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How a Brentwood Family is Working to Break the Stigma Surrounding Addiction

Alex Beatty had struggled with drug and alcohol abuse for a decade.

For his parents, Yarnell and Liz Beatty, June 11, 2016 marks the day their lives changed forever, when the 24-year-old took a fatal mix of Oxycontin and Xanax and died of an accidental overdose at their home in Brentwood.

The Beattys' story isn't uncommon in Tennessee. In 2016, 1,631 people died from opioids, a 12 percent jump from 2015.

Adults ages 18 to 25 in Tennessee were using prescription opioids at a 30 percent higher rate than the national average in 2011, according to the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

The Beattys want to help break the stigma surrounding addiction, especially in young people, and create a platform where the public can have an open dialogue about it. They say community resources and a nonjudgmental understanding of substance abuse are crucial for people in recovery.

They've helped organize a forum to address some of those issues, to be held Sunday at Holy Family Catholic Church in Brentwood. The event is free and open to the public. You can register here.

Adopted as an infant from Bulgaria of Roma descent, Alex Beatty had a normal upbringing in Brentwood. Despite his smaller stature, he excelled in sports, especially wrestling, and developed an unwavering love of music. He made friends easily.

What he struggled with was change.

"That was always the most difficult. Whether it was learning to walk, going to preschool, (or) going to middle school," his mother said. "Each time there was a major transition, he seemed to have a lot of anxiety. If he couldn't do it perfectly, he was afraid to even try."

That anxiety grew as the boy got older.

The Beattys first learned at the end of their son's freshman year in May 2007 that he had been drinking alcohol.

Liz Beatty got a call from Ravenwood High School, telling her that her sonwas being transported to Williamson Medical Center. They arrived to learn he had collapsed earlier in the school day after drinking a 12-ounce water bottle filled with straight vodka; his blood alcohol content was 0.19.

The school's response, they said, made matters worse. Alex Beatty was suspended and sent to the county's Alternative Learning Center to finish the school year.

"They really tossed him out like yesterday's garbage, which is really unfortunate because the schools need to be a part of the team in this addiction process. At that point, they weren't," Yarnell Beatty said.

Williamson County Schools has programs in place at the Alternative Learning Center to help students reduce their suspensions based on their success in the program, WCS Communications Director Carol Birdsong said in a statement.

"Often an ALC intervention helps our students in an educational setting," Birdsong said.

More than a decade later, Williamson County Schools still has a zero-tolerance policyfor drug and alcohol use. Having drugs or alcohol on campus automatically results in a one-year suspension, except as prohibited by federal law for students with disabilities.

The Beattys fought the suspension because the teen had an individualized education program (IEP), and school officials later determined he was exempt from the policy under federal guidelines.

"That was kind of Alex's first taste of, 'This is how I'm gonna be treated,'" Liz Beatty said.

The rest of his high school career was difficult, with a few periods of sobriety. When he was caught drinking at school again, he began receiving outpatient addiction therapy.

By his junior year, he was sneaking out at night. He suffered a concussion while wrestling, which his parents say affected his mood. When Alex Beatty couldn't find alcohol or marijuana, he drank cough syrup. One night in December, his parents found him after drinking a couple bottles of cough syrup, and he was taken to the hospital.

"I was getting tired of being the cop, the one to have to keep breathalyzing him and checking his room," Liz Beatty said.

That incident was followed by a month of inpatient treatment. But his sobriety didn't last, and after his junior year, he was sent to a wilderness camp in Georgia at the base of the Appalachian Trail for seven weeks, in hopes that he'd stay sober when he returned.

Within 48 hours of coming home, he was drunk again.

He attended Currey Ingram Academy for his senior year, and while he stayed active in sports and music, things went further downhill by his second semester.

"It was the same pattern," Yarnell Beatty said. "He started off doing very well and was involved with athletics and school activities, and then into that second semester, (he was) about to graduate, and things imploded again."

He justified his addiction issues by promising his parents he'd never use "big boy" drugs, such as cocaine or heroin.

"In his mind, he could compartmentalize it — it wasn't that bad," Liz Beatty said.

A vicious cycle

After graduating high school, he began attending Columbia State's Franklin campus that fall and failed out.

After taking a year off, their son returned and earned his associate degree in May 2014 before transferring to Middle Tennessee State University, where he studied film and video production.

That was when he started buying prescription pills off the street, particularly Xanax, which is used to treat anxiety disorders.

While their son was prescribed other medications for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), he didn't use them correctly, his parents said.

"He would get into crushing and snorting them, and taking drugs together with alcohol," his mother said.

A serious car accident in 2015 left their son with another concussion, which they say seemed to coincide with his increased use of prescription drugs and binge drinking.

It was a vicious cycle: His drug use pushed him further into depression, which fueled more drug use, his parents said.

In June 2016, Alex Beatty was within a semester of graduating with his bachelor's degree. He was spending a Friday night at his parents' house, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary, they said.

The next morning, when his mother went to check on him, her son was cold.

His parents found a 12-pack of 30-milligram Oxycontin he had bought off the street. He'd only taken one of those, and paired it with a Xanax. An autopsy later determined he had no alcohol in his system.

It was the first and only time they'd ever discovered opiates in his possession.

"I remember seeing him with foam coming out of his mouth, and knowing this was different than any other time," Yarnell Beatty said. "Knowing he would never walk up those stairs again — all those things go through your mind, and you just can't believe it's happening."

Ending the shame attached to addiction

The Beattys made a choice after their son died to not stay silent about his addiction. They share the story of his life and death in hopes that it will encourage others to help break down the shame felt by many who struggle with addiction, along with their families.

"If there was something we could do to bring attention to his, and save even one life, that’s enough," his father said. "We had the resources and the heart to make a difference, and Alex’s life, his legacy, were worth that effort."

They say addiction needs to be treated like the disease it is, especially by schools and administrators.

"If I had any recommendation for a community, it would be to get rid of zero tolerance and have schools all be a part of the recovery process," Yarnell Beatty said. "Addiction is a disease, but it's treated completely different by the school system."

Liz Beatty believes that among both children and parents, there's a fear of judgment and reprisal that keeps them from discussing issues like substance abuse.

"From a youth point of view, I think they don't want to disappoint their parents. There's an intense pressure on young people," she said. "From the parents' point of view, it's pretty much the same thing. People don't want their friends to think there's anything wrong with their family, that their kids aren't straight-A students and star athletes."

And if a child does open up about substance abuse, she said, it's crucial for families to remember that person is more than their addiction.

"So often, one of the issues is, we start calling him 'the addict.' That puts them in a corner and it becomes their problem, they're the root cause of any problems in a family. I want to stop the shame attached to it."

About the event

When: Sunday, Feb. 25, 3-5 p.m. Doors open at 2:30 p.m. for refreshments and conversation.

Where: Holy Family Catholic Church, 9100 Crockett Road, Brentwood

Who's involved: East Brentwood Presbyterian Church, Holy Family Catholic Church and the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services

What to expect: A dialogue among teens, parents and professionals about the underlying issues leading to substance abuse and addiction in young people. Attendees will be able to ask questions and share ideas and information.

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