Son’s heroin death inspires Atlanta mom’s death-defying stunt

Early this month, Kim Allison, 59, took the elevator to the roof of the United Way building downtown, strapped on a harness, walked to its southern edge and slowly rappelled 17 stories down to the concrete courtyard.

She had looked forward to this nail-biting moment since last October when her son, Adam, died from a heroin overdose.

Allison wasn’t suicidal. She just wanted to do something to both honor and remember Adam and this was it.

People closest to addicts think the first step off the edge of a building is how it must feel when they’re caught in the throes of addiction and want to stop.

Gary Mendell, founder and CEO of Shatterproof, a national non-profit based in New York that works to protect children from addiction to alcohol and drugs and end the stigma and suffering of those affected by the disease, certainly does.

“The hardest step in recovery is the first step,” he said. “After the first step it’s step-by-step, always looking at the sky with your friends down below cheering until you safely hit the ground.”

Mendell started Shatterproof to provide families struggling with addiction with the information and resources he wish he'd had when his son, Brian, died from suicide in 2011.

Brian was 13 months clean following a 10-year battle with addiction, and yet he couldn’t overcome the intense shame and stigma he felt. Society often doesn’t treat people with addiction with the same compassion as those who suffer from other illnesses. That weighed on Brian, and it weighed on his dad.

Gary Mendell believed having access to information in one place might have helped him save his son; that maybe he could help save others and reduce the suffering addicts endure.

“For every major disease in the U.S. there is one well-funded national organization that consolidates research and resources,” Mendell said during the Atlanta challenge event early this month. “There is no such thing for addiction.”

The good news is that will soon change, thanks to a $100,000 grant from the Cigna Foundation.

The funds will be used to help create a new online Shatterproof Resource Center that will house and disseminate the most up-to-date information on addiction.

Allison's rappel down 17 stories was part of the Shatterproof Challenge part of a series of 28 events across the country in which teams and individuals rappel down sides of buildings to increase awareness and raise funds to meet Shatterproof's mission.

If you’ve somehow missed the significance of that mission, you haven’t been paying attention to the news lately.

Addiction to heroin and prescription opioids has emerged as one of the premier public health challenges of the 21st Century.

Dr. Grant Baldwin, director of the Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control, put it this way: "It's a complex scourge on America with a resilience that thwarts many efforts to control and prevent it."

Here’s what you should know:

More than 145,000 people in the U.S. have died from overdoses involving prescription opioid pain relievers in the last decade, and since 1999 those deaths have quadrupled.

“This fourfold increase parallels the fourfold increase in the sales of these powerful medications,” Baldwin said. “Providers wrote more than a quarter of a billion opioid prescriptions in 2012.”

That’s enough for every American adult – more than 240 million over the age of 18 — to have his or her own bottle of pills.

The sharp rise in heroin-related overdose deaths is a new — and not entirely unrelated development — piece of the struggle.

Heroin is cheaper and more easily acquired than opioid prescriptions. The result is, the number of heroin overdoses have tripled since 2010. In Georgia, heroin deaths have increased from 276 cases in 2011 to 863 in 2014.

“Increased purity and lower costs are playing a role in the growth of heroin use,” Baldwin said. “And more recently, heroin laced with fentanyl is causing new problems that we are only beginning to understand.”

Maybe all of us except Kim Allison.

For 12 years, she’d watched drugs change her son Adam, who started smoking pot and popping pills at age 16.

Allison did what any parent would and shuttled her son across the country, from one program to the next, trying to get him well.

Then he tried heroin.

“That’s when he started slowly going downhill,” she said.

Adam would do well for a while then something would trigger his craving.

The last time it was the loss of a job. When he broke the news to his mom, she knew she needed to be with him. She got in her car and drove from her home in Atlanta to Chattanooga, Tenn., where he lived.

She did her best to assure him things would be OK. He could get another job.

But she was worried. She’d seen hundreds of triggers lead her boy back to the underworld, but this time it could be different. The heroin on the street, she’d read, was much more potent than it had been just two years earlier.

I'm warning you you can't do this stuff, she told him. It's mixed with all kinds of stuff that will kill you.

Less than a week later, Adam drove to Atlanta looking for a fix.

On the morning of Oct. 4, 2014, in the middle of Yom Kippur, Kim Allison got the call she’d feared the most.

Adam, just 28 years old, was dead.

It was the hardest moment of Allison’s life. This year, two days before the anniversary of his death, she said things were starting to look up.

“I’m gonna be closer to Adam when I get on top of that building,” she’d told a crowd of supporters. “I’m sure he’s going to be looking down on me.”