After an alumni couple loses their son to a methadone overdose, they vow to help other families understand the ready availability and pervasive use of prescription drugs among young people, and what to do about it
On a sunny Sunday morning in early October, nearly 100 Puget Sound students have invaded the lush backyard of Jeff and Judy Warren Bowlby’s home in Sammamish, Wash. They laugh, eat hot dogs, play pickle ball, complain about homework, and overall seem pretty energetic for a bunch of college kids who got up at 6 a.m. to get here.
The students are diverse in their class years, subjects of study, and hometowns, but their t-shirts indicate a unified presence: They bear the names of their Greek affiliations—Alpha Phi, Sigma Chi, Pi Phi, Beta Theta Pi, Gamma Phi Beta—and some wear shirts adorned with the phrase “Justin Bowlby: Of ever honored memory.” It’s the only visual cue that this lively gathering was inspired by grief and loss.
The sparkling early fall sun now emerging is a welcome change from the cool drizzle that fell on their endeavor earlier this morning—running the Issaquah Rotary Club’s annual Salmon Days 5K race. The Rotary dedicated this year’s event to raising money and awareness for the Seattle-based Science and Management of Addictions Foundation, or SAMA, the mission of which is to eliminate addiction among young people by helping with research, education, and treatment. It’s a cause that Jeff Bowlby says he never dreamed would suddenly be at the center of his family’s life.
“We are very nurturing, open, and have great relationships with all of our kids,” says Jeff, as he grills up a second round of chicken sausages on the barbecue. “Justin was our best friend. And for this to happen to our family is a decent indicator that it can happen to others.”
On a similarly sunny morning in June 2007, a chaplain from the King County Sheriff’s Office appeared at the Bowlbys’ front door to tell them their son, who had been taking summer classes at Puget Sound, was found dead in his off-campus house by one of his roommates. An autopsy later revealed that Justin—an accomplished skier, surfer, confident student, and dedicated friend—had died after ingesting a fatal amount of methadone, just four days before his 20th birthday.
The Bowlbys could hardly process the news. How could Justin, who’d chosen to attend his parents’ alma mater, pledged his father’s fraternity, gotten solid grades, and never exhibited any of the stereotypical signs of drug use, have died from an overdose?
Attempting to answer this question sent Jeff, a construction company executive, and Judy, an elementary school teacher, on a grueling investigation into their son’s passing. In speaking to those who knew Justin best, the Bowlbys learned their son had become addicted to methadone, a prescription drug taken in pill form and typically used to treat chronic pain and narcotic addiction.
“We’d never seen him look or act as if he’d been taking drugs, in high school or college,” says Jeff. “He wasn’t withdrawn or angry, nor did he demonstrate any characteristics one normally attributes to drug abusers. He was happy, enjoyed being with family, and was very dialed in with his friends. Just a really cool guy. How could we have known?”
Almost as overwhelming for the Bowlbys was the grim revelation that prescription painkillers such as methadone, Vicodin, and Oxycontin are readily available, easily ingested, and generally more accepted culturally among young people since there is no needle or “junkie” stigma attached to their use.
Washington state has one of the highest rates of abuse of prescription pain relievers in the nation, according to a report by the Department of Social and Health Services published in December. Washington ranks sixth among the states in nonmedical use of pain relievers by people 12 and older.
“There is a pervasive mentality that because something is prescribed, it must be OK,” says Jeff. “You don’t have to go behind a dumpster down on First Avenue anymore to get a fix. Just go to grandma’s medicine cabinet.”
The family grieved for months and tried to get past feelings of what Jeff calls “profound anger” over how Justin’s death could happen in the tight-knit university community, where friends could have intervened.
“If someone is engaging in risky behavior—be it driving fast, an eating disorder, or drug use—friends have a responsibility to tell someone,” he says. “You owe it to yourself, the individual, and the organization you’re a member of to not tolerate it. That’s what being a true friend means.”
Now the Bowlbys have dedicated themselves to de-stigmatizing addiction and educating the public about the dangers of prescription drugs. They also have aligned themselves with the SAMA Foundation, where their daughter, Kelsey, now works as director of communications and events, and speak openly in community forums about their loss.
Most notably, for today’s event they have inspired students in the Puget Sound community—namely the philanthropy chair of the Beta house, Jasper Tollefson ’10, who guided his fraternity toward raising $5,000 for SAMA.
Around 2:30 p.m., the race crew starts to dissipate outside and Loggers help clean up paper plates and cups that are scattered around the yard and kitchen. Judy Bowlby hugs the kids as they thank her for the party and express their condolences again for her loss. Justin’s siblings Kelsey, 22, Jay, 14, and Taylor, 17, smile and laugh as they swap stories with friends and also express their thanks for everyone’s support.
Judy shares everyone’s amazement at how the weather improved so dramatically and offered up a theory. “I think Justin did that,” she says, smiling, adding that it feels good to be connected with her son’s friends (all of whom have open dinner invitations with the family) but then contemplates whether, when his classmates graduate, Justin will be forgotten.
“It’s still fresh, and people are talking about him, which is wonderful,” says Judy. “But someday there will be kids who never knew him or don’t remember him. I guess at that point he will no longer be a memory, but a legacy. That gives me some comfort.” — Stacey Wilson ’96
Identifying a problem and getting help
It is important for friends and families to know the signs of a potential problem and what they can do to intervene, says Charee Boulter, psychologist and substance abuse prevention coordinator in the university’s Office of Counseling, Health, and Wellness Services. This is easier said than done because warning signs may be subtle. Drug and alcohol problems can go undetected in high-functioning students and adults because they are managing their responsibilities and succeeding. If you are concerned about a friend or family member, express yourself in a direct, caring manner. It may help to seek advice or support from others to formulate what you will say and to learn about available resources. Puget Sound students can get support at CHWS or through the dean of students’ office.