Taking the shame out of addiction

CONTRIBUTEDKathy Smith holds a photo of her son Tim, who died five years ago after battling drug addiction. This week, Kathy and her family are bicycling to Albany from Lockport along the Empire State Trail in memory of their son and brother.

Kathy and Mike Smith of East Aurora and their surviving adult children are biking across the state, from Lockport to Albany, in memory of their son and brother Tim, who died from a cocaine-fentanyl overdose in 2015. Along the way they're fundraising on behalf of those who suffer from the disease known as addiction.

In 2016, Kathy Smith propelled down a building with Tim’s brother, Christopher, in Washington, D.C., and raised a lot of money doing that for the national organization Shatterproof. 

In 2017, the Smiths took a year off from "extreme" fundraising and came up with the idea of a 5K on Mike’s family property in West Falls. The race was a hit, and for two years the family hosted a walk and picnic in support of Save the Michaels, the locally based addiction assistance service.

Kathy had read a newspaper article about Save the Michaels and appreciated what it set out to do.

“What a great resource for families who don’t know where to turn or who to call," she said. "Where’s a treatment center? Where’s a sober living house? What options do we have? I believe Save the Michaels was around when Tim was around, but I was not aware of them. … it really spoke to us about wanting to do something to help them and to remember Tim, and take stigma and shame away from addiction, and for people to realize it’s a disease and not a moral failing.”

Because a gathering in Tim's memory was impossible in the age of COVID-19, the Smiths decided to do something different this year. The family took off from the Lockport Locks on Monday and have been riding all week toward Albany. Julie Israel, the mother of Michael Israel and co-founder of Save the Michaels, was there to send them off.

“Sadly, their son, Tim, overdosed as a result of becoming addicted and my son, Michael, was also addicted to pain medication, opioids. My son succumbed to suicide, taking his own life as a result of his addition,” Israel said. “The parallels are two young beautiful people lost their struggle with the disease of addiction. …

"It was very emotional for me, because, as a parent, you have other children and how is it that this child drew the short straw in life? The sense of loss we both have. We lost one of our children and it’s something you never recover from, never, you just learn to go through life as it is.”

Kathy Smith said her son's health insurer often wouldn’t pay for his addiction treatment.

“A lot of times our health insurance wouldn’t cover it because it was because of substance abuse,” she said. “That’s so difficult for families, and we were able to get him into different treatment centers, but a lot of families are not able to. At the time, six or seven years ago, it wasn’t covered, or if it was, it was only for 30 days. That was like someone had a heart attack and saying, ‘That’s it! Good luck!’ or if you’re a diabetic, 'We get you out of diabetic shock and send you on your way!' That doesn't work.”

“I always said, if one of our kids had cancer or any life-threatening anything, I know we would’ve gotten so much support, but it wasn’t that, it was addiction, and you didn’t want to say anything, because you didn’t want anyone to think poorly of either Tim or us,” Kathy said. “I just really hope people are starting to really understand, if we take away the stigma and shame and help people get into treatment” that can help.

Save the Michaels is the beneficiary of the Smith family's ride to Albany. Funds are being raised from sponsors, donors and a T-shirt sale. More information can be found on Facebook’s public group: Walk, Run, Or Bike to Remember Tim.

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