It has been almost one year since I lost my 24-year-old son, Hayes Hammerling, to an accidental opiate overdose, and I struggle each morning to get out of bed and find meaning in my life. I am sharing this story so that, perhaps, in some way, my journey and what I have learned may help save the lives of others like Hayes. The opioid crisis has been raging for years, and new data paints a clear picture of how overdose rates have been increasing sharply throughout the pandemic, and we are losing too many lives. If I can help in some ways, so that no other mother has to experience this horrific loss, I want to do just that.
As a single mother of four raising my kids in Montclair, and as a business owner of my own public relations agency, The Bender Group PR, I thought I was strong and loving enough to handle anything. Anything except losing your child, that is. Hayes had struggled, like so many young adults, with anxiety and, ultimately, that turned into substance abuse — which quickly turned into opiate use. He completed several detox programs, inpatient 30-day programs and structured sober living homes. We nearly lost him a year or so prior to his death, but, thankfully, my husband was home and took him to the emergency room, where he was revived. After that, he swore he “got it” and moved into a more serious rehab and recovery program. At the time of his death, he was the happiest he had been in years. He had a new job, his own very new apartment close to our home, a sense of confidence and a fresh start. Recovery looked good and he was in a weekly outpatient program with therapy and medication.
On the Friday night before his death, he called me on his way back from work. He was happy. He was going to eat, play some video games, visit friends in Montclair and, on Sunday, we were to go to the beach. I saw him the morning before he went to work, just the day before he died. We laughed, talked, he told me how much he loved his apartment, his job and me. He held me tight and said, “Mom, I could never live on this earth without you — let’s dance.” Had I known that would be the last time I would see him alive, I would have held tighter, danced longer, loved more.
When I could not reach him in the morning — as he usually would call me first thing to say, “Mom, just calling because I know you worry” — I kept calling. After he did not answer, I called his super to let me into his apartment, and I saw what no mother should ever have to see. My world went black, my world stopped.
My son Hayes is survived by his three siblings — Haley, Hayden and Heather — they were the “Other 4H Club,” and, if not for them, my grandson and my loving husband, family and friends, I could not have survived.
After my tragic loss, a neighbor in Montclair, Amy Lazarus, reached out to me to offer condolences and support. She tragically lost her son, Jake, at 25, only two years prior. Jake also was in recovery, was in a sober living home and had a wonderful job. Amy told me about BIGVISION, a nonprofit group whose mission is to connect young people in recovery, so they don’t feel so isolated. What many don’t understand is that rehab is the easy part, while recovery and finding a sober network for young people is the greatest challenge.
With the pandemic, isolation for those in recovery is much worse, and there has been an increase in opiate overdose during this time. BIGVISION NYC was founded by the amazing Eve Goldberg, one year after she lost her son, Isaac, also to an accidental overdose. While initially it catered to New York and New Jersey, it is now online, and, therefore, has become a national support group.
The stories of Eve, Amy and myself were scarily similar. We were selfless, strong and determined parents who share the common denominator of unconditional love for our children who suffered from and lost the battle to substance use disorder. I write this as we and so many others like us were blindsided by a misunderstood disease that we did not have the superpowers to fight.
We did everything we could for our sons — and, still, after years of hard work, endless attempts to intervene, sleepless nights … the most horrific outcome imagined occurred anyway.
As my grief therapist, Dr. Jean Hager, has shared with me: “I have learned a great deal about the loving people who stand behind their son, daughter, sibling, parent or friend who suffers with addiction. The opioid epidemic of this century has been an intensely painful and unremitting crisis. Even with the knowledge that it was and is a killer, you didn’t give up. Don’t give up on yourself; it’s not your style. “
Perhaps the isolation they felt after rehab left them lonely and, who knows, had they had a community of young people to connect with at any time, like BIGVISION — perhaps I would not be writing this article. The strength Eve has shown as the founder of BIGVISION and her effort to help and save others has given strength and inspiration to Amy and myself. While we cannot bring our precious children back, perhaps we can save others. More people need to recognize that there is a missing link between treatment and long-term sobriety, and that there is now an outlet to bridge that gap. BIGVISION sustains recovery through amazing community experiences and lifestyle, providing opportunities to have fun and fulfillment — this will save lives.
Stacey Bender is the CEO of The Bender Group, a marketing and public relations firm based in East Brunswick.