COLD WEATHER CASUALTY – Sitka Public Works Department employees dig up a section of broken water line near the corner of Price Street and Sawmill Creek Road this afternoon. Nearby houses continue to have water, but may have reduced pressure. While work is being done, the intersection is closed from the corner to Lillian Drive. Detours for access to the Lance Drive and the Hillside Subdivision neighborhoods are from Smith Street and Jarvis Street. (Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

FIRST IN A SERIES: Crisis Strikes Home: Opioid Abuse in Sitka

EDITOR’S NOTE: There is national awareness that the devastation of opioid abuse has reached into all levels of society in every part of the country. Following is the first in a series on how this national crisis has come home to Sitka.
   

Jamie’s Butterfly

By Mark Gorman

    The butterfly effect posits that a minuscule action in a distant place can unleash a chain of events that can have devastating impacts: A butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazonian jungle, and subsequently a storm ravages half of Europe.

    Nancy and I are searching for answers and threads of understanding as to what led our beautiful son, Jamie, to the last moments of his 30 years as deeply loved son, brother, and friend.  What butterfly swept its wings and set in motion escalating actions that ended when Jamie used that fatal dose of heroin?
    By most measures, Jamie grew up with strong protective family and community assets to succeed. He was raised in a loving and caring household. He had numerous adult mentors and teachers and a large community of friends with whom he adventured, learned and matured. Not always the most rigorous student, he had a solid academic foundation including a university degree. His values embraced empathy, loyalty, generosity, kindness, boldness and exploration. By most standards, there was nothing in the way of Jamie leading a full and long life.
Jamie was an incredibly sensitive and empathic boy. His love for animals, friends and family was on constant display. He had a very special relationship with his mother. Nancy and Jamie would speak with each other in silence: an intuitive communication of love and feeling.
    I came to know the depth of Jamie’s sensitivity in his early teens. His friend August Mayo died tragically on a local river. Nancy was out of town. Jamie and I attended August’s memorial service in his family’s woods overlooking Sitka Sound. When we came home, Jamie went to his room. I could hear him sobbing. I went and held him. He told me that while at the service he went in the house and viewed August’s body. I held my grieving Jamie assuring him he was safe and loved, and tomorrow, life would be less painful. The egg of Jamie’s butterfly had been laid.
    During high school, Jamie started deck handing on charter boats and then commercial fishing vessels. We were proud to see him working so hard and making good money. What we didn’t see or understand was that this was an adrenaline fueled lifestyle, populated by risk taking adolescent boys and young men, making more money than they could have ever imagined or their still developing cognitive functions maturely deal with. The butterfly egg was morphing into a caterpillar.
    Over the next few years, Jamie came to know more tragic and unnecessary death than any young person should experience. Ian, the son of our dear friends, Amy and Chip, and Jamie’s junior by a couple years died of a heroin overdose. One of Jamie’s mentors and surfing coach, Ryan Kaufman, died of brain cancer. The two Diaz brothers, lifelong friends of Jamie, were killed in the Sitka landslide that also took the life of William Stortz, who was very close to our family. The butterfly had transformed from caterpillar to pupa.
    In spring 2017, Jamie decided that he would make some money by renting his small Sitka cottage as a short-term rental while he fished offshore for the summer. He was encouraged and supported by one of his oldest friends, Ali Clayton. Ali was the dedicated, no nonsense, bossy friend that Jamie needed. They were polar opposites yet devoted to each other. Ali instructed Jamie as to what to buy for the house before he left Washington and once home in Sitka she would take it from there and manage the rental. Jamie was thrilled and engaged.  Somewhere between Bellingham and Sitka, while on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry, Jamie learned that Ali had been viciously murdered by her boyfriend. For two weeks, Jamie wept for Ali on our living room sofa. Jamie’s butterfly took flight and waved its gossamer wings: the gathering clouds were unleased to become a devastating storm.
    During this time, Nancy and I became increasingly concerned that Jamie was struggling and less connected to his family. He would be unresponsive to our outreach for longer periods of time. We were worried. We wondered about drugs and alcohol. We asked people who had close connections to Jamie if he was using hard drugs. The response was “Jamie uses marijuana and drinks recreationally but no, he doesn’t and wouldn’t use the hard stuff.” We sought advice from counselors and friends. We urged Jamie to seek professional support for whatever was troubling him in his life.  All the while, the storm clouds were gaining strength off our shores.
    In March, Jamie had two seizures. He was admitted to the hospital. Jamie was unwilling to share any information with us about what caused the seizures, but we knew enough to know that they were drug or alcohol provoked. Jamie retreated deeper into himself. Nancy and I put our energy to loving him, supporting him and encouraging him to seek help. We took solace that he was going to be a deckhand on a “clean boat” that was going to spend three and half months fishing in western Alaska. As he prepared to depart, we saw glimpses of our lovely boy surface. Jamie was smiling, joking, cooking us venison burritos, telling us about his plans to leave Sitka in the fall to pursue a radiology technologist degree. We turned our eyes away from the coming tempest.
    Jamie returned to Sitka in mid-September flush with money, good cheer and what appeared to us, more of his old happy self. I departed for a job in Laos. Nancy stayed another two weeks in Sitka. When she left to join me, she did so with the deepest concern of a mother for her child. There was a darkness in Jamie’s life, but we didn’t know what to do. The storm had reached our shores and unleashed its power.
    October 27, the day that seared our hearts, from half a globe away, we received a call from close friends who we had asked to check on Jamie. “Jamie is dead’’ were the first words we heard, and with this we were introduced to the profoundest of grief, the parent’s nightmare from which there is no waking.
    The U.S. opioid epidemic is killing tens of thousands of our children, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, and friends annually. It is brutal and indiscriminate. The butterflies continue to sweep their wings. We must be aware of the raging, destructive storms upon our shores and be vigilant in all efforts to protect our families and communities from these deadly forces.

Next: What Sitka can do.




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