By Miguel Marquez and Rachel Clarke, CNN
Matthew Davidson’s death was not unique. It was just one of more than 100,000 deaths to drug overdoses in the US from May 2020 to April 2021 — a record while the country was gripped by the pandemic.
His life mirrored those of many people trapped by addiction — in and out of rehab; jail time; distressed and upset family and friends.
Of course to his mom, he was always special. When she wants to feel close to him again, Karen Butcher wraps herself in a quilt made of her son’s favorite shirts. And to try to help others avoid her fate, she steels herself and talks openly to CNN.
Helping other young addicts is how she lets Matthew’s death offer hope. “They let Matthew’s legacy be one of helping other people not go down that same path,” she said.
Karen said Matthew was a gift to her from the start — born seven years after his brother when she had waited and longed for a second child.
He was a gregarious, lively boy, always on the move. But he had health issues too, suffering from hemophilia, a condition in which blood doesn’t clot properly and which can cause chronic pain.
So Butcher was used to looking out for him, to be alert for trouble, but there was nothing much out of the ordinary.
She and Matthew’s stepfather Gene Butcher say he rebelled like any other teen, but they didn’t have a special reason to worry until he left home after high school and began working at a restaurant. On good days he was the jovial bartender, happy to make people laugh. Other times, he would take off sick, with symptoms like the flu that the Butchers now recognize as signs of withdrawal.
“He got in trouble one night for going through the purses of the women who were working,” Karen said. “He was caught on camera going through those purses, of course looking for money.”
He took from his own family too. “I had some jewelry that was missing and I thought one of his friends had come into my house,” Karen said.
“I would have never dreamed it was him. And then he stole from a friend and then he stole from a girlfriend.”
Matthew’s parents say his addiction may have started with the opioids he was prescribed for the intense pain that often comes with hemophilia. They think he may have started to crush and snort them, and the move to intravenous use may have come easily to a young man used to injections of other medications for his condition.
When he went to rehab the first time, Karen hoped and believed her son would be the one to beat his addiction.
But he went through what she recognizes as the common cycle of rehab and relapse. He even overdosed several times, saved by people seeing him and emergency responders bringing him back to life.
Until Memorial Day 2020.
Karen was getting ready to visit a friend when she saw missed calls from Matthew’s number on her phone. When she called back it was Matthew’s girlfriend who picked up, hysterical, and they were on their way to the ER.
She thinks he chose to take heroin that day, and it was tainted by a tiny amount of fentanyl, a drug so deadly and powerful it was the killer in 64,000 of the record 100,000 overdose deaths, even though most people did not know they were taking it.
“I just knew in my mother’s heart, my son was dead,” Karen told CNN.
She went into the room at the hospital to see him.
“I guess he had been dead awhile because his body was cold,” she said. “I just remember crying out, ‘I wasn’t ready to let you go’ and spend some time alone with him, you know, patting his hair, touching his hands, he looked like he was just asleep.”
While Matthew was alive, his parents sought information and input about what he was going through and how to help.
Some of the comments were not useful — people who thought he could just stop or that rehab was a guaranteed way out — but they were also introduced to support groups like Parents of Addicted Loved Ones.
Karen ended up setting up that group’s first chapter in Kentucky and has stuck with it, trying to help others, even after she lost Matthew.
“I don’t want to see this happen to other people. I even have a special place in my heart for other people’s sons,” she said.
“I had one call me yesterday And he’s probably been through 15 treatment programs and he knows that I lost Matthew and I talked to him about what do you want in life? What’s holding you back from staying in treatment?”
She knows how tough it is to move from treatment to living a life of recovery, but she tries to find a way for those who reach out to her.
She says she stands back from the statistics of overwhelming loss to keep it manageable. “I think, ‘Who can I help today?'” she said.
She wants to stop others from suffering the loss she will never get over, how her and Gene’s blended family of five sons is always missing one.
“There will always be a hole in pictures, there’s not a picture of all five of our sons anymore, there’s a picture of four,” she said.
“I imagine a hole in that photo or at family meals. There’s not a chair with Matthew.”
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CNN’s Miguel Marquez reported this story from Kentucky, and Rachel Clarke wrote in Atlanta.