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Family hopes others learn from Grand Haven man's overdose death

Marie Havenga • Aug 21, 2017 at 11:00 AM

Editor’s note: The following story is the first in a weeklong series devoted to the opioid epidemic in West Michigan.

Jason Struve knew his brother's struggles with addiction all too well.

Jason struggled with drug addiction himself. But their fate traveled in opposite directions.

Jason, 37, has been sober for 15 years. His brother, Jeff, died at age 40 of a heroin overdose in his Grand Haven apartment.

Heroin, as well as prescription pain pills like morphine, codeine, oxycodone, oxycontin, fentanyl, methadone and vicodin, are all opioids. Opioid abuse and overdose are sweeping the nation.

Grand Haven is not immune.

“My brother had been in and out of recovery and in and out of trouble his whole life,” said Jason, a 1996 Grand Haven High School graduate. “He started going to meetings on a regular basis and was doing really good.”

Jeff got a job in Grand Rapids as a recovery coach, helping others claw through their drug addictions to reach the sober side. But about a month after starting his new counseling job, the drug dragon reared its beastly head, breathing fire into his cravings once again.

“He had to drive (from Grand Haven), and getting a vehicle at that point gave him more freedom,” Jason said. “I think eventually that led to relapse. When you've been sober for so long and go back to using the same quantity you were using previously, it's a lot harder.”

Jason said he heard through acquaintances that Jeff had started using again.

“Since he was in recovery, and I was in recovery, we were going to meetings at the same time, but I had kind of distanced myself from him,” Jason said. “I didn't want to be watching over him the whole time. We all need to find our own path when it comes to getting sober and getting clean. I wanted him to find his own path.”

Jeff's roommate told Jason he suspected Jeff was using again and they were going to confront him.

“They were too late,” Jason said.

On Sept. 17, 2015, Jeff died of a heroin overdose. His roommate found him dead after returning from a trip.

Jeff's family was open in his obituary in the Grand Haven Tribune about the cause of death. They wanted others to be aware — and learn — that drug overdose is a serious issue in Grand Haven and surrounding communities.

Jason said he has never used heroin, but he was a big user of crack cocaine and opiates — prescription medications generally prescribed for pain relief that can bring on an addictive high.

“Back 15 years ago, cocaine, crack and crystal meth were much more prevalent,” he said. “Heroin has just come back on the scene heavy in the last five years. Back when I was using, if you pulled up to a street corner in Muskegon Heights or Grand Rapids, it was difficult to find heroin. Now, they have heroin, and it's difficult to find cocaine or crack. The times have changed.”

Jason said the problem runs deep, because many people get addicted to something as seemingly innocent as medications prescribed by a doctor.

“The problem is a little deeper than teenage kids smoking dope and then trying the next thing,” he said. “You've got people of all ages being prescribed heavy-duty narcotics within the medical system. When the doctors turn off the supply and say 'no more for you,' they start going through withdrawals. One thing leads to another and they find they can get some oxycontin or fentanyl (opioids) on the street level.”

Jason knows. He once was addicted to oxycontin.

Unlike his brother, Jason's opioid addiction never led to heroin, like it does with many drug users. Primarily, because of expense.

“I've been out of it for a long time, but you could pay $40 a pill for an oxycontin, and that was back 15 or 16 years ago when I was using,” Jason said. “I don't know how much that has increased. You could get a gram of heroin for $60 or $70, or one or two pills (for the same amount). A typical drug user is going to go for that gram of heroin so they can stay higher longer.”

These scenarios don't play out just on the streets of Muskegon or Grand Rapids, though.

“It's very prevalent in Grand Haven,” Jason said. “We're an upper middle class, white-collar town, so people don't want to think heroin is here. Kids from Grand Rapids are coming to Grand Haven to score dope. But you don't hear people talk about that.

“My brother overdosed in an apartment in downtown Grand Haven. This epidemic is real, and our town is more worried about the deer in the cemetery and marking spots for the parade than people dying.”

Jason said an overdose recently occurred in the Meijer store in Grand Haven Township, where he works as a manager.

“Just a couple of months ago, we had an OD in the store,” he said. “You think cardiac arrest. You do CPR. Once the paramedics got there, they gave Narcan (an opiate antidote) and he bounced back.”

Unfortunately, his brother didn't

Jason will never forget hearing the news.

“I was working third shift at the Meijer in Cedar Springs,” he said. “We had a lot of mutual friends because we were both in recovery. One of my friends called me and said, 'I've got some news about your brother. He relapsed and overdosed.' I asked, 'What hospital is he at?' She said, 'No, you don't understand — he passed.'”

Jason sat, stunned. Memories flooded. Emotions, too — disbelief, anger, shock.

He called his mom, then the two of them drove to Grand Haven, where people from the recovery community had gathered to share their grief.

“It was pretty real and pretty raw,” Jeff said. “I had had friends who had passed away due to relapse in the past, but hitting so close to home, it hit me hard. It was an emotional time. I was angry and upset.”

Angry at Jeff. Upset with him that he didn't follow through with sobriety.

“He had all the tools to stay sober and he chose not to,” Jason said. “This addiction and alcoholism is a disease. If we're not treating it just like any other disease, it's going to spread. If I have an addiction and alcoholism and I don't go to meetings and I'm not taking care of myself, then it's going to get worse.

“I definitely think that people need to talk about it more,” he added. “We want people to know — addiction and alcoholism, if left untreated, only lead to one thing, and that's death.”

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