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In a low-key COVID-style remembrance of the lives lost due to drug overdose, black balloons were hung in front of the Lincoln County Courthouse on Saturday. Black Balloon Day has become a national and international event, bringing awareness to overdose deaths. Diane and Lauren Hurley began Black Balloon Day in remembrance of Greg Tremblay. Tremblay, a father of four, is the son-in-law of Diane and brother-in-law of Lauren and died of an overdose when he was 38 years old on March 6, 2015.

In addition to black balloons, “Can You See Me?” banners were hung displaying the faces of those who have lost their lives to drug overdose which has become the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. There have been more than 81,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States in the 12 months ending in May 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period, according to recent provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Patricia Bunch is a licensed clinical mental health counselor and licensed clinical addiction specialist working at the Lincolnton office of Integrated Care of Greater Hickory. Bunch lost her son to an overdose five years ago. The irony of Bunch’s story is that even as a trained addiction counselor, she missed the signs that her son was dangerously addicted to drugs.

“He’d picked up some habits towards the end of his high school senior year,” she said. “He isolated at college and I didn’t see a lot of the behavior. It’s part of the disease of addiction to isolate. I saw that and some lying, but I wasn’t aware of the extent of it.”

Bunch’s son played lacrosse while in high school so with the random drug testing, he wasn’t actively involved in drugs during those years. After just two short years of active drug use while at college, he passed from a fentanyl overdose five years ago in September.

“Here at ICGH I work with people who have 30 or 40 years of use and my precious little son struggles for just two years,” she said. “He was totally in denial. At that age they think they’re superheroes and they know what they’re doing and can handle it, but it got away from him.”

As is the case with any form of addiction, there was no intervention that Bunch could do for her son unless he wanted it. That’s the case with all of her clients. Nothing’s going to change unless they see that change needs to happen. 

“My role was not to enable, but to help,” she said. “Yes, I’m sure I did some enabling. No one wants to see their child suffering and hurting. Even providing his apartment up there in Boone – that’s pretty much enabling right there. I thought he was going to college – he was here and there. Whatever we do – they have to want it.”

After almost two decades of active abuse, the time came when Nikki wanted help. Raised in the western side of the county, her father abused both drugs and alcohol and was physically (not sexually) abusive to his children. Nikki didn’t graduate from high school because she got in trouble for stealing cars and went to jail for three months.

“When I was 17, I moved out,” she said. “I started using, just marijuana at first. I used alcohol occasionally, but it wasn’t my favorite. Then I met my daughter’s dad, and he was on drugs really bad. At the time, I wasn’t on hard drugs, so I left him on account of that.”

Then Nikki met her son’s father and they used drugs recreationally.

“I got my first pills from the dentist office and I liked how it made me feel so I started abusing them,” she said. “At that time, they were easy to get. It was crazy. I was investigated by DSS because when I had my son, he was premature, and I had drugs in my system.  They closed the case in a year. Then I got on bath salts that were going around at the time that you could get at the convenience store. It got so bad, I wanted to die. I didn’t have anything to lose because my family was done with me. I was the town drug addict, and everybody knew it.”

Nikki’s mother found out about ICGH’s plans to open an office in Lincolnton andtold her about it. 

“I didn’t have anything to lose so I went and filled out an application,” she said. “At first it was just for me to get the suboxone, but I didn’t realize that wasn’t the type of place ICGH was. You’ve got to deal with your trauma, or you can’t get clean. I started to go to their classes and got a sponsor.”

Nikki’s life started to change. When she learned her father was dying from cancer, through the help from her sponsor, Nikki was able to make peace with him before he passed.

“I’m so glad I listened,” she said. “I had to be careful being around him because he was still using. He used up until the day he died. He apologized for what happened during my childhood.”

In addition to her father, Nikki has been able to repair her relationships with her family, husband and children. She now has a nice house and a job working as the manager of a trailer park.

Like so many who have become addicted to drugs, Nikki, who just turned 38, was one high away from an overdose death. She’s one of the lucky ones. On Saturday, she was 160 days clean. It hasn’t come easier for her. She’s been with ICGH for over two years, but they didn’t give up on her. 

“Unless you have a program and know how to change your life, nothing’s going to work,” she said. “We have to be taught how to live – I had to be reprogrammed. I didn’t know any different from what I was doing for over 20 years. I thank God. They saved my life. I’m so grateful.”

ICGH offers medical, behavioral, pharmacy, transitional housing, transportation and comprehensive toxicology services. Part of ICGH’s services include transitional housing which has been arranged through funding from the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office and City of Lincolnton Police Department. If patients continue to be in treatment, they are able to utilize the free housing. 

ICGH Lincolnton is located at 1228 North Flint Street in Lincolnton. Their telephone number is (828) 322-5915 extension 180.

There are support groups for people who have lost loved ones to addiction. The Compassionate Friends Group is one as well as GRASP, Grief Recovery after Substance Passing. Other resources include the North Carolina Drug Epidemic Awareness Walk Across America which is a group of mothers that bring awareness and education to the community-working on efforts to increase treatment was started by Lisa Smith   910-523-2294

NC-Team Sharing NC (Parents who’ve Lost A Child to Substance Use Disorder)

Sharing Hope, Love and Support for those FIGHTING 2 Recover - a group where everyone in the community can encourage and inspire recovery-focused on success stories

Voices to End Addiction and Inspire Recovery - a group where everyone in the community can encourage and inspire recovery

Even Though - a group that supports and encourages recovery started by a mother, Allison Jolly from Lincoln County.

“I don’t want another mother to go through what I’ve gone through,” Bunch said. “My mission is to remove the stigma of addiction – it can happen to anyone – any family, anyone, any time. It hurts everyone – it’s a family disease.”

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