Addiction and opioid abuse is a serious problem nationally as well as here in Wisconsin. In 36 states, drug overdoses have become more common causes of deaths and injurythan motor vehicle accidents. According to a Trust for America's Health report, Wisconsin has the 29th-highest rate of overdose deaths, using a three-year average from 2011 to 2013. And, experts say the problem is only growing here.
One Greenfield family knows the struggles surrounding addiction all too well. Patti and Charlie Lomas lost their son CJ to a heroin overdose at the age of 26 in 2012. This happened despite the fact that CJ was raised in a "supportive and involved household" according to his mother.
Patti Lomas recalls that CJ was a happy child involved in "every sport you could think of," but things started to change for CJ in middle school. He started drinking on the weekends with his friends, which then led to smoking marijuana.
"I think he always had this thought that it made him feel more comfortable, it made him feel normal, he could talk to people a little bit better," says Patti.
There were consequences for their son's behavior, but the Lomas family says they just thought CJ was going through normal adolescent experiences. "As parents, you worry," says Patti. "But it wasn't a like huge red flag to us because we felt as though it was the normal progression of growing up and making his own decisions and figuring out what was right and wrong."
However things continued to spiral. CJ became more distant, wasn't telling the complete truth, started struggling in school, and following some injuries, became addicted to pain medications. This again, progressed to heavier substances.
"What happens is the pain medication become too expensive, not readily available, and he started using heroin," Patti explains. "Once he started using heroin, it was pretty much the beginning of the end for him."
"(Addiction) truly is family disease. It is not restricted to the addict," says CJ's father Charlie Lomas. Throughout CJ's struggles, he went through two in-patient rehabilitation facilities, sober living programs, and sponsors. The programs, his parents say, were helping CJ immensely. Charlie believes that during the last six months of his life, CJ was doing "extremely well." "We felt as though we had our son back."
But CJ took heroin again for what turned out to be the last time, resulting in his death from overdose in March of 2012.
Despite the heartache of losing their son, Charlie and Patti Lomas have turned their painful experience into a mission to help others. After their son’s death, Patti and Charlie founded the CJ Lomas Recovery Foundation to be a resource and place of support for families and addicts going through similar struggles they experienced.
For Patti, being involved in the organization helps to overcome the helplessness they felt as parents.
"You walk around with so much shame and guilt and 'what ifs,'" she says. "'I wish I could have,' 'I wish I did....' and not only for (CJ), but this is a family disease."
The Lomas family hosts meetings on every other Tuesday in their home so other parents of addicts and people struggling with addiction can have a safe place.
Despite the time that has passed since CJ's death, the frequency of overdose deaths and addiction in Wisconsin has continued to rise.
"Five years ago we didn't recognize that these pain medications were as dangerous as they were. And we've become such a society of 'give me a pill for this, a pill for that.' And they're in our medicine cabinets. Everywhere," Patti explains.
She stresses the need for having open conversations with your children in order to potentially avoid the path of addiction. "You have to open the dialog at a very early age with your kids. Talk about the progression of drugs, the dangers of it...as parents and families, we need to stop the thought of 'It won't happen to my kid,' because addiction is all around us."
Charlie Lomas says that he continues to be inspired by the people he meets through their foundation. And while helping others is very rewarding, the struggle will always be present.
"If addiction was a race, it would be the only one without a finish line," he says. "Because it is life, it is forever."