A slideshow of family photos ended with one of Alyssa Honaker’s tombstone: Aug. 25, 1998, to June 4, 2016.
At age 17, Alyssa died from a heroin overdose at her family’s home in Frederick. But while she was struggling with the addiction, her mother, Shannon Stanley, was afraid to speak out. She worried what school administrators would think if she reported her daughter. She wondered what her friends would say if they knew Alyssa was snorting pills.
“I didn’t want anyone to know what was going on,” Stanley said. “What would my family think? I mean, we don’t do drugs. We’re a normal family.”
Stanley’s fears seemed far in the past on Tuesday night as she shared pictures of Alyssa and addressed the crowd at Frederick Community College, where friends, supporters and community residents gathered to hear her story. A year after Alyssa’s death, Stanley continues to cope through regular meetings at Austin Addiction Center in Frederick, where she and other parents have formed a support group for families going through addiction. Once paralyzed by the thought of Alyssa’s secret being uncovered, Stanley now regrets not coming forward and seeking support.
“I wish I had,” she told audience members. “Because I have lived every parent’s worst nightmare. It’s ... waiting for that phone call that your child had overdosed, or finding them yourself.”
Locally and statewide, there are thousands of other parents who wait in fear of that same phone call. According to Clay Stamp, director of the state’s Opioid Operational Command Center, an average of six Marylanders die every day from an opioid overdose. Two-hundred eighty-two residents have died from heroin or prescription drug overdoses in Frederick County since 2007, according to the most recent data from the state Department of Health. Despite the scope of the problem, Stamp said, few families are willing to speak out.
“There’s still a propensity to stick our heads in the sand,” he said. “There’s a terrible stigma associated with this issue that we have to fight.”
Even beyond the fear of being stigmatized, Stanley also felt guilt for not recognizing the signs of addiction sooner. While Alyssa was a happy elementary and middle schooler — a “sassy little princess” — she began to change in small ways after starting high school at Oakdale, Stanley said. She spent more and more time in her room, avoiding the rest of the family. She stopped participating in most of the extracurriculars that she used to enjoy.
For months, Stanley chalked Alyssa’s behavior up to teenage moodiness — until she got a call from the mother of another Oakdale student. The woman had heard rumors that Alyssa was using heroin. As soon as her daughter got home that day, Stanley confronted her. Alyssa told her it was just gossip — someone at school had given her an oxycodone, and people had started talking.
The next day, though, when Stanley searched Alyssa’s room, she found a rolled-up dollar bill — commonly used for snorting drugs. She confronted Alyssa again, and her daughter admitted that she was snorting pills.
“That began our journey,” Stanley said, “of quietly trying to fix our 15-year-old daughter.” Over the course of two years, Alyssa stayed at three inpatient treatment facilities and served time at the Alfred D. Noyes Children’s Center, an adolescent detention facility. She stayed sober for months, only to relapse and end up back in treatment.
In the weeks before Alyssa died, though, Stanley thought her daughter had turned a corner. After leaving her third inpatient center, Alyssa apologized for what she had put her family through. She admitted she had a problem with addiction and diligently followed the stipulations of her court-ordered house arrest.
The night before her daughter died, Stanley said the two watched a movie together and talked excitedly about Alyssa’s upcoming 18th birthday. Her house arrest was set to end in three days, and Alyssa was about to celebrate 90 days of being clean. The next morning, Stanley went into Alyssa’s room to take her to a group meeting at Austin Addiction Center. She instead found her daughter lifeless in bed. On her phone was a text from a dealer — a dealer who knew Alyssa was trying to get clean, Stanley said — offering heroin.
“While Alyssa’s friends were in Ocean City for Senior Week, I was planning her funeral,” Stanley said. “She never got to go to her senior prom. She never got her driver’s license.”
The shock and grief felt by Stanley in the weeks after Alyssa’s death were mirrored by other parents in the crowd, many of whom had a firsthand understanding of life with an addict. Tracey Gebhart, of Fairfield, Pennsylvania, said that she — like Stanley — once called the police and begged them to arrest her now 27-year-old son so he would spend the night off the streets. Stephanie Kavanaugh, a Frederick resident, was similarly floored when she learned her 20-year-old son was using heroin. In her heart, she said, she had hoped it was just alcohol and marijuana.
“But I am so glad we’re doing this,” Kavanaugh said, looking at the crowd of parents and residents in the lobby of the Jack B. Kussmaul Theater at Frederick Community College. “I’m just glad that the community is finally coming together.”