Faces of Heroin: The epidemic affects more than just the addict

TOLEDO, OH (WTOL) - Heroin has no discrimination. Heroin, even worse than a parasite, not only seeks to destroy its host, but those surrounding.

Two years ago, John and Laurie Clemmons lost their son to heroin. Brandon was an all-American Midwestern kid. But in the words of Alicia Cook, heroin took a hold of Brandon and his family.

"Heroin is holding the person I used to be hostage.

Brandon Morris was a loving son and brother. He was Cardinal Stritch grad, football player and all around popular kid. But never did his parents John and Laurie expect heroin addict to be associated with their son's name.

"We never thought Brandon would use heroin," Laurie said.

"I never thought Brandon would be in that place, never thought it," John added.

In the summer of 2014, Brandon moved back in with his parents, and that's when they started noticing signs uncharacteristic of their son.

"Missing family get-togethers, and loss of weight. Strange friends that I didn't know showing up at the door," Laurie said.

Brandon lost over 30 pounds. Laurie said his skin had a gray color to it. He was not wearing nice, name-brand clothes anymore.

In addition to that, other signs John and Laurie didn't know where "signs" at the time, were pin drop-sized pupils, raspy voice, and sleeping a lot.

Then one day, Brandon was acting very strange.

"He was doing some really weird things, and he wouldn't tell me what was wrong with him," John remembered. "And I was telling him you're on something, and I had actually stopped him and patted him down, and I found a syringe and some pills."

They would later find out that syringe contained heroin. So John and Laurie checked their son into a local rehab facility.

"You got to give them tough love, which is tough to do," Laurie said.

Eventually Brandon checked out of the facility and then he moved out of the house. Brandon began spending more time with the two strange men Laurie remembers coming around the house.

Heroin was not just consuming Brandon's life, but John and Laurie's as well.

"We knew what was going on with Brandon, I mean it just took over our lives 24/7. I mean we were just so focused on it, we were walking on eggshells, you know, it was tough," Laurie said.

John and Laurie attempted an intervention, but it fell to pieces.

"We knew where Brandon was going and Brandon had to realize that he, Brandon, had to hit rock bottom first," John said.

Rock bottom came in April of 2015 when Brandon's employers found out he was using heroin. They gave him a choice: Lose his job or go to rehab.

Brandon chose the latter. He went to a rehab facility in Florida.

John and Laurie felt with that decision they finally "turned the corner" with their son.

"When he would call, he would just sound like my son again. I had my hopes up, I really did," Laurie said.

"I thought it was a good thing. I thought, 'Oh yeah this is going to be it. He's going to come back and he's going to be better,'" John added.

But that hope came with a tinge of uncertainty when Brandon called just five short weeks later saying he was coming home.

"They said he was ready," Laurie said. "It was the best Mother's Day gift he could give me. Of course I wanted to see my son on Mother's Day."

The family had a cook out. Brandon talked about rehab and how he wanted to transfer his work down to Florida where he would be away from the environment, so-called friends and triggers that started him down the road of addiction.

The next day Brandon worked on getting the paperwork needed to transfer to Florida. But despite Brandon's good intentions, that same raspy voice returned along with the fatigue.

"Something wasn't right. That's what I kept on saying, 'You're not acting right, you're not acting right,'" John said. "He had a fentanyl patch on him."

John and Brandon exchanged words before Brandon asked Laurie to take him to a nearby hotel.

"He sat in the car a long time just listening to me, and I said I would fly back with him. Go back with him. And we wouldn't say anything," Laurie said. "He sat in there for quite a while listening to everything I was saying to him. He hugged me. He said he loved me. And he promised that nothing would happen, he wouldn't do this to me."

Tragically, that would be the last conversation Laurie and Brandon would have. It would also be the last time she would see her son alive.

"We got that call at two in the morning on the 15th, not a call any parent would want. It's the worst feeling," Laurie described.

On May 16th at Toledo Hospital, Brandon was pronounced dead of an overdose.

Even with all the things leading up to Brandon's death, John and Laurie could not swallow the death of their son.

"Shock, just in disbelief," Laurie said. "You can't hug them with all those wires on them. That was tough because I miss his tight hugs. They wheeled him out and the last time I saw him was when that elevator closed. Worst feeling. That was it. You're not going to see his handsome face again."

John and Laurie say holidays, birthdays and other special occasions are not the same anymore without their son.

Laurie will never get a Mother's Day card from her son, instead she now has a tattoo of Brandon's signature from the last Mother's Day card he ever gave her.

But while Brandon's fight with heroin has come to an end, for John and Laurie, heroin still consumes their daily thoughts, even two years after they said good-bye to their son.

"I live heroin 24/7, and I don't use the stuff at all. I really do," John said. "I wake up and I think about it. I look at my wife and I think about it. I see pictures of Brandon and I think about it."

Fighting the "would have", "could have", "should have" thoughts and questions that could lead to pain and regret.

"I hate saying doing anything different because there's a lot of guilt in there of what happened in our experience could we have done this different, would we have saved our son's life if we would've done this different, because it's easy for us to say this now. That's hard, and I won't allow myself to slip into that," John said.

Instead, John and Laurie use their experience to help others.

"I don't want people to experience what my wife and I have," John said.

"If we can just save one person, I would be really, really happy," Laurie added.

Laurie helped start a mother's group called S.O.U.L , which stands for Surviving Our Ultimate Loss. The group aims to help moms grieving the loss of a child to accidental overdose.

"I feel really good being in those groups. I like being at them. It's well needed," Laurie said. "Maybe moms will speak out more. And get moms to come and help them get out of the house and not seclude themselves because it happens, I know, I've done it."

Laurie wants to get the conversation going because her biggest advice to parents is to speak out. Don't be too embarrassed to ask for help. Instead reach out and do something about it.

As for John, he's working with law enforcement and organizations like the Wood County Opiate Task Force to help make changes to detox centers and even the legal side of addiction.

"Brandon can't swing back and that's what I want to do is I want to try to influence maybe legislators or policy makers to maybe change the way they look at things," John said.

They encourage people not just to speak out, but to educate themselves on the drug, the signs that come with it and to get past the stigma because they say it's a family disease, even a community disease we all have to fight.

For John and Laurie they will continue fighting to hopefully prevent others from going through the same tragedy that forever changed their family.

In the words of Alicia Cook, read by John:

"Yes, heroin has taken so much from me — but it hasn't taken away my voice. It will not take away my voice.

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