Rachel Bruzee is fighting addiction — as a parent and a professional

Even a mom with a career in mental health and addiction treatment couldn’t save her son from heroin.

“I am helping people in their darkest hour. But I never thought this darkness would strike my own son,” said Rachel Bruzee, whose advocacy for families in crisis took on a new urgency when she nearly lost her son, Nicholas, 26, to heroin four years ago.

Bruzee, who lives in Geneva, has a resume that includes work for Lakeview Mental Health Services Inc. and Finger Lakes Area Counseling and Recovery Agency (FLACRA). Now, in a personal battle for her son and for others struggling with addiction, her advocacy is a round-the-clock mission. That involves a project called Endure Outreach Network and efforts toward passage of Casey’s Law in New York.

Casey's Law was inspired by the death of Matthew Casey Wethington, a Kentucky man who died at age 23 of a heroin overdose. It passed in Kentucky and has similar versions in Florida and Ohio. The law provides a means of intervening with someone who is unable to recognize their own need for treatment due to substance abuse and the disorders that come with it. Casey’s Law allows parents, relatives, and/or friends to petition the court for treatment on behalf of a person (over 18) impaired by substance abuse.

Bruzee learned first-hand what it’s like when your child is addicted to heroin and you are helpless.

“The drug takes over,” she said.

Research confirms how heroin changes the brain and drug dependency is a disease. “With each use, the brain craves another rush — and another and another. Over time, the brain is completely rewired so that getting high becomes an obsession and a compulsion,” said Dr. Jerry Jason, a specialist in addiction and recovery for an ABC News report after the death in 2014 of Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman from heroin overdose. Hoffman, who grew up in Fairport, had fallen off the wagon after 23 years of abstinence. His death drew attention to drug dependency and the danger of opioids.

Opioid addiction is now a national epidemic. The Finger Lakes region mirrors other areas of the state and nation. In Ontario County, heroin overdoses surged from five in 2015 to 28 in 2016. A number of local initiatives are fighting the crisis. They include community forums and a number of programs through Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition of Ontario County, among other projects.

Bruzee said she knew from her work as a counselor in mental health and addiction treatment how “opioids restructure the brain.” Denial and distorted thinking impede a person's ability to make a rational decision, she said. It wasn’t until her son asked her for help that she could intervene. She talked about the struggles getting to that point and obstacles faced. Those included insurance companies that deny a full range of treatment, and waiting lists to receive treatment; cookie-cutter programs that fail to address all aspects of the disease; and the shame associated with addiction. Embarrassment often isolates families and individuals who don't want to reach out, she said.

“Some people think that there is no way out or no help,” said Bruzee, whose Endure Outreach Network is aimed at providing resources, community education and referrals.

On her change.org page for Casey’s Law, she tells how Nicholas, “an all-American boy,” became dependent on painkillers.

“His dependence was partly due to a combination of a leg injury and dealing with depression from losing a classmate,” she said. “He began using prescription pain pills and it soon got the better of him.”

Bruzee said that in her experience, more than half of those she counsels are in medication recovery. Young adults in particular may be on between 10 and 15 pills a day, she said. It’s a problem addressed at forums and other events battling the opioid epidemic. Heroin is much cheaper than prescription medication, which contributes to incidents of heroin addiction.

Since age three, Nicholas wanted to be a fireman; and at 16, he became one of the youngest volunteer firefighters in Seneca County, his mother said. “In 2008, he responded to more fire calls than there are days in the year, risking his life to rescue others. But now it’s he, and substance-impaired individuals like him, that needs to be rescued,” she said.

Bruzee said this month that her son has come a long way. She acknowledged gains in the past few years toward recognizing and treating addiction as a disease. But the battle is ongoing, and there is a long way to go. In her position — as both counselor and parent — Bruzee said she believes she can reach many people to help them, and save lives.

“My son is currently in active recovery as it is a lifelong chronic illness. But there is hope. And you are not alone,” she said.