As much as it pains Denise Canon to tell it, the self-described average Johnson County mom thinks people need to take heed and know:
How good her son Andrew was, how kind.
“He was just a regular kid, “ the Lenexa mother, 62, said. “Loving. He cared about everyone. Loved his family, loved his friends.”
At his core, he remained that way even as what Canon now calls “the beast,” “a monster,” “an evil beyond what anyone can imagine,” took over her son’s life.
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A year ago on June 2 — while Canon, who owns her own travel business, was at an event in Mexico with her husband — Andrew was found dead in his childhood bedroom. Having battled to overcome a heroin addiction, he was killed by an accidental overdose of the drug fentanyl, a synthetic opioid considered at least 50 times more powerful than morphine, and part of a growing epidemic.
Andrew was 21.
On Tuesday, a preliminary analysis of health data by The New York Times revealed that in 2016, drug overdose deaths exceeded 59,000, making it the leading cause of death among Americans under age 50.
“If parents think, ‘This could not be my kid,’ ” Canon said, “they need to think again.”
On Sunday, Canon, with her son’s name printed on her T-shirt and that of 100 others, plans to join at least 1,500 individuals who have so far registered for the nation’s inaugural “Rise Up Against Addiction 5K Run/Walk” fundraiser to begin at 8 a.m. at Arrowhead Stadium, with similar events being scheduled later in the year in New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.
It is being organized by a relatively new non-profit, Shatterproof, that is based in New York and aims to become a national resource and advocate for families and individuals suffering all manner of alcohol and drug addiction, while focusing on prevention, treatment and recovery.
The group was founded in 2013 by Gary Mendell, a former hotel executive and chairman of the Norwalk, Conn.-based HEI Hotels & Resorts, after he lost his own son and “best friend,” Brian, to addiction in 2011.
Last year, Mendell was joined in that effort by Leawood’s Gary Henson, now 51, the former president in Kansas City of Mariner Holdings and current president of the Leawood-based investment managers Tortoise Capital Advisors.
In April 2015, Henson’s son, Garrett, died of an accidental overdose of the anti-anxiety drug Xanax and the opioid OxyContin. He was to turn 21 the next month.
“To this day, I still don’t know when he went over the edge from normal teenage behavior to becoming addicted,” said Henson, now a board member of Shatterproof who will walk to honor his son’s memory.
What Henson does know is that before Garrett started on drugs, he was a happy and much loved kid who was smart, quick-witted and full of life. In his mind’s eye, Henson said, he can still picture his son in the years before high school, straddling the mountain bike he loved.
“I can see him barreling down a trail, hitting a jump and doing a quick stop to pivot down another trail,” he said. “He loved nature. He loved the outdoors.”
The young days were the best days. Garrett attended St. Ann Catholic School in Prairie Village, then Bishop Miege High School. Henson also knows that it was during Garrett’s freshman year that he first caught his son drinking and smoking pot.
Henson said that one of Shatterproof’s goals is to raise money to support continued research into brain chemistry and the still vexing mystery of what prompts some individuals to become addicted.
Some 44 percent of teenagers experiment with pot by the time they are in 12th grade. The vast majority do not go on to use other drugs. But Garrett and Andrew were among those who felt the desire or need to go further.
Their parents tried to intervene.
“We did all the things you would expect a parent to do — from finding therapy for him, to tough love, to making him get a job — all those things that any typical parent would do,” Henson said of Garrett, who remained a good student.
He earned a high score on his college boards and got a scholarship to Colorado State University.
“You just never saw this massive deterioration,” he said.
Canon said that Andrew, while at Shawnee Mission West High School, was the type to “rock the norm.” He grew his hair long into dreadlocks. Looking back, she sees that he began hanging out with some “sketchy people” in his senior year.
It was mostly after high school that both boys’ lives began a slow and then accelerating spiral. Garrett, as his father said, “bombed out” of his second semester at Colorado State and returned to Leawood to attend community college. Andrew also attended community college, then left to live with friends in Arizona.
At first things seemed fine. But soon Canon was getting calls about unpaid bills and trouble with the police. Then, two years ago, Andrew returned home and on Christmas morning turned violently ill. He was vomiting in the bathroom, crying and confessing.
“ ‘Mom,’ ” Canon recalled her son saying, “I’m going through heroin withdrawal.’”
Canon was devastated. “That was the first time I knew of his heroin addiction,” she said. “It was surreal. As surreal as it is right now that he is not here.”
Henson said that after Garrett left Colorado State and returned home, there were times when his son seemed fine. Others times he didn’t. When he wasn’t, Henson thought his son was smoking too much pot, until, soon, he found himself in a detox program.
There, for the first time, a rehab counselor revealed the truth that his son was withdrawing from addiction to opioid-containing drugs Vicodin and Percocet.
Garrett was a week out of rehab when he died of his overdose in Colorado.
Andrew, too, had been in recovery.
“He posted it on Facebook that he’d been sober for six or seven months. ‘I’ve never felt so good,’ ” his mother recalled.
The walk is to try to give names and faces to the victims of addiction and their families, to reinforce the growing realization that addiction is a brain condition not unlike other mental illnesses or disorders.
“People who have had issues with addiction, it is perceived as a moral failure, so they’re looked upon differently,” Henson said, as if the addiction is a sign of personal weakness. “Why do you not have the moral fortitude to not take that drink, not take that drug?”
Henson understands that his son did, at some point, make a choice that was his own. But addiction science goes far beyond personal choices, to genetics and brain chemistry.
“With the opioid epidemic, you don’t even have to have a genetic propensity,” he said. “Opioids are so addictive that it doesn’t take very long before you can become addicted to it or you can overdose very, very quickly.”
Part of Henson’s and Shatterproof’s mission is also to work for state legislation. He has recently advocated for Missouri to launch a prescription drug monitoring program, which is a state-run electronic database that tracks the dispensing of drugs, like opioids, by doctors and pharmacists.
Although Jackson County has such a program, Missouri remains the only state in the nation without one. Efforts again this year to implement a monitoring program failed in the Missouri legislature.
When Lindsay Howlett, 34, of Merriam walks on Sunday, it will be with thoughts of her mother, Lisa Warren.
Howlett, who is a nurse for an orthopedic surgeon where opioids are a common part of post-surgical pain treatment, said that her mother was hooked on drugs for years. Howlett and her younger sister lived much of their lives wondering if one day they would get a phone call telling them their mom had died of an overdose.
That call came in February. Their mom was 54.
Howlett said she has long vacillated between feeling compassion for her mother battling an addiction and feeling angry and resentful of her for choosing drugs over her family. For most of her life, Howlett said, she only chose to share the story of her mother’s addiction with her closest friends.
Now, she thinks it’s time.
“So many people have the same story, but they choose to hide it and cover it up because of the stigma that addiction has,” Howlett said. “I think the more people tell their stories, I think the more lives maybe can be saved.”
Rise Up Against Addiction 5K Run/Walk
8 a.m to noon, Sunday, June 11
Arrowhead Stadium, enter through Gate 3
Cost: Free for walkers; $30 for 5K run.
Matching grant: If 2,500 individuals participate, an anonymous donor has pledged to give $25 per participant.