Ruenheck family channels grief into event for opioid awareness

I sat across from Ceri Ruenheck upstairs at the General Store next to a window overlooking the Common. She put her Kleenex on the table and laid out the rules—we would not talk about her, and she would not always look at me when she spoke. We were ostensibly meeting to discuss publicity for a memorial pool tournament for her son Justin (Bromfield 2013) at the Ayer Billiards Cafe on Oct. 21, from 4 to 8 p.m., but she talked about so much more: her son’s struggle with opioids, the frustrating attempts to find help for him, and the fact that Harvard is by no means immune to this national crisis. In fact, based on her experience, she believes opioid abuse is prevalent in Harvard.

We started on relatively unemotional ground with Ceri saying that Harvard resident Roy Pastor was instrumental in arranging the pool tournament, and he will run the event at which food, trophies, and prizes will all be included in a $20 admission, and all proceeds will support opioid awareness. She said the event feels right—Justin liked pool; in fact, he had talked about getting his own pool cue. Ceri said she has received donations of food and gift cards from several area restaurants at which her son had been a server, including Il Forno’s, Tavern on the Square and Great Road Kitchen in Littleton; Filho’s in Acton, and Paparazzi in Concord, and also from Mariano’s Ristorante in Pepperell and Bailey’s Bar and Cafe in Townsend. At Justin’s wake, they had all offered to “do whatever,” and she was taking them up on it. Harvard residents Lisa Aciukewicz, Sue George, Christine Wyman, Kelly Bollman, and Meghan Rooney have given auction items connected to their businesses. Many others have donated as well.

Ceri described July 19, the day before Justin’s death, as a beautiful day. She had been testing urine samples, and Justin had been clean for a few months. She and Justin went out to lunch and spent time on the back deck listening to bird calls. She told him that she and her husband were going away for the weekend. Their younger son was off with his girlfriend. She paused, and then said, “And now I know just what he was thinking—‘I’ll just have a little and it will be out of my system by Monday.’”

With quiet grief, she described how she had found him the next day and called 911. Three Harvard police came, followed by a state trooper. Even though she knew the truth in her heart, she was desperate for them to save him. She read later that for a person who’s been off opioids for a time, the first slip requires far less of the drug to be fatal. Drugs are stored in fat cells and can be activated even after months of abstinence.

‘I’ve got a problem’

She recalled how Justin had come to her in December 2016 and said, “I’ve got a problem. I’m hooked on crack and heroin.” She remembers asking him not to shoot heroin and that later someone had told her Justin always said, “I don’t shoot it—it would make my mother cry.” They talked for a long time, in the course of which he told her he could handle it. He would just have a little to mellow out after work. And for a while he did handle it; he continued to hold a job and had a girlfriend; he began working out with weights and a large punching bag to keep his mind off drugs. But then he started staying out later and later and then all night at crack houses in Lowell and Lawrence.

Chad Leoncello uses the late Justin Ruenheck’s big punching bag as an inspiration to those in sober houses and at opioid awareness events. (Courtesy photo)

“I can’t live like this,” Justin told Ceri about a year ago. Then came the frustrating attempts to find help for her son. It was the worst time of my life, she said. “Here I’ve got someone willing to go, and there’s no place.” She had sought help at Emerson Hospital, which had an insurance regulation that stipulated since he had been recently using crack, not heroin, they could evaluate him, but wouldn’t admit him. A place in Worcester had a waiting list of 80 people. They referred him to a detox place in Rhode Island where he spent five days.

Justin told Ceri he couldn’t do a group thing, and instead he wanted to go on a medication-assisted treatment. They found a therapist, but not one who would accept insurance, and so they paid $800 a week for therapy and the medication Suboxone, which is supposed to lessen withdrawal symptoms for 24 hours. He stuck it out for a couple of months, with the therapist wanting him to have a star-chart and $25 for every clean urine test. Justin told Ceri the therapist wouldn’t listen to him, and he was sick of being treated like a child.

Ceri said that in addition to the treatment being degrading, the therapist had told Justin relapse was part of recovery and asked if he wanted to be a weekend user. Ceri went on to say, with further outrage, that all this may have started a few years ago when Justin was given five doses of oxycontin for a bad blister on his hand. She expressed anger and disgust that the same manufacturer that makes oxycontin also makes Suboxone.

By last November, Justin was off heroin but using crack. Ceri bought a testing kit—you can buy anything from Amazon, she said. She and her husband agreed that if Justin messed up once, they would let it go. But they told him if a test was “dirty” after that, he’d have to go into rehab.

Around Easter, he did slip up, and he admitted a test would be dirty. On the last day of June, he gave his phone and computer to Ceri and told her to change the password—“I did crack last night,” he said.

A beautiful day

During July Ceri tested him every day, and things were good. July 19 was that beautiful day. Justin mowed the lawn, bantered with his younger brother, and watched birds with his mom. And the next day Ceri found him dead. They are so backed up in the state medical examiner’s office that she has not heard yet whether the heroin he took had been cut with anything. Justin’s death was the third overdose in Worcester County in 24 hours.

Shortly after Justin’s death, Ceri happened to read an article about Sober Warriors located in Brockton, started by boxer and recovering user Chad Leoncello, that provides boxing equipment and weights to people in sober houses. Ceri met him and gave him some of Justin’s things, among them his big punching bag. Men in sober houses have written their names and dates of sobriety under Justin’s name, and Leoncello takes the bag to awareness events that he runs.

Within a week of Justin’s death, five different people in Harvard shared with Ceri that they have a drug user in their family. One woman reached out to her about her son, a Bromfield grad, who had overdosed several years ago.

Toward the end of our conversation, Ceri was looking out the window—as she did often during our time together. “There’s a hawk circling a tree over there. That last day, Justin and I saw a hawk in the yard and watched it together.”

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