Agents of Change: Helping families cope with a loved one's addiction
Agent Kelly Gill understands the trauma caused by addiction, and she has made it her mission to help others affected by a family member's stuggles.
Editor's note: Across the country, agents are giving back to their communities and their industry. Here, we shine a light on people creating positive change and inspiring others to look for ways they can make a difference as well.
Like most mothers, Kelly Gill loves regaling you with stories about her kids. She describes her son, Randy Bowers as funny and smart. A varsity Lacrosse player in high school, a college graduate, a successful business owner and a crack cocaine addict.
It's that last part that has given Gill, a veteran real estate agent with Monument Sotheby's International Realty in Baltimore, her life's mission: To help other parents, other families, deal with the fear, the stigma and the frustration of loving someone who is addicted to drugs or alcohol.
It's an experience she shared with her friend of more than 40 years, Shawn Nocher. They weren't especially close. But they bonded over their sons' addictions. "When it was getting really bad with Randy, I reached out," Gill says. "Then we started with daily conversations, staying on the phone for hours. And we realized there are thousands and thousands and thousands of parents in this spot. And they don't have anyone to talk to."
With addiction, "there are only two outcomes," Gill says. "Recovery or death." Nocher's son Jamie entered recovery in 2014. Five years later, Gill's son Randy died of an overdose. He was 40.
"His death was a shock," Gill says. "But his struggle with substance abuse disorder was not."
Soon, Gill and Nocher turned the grief of Randy's death into founding Love In The Trenches (LITT), a nonprofit aimed at helping families walk through the sometimes bewildering, always terrifying experience of loving someone with an addiction.
When Gill and Nocher were at their lowest points, trying to cope with their sons' addictions, they had each other, Gill explains. "If I'm my son's 1 a.m. emergency call, who is mine?" LITT is designed to be that middle-of-the-night support for parents, including those whose children have lost the battle with addiction as Randy did.
Support without stigma
The organization offers free support groups for parents and siblings. The groups are small so everyone has a chance to contribute and to promote the kind of closeness and bonding that can be a lifeline. And, when the pandemic moved meetings to Zoom, they realized their geographic boundaries no longer limit who they can serve. They now have members on the West Coast and a grief group starting in California.
"We would love to go into every state," Gill says. "We want to be in a town near you, wherever you are, all over the country."
Talking openly about children struggling with addiction can be difficult because parents often feel shamed or stigmatized themselves, Gill says. Well-meaning people will chastise them for things like providing their addicted children with cell phones. "Yes, I know he uses it to call his drug dealer. But it's also how he calls me. It's his lifeline. He calls his family all the time," she recalls.
And when the child dies, as Randy did, people often don't know what to say, so they default to silence. "I like talking about Randy," Gill says. "He was so much more than just a man completely destroyed by this drug. He was really the funniest person I ever met."
She's not alone in that desire to talk about her child. "Most of the people in the grief groups actually want to talk about their kids," she says.
They also understand the relief that follows the death of an addict. "We can interpret the grief a little differently." Gill says of other parents who have lost a child to addiction. "It's taboo to talk about the relief. No one is relieved that he's gone. But the agony that he was in and we were in is over."
Stopping overdoses in their tracks
The latest effort for Love In The Trenches is a program called "Undo the OD." Working with the Maryland Department of Health, LITT is working to get Narcan, a nasal spray that can stop an opioid overdose, into bars and on campuses.
"There is a bar not far from me and they used the kit within the first two weeks of having it," Gill says. The bartender recognized that a regular patron had overdosed. "He grabbed our kit, called 911 and saved his life," Gill says.
Working with LITT doesn't just serve the needs of others, Gill acknowledges. It's still helping her with her loss. "I feel close to Randy every day," she says. "I can hear him saying, 'Of course this is what you're doing.'"
Clients appreciate an agent who cares about humanity
Gill says her brokerage has always encouraged her work with LITT. "The support and love I feel from my brokerage makes me want to be a better agent," she says. "(Real estate) is how I make a living, but it's not who I am."
Her work with LITT and her experience as the mother of a son dealing with addiction doesn't overlap with her work selling real estate, though she doesn't shy away from the topic with clients. "Everybody knows somebody" who has struggled with addiction, she says. "People are comforted that their real estate agent really gives a damn about humanity."
Gill says while she loves selling real estate, LITT is her real passion. "You may see an addict. We see a mother's child," she says. "I do believe in the corniest of ways that I am called to love what society sometimes calls the unlovable."