Updated May 15 at 2:45 P.M.
Laura Fry says her colleagues told her for months that something wasn’t right with her son.
Fry worked at the Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, Illinois as a medical technologist. Even though she saw patients grappling with overdoses and addictions every day at work, she says she couldn’t see it in her own child.
“I had blinders on,” Fry told Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia. “He was using drugs, and I continued to utter the three words that have been my biggest parental mistake: ‘Not my son.’”
Her son, Alex Mathiesen, was addicted to heroin, and Fry says she chased drug dealers out of their driveway with a baseball bat. But Mathiesen overcame his addiction and currently works as an outreach coordinator at Live4Lali, a suburban advocacy organization that aims to prevent substance abuse. Fry is the organization’s director of operations.
As part of a weeklong series on the opioid crisis from the perspective of those affected, Morning Shift sat down with both Fry and Mathiesen. Below are highlights from the conversation.
‘I fell in love with the wrong person’
Tony Sarabia: So Alex, mom said you were smarter than that, that you knew better —
Alex Mathiesen: I did. I thought I did.
Sarabia: How did you fall into it?
Mathiesen: To be totally honest with you, the first couple times that I used heroin I wasn’t aware that I was using it. It was laced into other things that I was indulging in for many years.
Sarabia: Such as?
Mathiesen: Cannabis. Food and drinks. I fell in love with the wrong person. She was by definition a heroin user. She suffered from heroin use disorder and she decided that it would be much easier for her to maintain her habit if she could also have my salary applied to it. So she began lacing the things I was eating and drinking with heroin.
Sarabia: When did you make the connection?
Mathiesen: It took a couple months. For me, honestly I thought I was experiencing true love for the first time, but it turns out it was just a very happy chemical in my brain being produced from heroin.
‘Not so much anger. Guilt, fear, and sadness.’
Laura Fry: He had come to us at one point telling me that he was addicted to prescription opioids, which I could understand because he suffered with migraines since he was 6 and he has taken a lot of pain medication over the years.
So I said, “OK, we’ll get you into treatment and this’ll be over.” And we did, I thought it was over, and I got a phone call on a Sunday night at about 10 o’clock from one of my police officer friends — I’m very involved in the neighborhood. And he said, “Laura we need you to come down to the Wauconda Police Department.”
I had no idea. I go down there, he’s waiting for us in the lobby and he said, “Laura, I hate to tell you this but we got a tip and we pulled Alex over and he had 60 bags of heroin on him.” That was a very rude removal of my blinders and I sunk to my knees. And at that moment the undercover agent brought my handcuffed, beautiful child out past me high as a kite. And all he did was look at me real goofy and say, “Later.” That started the nightmare.
I didn’t sleep at all that night, and I swear I went through everything, from my pregnancy up until the current day, [thinking], “What did I do wrong?”
Deciding to get clean
Sarabia: When was that moment for you, Alex, where you said to yourself, “I gotta turn around here”?
Mathiesen: Part of the terms of my probation were that I was to have no contact with the woman I married. I’m not sure who exactly made sure that was in the terms, but at the time I thought I still loved her and I could still make it work. I knew that if I stayed in the home that I used in for so long that I would not be able to do this successfully.
So I left to be with her in Wisconsin and she didn’t stop using, so eventually I decided I need to go and get clean on my own, so that when I am inevitably caught by law enforcement, I can go to prison with a clear head, a clear conscience, and a healthy soul.
Fry: It was the worst 10 months of my life because I didn’t really know if he was alive or dead. Nobody heard from him. It’s like he fell off the face of the Earth.
Mathiesen: You ultimately do have to take responsibility for the things that you’ve done when you’ve been going through a using period. Even if drugs or substances fuel the terrible decisions you make, you still have to take responsibility for that, absolutely. And not just for the well-being of other people but for your own peace of mind.
It takes several years for your brain chemistry to go back to a semi-normal functioning state, and if you’re not at peace with the things that you’ve done — and if you’ve not made peace with the people you’ve wronged — you’ll be what so many groups call a “dry addict.” You’ll still have those destructive psychological tendencies even if you’re not using.
Sarabia: Where are you on that journey?
Mathiesen: I still have some trouble forgiving myself. But all the people around me that love me, I do believe they have forgiven me.
Sarabia: Does that go for you, mom?
A previous version of this story misspelled Alex Mathiesen’s name. It is Mathiesen, not Mathieson.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Click on the ‘play’ button above to listen to the entire segment, which was adapted for the web by producer Justin Bull.