Gail Bennett was a reluctant guest of Surry County’s prescription drug task force at a meeting Thursday night.
“I don’t want to be here,” Bennett matter-of-factly told the group gathered in the media center at Mount Airy High School. But the Stokes County businesswoman said she was compelled to attend to show the task force what “reality” looks like — the reality of a mother who lost her 31-year-old son to a prescription drug overdose 18 months ago.
“He ate them like candy,” she said of the pain-killing pills her son Ritchie was taking, specifically mentioning Xanax. “He just couldn’t stop.”
Bennett fought back tears while relaying her story, describing how Ritchie was her pride and joy.
“I’m a crybaby because I buried my child,” she said at one point while dabbing at her eyes with a tissue.
Bennett and her husband had lost four babies before her successful pregnancy with Ritchie. “That was the happiest day of my life when we had him,” she said, beaming at the memory of her first-born child who later would be followed by a sister.
“Xanax Hooked Him”
Ritchie was a fine youth who was well-liked by his peers. “We did everything for him,” his mother recalled Thursday, when she admitted that this is sometimes not enough to keep a person from taking drugs.
“It don’t matter if you’re raised good or raised bad — it’s the choice that person makes,” she said with a sigh.
Ritchie wore designer clothes (“clothes don’t make the child” is another lesson his mother learned) and after graduating from high school enrolled at Surry Community College, where he played basketball.
He also was part of a clique (“the clique doesn’t matter,” either, Bennett added Thursday) and in fact that proved detrimental because its members were using Xanax. “The Xanax hooked him,” the mother said in detailing her tragedy.
Along the way, Ritchie was involved in a bad car wreck, in which he was thrown from the vehicle “and (it) broke him all to pieces,” Bennett continued.
“That just escalated everything,” she said of the accident. “Then he had an excuse (to use).”
Dealing with the accident’s effects only increased Ritchie’s dependency on prescription pain-killers that the medical community seemed all too willing to prescribe, Bennett said.
Ritchie’s problem gradually worsened — having to take more and more pills to achieve the same effect, due to the body building up a tolerance for the drug. “I never knew what I was going to come home to,” Bennett said, explaining that her son lived with his parents.
They paid for expensive rehab, but nothing seemed to work. “The choice that you make is so important,” she repeated. “We did everything we could.”
The end came soon after Ritchie had made one of his many visits to a medical facility in order to get more medication. “He needed it,” she said of his pain issues lingering from the wreck. “But did he need as much as they gave him? No.”
After dying from respiratory arrest shortly after his final medical visit 18 months ago, a common cause of death for overdose victims, the coroner questioned why anyone would have prescribed Ritchie so many pills.
“When you look back, you want to say, ‘what did I do wrong?’” the heartbroken mother went on. “But it’s the choice that they make.”
“Don’t Let This Be You”
Bennett said she attempted to make a difference for others during the funeral process for her son. As his many friends showed up on the visitation night and filed solemnly past his casket, she took aside every one she knew to be a drug user and whispered something to each:
“Don’t let this be you,” Bennett said she told them.
Along with the loss to his parents, Ritchie’s death has left a void in the life of the 8-year-old son he left behind. The child regularly visits the home of his grandparents, where Bennett said many pictures of her late son still adorn the walls.
However, one photograph of Ritchie with his son and the child’s mother is kept in an out-of-the-way spot in the residence. “During Christmas, we caught him looking at it,” Bennett told the task force members, some of whom seemed teary-eyed as well.
The mother reiterated how she doesn’t like attending meetings of the local prescription drug coalition, with Thursday’s appearance coming on the heels of another last summer in Pilot Mountain at which she shared her son’s story.
“I’m here because I need to be,” Bennett said of herself and parents in similar circumstances who have a need to help others avoid a similar tragedy. “I don’t want to come to meetings — but we have to come.”
Bennett said she supports efforts of the Project Lazarus-Surry group, which was formed in 2011 to address an epidemic problem with prescription drug abuse and misuse in the county. It claimed the lives of at least 30 local residents that year and another 17 in 2012, among nearly 1,000 overdoses in all.
Drug death statistics or warning messages are one thing. “But you’re seeing reality,” Bennett told Thursday’s group riveted on her every word. “This is what reality is.”
On Thursday, she applauded one initiative of the group, an effort seeking to have doctors more closely control the quantities of drugs prescribed and to whom.
A limitation on the pills dispensed, “that’s what I want to see,” Bennett told the task force. Physicians should be more accountable for what they prescribe to patients, she said.
Bennett also believes another effort of the group, awareness programs undertaken in local schools about drug dangers, are on the right track. “You have to start when they’re little,” she said of preventing addiction problems.
The completion of Bennett’s story was greeted by applause from the gathering of law enforcement, educational, governmental, ministerial, public health and other representatives who are part of the task force.
“I want to personally thank you for sharing your story,” Larry Phillips, a county commissioner there, told Bennett. Phillips, also a pastor, reassured her that the best efforts of parents sometimes aren’t enough, using Adam and Eve as an example.
“God had two children — he put them in a perfect environment and they found a way to blow it,” Phillips said.
Mount Airy Police Chief Dale Watson, who played a key role in launching the task force, said that what Gail Bennett had to say should make the group even more vigilant in working to keep tragedies such as hers from occurring.
“If that does not get you motivated, nothing will,” Watson said.
As she left Thursday night’s meeting, Bennett said it was worth her personal pain to tell a story that might make a difference to others while they have a chance to alter a loved one’s destructive path.
“If it changes a life, it’s worth it.”
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or email@example.com.