Mother shares son’s addiction story to help others

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Editor’s note: This Thanksgiving, as the nation continues to confront and examine the roots of the growing opiate addiction epidemic, the Canton Citizen would like to give thanks to trailblazers like June Knochin, a Canton mother who channeled her grief over the loss of her son and spoke up about the subject long before it was socially acceptable or politically popular to do so.

Reprinted from the Canton Citizen, October 2, 2003, by Beth Erickson:

June Knochin with her son Joshua, then age 6, in 1989

June Knochin with her son Joshua, then age 6, in 1989

“You are always a joy to behold. A real charmer. Always a smile. Writing this letter as your birthday approaches helps me to keep all these memories in perspective and to look into your wonderful future. This is just the beginning, but you will always be my baby boy. I want you to know that you have given me much more than I could ever give to you and I thank you and I thank God for the chance to have and know you every day. I can’t wait to hear you say ‘Mommy, I love you.’ We have so much to look forward to, my smiley boy.”

To Joshua, from his mother, just before his 1st birthday in October 1984

On September 19, 19-year-old Joshua Knochin died of a drug overdose, ending a life that was so full of promise when a new mother wrote her tender message of love to the child she cradled in her arms nearly 20 years ago.

And although grieving the loss of their child, June Knochin and her husband, Joe, want Joshua’s death to serve as a wake-up call to other parents and their children — “so just maybe another family will be spared this pain.”

They also want people to remember their son for the life he lived, rather than for the way he died. “Am I saying my son was perfect — that he didn’t make mistakes? No. But there was so much about Josh that was good and kind and caring,” June said. “I want people to know, to remember who he was.”

Joshua was born on October 28, 1983. He was his parents’ first child; he later had two siblings, Jeff, now 17, and Alison, now 14. As a baby Joshua had boundless energy, coupled with an insatiable curiosity.

“ … Even our battle of wills as you tip the dog’s water over and dump the plant’s dirt on the ground for the 20th time today, I must admit I’m never bored. You are like a little wind-up toy from the moment you’re awake, always on the move. Breathing hard with tongue stuck out in deep concentration. You were born with a personality and mind of your own.”

When he attended the Kennedy School, Joshua was an A student, but his early success was tempered with the discovery that he suffered from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Throughout elementary school, despite his learning disability, Joshua excelled. It wasn’t until middle school — when it was believed he no longer had a learning disability — when things began to unravel.

“He started to struggle,” June recalled, “and became the class clown to compensate for not doing well in school.” She remembers how his failure in school was damaging to her son’s self-esteem. Years later June learned that it was during Joshua’s “frustrating middle school years” that he first experimented with drugs.

Joshua was re-tested for a learning disability in the eighth grade and went back to the resource room. A year later at Canton High School, teacher Sharon Kramberg “started a miraculous turn-around for Josh,” June said.

June noted that when Kramberg left CHS, her replacement, Sharon Matthews, helped keep him on the right path. “She saw the good in him,” she said. “She’s the reason he graduated (CHS Class of 2002).”

But it was not easy. “Josh had a very hard time in school during his freshman and sophomore years,” his mother recalled. “And because of his grades, he couldn’t play sports.”

By junior year, he had rebounded academically and was eligible to play on the CHS golf team. He co-captained the team when he was a senior. He also got his license, his first job, and went to his first prom that year.

“Things were good,” June said. But the fact that poor grades had kept her son from playing a sport he loved brought tears to her eyes.

“Golf could have made him turn away from drugs,” she said.

Joshua Knochin on the day of his senior prom in May 2002

Joshua Knochin on the day of his senior prom in May 2002

After graduation, Joshua enrolled at Massasoit Community College, pursuing a career in criminal law. “He wanted to be a counselor and help kids,” said June. Joshua went to school with his longtime friends Genna Shapiro and Krissy Lawless.

“They did homework together and looked out for each other,” June said. “He would have done anything for his friends.”

Joshua completed his freshman year at Massasoit with all A’s and B’s. But it was this past summer, with a successful year of college behind him and his future looking bright, when Joshua made a choice that would ultimately take his life.

In June, Joshua became ill with what his mother believed was a virus. She took him to the doctor, who prescribed antibiotics. “But he didn’t get better,” she said. “He had sweats, fever, chills — every bone in his body hurt. And then he just told me, ‘I tried Oxycontin. I have to stop it.’” June remembers telling her son, “I will save you.”

She also remembers Joshua’s prophetic response: “This drug has killed me. I’m already dead. All I think about every second of every day is this drug.”

Joshua spent three days detoxing, followed by counseling sessions with both a psychiatrist and a therapist three days a week.

“He just started to seem normal this past month,” June said. “But then he started school — always a hard time for Josh, because he has to face his demons, his inadequacies — and he missed a couple of his counseling appointments.”

In one instance, Joshua was sick; in the other, the doctor had a scheduling conflict. Whatever the reason, it was the longest he had gone without the counseling he so desperately needed.

June remembers how on Thursday, September 18, Joshua asked his mother to pick up Burger King for dinner and how she told him she would rather cook a special dinner for him. She remembers overhearing Joshua make plans to meet someone and how he left the house for a while with two friends, but not before she questioned him: “What’s going on, Josh?”

She remembers cooking dinner — spending hours in the kitchen, only leaving briefly to pick up her daughter at cheerleading. And she remembers that around 7 p.m. two of Joshua’s friends ran up the stairs from his basement bedroom screaming, “Something’s wrong with Josh!” She will never forget finding her son “sitting up on his futon, blue and not breathing.” She remembers dialing 911, as she frantically breathed life into him.

“When the EMTs arrived, they administered an opiate blocker,” said June. “Because by then we knew that he had used a morphine patch. His body was still looking for the Oxycontin it craved.”

Joshua was taken by ambulance to Norwood Hospital at about 7:30. “I told him I loved him and his father and I would be right there following the ambulance.”

June said Joshua was released from the hospital at about 10:30. “He came home, but decided to spend the night at a friend’s house,” she said. “The last time I talked to him was 12:52. He called to tell me he needed his Advair — Josh has asthma. I told him I had packed it in his bag.”

After a restless night spent worrying about Joshua, June called to check on her son the next morning and was told he was still sleeping when his friends left for school. She and Joe then met with Joshua’s counselor to determine the best course of action for their son. When they returned home around 1 p.m. it was too late; Joshua had lost his battle with drugs.

***

A stay-at-home mom most of her life, June said she was in constant communication with Joshua, sometimes talking on the phone 20 times in a single day. “And we never hung up without saying, ‘I love you,’” she said. “We were that close.”

But being close to her son and keeping tabs on him wasn’t enough. “It’s just way too easy for kids to get drugs,” she said. “And it’s not always from a dealer on a street corner or in a dark alley. Often it’s from their parents’ medicine cabinets. We think we’re protected from drugs in Canton, that it’s an inner city problem. It’s not. It’s here, and it’s scary. So many kids are doing it, you would be shocked.”

She believes someone probably handed Joshua the Oxycontin at a party. “Once he took it, he was hooked,” she said. “Josh had tremendous willpower — he was able to quit smoking — but he was no match for the Oxycontin. It’s instantly addictive. It tells your body it wants more and more until it kills you. It was one battle he just couldn’t win.”

Last Wednesday, June and Joe Knochin buried their oldest child in Franconia, New Hampshire. “It’s a beautiful spot in the mountains where Josh spent many happy times as a little boy,” June said. “Many members of the family are buried there, and I didn’t want him to be alone.”

June said she is certain her son would want her to share his story. “Josh would want me to tell the truth,” she said. “By telling the truth, maybe what happened to him will save another child’s life. He wanted desperately to help other kids. Maybe he still can.”

Related Content from the Canton Citizen:

Devastated by addiction, a grieving sister speaks out

Canton no stranger to growing opiate epidemic

Harriet Burak: My Weekend with Michael

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