— A local mother’s loss becomes a cherished son’s legacy.
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Colleen Collins lost her son, Michael Golanos, in October 2016 to a heroin overdose.

A heck of a way to start a story.

But at this point, we can’t shrink in the face of the opioid epidemic. In fact, we need to continue having the hard conversations, telling the tough stories, and shining a light on the people and endeavors that exist to help addicts ultimately help themselves.

Some might read that first sentence and think: well, it’s confronting, but it’s pretty black and white—there’s nothing more to it.

Oh, but there always is. Which is what makes this mess so bewildering, so frustrating, so elusive. Zoom out and it all looks the same. Zoom in and you find near-endless narratives, personalities, hopes, dreams, triumphs, tragedies, love, loss, and the myriad threads within the life fabric we learn to recognize at first within ourselves and our own, and then within others.

Michael Golanos has been gone for almost a year. Colleen Collins has climbed the mountain of pain that it takes to get to this point—having lost a child, but also having lost a child in this way. Like so many others in her unfortunate position, she didn’t know what to do when he was gone. She didn’t know how to unpack it, as they say—all of it—the totality of it, but also the day-to-day. She didn’t know what to make of it, or how to articulate it. But she did know that the pain she was feeling, the frustration and anxiety and sadness and fleeting hope that had become part of her own fabric, was not hers alone.

It wasn’t long after Michael’s death that Collins decided to actually do something about it, which isn’t uncommon with people who’ve lost someone they care about to addiction—especially now … especially in the Panhandle. You hear a lot about “wanting to do something about this—there needs to be something where everyone can go … etc.”

But her passion to assure that Michael’s memory would not be forgotten, and would be used to help others who struggle the same way he did, did not subside—even as time passed, and the dust settled.

So Collins started “Remember Michael”—a non-profit endeavor created to educate parents, grandparents, children, addicts, recovering addicts, and the community overall about the signs of addiction, the struggle therein, and how families, individuals, and the community at large can work to solve the addiction epidemic locally, and beyond.

An educational brochure was followed by a first meeting at Asbury United Methodist Church in Charles Town earlier this spring. A Facebook page (Remember Michael) took shape. Radio and media interviews emerged. A second meeting in mid-July at Asbury generated more feedback and momentum—and set in motion weekly meetings since, designed specifically as no-shame, no-judgement events, where anyone can attend: parents, children, counselors, professionals, addicts, medical experts, law enforcement, and more.

The goal is to educate, create awareness, help people, and get to work trying to solve the addiction epidemic ravaging this region. And now, Remember Michael has its first fundraiser, set for September 16, at 11am, at Jefferson Memorial Park in Charles Town.

Michael Golanos – Photo ©Observer

The New Normal

“I don’t know that I’m any different than any parent that’s lost a child, but I think that it helps me to know that I’m trying to help someone,” Collins explained. “Michael was a great friend to many—I have letters from people (nearly 500) about how Michael helped them when he was in treatment … and just the cards and the emails—it was overwhelming in the beginning.”

At Michael’s funeral, Collins was approached by a young man. “He told me that Michael had saved his life,” she remembered. “He said that he was homeless last year and Mike saw him on the street and gave him his phone number and told him if he didn’t have anywhere to go at night, to call him and he’d give him blankets and he could sleep in his car. He said Mike picked him up four times, parked his car, and left the keys in the ignition—with instructions to only turn the car on to heat it up, but not to leave it running. That was Mike. This young man’s brother saw Mike’s name in the paper and brought him to the service. He wanted to tell me that story.”

Becky Burns is a close friend to Collins, and plays an important role in the development of Remember Michael. “I think we both knew that Michael, though he was an addict, truly wanted to come out on the other side of it—to help people struggling with addiction,” she noted. “And he was seemingly headed in that direction … he was almost more concerned with helping others than he was himself. Probably underneath, knowing that’s what he wanted perhaps served as the motivation for all of this.”

Collins added, “He was just so engaging; he knew so many people. If you knew him, he looked straight into your eyes. He loved people—wanted to help people—and was drawn to the underdog.”

Burns thinks that, even if Michael had lived, something similar to Remember Michael would have likely emerged. “We were all starting to think about how we could help people struggling with addiction—whether it be addicts or the people who care about them,” she said. “It’s all-consuming … you’re always waiting. As positive as you try to be, you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop … it’s exhausting.”

Collins agreed, citing that more and more, so many people out there simply don’t know where to turn. “I was there. It’s terrifying. You have a child and you know he’s going to die if you don’t do something, but you don’t know what to do.

“Michael died on October eleventh. On October second, we were driving—shopping for my grandson’s birthday present. Michael said to me: education is the key, mom—people need to know what starts this. I never even knew what an opiate was. I just assumed, if a doctor gave you medicine, they knew what they were doing. I’ll never forget what he said in the car that day: educating yourself on something you may never use, is better than not, and wishing you had. I began to think, now that I know so much about this experience, how can I not share this with other parents and other people.”

[It should be noted that Michael broke a vertebra in his back during a fall in 2007. The break went unnoticed even as the back pain persisted. In 2011, during a visit home, he complained of back and hip pain, and went to a new doctor, who ordered an MRI. The break was discovered; it had healed jagged and was impinging on a nerve. The following week, Michael started physical therapy and pain management (legally prescribed opiates), which set in motion five years of addiction and an eventual heroin overdose.]

A Path to Productivity

A person goes through a trauma like this, essentially a chunk of life consumed by addiction, and then, seemingly in a blink, they’re on the other side of it—no matter how long it may have seemed while they were grinding through it. But now the person they love is gone. The silence can be enormous—the absence a great chasm. It can suck the life out of someone, and get in the way of previous plans to do something about it. But not for Collins.

“Michael was cremated, so we set up a fund, and we were just going to donate the money to someone that needed treatment, or a Vivitrol shot, or something,” she admitted. “Well, we collected almost ten thousand dollars in the days just surrounding the funeral. And we continued to get checks. We didn’t know what to do with the money at first, but then we decided to get something going in this area.

“You know, the big wigs want to say that there are plenty of treatment options in this area. There are no treatment options here.”

The ultimate goal through Remember Michael is to land an addiction treatment facility in Jefferson County, or close by. “The options are very limited here,” Collins added. “But we’ve been blessed to have been introduced to several people, and we’ve got some things in motion. We were already honored with one scholarship in Michael’s name to a treatment facility in Gaithersburg (MD), which we gave to a female here in Jefferson County … and that facility wants to come out and look at this area. It’s a great facility; they opened in May, and have already doubled.”

Burns understands why the community often pushes back against such an idea, but she thinks people need to be more open to the realities of how change happens. “There’s so much push-back out there. A lot of it is just fear … but the addiction is there anyway, so why not have a facility that could help? The fear doesn’t necessarily come from a bad place—but often just a place of unknowing. A lot of people want something to be done, but just not where they have to see it. They need to understand: the drugs are in your neighborhoods already—whether you want to believe it or not—they’re in your front yard at this point.”

Remember Michael’s mission is to educate the public, build awareness, and cultivate a diverse network of people who can all work together to help addicts through their struggles, and serve as a resource and advocate for anyone connected to addiction.

“We want people to have hope and know they’re not in this alone,” emphasized Burns. “We had thirty-six people show up at the first meeting in April—a pleasant surprise.”

One of those people was one of Michael’s former therapists from a Florida rehab—who is now traveling up and down the East Coast helping to establish treatment centers. The woman connected Collins with the center in Gaithersburg, and she went and checked it out.

“I don’t ever want to send someone’s child to a treatment center without having walked it myself,” she assured. “Before we got that first scholarship, we went down and had a look, talked to the therapists in the building, walked the center, and looked at the group and individual sessions they had—including if they were examining the ‘how’ part of addiction. They told us that was actually one of the first parts of their process. So already, there’s a bridge built by way of our connection through Florida to Gaithersburg.”

Collins and Burns displaying a quilt made of various items, including some of Michael’s t-shirts. Photo ©Observer

Who ‘Remember Michael’ is For

“This endeavor is for absolutely anyone,” said Collins. “It’s not just for addicts or their families. It can be for people who aren’t touched by it, but want to know more. We welcome anyone—grandparents, siblings, friends, social workers, EMTs, first responders, everyone—and we’re not experts. We’re figuring this out too; it’s an open discussion. We want people to talk—to get up and talk about their experiences. It’s strength, and knowledge, in numbers.”

Collins also doesn’t want her son to be remembered just as an addict. “There was so much more to Mike. That was one part of his life. There are so many other stories out there just like his. There’s nothing around here where people can just go and talk and learn from each other—regardless of who they are and what type of life they’re living. For some people, it gets to the point where you can be held up in your own house, trapped, with no one to talk to. We want to give these people a place to come as well. Obviously, it’s a work in progress, and it will evolve as time goes by, and numbers grow.”

Burns echoed, “And we’ll ask the group what they need out of the meetings, what they would like the meetings to achieve. We’ve met a lot of people along the way; we’ve accumulated a lot of resources and contacts. Other churches are now also interested; they’ve reached out to Asbury and asked what they can do to get involved.”

Building the Future

As mentioned earlier, weekly meetings now take place at Asbury United Methodist Church in Charles Town, and the first official fundraising event will take place on Saturday, September 16, at 11am, at Jefferson Memorial Park in Charles Town.

“We want to have at least one major fundraising event a year, but we certainly hope to do as much as we can,” said Burns. “Mike loved baseball, so we’d like to do one centered around baseball as well. It’s all in the beginning stages.”

“The point is to raise money to continue our scholarships, and to explore the possibility of bringing a facility to this area,” added Collins. “One that you don’t have to wait three months to get into—and some type of program that acknowledges life skills and coaching, job training and placement, and mentoring.”

The September fundraiser will feature several speakers, one or more dental professionals who are offering free dental work to those who’ve been in recovery for over a year, a silent auction, at least one scholarship giveaway, and a wealth of networking and educational materials and conversations.

“And soon, as the website takes shape, we’ll have a donation button there as well,” added Collins. “For now, our email address is on everything (remembermichaelg@gmail.com), because if a parent, or anyone, is out there struggling with what to do, I want them to email us. Even if we don’t have an answer, they’ll know that we’re listening and we’re trying to figure it out … and now they have a place to go to for information, education, help.

“I want people to know that just because you’re an addict doesn’t mean that you can’t come out of it. Is it possible? Yes. Did Michael come out of it? No. But is it possible for you? Yes. Absolutely, it’s possible.”

Burns couldn’t agree more. “And we want them to know that they’re loved—there are people in this community who care about them and are willing to help. We don’t say we have all the answers, but we do love them and care about them, and we’re working to help them get through this.”

 

— For more information, visit Remember Michael on Facebook or email remembermichaelg@gmail.com.

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