Two local activists find life after loss and a calling to comfort families
By Maria Massaro
No longer confined to the inner city and at-risk families, drug addiction has hit much too close to home for many residents of Fauquier County. According to local law enforcement agencies, the county set a grim record last year by losing 22 of its residents to drug overdoses, with opiates accounting for 14 of these fatalities. Yet this disturbing death toll might have been worse if not for organizations like Families Overcoming Drug Addiction (FODA), founded by Caroline Folker in December 2015.
Open to anyone impacted by drug addiction, FODA is a support group unique for its inclusion of both drug users and those whose lives have been affected by them. “It really worked,” said Folker of the group’s experimental start and mixed membership. “Addicts in recovery have verbalized how much they get out of listening to a parent, from his or her perspective, and vice versa.” While FODA serves a wide demographic, families of young addicts comprise the majority of regular participants. “We know drugs are easily obtainable in the high schools, so [we see] a lot of teens, along with people in their 20s and 30s. There are not many people who are much older than that because the survival rate is not very good,” Folker explained.
With up to 45 active participants, the meetings have naturally bred the “FODA family,” as Folker calls her group—a group bonded by heartrending loss and a commitment to helping survivors reclaim their lives. “If you come, and continue to come, you will have a family,” she affirmed. “You will have people who will turn up at the ER at two in the morning and hold your hand while you wait to see if your child lives or dies. And that, for me, means we’ve made a difference. That gives some purpose to the deaths of our children.”
Galvanized by the loss of her daughter Kathrine, Folker intimately understands the profoundly disorienting effect of a drug-related death. At only 19 years of age, Kathrine passed away from a heroin overdose in August 2015, just three months after her first intravenous injection of the drug. “For 12 weeks, I was trying to find information. I felt frantic to find anything that would save my child, a child who wanted help,” recalled Folker of her harrowing experience, which she poignantly and powerfully depicts in the FODA blog.
“It was especially chaotic for someone like me, someone who knew nothing about this [issue] and had such a short window of time. I was going to websites and talking to professionals, but I couldn’t find what I needed. There was so much conflicting information on what works and what doesn’t. That was my motivation for starting this group, because I think any person who’s looking for help should be able to find it, and any family looking for information should be able to find other people who can help.”
Through this initiative, Folker fortuitously met and ultimately partnered with Moira Satre, chairperson of the Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition and founder of Come As You Are (CAYA), which serves to raise community awareness of drug addiction through prevention programs and relevant resources. Having lost her son Bobby to a heroin overdose in April 2015, Satre shares Folker’s resolve and is equally upfront about this nation’s opioid epidemic. “We did everything we thought to do as mothers. We had the family meals, we took our kids to church, and we were involved in their school activities,” she stressed. “We checked all the boxes. But it doesn’t matter, because addiction doesn’t pick any type of person; it doesn’t make any distinction. This is a huge problem, and there are so many different things contributing to the problem. We [Americans] consume 80 percent of the world’s opioid supply, and it all filters down to the kids in suburbia.”
And once it filters down, there is statistically little chance of sustained recovery owing to the millstone of social stigma and the prevailing punitive mode of intervention. Noting that 97 percent of intravenous heroin users will relapse, Folker calls for a more progressive and holistic response which integrates behavioral healthcare to treat the underlying causes of addiction and medical assistance to ease the withdrawal process. “In the medical community, there is no debate that addiction is a disease. If this is the case, then we are incarcerating people for being sick,” she asserted.
Echoing this sentiment, Satre believes imprisonment and other disciplinary actions only exacerbate the problem. “It doesn’t break the cycle; it IS the cycle. People go to jail, they come out, they haven’t had any sort of rehab, they go back to using, and they go back to jail. So it’s really a broken system,” she contended, adding that policy reform will require a wide-scale change of attitude.
“I want to see this country embrace the fact that addiction is a medical disease and not a moral failing. People are so fearful that they’re going to be judged. That’s why they feel so much shame and why they aren’t ready to admit there’s a problem,” she continued. “As a country, we need to be more compassionate to addicts and their families. I just pray for the day when help and services are readily available, when drug abuse is not shameful and addicts get the compassion they deserve.”
This much-needed empathy and support are at the core of FODA and CAYA, inspiring Folker and Satre to speak candidly about the desperation that active users feel every day and the devastation families face as they scramble to prevent a tragedy and struggle to make sense of a loved one’s demise. “We are not the family we were,” said Folker of her home life since losing Kathrine.
Reiterating the trial of addiction, Satre and her family continue to deal with the aftermath of Bobby’s death and grapple with the stages of bereavement. “Even the strongest marriages don’t always survive. The statistics [for divorce] are so high,” she indicated. “I would give anything just to have my son back, anything to replace the grief I feel now with the worry I used to feel. In my naivety, I thought he was going to be ‘fixed’ the very first time he went to rehab, that he was going to come back and everything was going to be fine. I really didn’t know that this was going to be a lifelong ordeal.” Folker added: “You see it as a hump in the road of their life; you don’t see it is as being the rest of their life, at least not until you learn that is what it always is—for everybody.”
It is this illusion of invulnerability that Folker and Satre bring to light through their respective organizations. Knowing from personal experience the adverse effects of denial, the two endeavor to wake the public from its semiconscious state, reminding us through candid and cautionary communication that no one is immune to this disease. “Everybody says, ‘I never saw it coming’ or ‘I never saw this hitting my family.’ That’s the similarity of all the people in our group,” revealed Folker. “I’ve met a lot of families, and I haven’t met one yet that said, ‘Yeah, I could see this was going to happen’ or ‘I could tell my kid was going to be a heroin addict.’ So, in FODA, we talk about this. In some ways, it’s almost like preparing people for what may happen because, as one of our participants once said, ‘The members are terrified that your story is going to become their story.’ That’s their biggest fear. They know that this is a possibility in their future.”
Yet, in spite of this possibility, Folker is driven to deliver her message and is encouraged by the feedback she receives. “People say they leave here still feeling scared but also feeling supported. To know I’m making a difference and helping others is very important, but what’s been critical to me are the people I’ve met along the way, people who supported me when I had no other supports. I don’t know if I could have survived what I did without those people. This group hasn’t just helped me; it’s also saved me.”
Likewise, Satre has benefited exponentially from the social support she’s found by reaching out to the community and sharing her own story. “FODA is my place where I can really unload. I know that twice a month I can go somewhere and people are going to give me a chance to talk and are going to listen to how I feel. I think that’s what is so great about this group: it gives people things to think about. Whether they leave here frightened or not, they’re at least armed with information—which is better, because that’s information that could save their child.”
Reoriented by tragedy and united by a shared mission, Folker and Satre anticipate positive change while they honor every casualty of addiction. “I’m hopeful because I see the community engaged, and I see that people really do want to make some changes and bring services, programs, and support here to this county,” Satre expressed. “And there are a lot of things in the works to make that happen.” These things include integration of substance abuse education into school health programs, voluntary recovery services for individuals incarcerated on drug charges, and awareness activities such as CAYA’s Run for Your Life 5K Race—an annual event that helps to support prevention programs, reduce the stigma of addiction, and educate the community about the dangers of drug abuse.
“We’re all working very closely together, which didn’t happen before,” said Folker of the progress Fauquier County has made in coordinating efforts, bringing information to light, and intervening in practical and lasting ways. While this kind of cooperation is encouraging, it is the work of each concerned citizen, outspoken advocate, and grieving parent that directly touches lives and routinely saves them. Only those whose world has been upended by drugs can truly articulate the bane of addiction and illustrate the gravity of this widespread disease. It is through them that statistics are translated into stories—stories with the uplifting moral that there is always hope for change thanks to every individual with the insight to see a need, the integrity to take action, and the courage to transform pain into purpose.
Families Overcoming Drug Addiction: Support Group Meetings
When: First and third Thursday of each month at 6:30 pm
Where: Sycamore Room at Fauquier Hospital in Warrenton
Contact: Caroline Folker at 540-316-9221 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Come As You Are Coalition: Run for Your Life 5K Race
When: Saturday, September 23
Where: Verdun Adventure Bound in Rixeyville
Contact: Moira Satre at email@example.com