Sherry Holly, whose son died from overdose, is determined to bring awareness to the drug epidemic's effects on the local area

COLONIAL HEIGHTS - It’s no secret that the opioid epidemic has been on the rise over the past several years, impacting more and more Americans on a national scale.

But what some may not realize is how hard it is hitting right here in the Tri-Cities.

A little over a year ago, Colonial Heights resident Robert Holly died at age 26 from heroin overdose.

In light of the recent Overdose Awareness Day, August 31, his mother Sherry sat down with The Progress-Index to talk about Robert’s memory and the societal changes that need to occur if America is going to see a positive change in the opioid epidemic.

Robert’s story

As Robert grew up attending school in Colonial Heights, he struggled with dyslexia - a learning disorder characterized by difficulty reading. Along with the disability came emotional distress and a feeling of exclusion.

“I guess Robert started showing emotional problems all the way through school… all the way through his elementary schooling he had problems dealing with reality, having the responsibilities of having to attend school, and trying to fit in with groups of people, and he felt like he didn’t belong because he was dyslexic,” Sherry said.

Robert was taken out of the typical classroom setting to work with an IEP teacher, and as a result, he didn’t make many friends. Later in middle school, the situation got worse.

“It became worse, because peer pressure got worse,” Sherry said. “Then when he got into high school, he basically only went to school only because the law required him to go.”

While the scholastic environment wasn’t exactly Robert’s forte, he was incredibly talented at working with his hands, and out of that, he discovered a love for fixing vehicles.

“His comprehension was very poor, [but] you could show him anything to do with his hands, and he could do it. He was remarkable with his hands,” Sherry said. “And he loved to work on cars, vehicles - anything automotive he could do. He could take a car apart and rebuild it.”

Robert began using his skillset to help other people, like the kids around the neighborhood who needed their bicycles repaired. “Sometimes he would have four or five bikes in the yard, fixing them for all the kids in the neighborhood,” Sherry said. “He just loved it.

“He loved children as well; he loved being with them, and in his teenage years and even in his twenties, he would still play games with them and go fishing with them and so forth,” she added. “He loved children. He adored them.”

Robert became well-known in the community, as he would walk the city’s streets and strike up conversation with people of all ages and backgrounds.

“Most everyone knew him. A lot of people I run into now, they’ll say...'Did he walk down Lakeview Avenue a lot?' And I’ll say, 'Yeah he did,'” Sherry said. “He would walk around, and a lot of people knew him that way."

And he was never a judgemental person, Sherry added. 

"He always loved to listen to anybody that had something to tell him,” she said. “He would stop and listen to them, no matter what it was. If he even thought it was a little strange or a little off, he would just sit and listen to them and go about his business. But never did he turn anyone away. He was a special, special person.”

Robert continued attending school up until 11h grade. At age 18, he began drinking.

“He would drink on and off with his friends, and because he started to fit in with the crowd and peer pressure, he started taking benzos off the street, getting them from various places,” Sherry said. “And then he was about 21 when he got into a car wreck and got a DUI.”

Robert suffered injuries to his back, leg and forehead, and as a result he was prescribed Percocets for the pain, which the doctors continued to refill for several months.

“As time went on - I guess this went on for about six months - the doctor said, ‘I can’t give you anymore Percocets,’” Sherry said. “Of course he had become addicted to the Percocets, and he started purchasing them from a dealer.”

Sherry notes that at some point, Robert was told by his dealer or a friend that if he crushed and snorted the pills, he would get a better effect from them, so he began doing that.

And then, “I guess about two years before he died, his dealer told him that he couldn’t get anymore of the Percocets, and he said that he had something that worked just as well, which was heroin,” Sherry said. “And that’s when he gave him the heroin.”

When Robert first started using heroin, he was snorting it, but then on Christmas Day, 2016, he started injecting it. Robert shared the news with his parents about a month later.

“We asked him if he wanted to go get some help, and he said he was going to try to get off of it himself, which he did several times,” Sherry said. “And of course he would go through detox - which is so very, very hard to watch someone go through. It’s horrifying. And he would always go back.”

Sherry now belongs to 10 different support groups online where she has learned something she wished she had known when Robert was alive fighting his battle.

“I know now that if they continue to stay around the same people that they’re always around, they’re not going to change. It’s not going to happen,” she said. “So he was always going back.”

When Robert lost his job in December of 2016, he got a new painting job from a family member who did what he could to help Robert and keep him away from the lifestyle he was living. But things got worse.

“It got so bad that from March to June, it seems like everything went by like a blur,” said Sherry. “It went so fast; it was like, it just like flew by because things got so bad.”

On June 11, Robert overdosed for the first time.

“That’s when I found out how bad he was in it,” Sherry said. “And I found out that he owed his dealer so much money and that he had been threatened to not go back to his dealer’s house, so he was getting people to buy it for him.”

Robert spent the next five days detoxing in the hospital before he was sent home. Sherry began calling around trying to find a facility that would take Robert in.

“I called everywhere. Everywhere I could. I called Southside Regional, I called John Randolph, I called District 19, I called Central State, I called everywhere begging people to please take him,” she said. “And he was sitting on my bed, and he was crying and saying ‘I don’t want to be like this.’ And I know he was sorry that he had done it. I know he was.”

Despite Sherry’s desperate attempts, she couldn’t find a facility they’d be able to afford. Robert didn’t have insurance, and many places wanted around $7,000 up front to take him in.

“And they wanted us to pay like $1,500 a month to keep him in there,” Sherry said. “And we didn’t have that kind of money. We didn’t know what to do.”

Sherry took Robert to his counseling appointment the next day, where he and his counselor talked about his ability to beat the addiction.

“I remember crying and begging him, Robert if anything happens to you, I’ll just die,” Sherry said through tears. “And he said nothing’s going to happen… and he died that night.”

The next morning Sherry noticed Robert hadn’t been up for work. When she went to wake him, his door was locked, and he wouldn’t unlock it.

“I was screaming and banging on it, and we had to bust the door down, and he was sitting up on the bed, and he had died,” Sherry said.

Robert passed away at age 26, on June 11, 2017, leaving behind his grieving mother, father, brother and two sisters.

The aftermath

Robert’s passing brought his family nothing short of brutal anguish and suffering. His mother describes the broken family dynamic that has existed since his passing.

“The thing that people do not tell you, not only is it horrifying for the people that die from this, it ruins so many families. It ruins their lives,” Sherry cried. “Nobody thinks about that. Our family is torn apart. His siblings don’t talk to one another anymore. Our family get togethers… we don’t have them anymore. There’s no more Christmases, there’s no more Thanksgiving, there’s none of that because there’s a missing gap there.”

Sherry’s husband has only been to Robert’s grave once since he passed.

“He is practically bed-ridden from this,” Sherry cried. “He does not want to see anybody. He doesn’t want to talk to anybody… And I myself have suicidal thoughts constantly on and off, and the funny thing is, this is how ironic it is... your child dies from drugs but they don’t tell you...that when that happens, you yourself [have] to go to a doctor and get drugs to take everyday just to get up out of bed. They don’t tell you that. They don’t tell you all that goes along with this.”

Sherry herself struggles to make it through the days without her son.

“When you lose someone to such a tragic thing, you find out that you love them more when they’re gone than you did when they were here. And it’s so very sad. It’s so sad,” she said. “Because you’re so scared you’re going to forget what they sound like, what they look like, what they felt like…

“You know when you get grown, it’s not that you expect it, but you understand you may lose your parents or your siblings, even maybe your spouse,” she said. “You hope not, but you never expect to lose your child. You never…you expect them to bury you.”

Sherry’s days are now inevitably full of remembering Robert through the little things.

“If I go to the grocery store, I may see food that he used to eat that I used to buy him and he loved. Or, I could be driving down the road, and hear a song he used to like or sing… turn the TV on and see a program that he used to watch and laugh at,” Sherry said. “Or go in a store and see a piece of clothing that I think, ‘Oh, he would love that.’”

“You’re reminded all day long of that person. And it’s torture, it is torture,” she cried. “They’re the last thing you see when you close your eyes and the first thing you think of when you open them up.”

Calling for change

Sherry has witnessed the heroin epidemic firsthand, not only with her son Robert, but also with several of his friends. She notes that, since Robert’s passing, 20 of his friends have followed, including three people he was babysat with before starting school.

“That’s how close to home it is. That’s powerful. That’s horrifying,” she said. “That’s more than one a month.”

Sherry is also well-informed about how the opioid epidemic is affecting America nationwide, and she believes changes must occur in society if the epidemic is going to turn around.

“They are spending needless money on things that are not of importance right now. This is important: 198 people a day are dying… do you realize, do you realize that if this were the flu that was killing 198 people a day, what would they be doing about that? They would be doing something about that,” she said.

“Well, why can’t they do something about this? This is important. This is tearing families apart,” she said. “How many children are left without their parents because their parents have died from drug overdose, whether they chose to or not? They have no parents. How many families have split up because they lost their child?”

Sherry went on to explain that there isn’t enough help available for those who wish to recover from their opioid addiction, and that must change.

“I think society created a lot of this, because they did not help people enough that wanted it. I understand there’s people out there that don’t want help, I understand that. I know there are some people on drugs who do choose to be there, but those who do want help and can’t get it, that ought to not be," she said. "That should not be.

“Yes, they made a mistake, they did something and they made a mistake, but my thing is, did you ever make a mistake about something that could have become tragic, and it didn’t? Only by God’s grace it didn’t become tragic,” she said. “This is America. We take care of other people. We should take care of our people as well that need that help.”

Nowadays, Sherry aims to serve as Robert’s voice. She put a sign up in her yard on Overdose Awareness Day.

“No one is going to tell me to be quiet anymore around here,” she said. “I’m not ashamed of what Robert died from, because I know that Robert did not get up one morning and say, ‘I want to be a drug addict.’ He didn’t say that. And that certainly wasn’t his goal as a child.”

Sherry will also soon be advocating on a larger scale, as she plans to attend the FED UP! Rally - a coalition to end the opioid epidemic - in Washington D.C. on Oct. 7 with members from several of her online groups, as well as the march in Richmond on Sept. 22.

Kelsey Reichenberg may be reached at kreichenberg@progress-index.com or 804-722-5109.