RICHMOND — Barbara and Eric Minteer’s son, Alex, died from a fentanyl overdose in 2017. He was 29 years old.
“Drugs cost Alex three jobs, his long-tine girlfriend, his license, his car, all of his friends, and in the end drugs took his life,” Minteer says in a presentation she shares with groups throughout Rhode Island. “He stole from his family to get money to buy drugs. I had to sleep with my car keys and my wallet. I found him many times under the beds and furniture trying to find enough change to buy a bag.”
The Minteer family lives in Richmond, and Alex and his two sisters attended Chariho schools. Alex started experimenting with drugs when he was 15 and continued to use them throughout high school, then at Rhode Island College. It was there, during his final year, that he was introduced to heroin.
Minteer’s story recounts the graphic details of the day she and her husband found Alex dead in his room. When first responders were unable to revive him, they attached a tag to his big toe, zipped him into a body bag and carried him out of the house.
“I didn’t get to hug him. I didn’t get to cut off a piece of his hair," Minteer said. "I didn’t remember that he wanted to be an organ donor. I never got to say ‘I will always love you no matter what.’ I never got to say goodbye. I never got to ask him if he wanted to be buried or cremated. I never got to ask him for the password for his phone or computer. Now, I have no pictures and no recording of his voice. I am so afraid that I am going to forget what he sounds like."
Minteer believes the stigma of addiction prevented Alex from seeking help. She said the stigma discourages the families of addicts from sharing their stories, so she is sharing hers.
“Instead of curling up into a ball of grief and shame, I have chosen to stand strong and do something to make a difference,” she said. “If sharing Alex’s story can be part of ending the negative stigma surrounding drug abuse and addiction then that is what I choose to do.”
After Alex died, his grieving family was left to try to learn how to live without him.
Minteer and her husband tried therapy and a support group in Warwick.
“My husband and I together saw a therapist and neither of us really found that helpful,” she said. “Then the next group that we found was called ‘Build the Banner of Love.’ It’s a group that’s specific to parents who have lost children to addiction.”
Minteer then heard about the local Strong Arms support group, led by Terri Censabella and Kate Tokarski, which meets at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Alton.
“When I found that there was a local group, I was interested in attending because I didn’t have to drive the half hour to Warwick to the other group. This group has been very helpful, I guess because I was able to talk to freely and openly. No judgment,” she said.
Minteer now shares her family’s story with groups ranging from students at the Chariho Alternative Learning Academy to first responders and medical professionals.
Censabella and Tokarski, both members of the Chariho Youth Task Force, started the Strong Arms group because South County residents had no local support resources.
“There isn’t anything in Chariho or even in South County,” Censabella said. “There was a need. I have a list of students, alumni, who have passed away from suicide or overdose and then what happens to these families when that happens? Where’s the help for them?”
Tokarski added, “For me, the big thing was there was so much focus on prevention and treatment and recovery for the people who are suffering with the disease, which is appropriate, and yet I wasn’t seeing a lot of support, at least in South County, for these families.”
The Strong Arms support group welcomes families who are currently living with addiction as well as families who have lost loved ones.
“We have both,” Censabella said. “We are hoping that the families that have gone through it can help support the families that are in it.”
Tokarski said both groups could help each other.
“The whole point is that it would be healing to a family that has been through it, who might feel still so helpless after losing their child can now offer some help to another family,” she said.
Minteer, who still attends Strong Arms group meetings, said she would continue to share her family’s story in the hope that it would make it easier for people to talk about addiction.
“I hope to educate people so that they feel differently about addiction and substance use disorder,” she said. “It’s not just the bums on the street anymore that become addicts. It’s people just like you and me.”