Eian and Owen Farchmin often felt like the grown-ups in their family.
For most of their young lives, they’d watched their groggy parents stumble through their days.
When they were toddlers, they were left behind at day care, forgotten. At home, Eian often had to make dinner — uncooked hot dogs, Fruity Pebbles, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches — because their parents were “sleeping.”
By the time Eian was 13 and Owen was 10, they’d developed a constant fear that they would lose one or both of their parents to drugs.
On Aug. 27, their fears came true.
Their mother, Shari Glomski, died at age 33. Probable cause: an opioid overdose.
Children of addicts like Eian and Owen are the unseen collateral damage of the ongoing opioid epidemic — described as the worst drug crisis in U.S. history. The number of overdose deaths involving opioids has quadrupled since 1999, federal health data show. Last year in Minnesota, the number of drug overdose deaths was nearly six times higher than it was in 2000.
As a result, many children have been orphaned, sent to live in foster homes or with relatives. Those who stay with addicted parents learn to fend for themselves, living with fear, anxiety and depression. They often develop behavior and learning problems in school and have a hard time forming trusting relationships.
Eian and Owen, who live with their grandparents in Oconomowoc, Wis., are still deeply grieving their mother. But while they’ve lost one parent to addiction, they’re hopeful they’ll soon get their father back into their daily lives.
Alex Farchmin, 34, recently finished a 15-month treatment program in Minneapolis. He’s working at a maintenance job in Buffalo, Minn., and trying to build a home for himself and his sons.
Battered but resilient, Eian and Owen hope that they’ll be reunited with their dad and live together as a family.
“The boys are doing well,” said their legal guardian, Laura Bertram, Alex’s mom. “They’ve reached a level of calm. Their grieving is more often a level of sadness now.”
Until the end of this school year, Eian and Owen will likely stay with their grandparents. So for now, the boys settle for Skype visits with their dad and monthly trips to Buffalo to reconnect.
Bertram, too, is hopeful. Hopeful that her son can beat the odds, stay clean and create a stable home for himself and his kids.
“Alex is really key here,” she said. “He will be the person who can give them as close to a normal life as possible. They knew him as an addict before. They don’t even know what they’re in for now — he’s a very good person.”
Chaos and security blankets
Eian was just an infant when Alex, a roofing business owner, fell off a roof, shattering his right hand — and his livelihood.
Unable to work and hampered by lingering pain from surgery and arthritis, he was prescribed 30 milligrams of oxycodone four times a day — an amount that even he thought was excessive.
Alex, like his wife, had long struggled with drugs and alcohol. Painkillers provided immediate relief — and another, even stronger hook.
Opioids can be highly addictive because they stimulate reward pathways in the brain. They also have a high potential to be abused and to lead to an overdose.
“They’re drugs that deliver a punch for almost everyone,” said Carol Falkowski, an expert on drug abuse trends in Minnesota. “They take you to that happy place. They make you feel good. They make you not care if you have pain.”
When his doctors cut off his painkillers after six months, Alex turned to heroin. It was a cheaper fix and easy to get.
After Owen was born in 2006, Alex and Shari were both using drugs and struggling to support their family. Money was tight, with Alex and Shari working off and on. Grandma Laura often stepped in to pay for heat and other bills.
After Alex and Shari split up, the kids bounced around several small Wisconsin towns, from their mother’s place to their dad’s to their grandparents’.
Through it all, the one constant for them was their blankets. Owen carried one that used to belong to his dad, calling it “the Daddy blanket.” Eian snagged his mom’s blanket. The blankets, the boys said, gave them some sense of security.
One day, Bertram stopped by the home in Fort Atkinson, Wis., where Alex was living and found a bin full of used syringes.
She packed up the boys’ belongings and told her son that the boys weren’t coming back until he was sober.
Eian was 7, and Owen was 4.
They’ve been living with their Grandma Laura and her husband, Jerry Bertram, ever since.
In late September, Grandma Laura drove the well-worn path from Oconomowoc to the Twin Cities so the kids could see their dad.
Although it was the second time in a week that she’d made the four-plus-hour trip, she’d promised Owen he could join his dad in a 5K walk to honor his mother. Known as the 5K Freedom From Addiction Run/Walk, it was organized by the Minnesota Adult & Teen Challenge treatment program helping Alex.
Held at Harriet Island in St. Paul, the 5K drew hundreds of people in the treatment program and their supporters. For Owen, who’s outgoing, it was an ideal way to grieve the loss of his mom. Eian chose to stay behind. His mother’s birthday — Sept. 22 — was one day before the 5K.
Although the walk was for his mom, it also gave Owen some time with his father.
“Dad, can I have a piggyback ride?” he asked, complaining that his feet hurt. Alex didn’t hesitate. He lowered his 6-foot-5-inch frame as Owen happily climbed on.
After the 5K, there was a balloon release for people who died from addiction.
Owen took a bright blue balloon and a black marker. He drew a heart shape on it and the words, “I love you, Mom.”
With his dad, Owen made his way to a large net holding all the balloons carrying messages for lost loved ones. When the balloons were released, Owen lifted his eyes toward the sky. He watched as the balloons broke free from the net, rising higher and higher until, at last, they disappeared.
The children of opioid addicts are typically the first hurt and the last helped, said Jerry Moe, national director of children’s programs for the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Since it was started 20 years ago, the percentage of families in the program touched by opioid abuse has grown from less than 10 percent to about 25 percent, Moe said.
The greatest effects of the opioid crisis on children, he said, include more grandparents raising grandchildren and more young children attending funerals for their parents.
In Minnesota and elsewhere, the epidemic’s effects on children are widespread and often overlooked.
“It’s huge and nobody’s talking about it,” Falkowski said.
Sometimes, when Eian needs help processing his feelings, he talks to Ray Kinney, a child psychotherapist in Oconomowoc whom Eian has been seeing for a few years.
Eian, whom Kinney calls “a wise old soul,” first came to him when he was struggling in school. But it soon became clear that his home life was the problem, not school.
Kinney said that when children lose the “affection and the nurturing and the guidance” of their parents, they often lose trust in all adults. “Of course with children, depression and sadness and confusion often come out in behavior problems,” he said.
With Kinney, Eian is working through his biggest, deep-seated fear: that he will lose his dad now, too.
Lately, the counseling sessions have focused on the seesaw of intense emotions Eian is experiencing — sorrow over his mother’s recent death and elation over his father’s newfound sobriety.
“Eian is a very smart guy. He knows a lot about addiction. And as much as he knew about it, the first thing he said to me was, ‘I should’ve been able to save her,’ ” Kinney said. “He knew that wasn’t really true. But that’s one of the most devastating things to hear from a 13-year-old.
“And we’ve talked through that, and we’ll continue to talk through that. Because this is a very kind and compassionate guy with a heart bigger than Dallas.”
A new beginning
On Sept. 29, Alex was set to graduate from the Minnesota Adult & Teen Challenge treatment program.
Accompanied by their grandparents and great aunts, Eian and Owen arrived early at the Minneapolis church where the ceremony was taking place. When they saw their dad looking alert, well-groomed and healthy, Eian leaned into him for a hug. His dad embraced him and reached down to smooth the boy’s shaggy hair.
The family settled into a pew as the program began. One by one, the graduates spoke about their journey from addiction to recovery. When it was Alex’s turn, he thanked the treatment center staff and his family for sticking with him.
“My kids were a big inspiration to me,” he said. “I learned a lot from them. When I came into this program, I think they were more mature than I was at that point. … This was very, very tough.”
Alex received his certificate, and Owen and Eian jumped to their feet to give their father a standing ovation.
As the claps and cheers filled the sanctuary, tears welled up in Eian’s eyes.
For the first time in a long while, it looked like his father was going to make it — and so, too, might he and his brother.