To a rapt audience at a Gaithersburg church hall, Alex Jeffrey described how his life had wound through opioid addiction to ongoing recovery and to his current work helping addicts.

But then he paused and added, “This public speaking is different. My mom works here,” he said, introducing family members in the audience. “Without their support, I wouldn’t be here today.”

Then after embracing her son, Christine Jeffrey addressed the people gathered at St. Rose of Lima Parish in Gaithersburg, where she serves as director of liturgy and adult faith formation.

“My son was lost and then was found,” she said.

The April panel discussion at the parish on “The Opioid Epidemic: Our Community, Our Concern,” included a Montgomery County police officer, a psychiatrist who has worked in addiction treatment, a nurse, and a mother who lost her son to an opioid addiction. And helping to bring the crisis home were Christine Jeffrey and her son Alex.

Christine Jeffrey recounted the chaos and shame experienced by her family as her son’s life spiraled downward. “It took me a long time to realize it was a sickness.”

Then they confronted him after realizing warrants were out for his arrest and told him they would turn him in if he didn’t. He did turn himself in. “I needed consequences,” he said.

After being jailed and receiving treatment, “through the grace of God, Alex decided to stay clean,” said his mother. “…We are lucky. Alex is still with us.”

The St. Rose staff member decided to work with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington in hosting the event, after reading in the Catholic Standard newspaper about a similar panel held this past fall at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Derwood, where the pastor, Father John Dillon, said he was spurred to hold the gathering after presiding at funerals of young parishioners who had died of opioid overdoses.

“We are in the midst of an opioid epidemic. It affects members of our community and our St. Rose community,” Christine Jeffrey said in opening the meeting at her parish. “Our hope is that in sharing our stories, we can be a support to one another.”

About 70 people attended the St. Rose panel discussion, and picked up resources at 12 tables from community groups serving addicts and their families.

“We need to shine a light on it,” said Alex Jeffrey, who now works as a peer recovery coordinator for the Montgomery County Police Department’s STEER (Stop, Triage, Engage, Educate and Rehabilitate) program for addicts, their family members and friends. He said his goal in sharing his story is to put a spotlight on the opioid crisis, which in the first nine months of 2017 led to 1,501 deaths in Maryland. According to the Centers for Disease Control, opioids killed more than 42,000 people across the United States in 2016.

“This is happening here,” he said. “The biggest thing you can do is educate yourself to the signs of addiction and (available) resources.”

Alex Jeffrey, who is 30, introduced himself as a recovering addict. He noted that he grew up in St. Rose of Lima Parish, had a loving family and a great childhood. When his peers started trying alcohol and marijuana, he did too. Later he tried OxyContin, a prescription pain medication, and he said by the time high school was ending, “I was an IV heroin addict… My parents saw a change in me. I’d steal from family and friends and shoplift.”

From the age of 18 to his early 20s, Jeffrey estimates that he went in about eight different in- and out-patient programs or sober houses. Ultimately after turning himself in and being jailed at the Clarksburg Correctional Facility, he decided to stick with his treatment and commit himself to changing his life.

Earlier, Sherif Almiggabber, a community engagement officer with the Montgomery County Police Department, noted how one gram of pure fentanyl is equivalent to 100 grams of street heroin. “This stuff really can kill you,” he said, noting that opioid use and addiction has no boundaries and affects every socioeconomic class and demographic group.

Susan Troxel, a nurse who works in the addiction field, noted, “This is a disease. It’s not about a moral failing or about being weak-willed.”

Roxanne Wood, a member of St. John Neumann Parish in Gaithersburg, said her family’s life changed forever in March 2015, when her husband Don found their son Donnie dead from an opioid overdose. He had been a multi-sport athlete in high school and had many friends.

“My faith, my family and my friends helped me get through the next weeks, months and three years,” she said.

Since then, she and her husband have dedicated their lives to erasing the stigma of addiction and helping parents face that issue. “I think education is the number one thing you can do, educate yourself and your children,” she said, adding, “…If you suspect your child is using, get help!”

Wood added, “Families are crucial in getting addicts to treatment, but they can’t do it for them.”

She takes consolation in something she did right. “Donnie knew I loved him, and I know he loved me.”

As Wood spoke, she wore a button with the name of the S.O.U.L. (Surviving our Ultimate Loss) support group that she and four other mothers founded after losing their children to addictions. Underneath the button was a laminated photo of her son. Now the support group has 40 women as members.

Wood believes, “The Catholic Church will be key in educating and providing support to families as we deal with this epidemic.”

Christine Jeffrey said now her family celebrates two birthdays for her son Alex: Feb. 23, when he was born, and June 26, when he became clean five years ago.

From personal experience, she believes that for addicts and their families, “there should not be shame and guilt, but rather love and support. We need to support family members and walk with those who’ve lost loved ones, and above all, pray” for them.

As a follow-up to the panel discussion, St. Rose of Lima Parish, which is located at 11701 Clopper Road, will be starting a family support group on the fourth Wednesday of each month from 7-9 p.m. beginning June 27 for people affected by the opioid crisis. For information, she can be reached at [email protected] .