Nine years later and John Gahagan still remembers the day his 17-year-old son Sean lost his fight to opioid addiction very clearly.
“Oh my God, it was the worst day of my life,” John Gahagan told KIRO Radio’s Ron and Don. “I was at work. My wife found him in his bedroom … He was sitting on the edge of his bed, with his chin in his hands. He was cold. She went over to shake him, to wake him up, and he just fell over.”
Sean’s fight was with opiate addiction — a battle unknown to the teenager’s family for a long time. The redheaded teen, known for his humor and pranks, appeared to be winning his fight for nearly eight months. But addiction punched back hard.
There were signs of Sean’s addiction. Small signs that, in hindsight, add up. For example, the time Sean’s sister broke her arm snowboarding.
“The doctor gave her 15 OxyContin for a broken arm. I think a couple of Aleve would have done fine,” Gahagan said. “She took one or two, decided she didn’t like them and left them in the kitchen cupboard.”
“One day my wife noticed a friend of Sean’s in the kitchen,” he said. “Sean was in another part of the house. We thought it was odd, but didn’t think anything of it. A couple days later we looked at the prescription bottle and they were gone. Those pills left our kitchen cabinet and hit the street.”
That’s a common story. Many addicts report their problems began after being prescribed medication, or having access to them, unsecured, in cabinets.
“Because the prescription opioids are so easy to get, kids get addicted to them,” Gahagan said. “But because it costs $80 a shot, you can’t keep that up. You get the same high from heroin for $5 or $6.”
A father’s tips on addiction
It is estimated that about 2.1 million Americans suffer from opioid addictions related to prescription medication — not including heroin abuse. More people die today from overdoses than car accidents.
Gahagan has some tips for families, starting with a shift in attitude.
I bet everyone listening to this show knows someone struggling with this addiction. But we don’t talk about it. We incorrectly think it’s a character flaw. But it’s not. It’s a disease of the brain.
Don’t respect privacy
My friends at the ACLU won’t like this, but I would say that if you have a serious concern, don’t respect your kid’s privacy. Check their phone. Read their text messages. See what they are saying on Facebook. That’s how we found out Sean was involved in drugs. It was taking a look at his text messages.
Washington laws make it difficult for parents to get their kids treatment
One problem in the state of Washington is that a kid, 13 years or older, can check themselves out. No one wants to build a secured lockdown in-patient facility in Washington because kids can walk out. I know parents that send their kids to Utah or Minnesota to get treatment.
Gahagan’s final tip — call your representative in Olympia and tell them to pass HB 1047. It aims to set up a take-back program to keep drugs off the streets. It has a lot of opposition from the pharmaceutical industry, Gahagan said. That’s likely because it would force manufacturers to pay for the take-back program.
“I look at it as a cost of doing business,” Gahagan said. “I teach economics at Shoreline College. One thing I teach is negative externality … If a business creates a cost that is not born by that business, but put on someone else, the business should be made to pay for that.”
“The pharmaceutical industry has created a mess by over-promoting and prescribing these drugs,” he said. “They should be responsible for cleaning them up.”