'No words to describe the pain': Peninsula woman hopes her son's story will drive home anti-drug message

Posted: Monday, April 18, 2011

Pat Rhodes decorates her house with meaning.

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Pat Rhodes holds a photo of her son Trenton Crowell in the living room of her home in Kenai last week. Crowell died of a heroin overdose, and now Rhodes is working to raise drug awareness in the community.

Photographs -- some snapped unexpectedly to catch a fleeting moment, some posed and proper, taken with the utmost care -- line the walls, plaster the refrigerator, dominate the bedside tables. Seemingly random objects cluster on shelves and adorn the living room mantle.

In a niche in her bedroom wall, Pat, 59, keeps a pair of tiny brown cowboy boots that belonged to her son, Trenton Crowell, when he was a toddler; they share space with a champagne-style glass from his high school graduation. Pinned up on the bedroom wall nearby is his baseball cap, and a clock, which Trenton sent from Germany, hangs in the dining room.

Trenton's ashes are in a non-descript brown wooden box on the mantle in the corner. He died on October 26, 2009, of a fatal heroin overdose at the age of 31, the culmination of a lifelong struggle with addiction.

Rhodes, who lived in Soldotna for more than three decades before moving to Kenai several years ago, knows that her situation isn't an anomaly in this area. What especially concerns her is the prevalence of youth drug use on the Kenai Peninsula -- her son began experimenting with drugs when he was only in middle school.

"We did everything we thought we could do to keep the boys busy and out of trouble," Pat said, referring to her oldest son and Trenton, who played baseball and KPHA hockey. "I went to every practice, every game, every school event."

She found marijuana in Trenton's bedroom when he was in seventh grade. He shrugged it off, telling her it wasn't a big deal, but she was alarmed and enrolled him with the Cook Inlet Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse (CICADA). His counselor kicked him out after Trenton declared he was never going to quit.

From there Trenton moved on to cocaine, which Pat described as his drug of choice for a long time. He used throughout his high school career at Skyview and Soldotna high schools, trying most everything he could get his hands on. Pat didn't know what to do.

"He told me at one time if I tried to put him into rehab that he would leave and I would never see him again," she said. "And I believed him."

After graduating from SoHi in 1996, Trenton joined the army but was medically discharged after three years due to persistent arthritis. He got a job on the North Slope, which is when Pat suspects he started using heroin. Despite the lucrative position, Trenton never had a dime to his name.

Sometimes he would manage to stay clean for days, weeks, months at a time. When he was sober, Trenton would come to Pat very upset, saying he wanted to quit. But despite her efforts to get him into a rehab facility, he never followed through and would ultimately go on a bender and ruin his streak of sobriety.

Pat would implore her son, why, why start using again after those bouts of success?

"He said, 'Mom, you get the craving, and you tell yourself don't do it, you're going to embarrass yourself, you're going to embarrass your family,'" she recalled. "'And without even realizing it, you're doing it.'"

Trenton lost his job on the Slope after officials at the Anchorage airport found him to be in possession of drug paraphernalia. Pat, who had separated with her husband by that time, sent him down to live with his biological father in Longview, Wash.

Six months later, Pat answered a phone call while she was driving to pick up some friends for lunch. It was her ex-husband, and with the uttering of only a few words, all of Pat's fears were realized.

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On April 8, Soldotna High School played host to the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) graduation. All fifth-graders in Soldotna elementary schools took part in a 10-week program on the dangers of gateway drugs such as marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco. The graduation ceremony preceded an overnight lock-in with plenty of activities, prizes, and food to reward the kids for completing the class.

Pat has donated a bicycle to the DARE program for the last two years in memory of Trenton, so that kids will realize that what the DARE officers are telling them is not just a scare tactic, that the consequences of early drug use are real. The bike is given to an exceptional student, nominated by his or her teacher, who has excelled both in regular classes and in the DARE class.

Soldotna Police Officer Derek Urban is the school resource officer for the department and has taught the DARE class for the past two years. Urban thinks the key to dissuading kids from trying drugs is giving them good information, especially regarding the physical and mental effects of these substances.

"They don't realize what they're doing to their bodies and their brains," he said.

Urban has observed more and more marijuana in the local middle schools lately; so much so that they have by-passed the high schools.

"We've had a fair amount of interception of marijuana at the middle school recently," Kenai Police Investigator Mitch Langseth concurred. "That's what we're seeing in our schools in Kenai: that marijuana is accessible. It's accessible at school, probably because it's accessible at home."

Urban said that prescription pills have caught on at the high school level, because they are odorless and easy to conceal.

Langseth is Kenai's school resource officer and teaches DARE classes at the fifth- and seventh-grade levels. A key point that both Langseth and Urban hit on in their classes in the power of peer pressure.

"The drugs are not going to be offered to you by the dirty guy with tattoos in Anchorage on Fourth Avenue," Langseth said. "It's going to be your best friend at a party, probably when you're 15, 16, 17 years old, saying, 'Come on, try this. I did it and it's really easy.' That's the one that's going to be hard to say no to."

Langseth said he has not encountered cocaine or methamphetamine in the schools during his three-year tenure as the Kenai school resource officer, but that lately KPD has been seizing a lot of methamphetamine outside of the schools -- such as during routine traffic stops -- from people of high school age.

A big part of keeping drugs out of the schools is having a proactive administration, Langseth said.

"I think you're ignorant if you think that, 'Oh, our school doesn't have a drug problem,'" he said, clarifying that he doesn't think any school in particular has an issue, but that people who refuse to be realistic about the possibility of drugs infiltrating the schools just make the problem worse.

Despite schools, administrators, police officers, and parents trying their best to steer kids in the right direction, there are only so many factors that can be controlled. Even the most thorough efforts, like those put forth by Pat when she tried to deter Trenton, can fail.

"As a parent you can give your kids the right choices, you can give your kids the right tools," said Urban. "You can try to keep them on track, but you can't stay with them 24/7."

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Pat saw her son two weeks before he died. She and her current husband took a trip Outside, and on their way back home, stopped in Longview to take Trenton out to lunch. He had been clean for two weeks, and stayed clean for another two before he overdosed on heroin in his father's home.

She flew back down to Washington to see her son's body for the last time before he was cremated, and held a memorial service once she returned to Kenai.

The pictures around Pat's manicured home show a grinning blonde-haired child who grew into a dark-haired, exceedingly thin adult. His face is drawn in some of the more recent photos, but it is apparent he was a handsome man.

Pat still sleeps with her cell phone next to her bed, as Trenton used to call her in the middle of the night when he was working on the Slope. She keeps all the artifacts, the knick-knacks, the things that would seem silly and meaningless to anyone passing through without knowing the history behind them. She doesn't think she will ever be able to get rid of these things.

Friends, family, and acquaintances alike have suggested grief counseling, but Pat doesn't see the point. It won't bring her son back, and it won't mend the heartbreak.

"The only comfort I have gotten is that Trenton doesn't have to fight the addiction any more," she said. "There are no words to describe the pain and heartache."

The youth and adult drug problems in this community are real; Pat maintains that Trenton's story is not one in a million. It isn't an "Oh, that can't happen to me" tale, or something that only happens to kids in big cities, or to kids who are poor, or to kids who are neglected.

"People have no idea how rampant it is here," Pat said, urging parents to pay attention and react immediately if they suspect something is amiss.

Pat has been reproached for her perceived lack of discipline, for not coming down hard enough on Trenton when it mattered most and before things got out of control. She constantly asks herself what she could have done differently; if forcing Trenton into rehab and overcoming the fear of his promised eternal hatred would have changed the course of his life.

"People told me I should use tough love," she said. "I couldn't do it because I couldn't stand the thought of him dying in a ditch cold and hungry.

"So I never used tough love, and he died in a warm room with a full stomach."

Karen Garcia can be reached at karen.garcia@peninsulaclarion.com.

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