P Lynn Ouellette, in her office, holds a photo her son took shortly before he died of an accidental overdose in 2013. (Hannah LaClaire/ The Times Record)

It has been just over than 5 years since Brendan John Keating of Brunswick, Maine, passed away, shortly before his 23rd birthday on Dec. 16, 2013. He is deeply missed by family, friends, and so many whose lives connected with his in those two decades while he was alive. At the time of his death, we chose to say in his obituary that he died from the disease of addiction; though more specifically, and far more complicated, he lost his battle with addiction, anxiety and depression and died of an accidental opioid overdose. I spoke out publicly about his story hoping it would help others. That was at the early stages of what has now become widely recognized as the devastating opioid epidemic. 

Today still, we endure profound heartache at losing Brendan. We have wonderful memories of a creative spirit, a child full of exuberance, a teasing humor, and so much that was good. There is nothing like the pain of the loss of a child, no helplessness like the experience of being unable, in the end, despite all the treatment and effort, to prevent a death that seems so senseless as one which is lost to the disease of addiction. It’s a disease that takes lives of all ages; people’s children, parents, siblings; and knows no bounds of race, geography and socioeconomic class. I write this now to remind all of those prone to judgment, that addicts are people who have a disease, who struggle through every day. There is irrefutable science demonstrating changes in brain structure and function to support that this is a disease. There is no pleasure in being an addict, only desperation, pain and shame. For the families, there is helplessness, fear, and, when the worst happens, guilt, regret and profound sorrow. 

For families who are now in the middle of this struggle, know that you are not alone. Please speak up, reach out, and help each other. For those who are not, please try to understand and support prevention, risk reduction, medication-assisted treatment, which is the most successful treatment, and all other proven interventions. It is the stigma and the lack of access to treatment that have contributed to allowing this epidemic to grow so large. For those who are addicted, please let people help you, seek any treatment, remember you are in a courageous battle that you cannot win alone. Don’t let the addiction allow you to lose sight of the people who love you; those who too will be heartbroken if you are lost to addiction. 

For the families like mine, who have lost a family member, there is no true relief from the grief, only comfort in knowing that we are now so many who can play a role in preventing others from having to endure the excruciating heartbreak that has been and is part of our lives. I honor my son, and my love for him, by keeping alive the memory of him being much more than a person with an addiction, but being a also a son, brother, a friend, someone who loved to snowboard, was a gifted athlete from a young age, had great exuberance for life, had a very sensitive soul and had so many people who loved him. I also choose to honor him by speaking up about the disease that took his life, the fact that he struggled and was tortured by it, which is so contrary to the image that some people carry of addiction as somehow being a pleasurable “high.”

Since I witnessed his struggle, I can say that nothing could be further from the reality. I hope that his story, our story, will play a role is saving someone else’s life or sparing another family’s pain. And lastly, I plead for continued efforts to invest in treatment, prevention, research, and countering stigma to change the course of this epidemic which now claims more lives each year than gun violence or motor vehicle accidents. 

It has been five years since we lost Brendan, much longer since his battle with addiction first began. I think of him and miss him every day. 

P Lynn Ouellette is a psychiatrist who lives in Brunswick. 

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