Lacy and Linda Lary, members of North Greenwood Baptist Church in Greenwood, Miss., look at a collage of photos of their son, Michael, who died of a heroin overdose in 2016 at the age of 27. Linda Lary is a former member of Park Hill Baptist Church, North Little Rock, the church where she was baptized.
The opioid crisis hits home for Baptist family
Special to the ABN
GREENWOOD, Miss. – “Do y’all want something to eat or drink? I’ve got sandwiches and Rice Krispies Treats.” That’s the kind of trademark Southern hospitality I’ve come to recognize and appreciate as a native Mississippian. In some ways it was like Linda and I had traded places. She grew up in Arkansas and was baptized at Park Hill Baptist Church in North Little Rock, but she now lives in Greenwood, Miss. I grew up in Greenwood and now serve at Park Hill.
Those are fascinating tidbits, but food, drink and life tracks weren’t the intended topics of conversation on that muggy, late-summer day. We settled in and got comfortable discussing that which is most uncomfortable.
“Independent. Impulsive. Fiercely competitive.”
These are just a few of the words that Linda and Lacy Lary, members of North Greenwood Baptist Church in Greenwood, Miss., use to describe their son, Michael, who died in December 2016 of a heroin overdose at the tender age of 27. The oversized center island in their home was covered in photos, awards, ribbons and trophies that seemed frozen in time. They were there to tell a story, but in some strange way, those items pointed as much to the future that wouldn’t be as they did to the past they so clearly depicted.
Linda laughs to herself when she thinks about the early appearance of Michael’s quest for self-determination. “When he was just in the fourth grade, he boldly announced that he didn’t want my help with his homework anymore.” Perhaps he really didn’t need help. The fair-skinned lad would mature into a handsome and brilliant young man who was exceptionally well rounded. His parents think back to better days, describing Michael as gregarious, fun-loving, a voracious reader and “a real kid magnet.”
He loved hunting, fishing and all kinds of sports. He was an All-State lineman in high school. Several photos of Michael in his green and gold full football gear catch my eye, as I peruse the robust collection of memorabilia strewn about the tabletop. And regardless of the picture, two things they all seemed to have in common: a wide, natural smile, and warm, kind eyes that seemed to befriend instantly.
There were photos from Boy Scouts, water sports, and just snapshots with friends and family. One Polaroid photo seemed to demand notice. It was the one of Michael on the day he was baptized as a young boy at North Greenwood Baptist Church. It was the beginning of a faith journey that was deeply personal, but also complicated.
Perhaps two of Michael’s most endearing personality traits would combine to become a fatal flaw: rugged independence and blind impulsivity. Michael’s parents describe him as a guy who wanted to do things his way – and always in high style. Linda recalls, “He always had the best clothes, shoes, hunting gear, everything. He had a way of getting money for the things he wanted.”
Those were no doubt factors that helped pave the way for a seamless transition from high school to college at Ole Miss. While in Oxford, Michael had the opportunity to do what many other college students do. He tested the limits of his newfound freedom, first beginning with marijuana. His parents had heard rumblings of that but didn’t become too alarmed.
But Michael was keeping another secret too. He had joined a fraternity, which energized his social life and elevated his status. One thing led to another, as often is the case. It wasn’t until Michael contracted meningitis that his parents learned of his foray into Greek life.
Linda interjects, “Can you imagine the pressure he must’ve felt, keeping that secret from us?” After all, she had encouraged a more gradual approach to the trappings of adulthood, beginning with a motherly nudge to attend a community college first. But Michael wouldn’t hear of it.
He had dreams, big dreams. He had plans, big plans.
When Michael was treated for meningitis, the doctor sent him home with 60 Percocet tablets. That’s a brand name pain pill. It’s in a class of medication called opioids, because they are derived of opium poppy plants, one of the most addictive organic substances on the planet.
According to the National Safety Council, one in three people who are prescribed opioids do not realize their medication is potentially addictive. The Council also cites studies that indicate a sobering fact: It only takes five days of use for some people to become dependent on prescription opioids.
The increased use of opioids began in the 1980s when doctors were presented with research-based pain studies. Medical professionals were encouraged to demonstrate more sympathy for patients in pain. Doctors made an intentional effort to have patients describe their pain level. The problem is that pain is a highly subjective thing to articulate. What ranks a 10 for one patient might rank only a four for another.
Regardless of how it happened, the reality was that Michael was hooked, and he would eventually stop at nothing in order to get the feeling he so desperately craved. His downward spiral included lying, stealing and obsessing over how he could get his next fix. When prescription meds became too expensive and inconvenient, Michael followed the course of many in his predicament. He turned to the streets and shifted to another opioid called heroin.
It is estimated that some three-quarters of heroin users got their start with prescription opioids.
Linda acknowledges that while she and Lacy had observed and experienced Michael’s volatile mood swings and erratic behavior, they failed early on to connect them to the real culprit. “How could we not know our child was doing heroin?” she wonders. It’s an all-too-common question that haunts far too many parents.
Through several expensive stints in drug rehab, and despite repeated promises to get clean and stay clean, Michael ultimately lost his battle with addiction. After five months of good choices – including breaking up with his girlfriend and meeting regularly with his sponsor – Michael accidentally overdosed on heroin and died two days shy of his 28th birthday, and six days before Christmas on Dec. 19, 2016. The family found themselves feeling absolutely devastated during what is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. The loss was like a kick to the stomach. The grief process would prove complicated and unpredictable.
Michael’s last conversations and text messages led his family to understand that he was in the middle of trying to help someone else find his way out of addiction. But Michael was not yet strong enough in his recovery, and he gave in to that voice in his head whispering, “Just one more time.”
Growing up as the daughter of a church planter in North Little Rock, Linda confesses that she never could have foreseen the direction her own sense of ministry and calling would take. Nothing can bring Michael back, but Linda is determined to shine a light on the issues related to the opioid crisis gripping our nation. Its ripple effect reaches into every community, every family, every school and every church. A key piece of her spiel is that it takes time for someone who is addicted to actually be able to help others in their recovery journey.
It has been said that there’s no pain greater than the death of a child. And there’s certainly no pill for that. Linda is finding much personal value in being part of a Celebrate Recovery ministry near her home. Through her platform of education and advocacy with the Stand Up, Mississippi opioid awareness campaign, Linda hopes to not waste her own grief. She has become a reluctant warrior in a battle she didn’t choose – but one that we all must work together to win.
Garrick D. Conner is a licensed professional counselor and licensed marriage and family therapist. He serves as discipleship pastor at Park Hill Baptist Church in North Little Rock.