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Getting up in front of the winter’s Clackamas County Drug Court graduating class, Gail Simmons brought a duffle bag with a few props inside and told them how important today was because her son was looking forward to his graduation with the rest of them. She then said, “Here he is,” and she took Strobehn’s urn out of the bag and held it up. “And all his friends wanted to be here, too. They were friends that he was with daily.”


Photo Credit: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Christopher Rian Strobehn and his mother, Gail Simmons, are shown at a family wedding in 2009. Simmons says she didnt know it at the time, but looking at the photos now, she can tell her son was high on heroin at the event.Simmons then removed his heroin spoon, along with some foil and a needle that could be used to shoot heroin, and held them up for the crowd as his “friends.” The room filled with gasps from the crowd.

Simmons lost her only child, Oregon City resident Christopher Rian Strobehn, from his heroin addiction Oct. 27, 2012; he was 30 years old when he died.

An Oregon City resident herself, Simmons didn’t know where to start in describing her anguish, grief and pain that “is so real, so exhausting ... (and) still on the surface” from a loss more than two years ago.

“Teach me how to forgive those who played a part in his death,” she said. “Teach me how to forgive myself for the times I enabled him. Please God. I begged my family so often to not do drugs with my son.”

As far as Simmons knows, Strobehn’s struggles with addiction started at age 14 when he smoked marijuana in his cousin’s apartment on Southeast Powell Boulevard. Since her son’s death, Simmons heard her sister provided him with alcohol often at the age of 10. Simmons’ older brother invited an underage Strobehn to come over and use illegal drugs. When her son came home stoned, Simmons called them and “ripped them apart,” she recalls.

“I told them they were over 18 and how dare they do this with my child,” Simmons said. “I begged and pleaded with my sisters and brothers for years to not do drugs with my child.”

Simmon’s brother died of complications from drug-and-alcohol addiction on Mothers Day 2012. When her son died five months later, Simmons never recovered from her surprise at seeing Clackamas County Circuit Court Judge Kathie F. Steele at the memorial service. Simmons and Steele had never spoken before, but Simmons had been in Steele’s courtroom on several occasions when Strobehn was mandated to appear.

Thinking that Strobehn could be a heroin addict who could still turn his life around, Steele had spared him jail time, and instead mandated that he complete a yearlong drug rehab program through the state.

“He was a very nice man and a good kid to sit and chat with,” Judge Steele recalled of Strobehn in a recent interview. “He certainly had struggled and had not done well for a long time, and we knew that was happening. ... He got mad at me a lot, but that was typical, and we kept trying to make things work. If he had managed to hang on, he probably would have turned things around for himself.”

At the memorial service, Steele requested Simmons’ phone number and asked if she could call the next day. During the promised phone call, Steele asked if Simmons would be willing to be the guest speaker for the Clackamas County Drug Court graduating class to be held Jan. 14, 2013. Simmons agreed on the premise that she could say what she needed to say as a mother whose child did not make it.

Simmons faced a silent and tearful crowd as she finished her story:

“My brother would often say, ‘Gail, it’s none of your business what Christopher and I do together, he’s over 18.’ They are in heaven together,” Simmons said. “I know that is where they are. ... They are entertaining everyone. They were both funny, witty, sociable and very loved by their families. I am left here living through hell.”

Raising awareness

Simmons is doing her best to avoid being consumed by her own grief. By sharing her story publicly, she hopes to turn around the lives of other heroin addicts. Before it’s too late, other families may intervene in the lives of their addicted relatives after they recognize parallels between Simmons’ story and their own.

Additionally, Simmons helped spread the word about the effects of heroin. She was part of a group that has grown to more than 20 advocates nationally since its August 2014 founding by a pair of Facebook friends in Wyoming and Indiana. Knowing that in the U.S. there are more drug-abuse deaths than from automobile accidents (about 33,000 annually), the advocates are volunteering their time for the organization that so far has no paid positions.

They’re currently on a fundraising crusade to get Naloxone (Narcan) in the hands of every police officer and in every school’s nurse’s station throughout the United States. Naloxone is a prescription drug that acts as a heroin antidote, reversing the effects of opioids in an addict’s body. The product brings the person back around for 30 to 45 minutes, until an ambulance arrives.

Starting a local Raising Heroin Education group has given Simmons a way to escape the stigma of being a parent who lost a child to heroin. Since his death, Simmons has lost close friends and her role as matriarch of the family. All holidays used to be celebrated at her house.

“Now I barely have contact with my family. It hurts deeply,” Simmons said.

But she has “a new loving, caring family,” and she calls Raising Heroin Education “the best thing” she’s ever brought into her life. Through the group, she’s organizing walk/run on June 27; more details will be released at the group’s website, heroinawareness.education.

“I will not hide anymore. I will be instrumental in saving lives with this group of people,” Simmons said. “For the sad truth is each one of us has already lost someone to heroin. Two of our advocates lost sons at 19 years of age.”

Intense treatment

Simmons said her son’s verbal abuse worsened as his drug addiction became worse over the years. What started with pot led Strobehn to meth and pills, and ended with heroin.

It was February 2008 when Strobehn’s wife made Simmons aware of his heroin addiction. Retired and living in Ocean Park, Wash., at the time, a shocked Simmons told her husband of 26 years that she was moving back to Oregon City to help her.

“My husband was visibly upset, and telling me to think this out before taking off,” Simmons said.

Her husband nevertheless helped her pack her bags and remains her supportive partner fighting heroin to this day. Simmons still recalled a “tunnel” she had to go through on the way back to Oregon City: “I remember feeling dark, enclosed, frightened and alone, ... wondering what I would find on the other side.”

Upon her arrival at Strobehn’s house, Simmons found needles, spoons and foil everywhere: “It was gut wrenching. I didn’t even know what heroin looked like, ... let alone my son using it.”

Judge Steele is grateful to Simmons for coming to talk with the folks at the Drug Court graduation.

“We were very glad she did that, because it was very moving,” Steele said. “She said some things that I was very grateful got said, and they’re not always said so explicitly.”

Steele says it’s amazing when people successfully complete her program because when they come into Clackamas County’s drug court, they have a documented drug history of more than 10 years.

“We’re getting the worst of the worst, saving taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year because they don’t keep re-offending,” Steele said. “We want these people to succeed and, quite often, they do succeed.”

Society doesn’t want addicts committing crimes like stealing to support their habits or driving under the influence, Steele said. Drug addiction itself is a valid and accepted medical diagnosis, so it is a disease according to all of the medical fields. Steele sometimes sentences people to a rehab program rather than jail.

“It is an incredibly intense treatment program, whether it is outpatient or inpatient,” Steele said. “A lot of people don’t understand heroin or other addictions as a disease, and anything we can teach people about that is to the advantage of all of us. People who are in the middle of their addiction do not think about their lives or the lives of their family members. All they’re thinking about is their next fix. They do not realize how far their addictions have taken them.”

Steele is a firm believer that some people have to hit bottom for them to realize that’s not the way they want to live their lives.

“We use jail to encourage people to ask, ‘Is it something I really want to do with the rest of my life?’ or they might want more to life than a drug addiction,” Steele said. “Do I like sending people to jail? No, I don’t. Do some people deserve to go to jail? Yes, of course.”

Those heroin leaves behind

Simmons will always be grateful to Steele for her toughness and compassion in equal measure. Steele touched Simmons’ heart by attending Strobehn’s memorial service and inviting Simmons to speak at Strobehn’s would-be Drug Court graduation. An example of Steele’s toughness was the day Strobehn so proudly told her he was going to be a father. She replied, “You are not a father. ... You are nothing but a sperm donor!”

This quote was transcribed by Simmons, but Steele verified that it seems like something she might say, although she doesn’t recall the exchange. Steele often responds to people with drug charges who try to justify their parole with their willingness to be parents.

“You have to be off drugs in order to be a parent,” Steele said.

Simmons said she never would have done drugs with children, and she doesn’t do drugs of any kind. “It has devastated and destroyed my family. I need to stay alert and aware. I need to be educated. I have precious grandchildren to protect. I will go to any length.”

Just after Strobehn was found dead at one of his drug-addict friend’s houses, his widow came to her mother-in-law distraught and afraid. As they consoled each other, Simmons remembers sobbing and telling her that she “would very well understand if she walked away.” Strobehn had met his future wife at 14, and they had been together for 16 years.

“I love her so much, and thank God for her every day,” Simmons said of her daughter-in-law. “She was the only sanity and happiness my son felt in his life. I can never repay her for having endured the pain she did for so many years. She tried to help him through this horrible disease. She is the mother of my grandchildren. I cannot tell you how much I love her and am thankful my son had her.”

She and her daughter-and-law, who is a Kaiser nurse, are working to get a Portland-area hospital to host classes for training people in the proper injection of Naloxone. Strobehn left behind “two precious grandchildren” for Simmons, who vows to work tirelessly to make sure the 1-year-old and 3-year-old understand that heroin addiction is a disease.