'(We) thought we were winning ... in the end we lost'

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Pictures of her son and a book she gave him as a child lie on Debbi Danner's kitchen table as she recounts the life of her eldest son, Jason, who died of a heroin overdose last month. (Lebanon Voice/Harrison Thorp photo)

ROCHESTER - About five years ago when Jason Danner got clean the third time, he was so proud of himself, he wanted to become a counselor to help others get clean.

But it wasn’t to be.

Jason Danner may have won the battle with heroin addiction, but he lost the war. He died last month at the age of 30 on what police suspect was a bad batch of the drug finding its way through New Hampshire and Maine with devastating effects.

Then again, “There’s no such thing as a safe batch,” said Debbi Danner, who saw her son fight the heroin demons for more than a decade.

The last time Jason went through detox was the toughest, she said.

“It was in Somersworth,” she said. “The rehab lasted a year. It got to the point where he lost his job, because he had to dose (on a synthetic, safer alternative drug) every morning. He had to wait in line for the dose and he was late for work. The third time he was late they fired him. That was five years ago.”

Since that time he’d been clean, she said, at least in her mind.
“You never really know,” she said. “But he looked good, he was healthy.”

Then last year around Christmas he got another job and was beginning to turn his life around again, she said.

Jason Danner (Courtesy photo)

She guesses now that he may have started using again after that, but when he overdosed on June 23 she was taken totally by surprise.

When Frisbie EMTs got the call around noon and found him in his apartment, his heart had already stopped beating, no one knows for exactly how long.

“They got it going, then it stopped two more times in the ambulance and again when they arrived at the hospital.

“They put him into a coma and iced him hoping to save the brain stem, so when they brought his temperature down, they would have more brain activity,” his mom said.

Then began a vigil of family and friends that lasted an excruciating week.

“On Wednesday they came and told us it was hopeless,” Debbi Danner said. “On Friday they pulled the plug. We were hoping he would be able to donate his organs, but he would’ve had to have died the first hour after they pulled the plug. His heart didn’t stop till Monday (June 30).

Looking back on the pain and sadness, Debbi Danner lovingly touches pictures of her son and a children’s book titled, “Love You Forever” she gave him when he was a boy.

“I gave both my sons books and when I’d give them one, I’d write all over the inside cover about how I loved them. And whenever me and Jason would say good-bye, we’d always say, ‘Love you forever.’ Unconditional. No matter what.”

Jason Danner didn’t start using drugs until after high school. He started off with prescription pain medications like Oxycodone, his mom sad.

“He told me he had friends who could buy it from cancer patients, there was endless amounts,” Debbi Danner said. “Then they would crush and snort it.”

But then the supplies dried up and Oxycodone got really expensive. Heroin was cheap.

Then Jason got fired from his first job where he had become a manager. His mom said it wasn’t his fault and he took it hard.

She thinks that’s when he used the first time. And he got hooked.

At first he didn’t have to shoot up every day. But then after a while, he did.

In all Debbi Danner helped her son through three detoxes.

“I would meet his counselors, I’d go to the appointments,” she said. “It was a long road.”

Throughout the decade of Jason’s heroin addiction, Debbi Danner said she became increasingly frustrated with a system that makes social services available for the poor, like TANF, food stamps and housing, but had virtually nothing to help her son and/or the people trying to help him through his addiction.

“One thing that was the hardest, Frank (Jason’s dad and her former husband) and I neither had the means (to pay for treatment),” she said. “We were financially strapped, yet there were no resources to help my son.

“Unless you have money, with heroin addiction, there is nothing out there to help you,” she said, a trace of bitterness in her voice. “I went online, I called everybody in this whole freaking world I could think of for somebody who would take him in, do inpatient rehab, anything to help me out.

“I wasn’t qualified to treat him. All I could do was my best. All we could do was be there; sometimes that’s not enough.”

She said at times she felt so helpless.

“I didn’t know any way to keep him from starting. I couldn’t find anybody to help me, teach me how to help him. As a teenager I smoked a little dope, but I don’t know how to help somebody with this.”

Jason Danner, known as Captain Red Beard for his fiery facial hair, had lots of friends, his mom said.

“There were people I didn’t even know who came up to me at his funeral to say they worked with him and how nice he was,” she said sitting at a kitchen table in her apartment on a quiet side street near the Rochester Commons. “There must have been a hundred people at his funeral.”

“He was such a good boy,” she said. “He had a heart of gold. He was always there for his younger brother (who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome) without hesitation. He’d get him on the bus, off the bus.”

Debbi Danner now knows heroin addiction is a deep, dark tunnel from which there may be no escape.

But that doesn’t mean a parent doesn’t try, she says.

A line in his obituary published earlier this month sums up his family’s profound sorrow. It reads, “We all tried to help him through his addiction so many times throughout the years and sometimes thought we were winning; but in the end we lost.”

Back in her apartment she gives one final note of advice for other parents who may be dealing with a child’s addiction to heroin.

“Never give up, and keep your eyes open all the time,” she says. “I wish I had spent more time with him.”


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