Utah is consistently in the top 10 states for opioid overdose deaths. For years many Utahns have suffered in silence when it comes to addiction. But one grassroots group called The Addict’s Mom is creating a place to talk about it.
I meet the group of women on a Wednesday night at a Village Inn chain restaurant in Murray. Fleetwood Mac’s 'Dreams' hums along in the background. We get a big table and order decaf coffee and slices of pie.
Then, they get right into it: their kids and their kids’ drug addiction, which is mostly heroin. These moms have seen it all. Lana Bylund is the first to jump in.
“I’d found part of a grocery sack,” she says. “They’ll take and cut a little circle out and put the drugs in, twist it, sometimes burn the ends to hold it. It’s nothing to find that in the garbage bathroom. Or foil. Aluminum foil.”
“I’ll still pull out a dark spoon and go ‘Really?’ The black on the back of a spoon,” another mom, Ardy Evans, interjects.
Bylund has eight kids. Four are currently using heroin. It’s a strange scene: the pastel backdrop of the family restaurant with these suburban women talking about their kids overdosing on drugs, going to jail; even planning their children’s funerals, but this is where we are.
The Addict’s Mom is a nationwide Facebook group. On their private page they have about 30,000 members. Bylund coordinates the Utah chapter, which has about 250.
Amber Baum is another mom here. She has blond shoulder-length hair and wears a short, tan jacket. She says The Addict’s Mom page is a place to talk about anything with their kids’ addiction.
“A couple of days ago a lady posted something. She just said, ‘You know what, I can’t stand to look at my son. I can’t stand to look at my son anymore,’” Baum says.
“The anxiety they cause you,” Bylund says.
“Every one of us has gone through a period where you look at your kid and you’re like ‘Oh my gosh, you have destroyed so much.’ We’ve all gone through it where we look at him and go ‘I can’t stand you. Who in the hell are you?’ And nobody on that page jumps up and goes ‘How dare you say something like that about your son?’” Baum says.
In a society that looks down on the mothers of addicts, she says, The Addict’s Mom is a group with whom they can get advice without being judged, be honest about what they’re experiencing and even laugh.
“It seems so insensitive, but if we don’t laugh about it we would be devastated. We would cry all day long. And so, we have kind of a warped sense of humor because I think it gets us through it because what else are we going to do? Sit down and cry and give up?” Baum says.
Baum’s daughter Kenzie, started using heroin at age 17. She died at 22. Baum says then, in 2013, there was no support for parents like her. The judgment could be intense. She didn’t even tell her own parents about her daughter’s addiction.
“Utahns have a very difficult time admitting that they are imperfect. Or that there is not the perfection that they strive for or that Utah encourages,” says Dr. Jennifer Plumb. “You know, there’s very much ‘We’re fine. Everything is wonderful.’”
Plumb is an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah and she co-founded Utah Naloxone, which distributes opioid overdose-reversal drugs.
“Sixty-four-thousand people were estimated to have died from overdoses in 2016. This is CDC data,” says Plumb. “Estimate that’s over 365 days, that’s a hundred seventy five people a day. That’s a plane going down every single day. How do you get people to somehow embrace that for the fright that it is? I mean that is truly mortifying.”
There is, of course, a groundswell of energy to address opioid addiction right now. Drive down I-15 and you’re bound to see billboards about it. Officials in Salt Lake County recently said they’re going to sue pharmaceutical companies for pushing addictive pain drugs.
But, Plumb says, on top of helping parents, community groups like The Addict’s Mom could make the biggest difference of all by breaking down stigmas and getting normal people talking to their neighbors.
“There are moms that have, I truly believe, saved dozens of lives in this state because they’ve been willing to have a dialogue on their block, in their ward, in their community, in their district, about ‘You know what’s happened in my family?’ They’re the ones who are actually gonna shift this,” she says. “There’s not anything I can say, physicians can say, legislators can say, as any kind of perceived authority that is ever going to be more valuable than just the average individual saying, ‘You know what, we got to talk about this.’”
Recently, a man came into Lana Bylund’s work at an auto body shop. He was complaining about his daughter and it came out that she was using heroin. Bylund offered to give him a naloxone kit she had, which is used to reverse an overdose.
“He says ‘Well, she’s been clean for two months.’” Bylund recalls. “I say ‘Please, just take this kit with you.’ This was at 5:00. Closing time. The next morning I got a phone call from a coworker. He says ‘Hey this man came in looking for the lady that works here, and he saved his daughter at 3:00 this morning with that naloxone kit.’”
The group of moms breaks at around 10:00 p.m. As we leave the restaurant, Amber Baum tells me about a hashtag she started using on Facebook. It goes #lessjudgingmoreloving. It’s silly, she admits, but she started using it because of all the times she felt judged by friends or even at emergency rooms while trying to help her daughter Kenzie. It’s a small thing, she says, but it’s something that would help lots of people.