At age 14, Henry smoked pot for the first time. He felt terrible about it and frantically told his mom what he’d done, promising that he would never do it again. Later, after becoming a regular user of marijuana, he told his mother that that he smoked it because it made him feel normal. This should have been a major tip-off to us that Henry almost certainly suffered from a clinical anxiety disorder that should have been treated with medication. However, we were so focused on his use of illicit drugs that we failed to fully understand what he was dealing with. We realize now that in failing to adequately address Henry’s underlying mental health problems we set him up for addiction.
After Henry began using marijuana, he started experimenting with other drugs. He slipped into addiction and the terrible life that comes with it – especially for a teenager. By the last months of his short life, Henry was physically and mentally addicted to the same opiate drugs that now kill more Americans than AIDS, auto crashes and gun deaths. Every day for him became a painful, depressing, terrible struggle to find a way to procure enough of the chemicals that would keep him from becoming very sick with withdrawal symptoms. He told his mom that once he started using the pills, he woke up every morning determined not to use that day, but he went to sleep every night feeling like a complete failure.
Henry’s life as a drug addict was depressing, dangerous, humiliating, painful and ultimately, fatal. His addiction pulled him away from everything he had known – loving parents and siblings, a comfortable home, good schools, family travel, music and community – and launched him into a frightening underworld of dangerous, cruel people who were able to prey on him because he was both naive and desperate. He was sick. That’s all there was to it; Henry was very, very sick.
In the last days of his brief life he was targeted by two much older drug dealers who promised him that he would help him get clean and find a job. He believed them. Instead, they delivered the large dose of an opiate that caused his fatal overdose, and they then took him back to their secluded home that night. As Henry struggled to breathe for the next 17 hours, these criminals took his phone away so that he couldn’t call for help and they also didn’t call for help themselves, leaving Henry to suffer terrible brain damage over many hours, right in front of them. The two dealers finally called 911 the next day after another individual threatened to call the police if they did not. However, by the time paramedics arrived, it was too late.
Henry bravely fought for his life in the hospital for the next month but finally lost his battle on May 31, 2010. In Henry’s memory, his family founded Henry’s Fund. Operated under the auspices of the East Tennessee Foundation, Henry’s Fund raises money to be distributed to reputable treatment programs that assist teenagers and young adults with substance use disorders. Henry’s Fund also offers educational training and speakers throughout East Tennessee to help raise awareness and prevent further deaths of young people from the scourge of opioid drugs now ravaging our country. Henry is also the inspiration for Henry’s Law in Tennessee, a law which stiffens penalties for adults who sell or give drugs to minors that result in that minor’s death. Henry’s mother Katie and Aunt Betsy are co-facilitators for the monthly GRASP support group in Knoxville which provides support for anyone who has lost a loved one to addiction or overdose. This free group meets at 7pm on the first Thursday of each month at St. James Church located at 1101 North Broadway in Knoxville. For more information about Henry’s Fund, contact Executive Director Betsy Allison Tant, MSW at firstname.lastname@example.org.