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Owen Kemp’s family couldn’t save him from heroin’s rising tide
David Andreatta Staff writer The plan kicked in the minute Owen Kemp got out of jail. It had been months in the works, and execution was key to keeping the 19-year-old heroin addict clean.¶ He would move in with his grandparents in Utica, who had purged their home of medication and any valuables he might be tempted to sell for dope. He would sleep in the converted attic that was his mother’s childhood bedroom. His grandfather would teach him the roofing trade. Staying home in Irondequoit was out of the question for Owen. He had gotten sober in jail and wanted toavoid slipping into old habits with old friends.
Owen Kemp, center, and his younger siblings, Elliott, left, and Sadie. ELLEN FRAZIER
“There was nothing good about his death except that when he died he was safe and warm and loved.”, saidOwen Kemp’s aunt, Amber Humpfrey.
“He knew his best c hance of staying clean was to make a fresh start,” said his mother, Ellen Frazier.
So when Owen was released from Monroe County Jail in late October in the flip-flops, Tshirt and shorts he was wearing when he was picked up in June on a variety of charges related to his addiction — theft, drug possession, trespassing among them — his family did as they had rehearsed. His mother, his grandparents, and his 7-yearold sister and 5-year-old brother picked him up at 6 a.m., then met his father, his stepmother and aunt at a local diner for breakfast. Afterward, his grandparents whisked him away to Utica. But the plan came to a screeching halt two weeks later when, on the morning of Nov. 5, 2013, Owen’s grandfather found him dead in his bed, his nostrils encrusted with blood, empty heroin baggies nearby. The video game Owen had been playing was still on the television. Even with heroin-related deaths rising and conversation about the topic intensifying since the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, few people can so intimately comprehend how the drug turns lives upside down as the families of addicts.
They use terms like “living hell” to describe their homes. They shudder at the stigma they say is imposed on addicts and those close to them. “It’s so incredibly isolating to not only have lost him, but to feel like I’m judged and blamed for his death and that he’s judged,” Frazier said. “When your child is sick with cancer, there’s compassion. When your child is addicted to heroin, there’s nothing.”
‘Reassuring and terrifying’
Owen’s was one of11fatal heroin overdoses in Oneida County last year, according to the county’s medical examiner. His death certificate listed “acute heroin toxicity” as the cause.
Greater Rochester saw 65 heroin overdoses last year, a fivefold increase over two years earlier. The sharp rise reflects a troubling national trend that health care and drug treatment specialists say stems from a prescription painkiller epidemic among mostly suburban and rural youths.
Linda Meyer, whose son Trevor grew close with Owen in a rehabilitation residence for adolescents, recalled her astonishment when she attended her first group parent meeting and recognized people from her town of Pittsford.
“It was both reassuring and terrifying,” Meyer said.
Like Owen, Trevor, who is 21, was introduced to heroin at 16. He recalled taking his first hit a half-hour after leaving the hospital for overdosing on a combination of crack, alcohol and benzodiazepines.
He had quit school and left home by then, and had already begun what would become a yearslong cycle of couch surfing, shaking down family and friends for cash, and pawning stolen goods for dope. Trevor was partial to speedballs, a combination of heroin and cocaine, and selling expensive electric toothbrushes he stole from drug stores to feed his habit. “I couldn’t have him here,” his mother said. “It was like sleeping with my purse every night, watching things disappear, going to pawn shops, coming home at lunch to find out my house had been ransacked.”
His parents took out a restraining order against him and compiled a list of Neil Young songs to play at his funeral. “I never thought he would live,” Meyer said. Trevor ended up at Unity Chemical Dependency’s Young Men’s Community Residence in Greece in June 2012 after a stint in jail for violating the restraining order by forging checks from his parents’ bank account and pawning his younger sister’s laptop.
Seven of his 11 months in the residence overlapped with Owen, whom Trevor recalled as a caring friend who was serious about getting sober.
Trevor recalled feeling low on his birthday in the residence, and Owen presenting him with a handmade card encouraging him to stay clean and a pair of white long underwear wrapped in newspaper. It was all Owen had to give. “He wanted (sobriety) bad, he just didn’t know how,” said Trevor, who today is 20 months clean and living in a halfway house. “A lot of people (there) weren’t serious about getting sober. For me and Owen, it was life or death. Unfortunately, he didn’t get the good end of it.”
An early start
The seeds of Owen’s habit were planted years earlier. He was a bright child with an artistic flair, but was anxious and easily frustrated. Doctors diagnosed him with a variety of mental health disorders.
“He had a realistic side, where he saw a lot of darkness in the world,” said Will Cleeton-Gandino, 18, who met Owen in rehab four years ago. “But when you were with him, he was a very happygo- lucky person, the sort to light up a room.”
Owen first used marijuana with his Boy Scout troop as a pre-teen, and his drug use escalated from there. He started smoking cigarettes, drinking, popping pills and injecting heroin.
Between brushes with the law during his teenage years, he spent time in five different residential drug treatment programs. The last was the Young Men’s Community Residence, from which he was discharged for poor behavior.
His parents were active in his life. When he was first caught smoking pot, they grounded him, had him research the dangers of drug use and volunteer at a homeless shelter. When he started skipping school as a teenager, his parents had him put on court-ordered probation. They pressed charges when he stole from them. He had been in counseling since he was 9 years old.
“We always wanted to make sure Owen saw the consequences, thinking that if they were painful enough he would make better choices,” Frazier said. “But in looking back, it was always a struggle for him.”
Dr. Stuart Gitlow, president of the board of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, said family participation in an addict’s treatment plan is critical to success. At the same time, he said, addiction for some is difficult to overcome even with the best supports.
“Addictive disease, like any disease, has a range of potential severity,” Gitlow said. “You could have a mild addict or you could have a severe addict. There are some people who do well the first time they go through t reatment, then there are others whose disease progresses and progresses and progresses and they eventually die.”
Scared to speak up
Like many parents of addicts who are involved in their child’s recovery, Frazier found a second f amily in others who relate to living with the mayhem, guilt and sometimes shame of addiction.
Elaine Cleeton, the mother of Will Cleeton-Gandino, recalled hosting a pre-race party for her eldest son’s cross-country team at a time when Will’s abuse was rampant and word that he had recently been arrested had gotten around. “Families were assigned to bring food, and I recall that evening several mothers who came to the door, reluctantly reached through with a dish, and told me their children would not be coming,” Cleeton said. “I had a sense that it was just too scary for them to think that their children would be in the home of a family where a child had been using drugs.”
Cleeton recalled asking her mother to call her church’s prayer line on behalf of Will. Her mother refused, Cleeton said, because she was too ashamed. “People who are family are so terrified by this disease that they are reluctant to talk about it,” said Cleeton, who spoke at Owen’s funeral.
Will has been sober for four years. He attends Monroe Community College and is active in supporting other recovering addicts.
Death by addiction
Frazier has seized on her son’s passing as an opportunity to educate others about addiction. At his funeral, his family made available pamphlets on addiction services and invited friends he met in rehab to eulogize him and recount their own struggles.
“We didn’t want his life to be defined by addiction, but his death certainly was,” Frazier said.
Owen knew no one in Utica aside from his grandparents, but he connected with a dealer online and arranged for the dope that would kill him to be dropped off at their house the night before he died. His mother figures he eluded detection by telling his grandparents he was stepping outside for a cigarette.
A few hours later, Owen slipped away. He was lying on his side on the bed in the room his mother shared with her sister when they were children.
“There was nothing good about his death except that when he died he was safe and warm and loved,” said his aunt, Amber Humphrey.
Two weeks after the funeral, Frazier summoned the strength to visit her old bedroom. She recalled finding solace in that the room was full of love, and how Owen could easily have died in a gas station bathroom. His death still doesn’t feel real to her. She sometimes has to remind herself that her oldest boy is dead. Sometimes she is reminded when she tucks her young daughter and son in at night. “When I put my children to bed, I used to say to them, ‘I’m the luckiest mommy in the world because I have three beautiful babies,’ ” Frazier said. “Now they say, ‘I’m sorry, Mommy.’ ”
Trevor Meyer, 21, grew close with Owen Kemp in rehab in Greece when they were both trying to get sober. “He wanted (sobriety) bad, he just didn’t know how,” Meyer said. CARLOS ORTIZ STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Will Cleeton-Gandino and his mother, Elaine Cleeton of Pittsford. Cleeton-Gandino, 18, developed a drug dependency at an early age, but has been sober for four years. BILL GANDINO