Putting a face on the opioid crisis I: The loss of a beloved son

Retired Special Education teacher Ms. Ginny Perry visits with the Journalism class to share the story of Justin, the insights she's gained, and the efforts she is making to take away the stigma of addiction.

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Justin Pschierer, August 11, 1994-Sept. 7, 2016

He was creative. He was hard-working. He was loyal. He was a son. He was a brother. He was family.

Justin Perry Pschierer, the son of Ms. Ginny Perry-Pschierer and Todd Pschierer, fell victim to an addiction to opioids and died on September 7, 2016. He had turned 22 on August 11, just about one month before his death.

Recently, Ms. Perry-Pschierer, Justin’s mother, who retired at the end of June, 2016, after more than three decades of teaching Special Education, visited the Journalism class to talk about Justin, his journey, and the opioid crisis in general. She remembered Justin with fondness, recalling his creativity, his love of and ability in cooking, and his loyalty to his job. It’s only in looking back and studying his life, she told the class, that she could see that her son had “significant mental health issues,” as do many addicts, and that these issues may have played a big role in his addiction.

“Every day, it was like putting out the fire,” she explained. From the time he was young, he had problems following rules; he was kicked out of day care when he was just 3 years old, she said. Even when he got older, “Conforming to school rules and expectations was not something he was willing to do.” She told students, “School was not his friend.” Besides struggling with rules and regulations, he also had a hard time making friends. When he got to eighth grade, he found a group of friends, and he started using pot “as a way to self-medicate,” or as a way to calm down, Ms. Perry-Pschierer said. Once he told his family, they talked to him about being careful and warned him about using drugs, because a relative had struggled with heroin addiction (and is now in recovery).

At times, in high school, he got into trouble, got suspended from school, and ran away from home. He ran away for the last time when he was 18. At this point, he moved out and into his own place. After a while, Justin mended his relationships with his mother, with his father, Mr. Todd Pschierer, and with his sister, Christine. He began to visit home more and confessed to having used LSD, mushrooms, and cocaine. But he told his parents he was done with these drugs; they thought he was using just marijuana.

On September 6, 2016, he was moving into a new apartment. The family members had rebuilt their relationship to the point where things were good. They helped him move out of a friend’s house and into his new place, getting everything set up and helping him move into the new place. They exchanged goodbyes, hugs, and apologies.

Two days later, Ms. Perry-Pschierer received a call from Justin’s aunt, that Justin had not shown up for work. This was unlike Justin, who was “very determined and admirable” when it came to his job, Ms. Perry-Pschierer said. He enjoyed his job, as a cook in a restaurant, and he was known for the creative new dishes that he would concoct.

Ms. Perry-Pschierer decided to go check on him, because he had also forgotten his charger in her car. She drove to his new apartment, but then she was unable to get in. So she had asked the manager to help her get into his apartment. The manager led her to his apartment, unlocked the door and walked in. When he walked out he looked at her and said, “He’s gone.” At first, Ms. Perry-Pschierer said she thought that the manager meant that we was not home. Then the manager told her what he really meant: Justin had passed away.

Through an autopsy, she found out that Justin had tested positive for THC, cocaine, and heroin. Today, she attends a support group, Nar-Anon, for people who have loved ones in addiction. She has come to understand that the parent of the addict has to go through the process of “detachment,” of detaching the familiar and beloved child from the person who has addictive behaviors. Yet even this knowledge is difficult to process. Reflecting aloud with the class, she asked, “Who would have thought that my baby boy would’ve done this?”

See our related story on the opioid crisis:

Putting a face on the opioid crisis II: What we learned