s families who are going through this.”
Rick started a Facebook group, A Father’s Fight, to provide support for other dads who’ve faced the same battle.
“Fathers are supposed to be the protectors, the fixers,” said Rick. “I have to be strong. I’m grieving, but I also have to take care of his mother. I started the Facebook group for dads, and we’re starting to get some dialogue, it’s getting some dads to open up.”
“When you lose a child, everyone seems to gather around the mom and expect the dad to be strong, but they’re hurting, too,” said Lisa.
The family also has found considerable support through UCAN.
UCAN approaches addiction from a systemic standpoint, according to Aaron Rubio, president.
“Hospitals, law enforcement, the judicial system, schools, first responders and, obviously, the community in general with churches, businesses and organizations … the focus is to unite all of these sources to combat the disease of addiction – that’s our mission statement,” he said.
UCAN is more than the typical prevention and awareness group.
“We’re working with hospitals to evolve a new standard of practice for dealing with patients with substance use disorder,” Rubio said. “We’re working with law enforcement, drug court, mental health court, sobriety court. We’re talking to athletic directors in the schools.”
Many addicts start abusing drugs after being prescribed pain medication for sports injuries, he noted.
“We are working with the Michigan High School Athletic Association on treatment protocol and addressing opioids in sports,” Rubio said.
UCAN also monitors Naloxone injections in the community.
“Overdoses are quite prevalent in Genesee County,” Rubio said. “It is common to have 40-60 every couple of weeks.
“We guide people from the moment they’re willing to step into treatment, through the pillars of treatment, we help them get housing, get into skilled trades programs. It’s a whole new look and approach to the treatment of addiction.”
One area that has proven difficult for UCAN to navigate is the school systems. Many times, the community does not want the word to get out that they have an addiction problem because families may move out, and other families may not move in. In addition, school districts are not equipped to tackle the problem.
“Once a student makes a counselor, principal or teacher aware that there is a problem, the schools have an obligation to help them,” Rubio said. “But they don’t have the staff, knowledge or resources to manage such a thing.”
UCAN is working with the Genesee Intermediate School District to create educational materials, and school officials now seem more open and receptive.
“Pretty much everyone is saying it; it’s not just Swartz Creek or Davison or Grand Blanc or Flushing,” Rubio said. “It’s a little bit of everywhere. It doesn’t matter what type of home the child is raised in. These kids are coming from all walks of life. They can be the #1 kid in math, or science, or an athlete. If you look at them, you would never expect. People don’t want to talk about it because of the embarrassment and shame. But we have to start addressing it and stop burying our heads in the sand.
“We appreciate the schools acknowledging that and allowing us to bring in some education. Law enforcement has been open to it and we’re working with them on a number of initiatives. We have a good drug court in Genesee County.”
Often, parents see the signs but can’t accept the reality. They hope it’s just a phase, Rubio said.
“They get so caught up in it,” he said. “They become addicted to their addict.”
He urges all parents to educate themselves, monitor their own medications, pay attention to their children’s friends, their hygiene habits, whether they are isolating, and “never hesitate to cry wolf.”
For Rick and Lisa, getting the word out is a labor of love.
“I don’t ever want a parent to go through this heartache and hell,” Lisa said. “I don’t want Brandon’s death to be another statistic. I will always be broken. But I have to put myself together and be a warrior and help other families.”