Ending the shame: a mother shares the story of her son’s losing battle with addiction

Justin Strand, who died two years ago, was a Model UN student and a member of the Mira Costa football team that came within a field goal of beating Sherman Oaks Notre Dame for a CIF title. Photo courtesy the Strand family


Justin Strand was a big, joyously athletic kid. He was a square-jawed, handsome young man, 6’5 and 240 pounds, who played football, baseball, volleyball, and lacrosse at Mira Costa High School and was an avid surfer and outdoorsman. He grew up in what appeared to be a picture-perfect family —  he and his sister and parents backpacked, traveled overseas, and made a point to eat breakfast and dinners together almost every day.

But something happened to Justin when he was 18 that would eventually undermine every gift his life had given him. He was in car accident in which he was broadsided and injured his back. He was prescribed painkillers that contained opioids.

“He liked them very, very much,” recalled his mother, Cyndi Strand.“Unfortunately, doctors at the time —  2003, 2004 — they weren’t worried about people becoming addicted. And he learned how to doctor shop, and did it very well. They just handed them out.”

Twelve torturous years later Cyndi Strand received the phone call that some part of her deeply feared and half knew would one day come.

“It was not a shock but a surprise, because you watch for 12 years this person you love more than anyone in the world struggle with this horrible demon, and you know that possibility is down the road —  but it’s never going to happen to you,” Strand said. “When the call comes…I’ll never forget that night as long as I live.”

Justin Strand died of an overdose of a combination of drugs on January 25, 2016, the day before he was about to turn himself into a rehab center. For a decade, he’d been in and out of treatment, jail, and homelessness, but for the first time, it was his own idea to seek help. But even with help on the horizon, his addiction overcame him one final time.

“This was a kid who used to make sure the crease in his pants was just perfect, and his shirts were just perfect, and who had disintegrated to somebody you didn’t even recognize,” his mother said. “I feel I mourned his passing years before he died because drugs take people away… the change becomes who you are. The Justin we knew was never coming back. As a parent you watch this change happen and you feel helpless.”

Strand is sharing the story of her son’s descent into addiction at “Our Kids and Opioids: It’s Time to Talk,” an event organized by South Bay Families Connected and Mayor Amy Howorth Monday night, April 30 at the Joslyn Community Center. Howorth and Dr. Moe Gelbart, the executive director of the Thelma McMillen Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment, will also be featured, speakers.

Artwork created for the Opioid Awareness event by Jen Jenkins Dohner.

Families Connected launched two years ago to address the social, emotional, and physical well being of kids by providing a forum in which people can find information and support systems for challenges families face in the South Bay. Before it’s too late, enroll a loved one in a Male Drug Addiction Recovery Program to help them.

“The focus on opioid awareness as part of this event is primarily spurred by the national crisis that is getting so much attention, as it should be,” said Laura Short McIntire, the creative director and curator for Families Connected. “It has reached the South Bay, and there are families suffering from those ramifications, yet there is quite a bit of stigma around this topic. There is a concern families could be feeling isolated, and that people won’t reach out for help in that circumstance… We want to reach out with compassion and empathy. This really can happen in any home, no matter the family, no matter how inspiring the youth.”

Howorth was recently at a national conference of mayors at which copies of the book by LA Times journalist Sam Quinones, “Dreamland: the True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic”, were being given out. Howorth is a native of Ohio, which is considered the epicenter of the epidemic, and she also knew families in Manhattan Beach who had kids who’d fallen to addiction.

“I read this book, and I know in our community there have been people who have lost kids to accidental opioid deaths, and I know they can’t talk about it because it is considered so shameful to be a drug addict,” Howorth said. “And we are such an incredible community of achievers and doers, so people are even more ashamed — how could anyone here be an opiate addict? But that is the reality of this drug, how quickly people become addicted and how it is prescribed by many doctors. I wanted to create an event that made people aware.”

“And this is not a blame game,” Howorth added. “Doctors first order is to do no harm, heal people, and make people feel better. So they really wanted to do that; they didn’t know.”

Part of the intention of the discussion is to help people realize what exactly opioids are —  many may have such drugs in their households and not even be aware — and how to store and dispose of such drugs. But perhaps the biggest aim is to let people who may be facing addiction problems themselves or within their families know that they are not alone.

“These are inspiring young people from loving homes, and even they become addicted and can die tragically,” Howorth said. “These are not parents who did something wrong, and these are not bad kids.”

In fact one of the great resources for those suffering addition locally, the Thelma McMillen Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center, was founded by such a family. Manhattan Beach resident Karl McMillen was a successful businessman who lost  his son to addiction in 1986 and subsequently wrote, “Triumph and Tragedy: A True Story of Wealth and Addition.”

“It’s a South Bay story, yet it’s so interesting — we can be a little wrapped up in everything being picture perfect, among our kids, among our families, but there is a lot of pressure around that,” said McIntire. “Things go on in every family that are really difficult, and people do need help.”

Families Connected hosts monthly events and a support group, both in partnership with the Beach Cities Health District, and publishes a newsletter and a website in which 5,000 parents a month connect with resources to help address challenges they are encountering, whether it be addiction or the anxiety kids are feeling in the increasingly competitive, achievement-oriented childhoods experienced in the South Bay.

“It’s a great starting place for any parent having any questions or concerns about your child’s social and emotional well being,” McIntire said.

Since the loss of her son, Cyndi Strand has also tried to make a difference by bringing people together. When he died, he’d been homeless, and among the few possessions he carried with him was a baby blanket from his own childhood. Most Tuesday afternoons, Strand and a group of parents gather at the Joslyn Center and knit baby blankets to give out to families in need. The project is called Blankets of Love, and Strand’s idea is both to memorialize her son and bring awareness to substance abuse.

“I want his story told,” Strand said. “I am not ashamed. I want people to learn from his mistake and know that he was a loved young man and that this can happen to anyone. That is my goal.”

“You think every other family is perfect when you look out the door,” Strand said. “‘What are they going to think of me if they know what is going on in this house?’ You think you’ve done something wrong if your kid has a problem and you want to hide it. It’s very shameful, and it shouldn’t be. More people than you think have been through something like this. If people opened up about it, it would be less lonely.”

Our Kids and Opioids: It’s Time to Talk takes place Monday, April 30, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Joslyn Center (1601 N. Valley Dr., MB). For more information, see southbayfamiliesconnected.org/south-bay-opioid-awareness-project, and blanketsoflovesouthbay.com.


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