His voice quaking several times as he addressed a silent and rapt audience at last Friday’s assembly, Gary Mendell, founder of Shatterproof, an organization that raises awareness of addiction, shared the wrenching story of his son, Brian, who lost his battle to addiction. Five months after Brian’s death in 2011, inspired by the last photo taken of him helping another person, Mendell vowed to advance the cause of erasing the stigma from the disease so that other families do not have to suffer.
Mendell introduced the topic by contrasting the circumstances of two suburban Easton, Connecticut families, including his own, whose sons were afflicted with an illness in 2004. One family’s high school son, Mikey, suffered from cancer, and the entire town rallied around the family, organizing bake sales, arranging home cooked meals and car pools. Mikey’s family easily accessed high quality medical care. Mendell shared, “Mikey received all the love and compassion that anyone with a disease could ever ask for, in fact, deserves.” Mendell’s experience with his son, Brian, was quite different. There were no bake sales, fundraisers, prepared meals, or organized car pools. Medical care for addiction based on medical research didn’t exist, and most notably, the family didn’t tell neighbors. “To be honest, I didn’t tell a lot of people because I was embarrassed. I felt like a failure as a father. How could I raise my son with this disease? What was wrong with me? Well, the disease my son struggled with was addiction.”
Armed with staggering statistics, Mendell said there are over 25 million substance abusers in the United States with one quarter of families who are daily grappling with this crisis. An average of 350 people die each day from addiction and related issues; it’s the third largest cause of death in this country after heart disease and cancer. Shatterproof’s mission is to develop a national commitment and voice to the problem, to shed the stigma associated with the disease and to support families. Whereas, Mikey was viewed as a patient, Brian was considered an outcast. Mendell advocates to change the perception of the illness. These are not “bad kids”, but individuals with an illness like many others. His son told him, “Some day people will realize I'm not a bad person. I have a bad disease, and I’m trying my hardest.” Mendell shared the science of the illness, especially the susceptibility of teenagers to addiction. Since the human brain is not fully developed until 25, the earlier a child starts taking drugs, the likelihood of the child developing an addiction increases. He said that eight out of ten teenagers become addicts before their 18th birthday.
As a young teenager, Brian first smoked pot, and for the next eight years his drug use escalated. He was in and out of eight drug treatment program in eight years. Mendell described the constant struggle of his son, “When the treatment took hold, Brian was smiling all the time. I found him reading on the subject when he was in treatment in Florida, and he looked at me and said, “I’m going to beat this.” For 13 months, Brian beat his illness and was drug free. On the night of October 20, 2011, Mendell received a phone call that his son had committed suicide. He stressed, “It wasn’t just addiction that took his life. It was the feeling of shame.”
After his son’s death, Mendell, inspired from the second line of the Serenity Prayer that compels one to have the “courage to change”, Shatterproof was formed. Developing a business plan over the course of one and half years, Mendell aimed at creating an American Cancer Society for addiction, broadening the scope of his charity to the entire nation. One way to draw immediate media attention to his cause was hosting an impactful rappelling event, where individuals rappel down buildings, including KO Head, Dennis Bisgaard, board member Mark Wolman, and two KO students, Celia Jarmoc ‘17 and Nicole Demers ‘16 this past summer at the Hartford Hilton. Lian ‘ 19 and Gabe Woman ‘16 fundraised enough money to sponsor the two students.
The metaphor of rappelling is powerful, Mendell says, because with recovery, the hardest step is the first step. Shatterproof has hosted 47 events in the last two and half years. In addition to these events, Shatterproof has helped pass legislation in six states, including the Good Samaritan law which protects individuals from legal action if they call 911 for an individual who has overdosed or stopped breathing, promoted prescriber education laws so that every three years prescribers need to take a course in dispensing medication, and relaunched their website which provides information and tools for families coping with the disease, among other initiatives.
Mendell stated that since 1995 when the FDA approved a slow release oxycontin, under the assumption that it was non addictive, the instances of drug related deaths increased four times. 33,000 people die from an overdose each year; 20,000 of them die from prescription pills. Of the 13,000 deaths from heroin, almost all the users started with prescription pills. Mendell stated, “We don’t have a heroin problem; we have a prescription pill problem.
After the talk, several students asked Mendell about the shame of the disease, marijuana use and Shatterproof’s legal work. One student questioned Mendell about the difficulty of discussing the topic. “It’s hard for me to talk about. I’m sad, and I’m always going to be sad. But, it feels really good, too. If there’s one of you today that waited till you were much older to try pot, Brian would have loved that.”