‘It can happen to anybody’: Holmen mothers tell parents to talk to their children about drugs amid overdose rise

Overdose deaths rising again in La Crosse County; leaders urge people to speak to family members facing addiction, start conversations with children early

HOLMEN, Wis. (WKBT) – La Crosse County’s chief medical examiner said he’s never seen a spike in drug overdoses like he’s seen this month. Tim Candahl warns that family members should talk to their loved ones suffering from addiction.

The cadence of news about rising overdose deaths becomes an expectation when Fentanyl slips into the community.

“Something needs to be done,” Tari Gullickson said, mother of Keaton Bendel who died from a drug overdose.

Candahl said Fentanyl is 100 times more potent than heroin. Drugs are consuming people — ordinary people like the neighbor next door, and addiction shatters families.

“You’re grieving for the rest of your life,” Mishelle Gulley said, mother of Dustin Stockowitz who died from a drug overdose.

Gullickson and Gulley have gashes in their hearts left in the form of two dates. Gullickson’s son Keaton Bendel died on Jan. 18, 2020. Gulley’s son Dustin Stockowitz died on July 21, 2019.

“We’re coming up on the two-year mark,” she said.

These mothers have banners with photos representing hundreds of sons and daughters lost to drug overdoses.

“Three-hundred people on two banners and they’re on number 23,” Gulley said.

Evidence of a problem too common for these mothers to bear.

“I’m angry because to some people this is just another overdose,” Gullickson said. “These people are somebody’s child, somebody’s grandchild, somebody’s brother or sister.”

Candahl said his department is investigating three overdose deaths. So, far in 2021, there have been 20 overdose deaths.

Last year, a record 39 people lost their lives. La Crosse County is on pace to break that number.

“We’ll see multiple overdoses within a seven-day period, we’ll see some bad stuff coming in,” Candahl said.

Gullickson’s son didn’t know what he was taking. Keaton took what he thought was cocaine, which turned out to be a deadly dose of Fentanyl. Experts say that’s common.

“With the bad stuff in here, they never know what kind of product they’re getting,” Candahl said.

Gulley said anyone can fall into the addiction trap.

“And it was after high school. Someone gave him a pill and that just led to more and more,” Gulley said.

Nothing compares to the excruciating pain of a mother who lost a child.

“I go to my son’s grave every week. I go with a bucket,” Gullickson said. “I have a bucket of cleaners and some scrub brushes and I clean his stone off, every week because I just feel like … I guess maybe I’m still there taking care of him.”

Even the pictures on the wall are too much sometimes for Gullickson.

“I can’t sit and look at my son’s picture,” she said. “I have it on the wall and I may glance and I have to turn away. I want to look at it in the worst way.”

Two fathers are now memories for their children.

“My grandson, he thought his dad walked on the moon,” Gullickson said. “Anytime we’re together now there’s something missing. It’s not the same anymore.”

Talking about addiction isn’t easy. But these moms are pleading with parents to start the conversation early and often.

“Whether you think your kid will try drugs or not, don’t be that naive parent,” Gullickson said.

Parents can’t protect their children from everything, but awareness might just save another family from adding their child’s photo to these banners.

“There’s one mom on one of the groups that I’m on that has lost five of her children to drug overdose,” Gullickson said.

Faces and stories Gulley said we can’t ignore.

“People keep pushing everything under the rug,” Gulley said. “Hush, hush, hush, hush. This is not something to be hush-hush about.”

Keaton and Dustin’s struggles are not the definition their mothers write down in their thoughts.

“They were human,” Gullickson said.

Gulley remembers Dustin’s heart.

“Even when he was an addict, he gave a homeless person the shoes off his feet and a winter jacket,” she said.

A reality that seems so distant until it affects a loved one. The problem is remarkably close and it cost the lives of two young men and changed two families forever.

“He’s still my son. He always will be and I miss him every minute of every day,” Gullickson said. “I don’t want any other parent to ever have to go through this. It is the worst pain I can ever describe.”

Both La Crosse hospitals also have seen an increase in overdose patients. Last year, in Wisconsin alone, nearly 1,500 people died of a drug overdose. That was up more than 300 deaths from the year before.