Christy Couvillier, 41, remembers her son, Hunter, as a kind, caring, great big brother who had a "love for animals."
"When he was born, it was the happiest day of my life," Couvillier, who lives in Louisiana, tells TODAY.com.
In high school, Hunter started experimenting with drugs. He completed rehab in 2019 and then, in 2022, he took a drug he didn't know was laced with fentanyl and died. He was one of a growing number of overdose deaths per year. Now Couvillier is banding together with other heartbroken moms to warn parents about the dangers of fentanyl.
Couvillier, herself an addict in recovery, knew about the risks of relapse. Still, nothing could have prepared her for the moment she came home on February 10, 2022, and saw her fiancé's face.
"He never actually got the words out," she explains. "He just kept shaking his head and said it was Hunter. I expected to get in a car and drive to a hospital. Instead, we drove to the morgue."
Hunter, 22, had fatally overdosed. That morning, he took ecstasy his mom says he didn't know was laced with fentanyl.
In 2021, more than 107,600 Americans died from drug overdoses, according to the CDC — a 15% increase from 2020 and the highest death toll on record. One 2020 analysis of CDC data published in JAMA found that fentanyl is causing the sharp increase.
"I knew that when Hunter passed, life was going to be extremely different," Couvillier says. "I just never expected it to be as difficult as it is today."
What is fentanyl?
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) describes fentanyl as a highly potent synthetic opioid 50-100 times stronger than morphine.
Dr. Eric D. Collins, the chief medical officer for recoveryeducation.com, which provides online substance abuse education courses, says the country is "in the midst of an opioid supply explosion" spanning over 20 years and accelerated by the over-prescription of opioid drugs, like oxycontin, in the 90s.
"The particular danger with fentanyl, and the reason it can be supplied so easily, is because it's cheap and large volumes of street supply don't take up a lot of space — it's just so potent," Collins, also an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia Medical School, tells TODAY.com. "Even microgram amounts have a big impact on the body, and unfortunately now it's contaminating everything."
Casey Leleux says her daughter, Lyric “Bebop” Verrett, had been four months sober when she unknowingly took a pill laced with fentanyl on April 13, 2022 — four days after her 21st birthday.
Leleux describes her daughter as a "fiesty" spark of life who loved the art of tattooing. Her daughter's boyfriend told Leleux they bought what they thought was Xanax "from somebody they knew in the parking lot of a drugstore," she says. "He woke up the next morning. She didn't."
The Louisiana mom says her daughter had struggled with addiction for years, adding that "addicts do slip."
"Unfortunately, with fentanyl, not only are addicts not having a chance to get to that point of recovery, but you can't experiment like teenagers and college students do," she explains. "You experiment one time, and you're dead."
Turning anguish into action
Leleux and Couvillier met after their children died. Now they're members of a club no parent wants to be in, along with Denise Konow, 48, who lost her daughter, Gabrielle, to fentanyl poisoning on September 16, 2021.
"The thing that us moms want other people to see is that our kids are so much more than their addiction," Konow tells TODAY.com. "Gabrielle had dreams. She had things she wanted to do in life. She didn't want to die. She didn't want to do fentanyl."
Gabrielle went to rehab twice and was staying in a sober living house when she overdosed. She was 24.
"I remember walking into the sober living house and seeing a police officer," Konow recalls. "He said: 'No ma'am, you don't want to see her like this.' I said: 'What do you mean? It's my daughter.' He told me: 'No, you really don't want to see her like this.' That's when it clicked."
Gabrielle, who her mom describes as a "loyal friend" with an infectious laugh who just "wanted to make sure everybody was having a good time," had taken what looked like a pain pill.
It was fentanyl.
The three moms set up a Millie Mattered chapter in Louisiana, an overdose and addiction advocacy organization.
The group supplies their community with fentanyl test strips and Narcan, a medication that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. They have worked to pass state legislation that makes the distribution of fentanyl and other opioids an "act of violence."
The moms are open about how their children died — Couvillier wrote in her son's obituary that "silence would mean Hunter’s death was in vain." The obituary went viral. Leleux passed out Narcan and fentanyl test strips at her daughter's funeral.
They also educate parents on the dangers of fentanyl, urging all caregivers to have age-appropriate conversations about drug use.
"Would you wait until your child is in high school to teach them to look both ways before crossing the street?" Konow asks. "You should teach every child about any danger that they can come across."
How to talk to your teen about the dangers of fentanyl
- Make it an ongoing conversation
- Create a judgement-free environment for discussions
- Focus on scientific facts and life-saving tips
- Explain the realities of fentanyl overdose
- Be clear about the risk
- Encourage teens to look out for their friends
- For more, visit: SongForCharlie.org
Couvillier agrees, adding that because fentanyl is odorless there are "not always signs the drug is around."
"Kids are getting them off social media. They're getting them from friends," she adds. "So it's important to talk to your kids so they can be aware ... Kids are going to parties, taking a pill and they're dying."
While the three moms are focusing on their local community, the fentanyl crisis is nationwide — a fact Kelly Gill, 64, knows all too well.
Gill, from Maryland, is a mother of four. Her son, Randy, died on March 9, 2019, after a decades-long battle with crack cocaine addiction. He was 40.
When Randy died, he was using crack laced with fentanyl.
Two days before his death, Gill had helped her son move into an apartment after he got a part-time job.
"I made his first bed, and I made his last," Gill tells TODAY.com. "There is some comfort in the fact that he didn't die in any of the other scenarios that we all know he could have — he died in the bed that I had made for him."
To honor her son, who she says was funny, athletic, smart and could always be "counted on as the entertainer," Gill co-founded Love In The Trenches, a nonprofit organization supporting parents with children suffering from addiction.
"When I do a deep dive into my own relationship with my child, I feel a mix of feelings," she says. "One is: 'What did I miss? What did I do wrong?'"
The shame — for both addicts and their families — keeps people from seeking help, Gill says.
"I think we all underestimate the weight of shame; the power of shame; the tool that shame is," she explains. "We call people in recovery 'clean,' but that implies they're dirty."
"Fentanyl is a game changer, " Gill says. "My child had become very sick, but he didn't know he was playing Russian roulette. Your kid may not have another chance."
Couvillier, who is preparing to mark Hunter's first birthday since his passing, tears up when she considers what her son would say to her today if he could.
"The first thing that he would say is that he was sorry, because I know that he didn't have any intentions to take something and die," she says. "I think that he would be proud that I'm able to get up every day and put one foot in front of the other."
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