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'How did society fail Brandon?': Hoping to help others, woman shares her family's struggles with opioids

A 34-year-old New London man died alone in his home earlier this month of an apparent overdose, and it was 24 hours before his family even learned he was dead.

Brandon Sorensen — a brother, son, partner and friend — was described by his older sister as "a vibrant, creative, intelligent, charming, hilarious person." But for the last 15 years of his life, he battled life-altering, destructive addiction to heroin.

In their grief — a grief they've been sitting with for years, dreading the phone call they received this month — Sorensen's family members are asking themselves what went wrong.

"How did society fail Brandon?" asked his sister, Victoria Mueller.

Mueller penned an eloquent and heart-wrenching obituary that ran in The Day last week, in which she described her family's tireless fight to beat the disease of addiction — one that also killed her mother seven years ago, when she was just 57.

Mueller, a prominent New London attorney, hoped the honest, bleak account of her brother's battle would both honor his life and bring attention to the disease that took two people she loved far too soon.

In the obituary, she called her little brother's death "a fitting end to the saddest story in the world."

As a young man with two loving parents, two loving siblings and the world at his feet, Sorensen tried drugs for the first time at age 19, before he even had a chance to begin his adult life. That decision began, as his sister wrote, "a painstaking, heartbreaking, harrowing journey through the legal and medical systems as he and his family battled his disease."

Sorensen had access to medical and mental health care, rehab facilities and support from his family, but that wasn't enough.

"He has died despite dozens of stays in rehab facilities, hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in the hope of his recovery and countless hours of heartache felt by him and by those who loved him so deeply, yet couldn't save him," Mueller wrote. "This is the disease. This was his reality."

Sorensen worked various jobs at coffee shops and hotels, but the milestones and accomplishments that should have marked his short life were all stolen by his addiction — he didn't find his dream job, didn't get to marry or become a father like he wanted to, couldn't develop hobbies or connect with friends. Instead, he spent years in and out of hospitals, jail cells and courtrooms as he fought the addiction that his sister said "swiftly and completely re-wired his brain when he took his first hits all those years ago."

Around the same time Sorensen began using opioids, the siblings' mother, Patricia Sorensen, developed her own addiction. A loving wife and mother, she was a successful animal science team administrator at Pfizer when she was injured on the job. Her doctor prescribed opioids for the pain and soon, she was in the midst of her own substance use disorder.

Her family tried to get her help, advocating for her health with doctors, telling them that the drugs weren't good for her. "We sent her to rehab and they sent her home. That wouldn't happen now because we know that's a problem, that people abuse prescriptions, but as little as 10 years (ago) this wasn't a problem they would recognize or help with," Mueller said.

Brandon Sorensen, then in his mid-20s and battling his own addiction, learned of his mother's death inside a prison and had to return to his cell to grieve alone.

Mueller said she thinks her brother's recovery may have been easier if his disease wasn't so stigmatized. "Brandon would have been a happier person if people treated him nicely and people didn't treat him nicely," she said. "And that's sad, it shouldn't be that way. It's like any other sickness, it's like any other illness, it's not a moral failure."

Fighting the stigma

Carol Jones, director of harm reduction at the Alliance for Living in New London, and Trisha Rios, an Alliance for Living navigator who helps people living with substance use disorders connect with resources, both said they were struck by the parts in Sorensen's obituary in which his sister said that his life was hard and people's judgment made it harder.

Jones and Rios said the stigma surrounding substance use disorders can often make it harder for people to recover. People may feel discouraged from seeking treatment because they think their life isn't worthy, or they may be worried about how their families will look at them or how other people, even medical professionals meant to help them, will judge them.

Language, said Jones, is powerful when it comes to overcoming that stigma. "When we use stigmatizing language, it perpetuates a negative perception," she said. "How would you talk about a person that has kidney disease, or diabetes? You'd say, 'That's a person with diabetes, a person with kidney disease.' What we want to show is: 'This is a person with opioid use disorder or a substance use disorder.'"

Rather than saying someone has a "problem" or a "habit," Jones recommends people reframe their statement to say "this is someone with a disease, this is someone living with a drug addiction."

A change of language also helps normalize medical treatment for people with substance use disorders, which Jones said is a vital part of some people's recovery. She and Rios pointed out that every person's recovery path is different, and people battling the disease shouldn't be shamed for how they approach their individual recovery.

"The stigma around medication and treatment needs to stop," Rios said.

She and Jones both said they hope community members can start thinking about medication for substance use disorders differently and can help promote change in the attitude toward this disease and its various treatments, with less judgment.

"Medication isn't a crutch, it's an effective method that works and allows their brain to function," Jones said. "We need acceptance around medications, accepting that a medication for substance use disorder is no different than a medication for high blood pressure or for diabetes."

Having conversations about the reality of this disease is one big way communities can help those who are battling this disease and prevent others from developing substance use disorders to begin with, Rios and Jones said. Instead of just repeating "say no to drugs," they hope parents, educators, counselors and health care providers can explain the reality of substance use disorders, talk about how drugs work and what treatment options are available and address systemic issues that lead to the disease, like trauma, poverty and racial inequities.

One way to start those conversations, Jones said, is by "doing exactly what Victoria did in that obituary, being honest, open and real about it."

Mueller said she carefully crafted every word of the obituary for her brother, and debated whether her honesty would help an issue that is so widespread. As she has pored over the dozens of comments, responses and messages flooding her inboxes in the days since its publication, she's wondered where these concerns were before her brother's disease killed him.

"Where was all this love, help and support when he was a live, living person? It had to take him dying for this to happen," she said.

She hopes her brother's story will stick with people, that they won't forget how easily a family can be ripped apart, how easily someone's life path can be rerouted and just how close to home this crisis is.

"I've been thinking about all the different places where it could have changed — all the different places where intervention could have happened and made a difference. There are so many places and times where something could have happened and it didn't, someone could have helped and they didn't," Mueller said. "There are so many pieces of this puzzle. And if one person had done something different, we might not be here. I hope this can ignite something, or someone, to make one different decision that might lead to a different outcome than this."

t.hartz@theday.com

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