A Mother Who Lost Two Sons to Fentanyl Fights Back

    Imagine the worst thing that could happen to you. Now imagine it happening twice.

    That’s as close as I can get, as a parent, to describing what Carol Katz Beyer has been through. In 2016 and 2017, two of her three sons lost their lives to fentanyl-involved overdose.

    Carol is from suburban New Jersey, where she ran successful family healthcare and medical transportation businesses as well as raising her kids. She’s known to me as a formidable harm reduction advocate, through her leadership of Families for Sensible Drug Policya nonprofit and community that she co-founded with Barry Lessin.

    She’s telling her story to convey how different policies and attitudes could have saved her sons’ lives. Both died in their late 20s: Bryan, a “teddy bear” with a contagious sense of humor; and Alex, a creative, sharp-dressing dreamer.

    When she visits the Filter office Carol is, as usual, bubbly, warm and full of smiles. Only occasionally does the pain that fuels her advocacy break through.

     

    Early Lives

    Carol’s first two sons, Bryan and Alex Strassman, were born two years apart. The joy their family experienced is familiar; Bryan was the first grandchild on both sides. “My father, who was an artist, prepared the nursery by drawing beautiful jungle animals coming out over blades of grass,” Carol recalls.

    Bryan was a month premature when he arrived in October 1988. “His surprise of showing up early was indicative of a characteristic that he would maintain for the rest of his life,” says Carol.

    She has a memory of him as a baby on a family outing, crawling determinedly and repeatedly up a slightly dangerous hill. “That was Bryan. He loved music, skateboarding and biking, guitar lessons and camp. He was always bringing home a surprise. He once took a box turtle that he found in a mall parking lot to a movie with him.”

    As a teenager, Bryan had a lawn mowing business and a snow removal service. “Once he broke his ankle,” Carol recalls, “and we had a few feet of snow. He got his friends together and he still went out there and shoveled. He was really unstoppable.”

    Alex, born in September 1990, had some different traits. “He had dark hair and eyes, and was very charismatic,” says Carol. “That, also, was a quality that would stay with him. He was gentle and loving, and a natural at anything he set out to do, from karate to singing.”

    While sharing a sense of humor, Alex was a more serious soul than Bryan. He wrote poetry and music, and captained the school soccer team.

    “Bryan was a practical joker, and he really liked being center stage,” Carol says. “Alex was not always having that. There were many practical jokes that Alex didn’t find funny!” The two boys were nonetheless close as they grew older, with shared interests in music and biking, and many of the same friends.

    Bryan and Alex Strassman

     

    Carol and their father, Wayne, separated in the boys’ early lives. Bryan was five by the time the divorce went through, and Alex three. The family home in Denville Township, New Jersey had to be sold. The boys lived with Carol but saw Wayne on weekends. After a couple of moves, and Carol’s marriage to her second husband, Darin, the new family settled in nearby Montville. Devin, Carol’s son with Darin, was born in 1994.

    Bryan and Alex adapted well, and experienced no issues outside the normal range.

    “But looking back, Bryan did always have certain oppositional characteristics. He had antics that actually were funny if you weren’t living through them,” Carol says with a smile. “One time we were at a hotel with a number of different pools. When it was time to leave, I told them, ‘Kids, come on out of the pool!’ Alex came out and Devin came out. Bryan proceeded to go to each of the other pools in turn: ‘But you didn’t say I had to get out of this pool…”

    A little low-key trouble at school developed. “Bryan was difficult to rein in if he had his mind set to something,” says Carol. “In school, especially with zero-tolerance policies, that doesn’t always work out so well.”

    The failure of zero-tolerance policies to protect or help childrenthe way they can alienate young people and exacerbate issues they faceis a key point for Carol. The school system’s rigid, unforgiving handling of both of her sons’ issues, she believes, greatly contributed to what happened.

     

    Growing Concerns and Zero-Tolerance

    Carol’s own life patterns of drug use were conventional. She used drugs that were not considered “hard” during the “tail-end of the Woodstock era” and the “David Bowie club era” of her youth. After having children, she stuck to wine.

    She does point out that following her parents’ divorce in her teens, her way of coping with life, earlier with illicit or prescribed drugs and later with alcohol, “relied on self-medicating to a degree.”

    There was a lot of teenage drug use in the community where her sons grew up. The affluent professionals who lived there frequently traveled, leaving their houses empty and plenty of opportunity for unsupervised gatherings.

    Carol tried to steer a middle path—neither hardline nor overly permissive—with her teens. As long as they were meeting their school responsibilities and not putting themselves in situations that risked their safety, she wasn’t going to make a big deal out of, say, a little weekend marijuana use.

    When they were Bar Mitzvah’d, they had wine,” she says. “But my home was where the kids came after school for chocolate chip cookies. It wasn’t the house that they chose to have their parties at.”

    “Growing up in my own family,” she recalls, “I was just told, ‘Don’t do hard drugs.’ And that’s kind of what we figured would be like the course of their teenage years.”

    Unforgivably in Carol’s eyes, the school took away both boys’ opportunities for purposeful, constructive activities.

    One early trigger for concern came when Bryan was 15. Carol discovered through other parents that he had been visiting a house where teens were drinking and also using prescription drugs that were available to the girl who lived there.

    Bryan’s behaviors began to worry Carol, both for concrete reasons, such as when he began cutting classes, and intuitively. She took action: “We lined up a therapist and family counselingwe ended up going to many, many therapists and psychiatrists.”

    Carol began getting calls from teachers and the principal about Bryan’s absences and slipping grades, and other minor but regular behavioral issues. Bryan’s attitude was, “I’m going to do my own thing,” and Carol was left trying to figure out a joint approach with her ex-husband.

    “We all gave a consistent message of love,” she says. “But the way that translated was not always in the same language. We weren’t always on the same page with how serious we thought something was, or what needed to be done.”

    Alex, meanwhile, was experiencing more minor issues. Carol suspected that by 13, he had experimented with marijuana. He was also diagnosed and medicated for attention-deficit disorder and treated for Lyme disease. His school performance and behaviors were largely good.

    But Alex was influenced by Bryan’s situation in a couple of ways. First was the obvious likelihood of aping an admired older brother and his peers. “Bryan did extreme sports, Alex did extreme sports,” says Carol. “Bryan used drugs and hung out, and that seemed cool.” A second factor, she believes, was the disruption caused to Alex, who liked calm and order, by the family crisis around Bryan.

    Alex was 14 when the school called. After an accident in which he hit his head on a bleacher, he had admitted to teachers that he’d been using cocaine. When Carol rushed in, Alex shrugged it off and said, “They’re overreacting. I’m fine.”

    Alex graduates middle school

     

    But this incident set off a sequence of events that plunged the family further into crisis. The school demanded that Alex be regularly drug tested. They linked Alex’s drug use with Bryan’s behaviors and suspected drug use, which meant consequences for Bryan, too.

    Unforgivably in Carol’s eyes, the school took away both boys’ opportunities for purposeful, constructive activities. Alex was taken off the soccer team. As the captain, this role had been his biggest source of pride. “Bryan was not welcome back to play sports, either. These were the healthy windows of time that occupied their day.”

     

     

    Disastrous Teen Treatment

    There’s another big way in which Carol blames the school system for exacerbating her sons’ problems. After the cocaine incident, both Alex and Bryan were mandated to an outpatient rehab program—one to which each would periodically have to return, for periods of weeks, for the remainder of their school careers.  

    Their behaviors and issues deteriorated rapidly after they began attending. One reason, Carol feels, was sudden exposure to the influence of many other teens whose issues were more serious—involving arrests, for example, and intravenous use.

    “It was a toxic environment.”

    She also objects to the 12-step philosophy to which the rehab subjected her sons. “The program used a cookie-cutter approach.”

    The family meetings,” she recalls, “were facilitated by a therapist who went around the room and asked everyone to identify as an ‘addict’ and powerless, and proceeded to talk to the families—primarily the mother—using language like ‘co-dependence’ and ‘enabling.’”

    “They would mock the kids and just be rude and unkind, and mostly self-absorbed about their own stories and their own recovery,” she continues. “It was very shaming.” Her sons were also told to attend adult AA meetings in the community, increasing their potential exposure to risky influences.

    Families were told to follow the discredited “tough love” approach. Their teens were continually drug tested. “It wasn’t working,” says Carol. “The kids would conspire to figure out where they could get clean urine. The facility knew what was going on; they keep drug testing because it’s a huge money-maker. The compliance end is what drove the protocol.”

    Everybody got the same cocktail of meds,” adds Carol, her fury apparent. “I said, ‘I don’t understand. Where are your benchmark goals? You’re not demonstrating that these children have the mental preparedness to have to go pray in a church basement.’ My kids were Jewish, and this was what they had to do, because otherwise they couldn’t return to school.”

    Bryan and Alex’s drug use accelerated. Alex initially stuck mainly with cocaine and weed, while Bryan increasingly used oxycodone. Both boys also shared other prescription drugs. They picked up new ways to make the cash to buy them, too, such as pawn shops. Bryan in particular was involved in some frightening episodes, including car accidents and going missing at night.  

    “It was a toxic environment,” Carol summarizes of the teen program. “Almost all of the families I’ve interviewed have described the same scenario: that their kids got worse and that there’s treatment trauma.”

     

    Bryan’s Path

    Bryan graduated high school. But he was forbidden from participating in the graduation ceremony, as a sanction for his struggles.

    He also successfully applied to Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island to study Hospitality. His parents were thrilled, seeing an opportunity for a fresh start. Bryan himself was highly excited and motivated.

    Before he started, they sent him, on a therapist’s advice, to a 28-day rehab program in Florida. All seemed to go well.

    Carol tears up as she remembers how she and her ex-husband Wayne brought Bryan to college. “It was an idyllic road trip, reminiscent of all the ones that we’d taken to pumpkin farms and Yankee games. We set everything up. It was an amazing moment of, wow, that whole cloud of chaos is over. Bryan, you’re here! You made it. We love you. We’re so proud of you.”

    So continued a recurring pattern. “It’s recycling: detox, jail, rehab, sober living,” says Carol. “But he never complained.”

    A month later, Bryan called. He told Carol there was nothing to worry about, but she would be hearing from his RA about his conduct. “It was nothing. I came in late. Everybody was drinking. College stories.”

    The next call, from Bryan’s roommate, was more alarming: “You really need to come down here. Bryan is fucking up. He’s not okay. He’s using again.”

    On the phone, Bryan again played it down. Carol followed what she considers a therapist’s good advice and ignored her instinct to “run up there and put my arms around him.” Instead, she asked him: “What do you think you should do now? Is there help there?”

    Bryan enrolled in a school program, but after a further infraction he was asked to find off-campus housing. His parents then visited again.

    “He presented himself ok,” says Carol. She helped set him up in an apartment with hand-me-down furniture, and also met his new girlfriend. “She was lovely. He seemed in love. Okay, good. You’re going to be alright!”

    Their next visit, for a college family day, dispelled her illusion.

    “Well, the first thing we saw was that there was a big hole in the door, that the door had been kicked in,” Carol recounts. “I was in shock for what we would see inside.”

    “There were just mattresses on the floor and kids, and what had been this beautiful little rundown apartment was now a place where my son and his girlfriend and all their friends just safeguarded themselves amidst this habit.”

    Bryan was injecting heroin by this point. Advised by another therapist, they sent him back to rehab in Florida. He would spend most of the rest of his life in the state.

    After this second rehab stint, Bryan entered Florida’s system of sober living homes. For eight months, he seemed to do well. “He got into ‘Recovery,’” says Carol, “to the extent that he became a staff person and a leader in the community. He was supervising the kids. They all went on paintball expeditions.”

    Then Bryan relapsed, and so continued a recurring pattern. “It’s recycling: detox, jail, rehab, sober living,” says Carol. “But he never complained.”

    Bryan at a sober home in Florida

     

    Highly critical of America’s dominant abstinence-only recovery modelwhich discourages MAT drugs that cut mortality, and leaves relapsing people with lowered tolerance vulnerableCarol laments how both of her sons were at times pressured to “embrace the form of recovery that ultimately put them at a higher risk for death.”

    Over the years, Bryan seemed able to avoid relapse for longer, however. In 2013 he fell in love with a young woman called Candice. They were inseparable, and when her health insurance was ending in 2015, they decided to get married. Without telling anyone, they went to the courthouse together in Florida, signing the documents with the pink-plumed pens provided.

    Afterwards, they visited New Jersey and shared their news with Carol over pizza. She was delighted despite the surprise, and helped them make plans for a celebration.

    Bryan and Candice

     

    With more stability in his life, Bryan also set up a company with several partners to conduct work in the only business he knew: rehab, and specifically marketing and lab work. He began to do well financially.

    That’s when he told Carol—referring to the hundreds of thousands she’d spent on rehabs and sober living homes, cashing in IRAs and taking out loans—“Mom, I’m going to pay you back.”

    “And he started to!” Carol says. “I couldn’t believe it.”

    Despite Bryan’s marriage, successful business and desire to put things right, it always felt that disaster could strike. Friends of his in South Florida sober housing were dying of overdose daily. The worst happened in October 2016.

    “I knew that something was wrong,” Carol relates. “He was starting to be increasingly unavailable. I make these panicked calls: ‘Hi honey, it’s Mom again. Maybe you didn’t get my message?’”

    “I spoke to Candice. She said, ‘Yeah, well, we’re trying.’ ‘Cause she and he were obviously in the same predicament.”

    One morning, Carol received a call from Wayne. Bryan had overdosed at home, in bed next to his wife, at the age of 28.

    “She woke up and he was gone. So he died peacefully in her arms.”

    The toxicology report showed heroin and fentanyl.

    Bryan’s body was brought back to New Jersey. “Just to see our son that way…” Carol chokes up. “We had a beautiful ceremony, and he was buried in his Yankee hat, ’cause he liked that Yankee ball cap. And we took his snowboard and put it in there with him.”

    The rabbi said, “I’ve seen a lot, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a snowboard.”

     

    Alex’s Path

    While Bryan was in Florida, Carol resolved to learn the lessons of his experiences and help Alexwho was struggling and using cocaine and other drugs in high schoolto find a different path.

    “We weren’t going to allow Alex to continue in the same fashion. We hired an educational attorney, and the school agreed to find an alternative school that could better support him.”

    They found a boarding school in upstate New York that seemed perfect. “It was a second-chance school, but they did really cool things,” says Carol. “Like chop logs and get honey. They had a ratio of one teacher and an aid for every six kids, and a phenomenal-looking program.”

    Alex, who was 16 when he went there, was able to play soccer again and spend plenty of time outdoors. He loved it and his grades reflected that.

    Drug use was initially no longer an issue for Alex. But classmates who went home for the weekend would bring back supplies. Despite the positive nature of the experience, Alex at one point ran into issues bad enough that his parentsdirected by a professional, just as they had been with Bryan—sent him to rehab in Florida.

    But following his rehab spell, and doing well on Suboxone, Alex was able to graduate high school. Despite “bumps in the road,” he was accepted into Full Sail University and achieved his bachelor’s degree in Entertainment Business in 2012. ”It was a phenomenal moment,” says Carol.

     

    The role of Suboxone in Alex’s life was a departure from his brother’s purely abstinence-based recovery path. “We were fine with that,” says Carol. “It wasn’t anything that was even talked about in the programs or facilities that he attended, so we were finding our own way by doing research.”

    Alex was by now in a relationship, and he and his girlfriend made their home near Delray Beach. Yet like Bryan, he would periodically go through a cycle: abstinence, medication, relapse, detoxing from heroin, rehab and so on.

    “He had to make sure to hide his Suboxone in sober living because nobody’s allowed it.”

    Alex also didn’t have steady work. Most that he did find was, again as with Bryan, associated with the rehab industry.

    “Alex did not have Bryan’s work ethic, I can say that,” says Carol with a chuckle. “He was a bit of a hustler, and I say that lovingly. He could play pool, he could play cards. He was dashing with the ladies. So he would pick up jobs here and there—again, targeted marketing by rehabs and detoxes. His doctors would pay him under the table to send patients, and all that kind of stuff that these individuals going to Florida for help wind up doing.”

    Alex once spent a couple of months in jail on an outstanding possession charge. “I went to see him there and he was actually doing really well, reading every day,” Carol recalls. “He recaptured all the things that he gravitated to when he was healthy.”

    Back on the outside, after a new relationship broke up, Alex was soon in much worse shape. When Carol visited Florida to see friends and Alex didn’t make their dinner date, she knew something was wrong. They found Alex in a run-down motel room in bad condition. They managed to get him into a sober home.

    He remained on Suboxone. “But he had to make sure to hide it in sober living because nobody’s allowed it,” Carol points out. “The time when, statistically, kids are most likely to overdose is when they’re coming out of jail, when they’re coming out of rehab—and there’s no treatment other than attend meetings. We’re not using the evidence-based tools that we have.“

    Alex began to get better. In 2017, he agreed to come home to New Jersey for the first time in years. He first attended a long-term, client-centered facility in Pennsylvania, where he stayed on Suboxone, far from the chaos of his life in Delray Beach. He described this experience as very positive, and nothing like any other facility he’d attended. He worked out daily, did yoga and attended counseling.

    After his return, he was happy, healthy and highly motivated. He saw a doctor who prescribed him Suboxone and other medication. He got his resume together. “He had big plans; he was a big dreamer,” says Carol. These dreams included running music workshops for at-risk kids. The first job he landed was at a pizzeria; he later did sales work, but remained dissatisfied.

    Still, Carol remembers it as a time of optimism. “His father and I agreed: The era of tough love was buried with our son Bryan. We weren’t going to have that happen to Alexno way, no how.”

    So Alex stayed with his parents and his younger brother, Devin. He went to temple with his father and babysat. He looked at apartments, ready to start a new life. “It was just fantastic,” says Carol. “We saw his growth; he was reaching so hard.”

    In the Jewish tradition, a year after someone passes away, an unveiling of the headstone takes place. Bryan’s unveiling took place in October 2017.

    The family’s there for the ceremony,” Carol says, “and we’re like: ‘Bryan, you saved your brother. Alex is gonna be ok, and we know you’re watching over him.’”

    Four days later, Alex prepared for an exciting-sounding job interview. “He always dressed impeccably, off the pages of GQ,” says Carol. He went to the barber that morning to get the right fade, and took a picture of himself outside.

     

    Alex’s father, Wayne, had lately been concerned about his appearance, however. Alex said, “Oh, it’s just from the medication. It makes me tired.”

    Carol spoke to him too: “Alex, if you are using, you don’t need to hide it from me. I’ll fucking send you to Switzerland if I have to. Or if you want to go back into detox?  Let’s just talk about it. Because the streets are flooded with fentanyl. We know.”

    “I’m smarter than Bryan! That wouldn’t happen to me,” he replied.

    So Alex went to the job interview, and Carol picked him up afterwards. He was despondent. It hadn’t been for a real job at all—it was a pyramid scheme, he said.

    Carol said what she could to console and encourage him, then dropped him off at his father’s house.

    Later that day, she called Alex to check in.

    “I called him to just say, as I often did, ‘Honey, I love you and I’m proud of you.’ And he didn’t pick up. And he always would pick up, would text me, do something. So I called Wayne and said, ‘Wayne, I’m supposed to go into the city, but Alex isn’t feeling right. I think he’s depressed about the job thing. Are you gonna be home soon?”

    Wayne said that he would. When he arrived, he called Carol back.

    “He’s not here,” said Wayne. “Maybe he walked to the pizza place.”

    “Wayne, can you go downstairs and see if he’s there, please?”

    “Yeah… No, he’s not downstairs… His phone is there.”

    “Wayne. That phone never leaves his hand. Can you please go into the bathroom?”

    Wayne screamed when he found Alex lying there. The paramedics tried to revive him, but he was gone, aged 27.

    The toxicology report, for the second time, showed heroin and fentanyl.

     

    Families for Sensible Drug Policy

    It was just much, much too much,” says Carol, “to go from the unveiling of one child, and four days later…”  

    Carol Katz Beyer realized long before her sons’ deaths that she wanted to fight for families going through experiences like hers, and advocate for laws that can produce better outcomes for people who use drugs. She spent several years working with different family advocacy organizations before co-founding her own, whose mission she defines as “empowering family, restoring health and saving lives.”

    Her co-founder at Families for Sensible Drug Policy, Barry Lessin, is a Philadelphia-based clinician and researcher who, like many working in harm reduction, has undergone his own theoretical journey.

    “When I would hear what families experienced from treatment providerstheir anger, their pain, their rage at the industry—that opened my eyes.”

    “For the majority of my career, about 35 years up until 2011, I was a traditional, one-size-fits-all, abstinence-only therapist,” he tells me. “I worked with individuals and families. But it was a struggle. It was very frustrating. I felt like I wasn’t really helping people.”

    He recounts with particular regret offering “tough-love” advice to his own brother when his nephew was struggling with drug and mental health issues. “I gave the guidance that you need to kick him out of the house; he needs to get engaged in treatment; don’t follow up with him at all until you know he’s in a treatment program. Here I am, with 35 years of experience, and I don’t have any answers.”

    Lessin relates how, when he read a 2011 Drug Policy Alliance article about the 40th anniversary of the War on Drugs, “a light came on.” He began researching the injustices of the drug war and the nature of harm reduction, and quickly “felt like I needed to do something.”

    He shifted his clinical work to embrace harm reduction, with emphasis on working with families who had suffered from bereavement or treatment-induced trauma. “When I would hear what families experienced from treatment providerstheir anger, their pain, their rage at the industry—that opened my eyes.”

    His work also involved campaigning for naloxone access, Good Samaritan laws and other essential measures. “I felt like the families I worked with were being abandoned.”

    Carol and Barry came to know each other through working with a number of different advocacy groups. They found the combination of Carol’s lived experience and organizing energy plus Barry’s clinical practice and research-based knowledge a perfect fit.

    Together, they founded Families for Sensible Drug Policy in 2015, to build community and resources for families impacted by addiction, overdose and bad drug policy—and advocate on their behalf.

    The organization has an active online community of people with family experience of addiction or overdose. FSDP is a regular presence at conferences, protests and other events. They’ve started having input into policy discussions with health departments, and collaborate with organizations like Women’s Law Project, NY-VOCAL and Urban Survivors Union.

    Carol and Barry with harm reduction allies

     

    In January, FSDP will co-host a workshop in New York City for mental health professionals and impacted family members, delivered by Tony Trimingham, the well known Australian public health activist and author. The interactive training in Trimingham’s harm reduction-informed, research-based Family Drug Support model will allow FSDP to launch Family Drug Support USAa program of coping tools and strategies to improve health and wellness for affected families.

     

    Sources of Strength

    Beyond the powerful sense of purpose that her advocacy provides, Carol takes other sources of strength.

    The most important is her third son, Devin, who, she says, has displayed extraordinary resilience throughout the chaos and tragedy. She describes him as “my reason for having to put one foot in front of the other and not allow myself to fall apart.”

    Another is the change in attitude demonstrated by her New Jersey community. “We had a few close friends who were obviously supportive,” she says of the time when Bryan and Alex were going through their struggles at high school. “But it felt, at that time, like a Stepford community; everyone just kind of lived in their bubbles. None of those families said, ‘We know that you’re having a hard time, is there anything that’s needed? Can we bring you a casserole?’”

    Bryan’s exclusion from his high school graduation ceremony summed up the stigmatization she could sense. After Alex died last year however, things were very differentperhaps reflecting increased public awareness amid the continuing overdose crisis.

    “This time they did show up with casseroles,” says Carol. “The boys’ friends busted the door down, came into my room: ‘Come on Mrs. Beyer, get up.’ Their parents came and brought food. They wouldn’t stop. They held me, they comforted me, they stood vigil at my home, just being there. And they are still there, and constantly in my life and Devin’s.”

    Adding to this sense of community has been unstinting support from comrades at FSDP and in the wider harm reduction movement. And then there are the hundreds of messages she receives from people who knew her sons, including their drug-using friends who tell her that Bryan or Alex saved their lives.  

    Another comfort has been Carol’s continuing relationship with Bryan’s widow, Candice. “I’m happy to say that she’s doing really well. We go for mani-pedis together and stuff.”

    Devin graduated college cum laude with a BS in Criminology earlier this year. After the ceremony, he and his mother drove home, and their route took them past the cemetery where Bryan and Alex were laid to rest, side by side.

     

    Devin asked to stop for a few minutes, so he could share the moment with his brothers.

    Clouds were gathering as they arrived home.

    Devin stood looking at the sky with his mother, and said, as she recalls: “You know how we’re going to know if Bryan and Alex are really with us? They’ll send down lightning and thunder and rain, that’s how we’ll know!”

    And just at that moment, the storm broke.

     

    Bryan and Candice with friends

     

    Carol and Alex


    All photos: Carol Katz Beyer

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