No one would have blamed Jan McCoy if she’d retreated from the world after the death of her son in 2014.
As a father, I can’t begin to fathom the maelstrom of grief that descends upon the heart when a child dies.
To watch that child slowly slip away, ever fearful of the middle-of-the-night phone call that signals the dying of their light, is burden enough; to actually receive that call and feel the ground beneath you open up … nothing can ever be the same.
Everything … from the wrapping of Christmas presents for surviving family members to reading about the Maryville High School Rebels for which her son played to seeing his name christen a house used by True Purpose Ministries to offer the recovery he never found to other men who struggle as he once did … it still hurts.
The wounds may have closed some, but they’ll never fully heal, and I don’t think anyone would have blamed Jan and her husband, Dan, if they’d left Blount County for a beach house in some small coastal town where the ghosts of Dane McCoy weren’t so omnipresent. But that’s not who they are. It’s certainly not who Jan is, and so this lady, whom I admire so much and feel so much personal fondness for, pulled herself up out of the cracks and crevices that grief had carved into the landscape of her life and heart and slowly but surely began to go to work.
At first, it was merely a desire to connect with other parents who had children caught up in addiction — to offer them a kind word or some guidance or a bit of self-help that might help them weather whatever storms might have come. She began to lead support groups for parents and family members at Celebrate Recovery Maryville, an organization with which she’s still active; she also formed a fast friendship with three other mothers who lost sons to addiction: Linda Bond, mother of Tyler; Sherry Petrowski, mother of Chris Sullivan, and Karla Douglas, mother of Aaron. They commiserated. They wept together.
They began to understand that the fates that had befallen their children were not their fault, because their sons were sick. They suffered from a disease, and so Jan made it her mission to learn more about it.
She started going, of her own volition, to conferences and workshops. She started seeking out books and reading material. She became something of a surrogate mom to the men who have found a second chance at True Purpose, her work so appreciated that leaders memorialized Dane by naming a transition house in his honor. She reached out to leaders in the local recovery community, trying to broaden her base of knowledge, but always asking, “What can I do?”
It’s a question she continues to ask, but for the moment, the answer has become an event that takes place on Friday at First United Methodist Church Maryville. “Hijacked: How Addiction Rewires the Brain and Poisons the Spirit” is the sort of summit she would have gone to early on in her journey to learn more. (Honestly, it’s something she’d still go to, because she believes there’s always more to learn.) As of this writing, more than 100 people have committed to attend, and there’s room for more; the goal is to provide information and inspiration “for families or loved ones of those struggling with addiction, and for those in the process of recovery themselves,” she told The Daily Times last week. It’s desperately needed: There were 54 overdose deaths in Blount County in 2017, the latest for which figures are available, according to the Tennessee Department of Health; that’s a huge increase from the previous year, when 35 people overdosed here. The way Jan sees it, we’ve become so numb to such statistics, and so jaded about how we view addiction, that we’re not nearly alarmed as we would be over similar statistics by other diseases.
“Can you imagine if 54 people died in Blount County from the flu last year?” she said. “People would be afraid to go out in public!” But because it’s “those people” — the forgotten ones like Jan’s son, like the sons and daughters and spouses and siblings of so many Blount County residents whose lives were snuffed out last year — we don’t give it the attention, the respect or the concern it deserves.
“Hijacked” is one way in which Jan hopes to change that. She’s lined up a number of speakers, from recovery (and recovering) advocate Tim Hilton to Blount Discount Pharmacy owner Phil LaFoy to Dr. James Choo of East Tennessee Pain Consultants to Pastor Jeremy Graham of True Purpose to two of my colleagues at Cornerstone of Recovery, and the knowledge they’ll share will be invaluable. (Full disclosure: Yours truly will emcee the event.) As for her part, Jan is reluctant to take any credit, and will be the first to tell you that organizing this event has been a shot in the dark.
“There have been a lot of times I’ve thought, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing!’” she told me. “But I know what’s in my heart.”
Love, which became grief, which became determination, which returned to love — for the addicts who still struggle, for the community in which she lives and for the loved ones she hopes never know the pain she did, or does. It’s a full circle journey, and I’m honored to know Jan and be a part of her efforts.
The workshop takes place from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Friday at First UMC, 804 Montvale Station Road in Maryville; it’s free to attend, but you’re encouraged to register in advance at www.crmaryvilletn.com, so they’ll know how many to expect for the pre-prepared lunch. I hope to see you there. Please come say hello, but more importantly, give Jan a hug and tell her thanks.