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Picking up the pieces

Drugs take over a young man’s life as his family fights to save him

July 13, 2006

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles about how the community as a whole is dealing with drug use among its young people. The stories will give the reader an in-depth look at how schools, law enforcement officials and families are fighting drug use. The series begins with the story of a young man who is in the midst of the battle of his life against drug addiction. Part 2 | Part 3

SHOREWOOD — Sandra Laughrin’s son is the love of her life.

He is also a drug addict, who has an exquisite appetite for heroin and an assortment of street drugs.

Matthew Laughrin is a felon, a public enemy of sorts who, for the last half-dozen years, has dragged her and the rest of his loving Whitefish Bay family through a living nightmare.

However, Sandra has refused to abandon her son. Instead, with all of her might and will, she recently begged on Matthew’s behalf in

Milwaukee County Circuit Court during a sentencing hearing for possession of marijuana.

“I am hoping this will work,” she said behind tears as she explained to a county judge her plans to get her son the treatment he desperately needs.

Sandra sat at the district attorney’s table, directly behind Matthew, who bowed his head and clasped his hands tightly together.

“I ask you, your honor, that you give me this opportunity for treatment which is much needed on my part,” said Matthew, dressed in a gray T-shirt, orange jail trousers and shackles.

The 19-year-old, facing a single count possession of marijuana, sat motionless as the judge granted the Laughrins’ request, ordering him to a treatment facility at the United Community Center in the heart of Milwaukee for the next two months.

“I can’t handle this on my own,” Matthew explained, giving the court a glimpse of what he has put himself through. He came to that conclusion “when I woke up from a coma back in November and realized that I (couldn’t) walk anymore. … That was a big wake-up call.”

The center’s and his mother’s long-term plans are to send him to a drug treatment facility in Georgia for 18 months, signifying the last bastion of hope for Sandra.

“I just feel so strongly that’s what he needs,” she said after the hearing. “A mom can only do so much.”

Street drugs at age 13

Matthew began using street drugs when he was 13 years old, soon after medication for depression had been prescribed.

“I pretty much kept using everything I could get my hands on,” he said during an interview a month ago, when he was incarcerated awaiting the hearing.

“After I started getting high, that’s (when) I started feeling good. I always needed drugs to feel good after that,” he added. “It’s so hard that I don’t see how anyone beats it.”

He was 17 when he used heroin for the first time to take away the pain from a rocky relationship with a girlfriend at the time.

“I snorted it and it made me feel real good,” he said. “It makes you kind of irritable. You get kind of hot and all of that. It feels great. You don’t feel any pain. It gives you a huge endorphin rush.”

Heroin takes hold quickly

Heroin, as described by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, is a naturally occurring substance extracted from the Asian poppy plant.

Typically, it is in the form of a white or brown powder and it can be snorted or injected into the veins.

Heroin users face the potential of a multitude of health problems including collapsed veins, heart infection and liver disease.

Pulmonary and respiration complications also are indicative of long-term use, according to the institute’s Web site.

Matthew, who dropped out of Shorewood High School as a sophomore, became somewhat of a ringleader for a group of teenagers who also had a taste for narcotics.

“I always had a bunch of friends over because everyone would always want to get high,” he said. “I knew a bunch of girls that were using (heroin) at the time.”

Initially, the group comprised a dozen or so, but soon it grew to 50 drug users. “People were coming out of my house all day,” he said.

“People would bring it by my house because there was always a huge amount of people at my house and we were always partying. We would just sit there and do it.”

Overdosing after rehab

Drugs ushered Matthew, a stocky young man, to death’s door twice during the last 15 months.

Hours after he left a drug rehab center during the night of March 10, 2005, he mixed methadone and heroin. The next morning Sandra found her unconscious son who had locked himself in his bedroom by wedging a chair against the door.

“He was wheezing, making a funny noise,” Sandra said during a recent interview. “His face was in the pillow. I remember thinking to myself that I’ve heard dead people make noises. I remember just looking at him and saying, ‘What did you do this for?’”

She tried waking her son, tried opening his clenched mouth, pushing on his chest, finally calling 911.

“It was absolutely horrible; it was horrible,” she said. “I didn’t think they were going to leave for the hospital with him alive.”

At the hospital, Sandra called the friend who provided Matthew with the drugs and begged him to disclose what he took so the doctors could correctly treat him.

“We didn’t know what was happening. He was dying. He never told me. … He didn’t tell me and he knew,” she said. “He would have let his friend die to protect his own butt. That’s how crazy this drug will make you. You let your friend die in hospital bed to protect your own butt.”

Eight months later, Sandra found her son again unresponsive in his bedroom after he mixed cocaine with heroin.

“I went to bed about 11 o’clock and somehow or another he called someone up and it was all over after that,” Sandra said. “I mean, it was unbelievable. I went to bed that night not worried at all. It was not going to happen that night. I would have bet a million bucks that it was not going to happen that night.”

The evening before the latest incident, he had sat beside his mother and lied, telling her that he would never use again. Matthew had been clean for five months and just gotten out of rehab again the day before.

“It was so scary, it was so scary,” she said. “He was so proud to come out. It was like the most shocking thing both times. We just sat and talked about how it was so amazing that he was doing so good.”

Paramedics rushed Matthew, who had a stroke and a heart attack, to the hospital where doctors induced him into a coma to reduce brain swelling. He would remain in the hospital for 41 days.

Matthew’s methodical speech coupled with his inability to write his name is the residue left behind in the second episode.

“That’s when they gave him his last rites and we met with the organ donors,” she said.

Signs appear in preschool

Matthew’s downward spiral began not with his first joint but when he was in preschool, according to his mother. Sandra had Matthew repeat K4 kindergarten due to a severe case of separation anxiety.

When he was 5 years old, Sandra, who blames her divorce partly on his anxiety, sought professional help for Matthew.

“He had such high anxiety. There’s a family history of depression and anxiety,” she said.

Matthew grew up in Shorewood and later in Whitefish Bay in a nurturing family with four siblings. A strong upbringing, however, is not the complete antidote for depression, according to his mother.

“We couldn’t help him with his depression and anxiety. That’s who he was. Those were his demons,” she said.

“You can have the most loving, caring, supporting family, but if you deal with depression and anxiety, you have to learn coping mechanisms that help you. Sadly, those who deal with depression and anxiety want a quick fix, they want it to go away fast,” she said.

From his perception, according to his mother, street drugs eased the keen pain more quickly than anti-depressants.

“I believe that kids will self-medicate. Kids self-medicating is what I see happening with a lot of kids when they are depressed and dealing with anxiety,” she said.

Sandra strongly contends that her son is not alone in his battle with depression.

“These are not kids that have had an easy life necessarily; these are not kids going along and everything has been perfect in their life and all of a sudden, wham bam,” she said. “Sure, there are kids like that. Sure there are kids that experiment and get hooked, but the majority of kids that I know that have had problems, there have been problems before that.”

Dreams of a better life

Matthew dreams of one day getting his GED and going on to Milwaukee Area Technical College where he would like to study a trade and perhaps become an electrician.

He is still haunted by several friends who have died as a result of a drug overdose.

“It’s a good day because I am still alive. But I have seen death. … I have nightmares that I am going to sit in jail the rest of my life. My dreams are haunted by nightmares — of death. Right now I am living in hell,” he said.

Matthew, who said that teenagers should stay physically active and keep a clean circle of friends, blames himself and his depression for his drug use.

“When you get a kid like me that’s so depressed and stuff and has all of these emotional disorders, its just so hard for a parent to stop it,” he said. “I’ve had the ideal parents; Mom is a great lady. She’s done everything she can to get me not to use anymore, but my advice to parents is not to be naive about everything.”

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