PORTLAND, Maine — She endured years of troubles, heartaches, courtrooms and counselors while trying to help her son regain a safe, sober life.
Now Massachusetts resident Mary Gibson wants to spread a message about the horrors of heroin addiction, because her son, Andrew Gibson, 21, was found dead April 11 at his Cumberland Avenue apartment.
“It is not a flowery story,” Gibson said. “My son was a drug addict and a heroin addict.”
Police and the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency are investigating Andrew Gibson’s death, and staff at the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said it may be three more weeks before his official cause of death is determined.
But his mother already knows.
“He hadn’t even taken the needle out of his arm,” Gibson said.
Andrew Gibson arrived in Portland less than a year ago, seeking sobriety. He stayed first at Skip Murphy’s, a network of sober houses in the city.
Ryan Gagne, Skip Murphy’s director of operations, said he knew Gibson for several years. They met at another recovery center, one of nine treatment programs Gibson tried.
“When he was in recovery, I got to experience what some people would say was the real Andrew,” Gagne said. “He was quiet, starting to take care of himself, going to the gym. He was a guy that really never had any behavioral issues, and he spoke with a great deal of honesty.”
Growing up outside Boston, Andrew’s drug problems began when he was an adolescent, his mother said. At 13 he was smoking marijuana three or four times a day. He eventually moved on to the prescription painkiller, Percocet.
“When he realized he couldn’t afford them, he was turned on to heroin,” Gibson said.
Andrew’s parents had divorced, and his mother was raising him, seeing the consuming horrors of addiction, and Andrew’s remarkable qualities when he was sober.
“I’ve seen him dope sick, violently shaking, like I would never have wanted to see my son,” she said. “Privately I thought, ‘How am I keeping this together?’ But I could not give up on him. I knew deep down he did not want to be a heroin addict.”
The charter school he graduated from in 2012 helped, Gibson said.
“Teachers applauded him and he felt like he was worth something,” she said. But he could not escape his addiction.
Andrew was arrested in 2014 in Massachusetts on drug distribution and possession charges, Gibson said. He was carrying 19 grams of heroin, but the distribution charges were dropped and he got probation for the possession charge.
“Even in court, he was a respectful young man,” she said. “He didn’t have the look of an addict, and the judges knew it.”
After living at Skip Murphy’s, Andrew found his own apartment in Portland in January and was cooking at a local restaurant. Gagne and Gibson said he was always on hand to offer peer support to other recovering addicts. His own health was returning, too.
“Physically, he looked and felt great, having gained back some weight that he lost when he was on dope,” Gibson said.
She does not know why her son relapsed, but she said she knew something was wrong when he did not call her on April 10.
“Andrew and I texted or spoke daily, she said. “I got in the car before I even called the police. I knew he was gone, I felt it.”
Toxicology test results are not yet available, but Gibson is convinced her son overdosed on a batch of heroin laced with fentanyl, also an opioid. Law enforcement officials in Maine have noted the frequent use of fentanyl in heroin to cut its purity.
“These dealers are now selling a toxic concoction,” Gibson said, adding she was happy to provide detectives with the name of someone she suspected of supplying the drugs.
“I had no problem doing that. We are at a point where this is killing a generation. This won’t stop unless we become vigilantes,” she said.
Gibson is so grateful to Skip Murphy’s she wants to endow a fund to help recovering addicts who might not otherwise be able to stay there. She also praised law enforcement officials for being attentive and compassionate as they investigate her son’s death.
Yet no matter how much the city helped her son, she said danger was always present.
“Portland became a great recovery center, but from what I’ve learned, the best recovery center is where drug dealers descend,” she said. “Where there is a recovery, there is relapse.”
Gagne said too few families confront the problem the way Gibson is confronting her son’s addiction and death.
“There are no words to describe the sadness of losing somebody to this,” he said. “If you walk into the room and say somebody has cancer, the family does not stand up and say, ‘That is not possible.’”
Gibson said she needs to speak plainly about her loss, even though she knows recovery — and relapse — was ultimately in the hands of her son.
“I hate that my son was an addict, I think he hated he was an addict,” she said. “People have to realize what a poison it is. It is not an epidemic anymore, it is a plague. It is merciless.”