Jackie and Paul M. Thompson never expected to spend their retirement helping those who battle drug addiction.
They also never expected their son, Paul H., would die from a drug overdose.
The younger Thompson sought comfort from doctors for a sore back after high school, developed a dependence on the opiate painkillers they prescribed, and turned to heroin as his addiction worsened and his financial means all but disappeared.
“We had an idea that things weren’t right, but at the time we knew nothing about addiction,” his father said.
The couple, who live in Kenmore, felt alone in their troubles until they discovered Save the Michaels of the World. They since have become key volunteers in the eight-year-old nonprofit started by Avi and Julie Israel, after they lost their son, Michael, to suicide as he struggled with his own opioid dependence.
Both couples have become partners in a Save the Michaels support network for individuals and their loved ones confronted with addiction, treatment – and often relapse – on the almost always bumpy road to recovery.
“Addiction is so much about isolation, and people are suffering in silence by themselves,” Julie Israel said. “We want to give them this space to come together, to know they’re not alone. Everyone here knows exactly how you feel and what you're dealing with – and we want you to know that you're supported.”
The effort poses great challenges. Federal studies have shown that up to 91% of those in recovery from opiate addiction will relapse into active use – including almost six in 10 during the first week after inpatient treatment ends. That makes patience and persistence paramount.
Both couples – through their own experience – believe inadequate follow-up after treatment helps explain those statistics. They recently stopped by the new Save the Michaels office in Lockport to explain how the nonprofit looks to improve those numbers in Erie and Niagara counties, one person, and one family, at a time.
Like the Thompsons after them, the Israels had no familiarity with the signs of addiction before their son got hooked on painkillers. Both sons were in young adulthood and their parents thought at first that the aimlessness, isolation and depression they witnessed were signs of poor health (Michael Israel had Crohn’s disease) and typical growing pains.
The younger Thompson wasn’t fond of school but had a knack for ticking off sports statistics, including for players on his beloved Buffalo sports teams. Affable, fun and outgoing, he was just as apt to talk with strangers sitting near him at a football or hockey game as the friends or family members he was with.
“If you spent five minutes with him,” his father said, “you were friends.”
Paul H. Thompson bounced from job to job and regularly took prescription opiates – including Percocet, hydrocodone and OxyContin – by the time he decided to join the Navy at age 26.
“We knew he was prescribed painkillers,” his father said, “but didn't know to what extent.”
His parents thought the Armed Forces would bring more structure and predictability, and the younger Thompson seemed to do well during most of his nearly five years as a hospital corpsman. During regular phone calls and occasional visits to Walter Reed Medical Center outside Washington, D.C., and Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in San Diego, his parents knew he continued to struggle with a bad back, but most things seemed fine until spring 2016, when he called one night to say his superiors insisted he go into rehab for addiction to pain pills.
A month later, after a relapse, the younger Thompson received a less than honorable discharge. He came home forlorn and moved into an apartment with friends. He took a seasonal job as a landscaper – but now with a drug dependence. His sleep habits worsened. He had a minor brush with the law.
His parents took him to the Veterans Administration Medical Center in December 2016, after their son fell asleep while driving his father’s pickup and narrowly avoided a crash.
The doctor, familiar with such accounts, showed the couple a video about how to use Narcan in case of an overdose.
Early that New Year’s Eve, the younger Thompson had a falling out with his roommates, asked to come home to the bedroom of his childhood and – for the first time in 30 years – locked the door behind him. A short time later, after reluctantly opening the door for his father, he collapsed onto the floor. Amid the chaos, his dad spotted a hypodermic needle and syringe on the bed.
“Looking back, at the time we were kind of clueless,” said his father, a former town highway worker, fighting tears. “Now I can see all the signs that we missed. We just didn't know. He was always asking us for money, calling us, even at the end of his time in the service. There was always something.”
“My car broke down in the middle of the night,” continued his mother, once a bank operations manager. “I got a flat tire. They’re going to turn off the electricity. We never used Western Union before, but we used it a lot then.
“We didn't know that this was a disease.”
Save the Michaels shows loved ones who first visit their offices educational videos that share the signs of addiction, including the behaviors the Thompsons experienced, as well as lack of personal hygiene, a difference in appetite and growing anxieties.
It proves an important early step in treatment.
Space to listen, learn and find support
The goal of Save the Michaels is for individuals and families to better identify symptoms and intervene earlier. The new Lockport office – like the headquarters in Buffalo – has recovery coaches and mental health counselors who help families find services, then continue to offer support as those with addictions transition from inpatient to outpatient care.
The Israels and Thompsons were among families in addiction crisis in the region once handed long lists of treatment centers to call on their own, along with well wishes from emergency room providers who told them it would be hard to find an empty bed in an overwhelmed part of the health care system. State and federal funding ramped up as the opiate crisis worsened. Most drug treatment providers now have promised Erie County Medical Center and Save the Michaels they will make a bed available within a day or two.
Save the Michaels also offers a family room where loved ones can meet with those struggling with addiction – whether to intervene during a crisis or begin to rebuild relationships as part of the recovery process.
The Israels also believe one of the best ways to address addiction relapse is to also provide mental health counseling.
“When people go in and out of treatment, there's obviously something more than just addiction,” Avi Israel said. “We have found that addiction is often really secondary to mental health. The drug use is there to help deal with mental health.”
They also know that people die from overdoses, including after making noble efforts in treatment.
The Thompsons do, too. They thought a 28-day stay at White Deer Run in Allenwood, Pa., would solve their son’s drug addiction. He came home sober, reflective and determined to attend 90 support group meetings in 90 days.
Several weeks later, a drug overdose nearly killed him – and the Thompsons learned about Save the Michaels. The organization helped them set up a long-term recovery plan, including an extended stay for their son at a halfway house.
“We tried to grab anything we could learn how to handle things, how to deal with this as a family,” Paul M. Thompson said. “Because it's a family disease,” added his wife. “We learned that very quickly.”
The couple’s son seemed to be doing well by June 2017 in a Niagara County long-term treatment center. Then he was ordered to leave for breaking the rules. He continued to try other long-term options but six months into treatment, after his withdrawal symptoms waned and he became more clear-headed, “he lost some spark,” his father said. “He didn't have a job. He was on [public assistance]. I think that was weighing on his mind. All his friends had moved on, got married, had kids, and he had very little, did nothing.”
Father and son attended a Buffalo Sabres prospects game that September, something that in years past would have thrilled the younger Thompson. It didn’t. “The whole time, we're talking about what we can do to keep him motivated, to keep him going, and wonder what we should do next,” his father said. “I talked to him on the phone constantly.”
The son died in a long-term recovery apartment in South Buffalo days later from an overdose. He was 31. He left behind his parents, a sister, a niece, a grandmother, and several aunts, uncles, cousins and friends.
“We knew this was a possibility, that this could happen, but still it comes as a shock,” his father said. “It just hits you like a ton of bricks. Children aren't supposed to die before you.”
Save the Michaels puts a special emphasis on helping those in recovery get the services they need when months of recovery give way to a greater, more sober understanding of the trauma that addiction has caused themselves and the ones they love most. This is when counseling and other strategies become paramount, the Israels said.
Recovery and legacy
The Israels and Thompsons go about their efforts at Save the Michaels in hopes that other families need not experience the sting of a fatal overdose. They provide no assurances that the path will be easy – but that those willing to avail themselves of support will not struggle alone.
Through shared experiences, including grief support meetings, families find perspective that non-compliance with medical directives, relapses, and sometimes death come with addiction, just like other chronic conditions that include heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.
“Unfortunately,” Avi Israel said, “grief is part of addiction. A big part of it.”
The Thompsons go about their Save the Michaels efforts doing what they can.
Jackie Thompson helps answer the phones and plug families into resources with which she became familiar. She also helps organize clothing and other donations that Save the Michaels provides to those in recovery as they look to lead a better life.
Her husband drives one of the vans owned by the nonprofit, taking people as far as Pennsylvania or New York City for inpatient treatment, or a mere mile or two away for medical appointments. He and others also bring folks to both Save the Michaels sites for support meetings and counseling services, as well as something as simple as to watch a Buffalo Bills game, exercise or play ping-pong in a recreation room that provides a social outlet without the temptation of alcohol or other drugs.
Especially during the longer drives, Paul M. Thompson opens up to his passengers about his son, about what loss feels like to a family, and about what Save the Michaels has helped him learn when it comes to how far hope and resilience can take someone who abides by the right support.
Harsh judgments aren’t part of these conversations. Encouragement is tempered by testimony of how formidable drug dependence can be.
Whatever embarrassment the Thompsons once felt about having a son with addiction is gone, replaced by greater understanding and determination.
“There is no more hiding this stuff,” he said. “We want to get this out. We want everybody to know what's going on, that this is happening all over. Inner city, suburban, rich, poor, this can happen to anybody.
“I know that when Paul was going through this, when he was struggling, we were always there for him,” his father said. “We always tried to show on that we loved him. And I know a lot of times nowadays some of these kids don't have anybody. They don't have family support. They don't have somebody tell them every night, ‘I love you.’ We’re here to just to kind of show them that there are people who care.”
SAVE THE MICHAELS OF THE WORLD
What: A nonprofit group started by Avi and Julie Israel that supports families during a loved one's journey through addiction and into remission, practicing compassion while promoting education, self-help and wrap-around care before, during, and after treatment.
Where: Recovery centers are at 737 Delaware Ave., Suite 101, Buffalo, and 81 Walnut St., City of Lockport.
Staff: 30 employees and dozens of volunteers.
Annual budget: About $1.2 million, funded through private donations and by Erie County, New York State and the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
Services: Substance abuse and mental health counseling, inpatient and outpatient referrals, drug court, Narcotics Anonymous, English and Spanish-speaking peer support groups, family support groups, grief support groups, helping families reconnect, and related free transportation.
For more information: Visit savethemichaels.org or call 984-8375 in Erie County or 302-3960 in Niagara County.
Hope + Recovery Walk: Save the Michaels renamed its annual fundraising walk, and eliminated the 5K run, but will continue to use proceeds to support its mission. The event starts at 10 a.m. Oct. 19 on the grounds of St. George Orthodox Church, 2 Nottingham Terrace, alongside Delaware Park. A gathering with music, food and family-friendly events will follow. Cost is $24. Register on the group’s website or on-site for $30 before the walk.