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Local Mother creates 'The Addicts Family' support Group after son's Overdose Death

Rhonda Coffey spent a lot of time staring at her phone, awaiting a response from her son, David.

He had been an opioid addict for nearly 15 years.

Since that addiction began, it was common for Rhonda’s son to turn off his phone when he went on a binge.

But July 26, 2015, was different.

David was on a trip to Pigeon Forge with a friend of 15 years from New York — a friend Rhonda said never had a drug problem.

“They were going on a little trip here in Tennessee. They were going to go two days to Pigeon Forge and two days to Nashville,” she said.

She talked to her son that Friday and Saturday. Then she received a call early Sunday morning from David’s friend.

Her son “was gone.”

“She said he was missing, and she called about 7 a.m. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ and she said ‘I just got up and he wasn’t there,’” Rhonda said.

David had reportedly told his friend he was taking a movie back to a Redbox station.

“She said she’d tried calling him, so I said, ‘Well, let me try it,’” Rhonda said.

She immediately dialed her son’s number. It kept ringing.

“I just had that feeling in my stomach at that point that something was really wrong,” Rhonda said.

“We pretty much knew his patterns, and his pattern was if he was going to go off and use drugs, he would turn his phone off. Or if we called him, then he would turn his phone off after we called him.”

But not this time.

David’s phone continued to ring and ring as Rhonda continued calling.

After contacting authorities in Pigeon Forge and the surrounding area, the search began for David, and Rhonda began driving from the Tri-Cities. Rhonda reported the rental car missing, and when police searched David’s luggage, they found drug paraphernalia.

“I was just shocked that he would do that with her, because she didn’t do drugs. He was just so excited to see her,” Rhonda said.

When police began to enter his information into the system for a “be on the lookout,” David’s information had already been entered.

“It was because he had been found in Knoxville already. He had passed away that morning about 9:45 a.m. in a hotel there,” Rhonda said. “(Knoxville) had already sent someone here in Bristol to tell me, but I was already in Pigeon Forge.”

That July day in 2015 ended a years-long battle against addiction for David; lethal doses of Phentermine, crystal methamphetamine and heroin were all found in David’s system, Rhonda said.

While David rejected medication-assisted treatment throughout his battle with addiction, he did admit himself into several abstinence-based treatment programs.

And some he succeeded at, for a while, until another relapse.

While he did stay sober for two years — even opening a barber shop at one point — a relapse would always push him back to the point where he began. Rhonda estimates David relapsed at least 20 times during his 15-year addiction.

Although her son rejected methadone and buprenorphine treatments, Rhonda said she can’t help but wonder if medication-based treatments could have saved her son’s life.

Now she’s became an advocate for expanding all treatments to opioid addicts.

“He was so strongly opposed to (medication-assisted treatment) because he was very much into NA (Narcotics Anonymous). And they are very much against that. Some of his friends have spoke out against it and said they don’t believe in it,” Rhonda said. “But my answer to them is: ‘He might be alive today if we had chosen that route.’ The research now supports it for someone who is chronic relapser like he was.”

Rhonda has now also founded her own support group, The Addicts Family, which has grown to 233 members on its Facebook page.

“The Addicts Family started out to be for family members (of addicts) but I’m finding now that we have some addicts that are in recovery, so it’s for both,” Rhonda said. “And we have a lot of advocates that come and participate also. It’s turned into different things.”

Rhonda said just having an area on social media for people to share their feelings with others experiencing the same type of situations is the goal of the group.

“I can tell you every parent who’s (dealt with an addicted child) has lived this sort of heart-in-your-throat scenario of when the telephone rings, is it going to be that phone call?” Rhonda said.

“It is the worst. If you do talk about what’s going on, you’re going to get all this unsolicited advice of, ‘Well, you just need to kick them out. Tough love. You need to do this, you need to do that.’”

One member of the support group is the mother of a former addict who met Rhonda through The Addicts Family.

“We’ve became very close,” the woman said. “You definitely do feel alone (as the mother of an addict) and there is so much stigma. You feel ashamed, you feel like you’ve failed. So, definitely having that support is great.”

Rhonda’s support group also meets in person the second and fourth Friday of every month at Windsor Avenue Presbyterian Church, at 1100 Windsor Ave. in Bristol, Tennessee.

“The only piece of advice I give is: You have to do what’s right for you in your heart,” Rhonda said. “You have to do what you can live with in your heart at the end of the day, should the worst thing happen. Because you’re the one who has to live with that decision. And that is what I did for all these years with people telling me, ‘You have to make him leave.’

“And I said, ‘I have to live with my decision.’”

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