The worst day of my life is the day Max died. Resigning from office, telling my sweet husband that I’d had an affair, pleading guilty to a felony—those were all really, really bad days. But they never reached the depth of grief and sadness of losing Max.
Max was very anxious. When he was a junior in college in Washington state, he found Xanax, and got addicted pretty damn fast. We could tell something was wrong. We were fortunate to have three things that a lot of people don’t: Max was willing to go to rehab, we had the money to pay for it, and there was a bed available. In the summer of 2016, we got him into a facility in Florida. He was there for a month and when he left, he completed his senior year and graduated. As we celebrated we thought, The next chapter of Max’s life begins now. What we didn’t know is that the one-year-mark of being sober is a real danger point. Oftentimes, after a year, people think they’re OK enough to handle taking a little bit of this or that again.
One Saturday in July 2017, Max was making his way back home to Nashville after college, and stopped in Denver to stay with some friends. We spoke to him there—he sounded tired, a little hungover. At about four in the afternoon Max texted me, “I love you, Mom.” I texted him back, “I love you too.” That was the last correspondence I had with my son.
At about 7 P.M. my husband and I went out for dinner. I put my phone on silent and I missed a call from Max. It was about 8 P.M. in Colorado, and he was hanging out with his friends. They left him to go get something to eat. They were probably gone for about 20 minutes. When they got back, Max was having seizures. They threw water on him hoping that it would help, but it didn’t. What they didn’t know is that he was overdosing. They called 911 and Max was given two doses of Narcan. That didn’t help either. He had hydrocodone, hydromorphone, Xanax, and traces of cocaine in his system. Max was dead by 9:30 P.M.
At about 2 A.M. that night, there was a knock on my door from police officers. They came in, and the first one said, “Ma’am, I’m so sorry. Max is gone.” I made him say it three times before I heard him. My world fell apart.
The day after, my husband and I decided we were going to be honest and open about how Max died. We were not going to say that he died in his sleep. We were not going to say the myriad things that people say. We were going to be frank because we have a position and a voice to do that. We’ve been given an opportunity to draw attention to this, and it would be wrong not to do so.
Since leaving office, talking about opioids has become my full-time job. I give speeches about the crisis and share my story and Max’s story with the hope that there’s going to be somebody in the audience that day who needs to hear it. People are kind. Every day someone tells me they’re praying for me—even sweaty strangers in yoga class. We bond about how scary it is to raise boys.
When I give talks, people always want to know, “What can I do? What’s something I can leave this room right now with?” I always tell them about the Coffee County Anti-Drug Coalition, who started this amazing program called CLD: Count it, lock it, drop it. CLD challenges you to make sure you know how many prescription drugs you have. And if you’re using them, make sure you’re locking them up. Then, if you’re not using those drugs, you drop them, and you get rid of them.
There’s such a gift in sharing your pain with other people. The one thing I have found with this epidemic is shame. Families don’t want to talk about how their loved one died in a candid way. It’s getting better, but I look at the obituaries in our paper, and I can see when a young person has passed away and it doesn’t say anything about a donation to the Leukemia or the American Cancer Society. It will say something like, “They passed away in their sleep.” There’s a common language you see with families who are dealing with this. They don’t want to talk about the fact that they had a loved one who was battling addiction.
We have to get over the shame because this is a disease. I miss Max every day. When they talk about the five stages of grief, what they don’t tell you is that by the time you get to the fifth stage, your soul is not intact. You are fundamentally changed. That first year after Max died, I didn’t understand the depth of my grief and just how much of my day was about going through the motions.
But what I have found now, in this third year of living without him, is my commitment to use my public voice so that other families don’t ever have to go through this.
Former Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, 56, has now become an advocate, speaking publicly about opioid use and her son’s death.