“A Little Bit of Mercy…” — A Darien family’s loss to addiction.

William Jones at Fordham Law School. His mother, Betsy, said the law was his “vocation.”

William Pickering Jones III wanted to become a lawyer to help people.                                       

“My hope in pursuing a law degree, is to give back — to help those without a voice, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the neuro-disabled, the poor, and all those who have struggled to be heard. Pope Francis said it well, ‘A little bit of mercy makes the world less cold and more just.’ Law is a means for me to add a little bit of my own mercy, to make the world a little less cold and more just,”

William Jones, in his law school admissions personal statement.

In the fall of 2018, William, who was attending Fordham Law School, encountered a stranger suffering an overdose in the park adjacent to the school. Knowing what to do, he tried to take action by asking the school’s security staff for Narcan, the common name for Naxalone, a medication used in overdose emergencies. The security guards didn’t have it. However, William was able to call the police and give them the critical information needed to save the person’s life. The experience led him to initiate efforts for Narcan training for Fordham Law students and staff.

The story, in a letter received from one of William’s classmates, sat within a seemingly endless pile of letters, cards, and remembrances on his parents’ kitchen table on a cold morning in February. The same kitchen table at which William’s mother, Elizabeth Higgins Jones — “Betsy” — shared her last conversation with her only son on Dec. 25.

Though he fought hard to beat it, William lost his battle with addiction on Christmas Day. He was 27. Despite his driving need and efforts to help others — including saving someone’s life — the one person he couldn’t save was himself.

“He fought valiantly — every day,” Betsy said.

While at Fordham, William, along with the same classmate who wrote the letter, Lura Chamberlain, founded the Drug Policy Reform Group. Its stated purpose is to foster intellectual discussion, build community relationships, and support meaningful policy reform around legal and sociopolitical issues relating to the supply and demand of illegal, addictive, and/or consciousness-altering substances: treatment options for substance users; and harm reduction efforts on an individual, community, and national scale.

“I don’t know many people who would rush to a stranger’s aid without hesitation, and even fewer who can say they’ve saved a life,” Chamberlain wrote in her letter, “but William was one of them.”

She added that the Narcan training that William started will continue to be pursued by the Drug Policy Reform Group in William’s memory, “both because of its crucial relationship to the group’s objectives and because it represents the kind of simple, non-discriminating compassion for others that William embodied so well.”

The Jones family is a private one. That is what makes talking to me about William difficult for Betsy. But his passionate need to help — to change the world — is what is encouraging her. That privacy meant that almost all of Betsy’s and her husband Bill’s friends and family were not aware of William’s struggle with addiction. As a consequence, many were shocked when William died in December.

The reason that the Jones family kept William’s struggle private was because of the very stigma they are now speaking out against. They kept it quiet to protect William, so that any negative connotations would not follow him as he moved forward with his life; so “that he would not be defined by it,” his mother said.

However, Betsy said her family wanted to make it clear that William had died from a drug overdose by adding to his obituary that memorial donations were to be made to Shatterproof — because as Betsy says, “addiction is a disease, like any other it does not discriminate.”

Shatterproof is a national non-profit organization based in Connecticut that is dedicated to helping families deal with their addicted loved ones. CEO Gary Mendell lost his son Brian to addiction.

Betsy pointed out the ease and frequency with which physicians have prescribed opioids. She and her husband, believe that some of us are simply biologically predisposed to becoming quickly addicted to opioids. She said that when she was prescribed opioids, they made her sick to her stomach. When William was prescribed them, it was the beginning of his struggle.

Background

William and his three younger sisters, Julia, Catherine and Elizabeth, grew up in a lovely home in the Tokeneke section of Darien. William was aware of what he had, in terms of family, education, and economic stability, and also aware of what others didn’t — and wanted to help. In his personal statement, he describes recovering from a major concussion, he said, while playing lacrosse for McGill University.

William took a medical leave from McGill after the concussion caused him to struggle academically and socially. Upon his return, he joined a McGill research project that studied worldwide population regarding how social determinants, such as race, income, and health care, impact children born with neuro-disabilities — specifically, how those factors impact the path of the child’s life.

“I was not a bad person before all this. I grew up privileged, white, well-educated, with supportive friends and a loving family. A nice, relatively normal childhood. But I was blind. I was sheltered. Things came easily to me. It was not until I had something major taken away that I truly knew how lucky I’d been. I could now empathize, not just sympathize,” he wrote.

This caused William to reflect on his blessings and give him passionate purpose. He began volunteering for the Yerwood Center in Stamford, which provides after school tutoring to local elementary school students, many of whom are poor and minorities. And it was then that he decided he wanted to be a lawyer.

 

A public health crisis

According to Shatterproof, in 2017, 70,237 Americans died from drug overdoses. On average, drug overdoses now kill 192 Americans per day.

Darien resident Holly Jespersen, who serves as Shatterproof’s senior communications manager, says one of the organization’s main goals is to remove the stigma and shame of addiction.

Part of the reason for the rise in addiction and overdoses, Jespersen says, is because those who suffer from dependence on opioids, when unable to access prescribed meds, are buying them on the street. Often, these street opioids are laced with fentanyl, which Jespersen says is a deadly combination — literally.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) affirms that this is the “worst drug overdose epidemic in [U.S.] history.” And the problem has grown so severe that, in 2014, the CDC added prescription drug overdose prevention to its list of the top five public health challenges. Three Illnesses and deaths related to substance use disorders are at epidemic levels right now, and it’s quickly getting worse.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that in 2017, there were 955 overdose deaths involving opioids in Connecticut a rate of 27.7 deaths per 100,000 people, which is twofold higher than the national rate of 14.6 deaths per 100,000 people. The greatest increase in opioid deaths was see in cases involving synthetic opioids (mainly fentanyl): a rise from 79 deaths in 2016 to 686 in 2017. Deaths involving heroin also increased from 98 deaths in 2012 to 450 in 2016 but saw a decrease in 2017 to 425 deaths.  Prescription opioids were involved in 273 deaths in 2017, a more than fourfold increase from 60 in 2012.

In October 2017, President Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency.

Darien First Selectman Jayme Stevenson has made fighting opioid addiction one of her priorities. While running for Lieutenant Governor last spring and summer, she offered that if elected she would make it a priority to have that office take leadership of the crisis.

The Stamford Advocate recently reported a growing list of defendants in the torrent of litigation against OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma extends beyond the firm’s owners.

While the eight members of the Sackler family figure most prominently among the accused, Connecticut’s expanded lawsuit filed  recently and a similar complaint from Massachusetts highlight the crucial role of four current and former executives in carrying out the alleged fraudulent marketing of the firm’s opioids

Purdue has denied Connecticut’s and Massachusetts’ allegations, as well as those in the lawsuits filed by more than 1,000 other states and cities.

Supervised injection facilities

Last fall, William wrote a legal paper about the legal obstacles to creating supervised injection facilities in the United States. They are a place where intravenous users of opioids can inject in the presence of medical professionals who can administer lifesaving treatment if needed.

“SIFs represent a promising public health intervention with the potential to make a real impact on the opioid epidemic,” — William Jones, paper on legal obstacles for supervised injection facilities in the United States for Health Law & Biomedical Ethics.

Though acknowledging that some communities are concerned about increases in drug-related crime or substance misuse if these are put in place, William wrote that international evidence shows the opposite its true.

As far as the tested United States legality of SIFs, William wrote that first, “one courageous city or state will need to open the first SIF.” Until then, the ultimate legality remains unclear.

At the back of his paper, William dedicated it to “all our loved ones lost to this terrible epidemic,” and quoted Robert Frost’s poem — Nothing Gold Can Stay, which concludes,      “Then leaf subsides to leaf; so Eden sank to grief; so dawn goes down to day; Nothing gold can stay.”

Reflecting

Betsy Jones says the Jones family all has strong opinions and debates could be lively. In these moments, William explained his passionate viewpoint to help others.

“He taught us something,  — he made us better,” she said.

Matthew Diller, dean of Fordham Law School, who spoke at the memorial service at Fordham Law School, attended by nearly 500 — called William a natural leader and said that in one of his first conversations with William, he spoke of his motivation to get into law.

The memorial service was held before a panel discussion on supervised injection sites that was planned by William and the Drug Policy Reform Group.

“He spoke about his hopes to help others, and said he believed that by helping one person at a time, he could make the world a better place,” Diller said.

Betsy also spoke at the Fordham Law School service.

“Many of you knew William growing up and many of you knew him here as a Fordham Law student — you knew him here as Will. What many of you did not know, and sadly all know now, is that William struggled with and lost his battle to addiction. What many of you still do not know is how hard William fought. William told me that he fought every day against his addiction, his enemy,” she said.

“What is extraordinary to us his family, was to learn that William, while working hard at law school, working hard to help those less fortunate through the initiatives he was passionate about, at the same time he was doing all of that, he was fighting his own battle,” Betsy said.

Vera T. Bullock, the assistant dean of Fordham Law School, gave a eulogy at William’s Darien funeral in December, attended by nearly 800. In it, Bullock, with whom William had a close relationship, said she had shared with him that she had lost her son to a drug overdose. She told William that what she missed most were her son’s hugs.

“After that, without fail, William made a point of stopping by my office several times a week. He would come in and simply say ‘time for a hug,’” Bullock said.

“That simple gesture sums up to me William’s philosophy of life. He always left a conversation, a situation and now the world a better place,” she said.

Bullock also said when times were stressful they would talk about the things they were grateful for and gave an example.

“William said  that he was grateful for a strong turnout for the Rally for Lifesaving Treatment in Prisons & Jails that he organized or that the model of a Riker’s solitary confinement cell that he had helped to build on the 3rd floor had interested people in the conditions of the incarcerated. Boy did he help me put my life in perspective,” she said.

If there was anyone who could understand William’s journey, it was his close friend growing up in Darien, who bravely fought cancer for over ten years. This courageous young man was an inspiration to William and to everyone who knew him.

A quote from a letter to his friend from William after they hadn’t seen each for quite some time was on the back of the program at William’s funeral.

Our paths may have diverged, but I feel as though we were also running parallel. We were never as far apart as our perceptions may have suggested. And now that these paths have converged, I doubt they will ever diverge again. If they do, the gap is in our minds.”

Sadly, his dear friend passed away in March, two months after William.

Betsy, Bill, Julia, Catherine and Elizabeth are devastated. Betsy and her family find comfort believing  that they did everything they could for William — but she also said:

“The tragedy in all of this is that William was such a good person who was trying to do good. He owned his mistakes. Sometimes, a mother’s love isn’t enough — William received all the love, all the support and all the best medical and psychological care that we as a family could possibly give – and William was so grateful for it,” his family said.

“He told us over and over how grateful he was of us standing by him. William wanted to beat it his addiction — but sadly his addiction beat him,” they said.

“He didn’t want this,” Betsy added.

As Betsy recalled her last conversation with William at that same kitchen table — gesturing to where he sat that night — she said that she was grateful that they had the chance to share that moment.

“Nothing was left unsaid,” she said.

In her speech at Fordham Law, Betsy spoke of that last conversation — adding that  “he made me a better person. William made all of us better – because he made us all aware. We are so proud of William – so proud of his humanity.”

“On Christmas Eve, just before William died, I had the chance to say what I wanted to say, what I needed to say,” she said.

“I am so proud of you, William. Look how far you have come. I love you so much,” she told him.

“I love you too, Mom —  I’m so proud of you,” he responded.

Fordham Law School’s Public Interest Resource Center named William P. Jones, III  “Public Interest 2L Student of the Year”  in recognition of his volunteer work, his leadership, and inspiration to others to become involved in public service.

 

Moving mountains

 

“Barn’s burnt down — now I can see the moon.”                                                                                       — haiku by Mizuta Masahide, a favorite haiku of William’s.

Betsy Jones and her family hope by sharing William’s story, it will carry on his passionate commitment to help others — and continuing his fervent hope to make a change.

As Betsy said in an email to The Darien Times, “The time for drug policy reform and early intervention is now. All of us must become educated in order to dispel the shame and disgrace that surrounds our addicted loved ones and their families.”

William’s law school statement underlines this sentiment in his realistic optimism for the future, if we all pitch in. It was his belief that even the most unsurmountable— such as conquering the pain, the epic loss, and the stigma of opioid addiction — could be done as a united effort of humanity.

“Instead of moving a mountain, I am trying to move a pebble I care about — if we all move our pebbles, we can move mountains,”

William Jones, in his law school admissions personal statement.

The Jones family hopes that by telling William’s story, they can help at least one person avoid what happened to their wonderful son and bring awareness about this terrible epidemic.

They thank the Darien Police Department and Darien Post-53 for their quick response on Christmas morning and for their gentle respect and kindness. The Jones family would also like to thank their friends, family and the Darien community for their love and support.

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