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Steve Flairty’s Everyday Heroes: After loss, Charlotte Wethington became an advocate

Charlotte Wethington was motivated to become an advocate for recovery by her son's death in 2002.


Looking back, Charlotte Wethington can still see an image of her young son on his favorite choice of recreation, the skateboard, gyrating joyfully around the family’s northern Kentucky neighborhood in Atwood.

She remembers the times that Casey made her nervous; he would take a few too many chances and make himself a little danger prone. But hey, he was a kid, and kids take chances, don’t they? She recalls, too, what Casey’s counselor said about him when he was a junior in high school: “He’s a kid who’ll walk on the edge, but not go over the edge.”

This was a big relief for Charlotte since, after all, he was a counselor and she was just a mom.

Fast forward several years, where on Aug. 19, 2002, Casey Wethington, son of Charlotte and Jim Wethington, died of a heroin overdose at University Hospital in Cincinnati. The bitter news came after what seemed an eternity as young Casey fought a long, unrelenting and robust battle with his disease. He really wanted to win, but his damaged brain and distorted thinking made it impossible. In the end, the ugly, unforgiving scourge of drug addiction had claimed another victim.

It was, of course, senseless and needless, but understandable, if you accept a quote Charlotte shared from research she did on the subject: “Drug addiction is like dancing with a five-hundred pound gorilla, and when the gorilla wants to dance, you dance.”

Now, more than a decade after Casey’s death, Wethington has her own version of the dance with the gorilla, one that deals with the feeling that won’t go away — the pain resulting from the loss of her son — and her desire to do anything possible to ward off such tragedy that may beset someone else’s life. In that regard, she is a full-time recovery advocate for Transitions, Inc.

Charlotte speaks at locations such as prisons, churches, schools and civic organizations around the state. And most notably since Casey’s death, she spearheaded the drive to pass, in 2004, “The Matthew Casey Wethington Act for Substance Abuse Intervention,” often called “Casey’s Law.” The law, effective in Kentucky, allows for involuntary treatment on the court order of a judge for those who have a substance-use disorder and because of their disease are unable to choose treatment on their own. The enactment of the important statute took less time than expected, being introduced only twice in the General Assembly.

For her, the passage of the bill was bittersweet. It came too late for Casey, the young man whose life and death inspired the law.

Charlotte, who retired from public education in 1998 after spending twenty-seven years as an elementary school teacher in Kenton County, first noticed Casey’s struggles when he was a freshman at Simon Kenton High School, in Independence.

“I noticed his mood swings, and I wanted to believe that it was just normal, adolescent teen behavior,” she said. “He had lots of lows. But we found out later Casey was depressed because he was ‘using’…smoking pot, which makes you lethargic and causes you to lose interest in life.”

Somehow, Casey and his parents muddled through challenging high school years through his graduation in 1997. Casey then enrolled at the University of Cincinnati while staying home and commuting. Seemingly, the situation with Casey and drugs improved, as he made the dean’s list as a freshman. A sense of hope teased Charlotte, as often happens to those who are around the misuse of substances.

But then, Casey decided that he would move out of the Wethington home and to a place closer to UC and friends. It was not, on the surface, an unusual move. He was a young person who simply wanted more independence. At least, that was Charlotte and Jim Wethington’s greatest wish.

But after Casey’s move outside the family home, things went downhill quickly.

He visited home on occasion, but the stays were inexplicably short. For Casey, there was a more urgent matter on which to focus than the family he loved—his brain, actually a changed brain coming as a result of his drug use. Charlotte explained it this way: “Drugs act on the reward center of the brain. They ‘hijack’ the brain, changing the way a person thinks and acts. The brain drives the train.”

Going into that period, Charlotte said she was “uninformed” when it came to the knowledge of her beloved Casey’s struggle against an enemy with such overwhelming power. She knows now that drug addiction is a disease, “a socially unacceptable disease, one that will not be cured by jail. Incarceration is not treatment.”

She remembered things Casey said, such as “I want to get off drugs so I can come home and stay longer.” Then, the frustration when he didn’t. At one point, he admitted: “Mom, I’m on OxyContin.” She also recalled a shocking question he asked her on an occasion she visited him at a particularly low time: “Where do you live?” He realized his mother was living “in a box” and not able to see the reality or realize the gravity of the situation. She was in a place called “denial.” Getting there was easy. It was much harder to leave.

Casey was in and out of the hospital as he overdosed. He spent six days in a rehabilitation center in Falmouth, and left because he could—he was 18.

He once was arrested in Indiana for possession of marijuana. He died in Cincinnati’s University Hospital, August 2002, a victim of a heroin overdose. Other than the relatively short time Casey spent at the Falmouth treatment center, there was no serious effort to rehabilitate him through any kind of authoritative action. No law was on the books to force the issue with Casey, who wanted to get better, by his own words, but needed far more support than his own efforts could muster.

Charlotte, in her own words, became a “mom on a mission.” Her daily life took on a new dynamism devoted to helping prevent such future tragedies. “When Casey died, an advocate was born,” she said. Her heart was poised for action, but she had no definite path to follow. “I was like a loose cannon shooting off in all directions.”

A plan began to come together as she gathered information and joined with key supporters. With the help of two other mothers, one of Charlotte’s first actions was to form a grief support group called P.E.A.C.E. (Parents Enduring Addiction Consequences), a good start. Soon, her focus became passage of the aforementioned Casey’s Law. State Representative Tom Kerr and Charlotte worked together on a bill proposal in Kentucky’s General Assembly that would allow individuals to petition the courts to have those dealing with substance use disorders—and all their harmful consequences—to be required to enter a drug treatment program. It would be similar to laws committing those with severe mental illness for treatment. The bill was introduced by Kerr in the 2003 legislative session, where it died before getting out of committee. But persistence paid off, when in 2004, Casey’s Law became a Kentucky statute.

Because of the law, parents, relatives, and/or friends who have a loved one with a substance use disorder—at least now—have legal means to help stop a tragedy from happening, regardless of their loved one’s age and without criminal charges.

Today, Charlotte carries her ceaseless devotion to slowing down the dance of the five hundred pound gorilla–to a high level. Her position as a recovery advocate at Transitions, Inc., is her base and springboard. She regularly answers an ever increasing number of desperate calls from family members seeking help for their loved ones, which often includes information about Casey’s Law. She speaks before groups locally as well as all around Kentucky on an average of fifteen to twenty times a year.

She is a vital part of a cable TV show called “Feeling Better.” As host of the show, she attempts to dispel myths and misconceptions about mental health and substance-use disorders. She has had important leadership positions in groups called People Advocating recovery and the Alcoholism Council of the Cincinnati Area. “It has been an incredible journey,” said Charlotte, who has driven over a hundred thousand miles and clocked more than three hundred hours in drug addiction-related conferences, often as a speaker.

Her efforts, along with others, seem to be helping. “We have many documented cases of Casey’s Law’s effectiveness,” she said, “and a similar law in Ohio was just passed. I’m beginning to feel a little more optimistic about the way things are going.”

But even with glints of hope in the fight against the problem, it’s only in the beginning stages. Charlotte Wethington has the motivation to see the enemy defeated, she says, “for as long as I’m on this planet.”

Steve Flairty is a lifelong Kentuckian, a teacher, public speaker and an author of four books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and three in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series. All of Steve’s books are available around the state or from the author. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly as well as being a weekly KyForward contributor. Watch his KyForward columns for excerpts from all his books. This story is from Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #3, due to be released in early 2013. His most recent book, Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes for Kids is now available at local bookstores. Or contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or “friend” him on Facebook.

To read more of Steve Flairty’s Everyday Heroes stories, click here.

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