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Parents share son's story of addiction, death

Cathy Osterloh wipes a tear away as she and her husband, Jerry, answer questions Thursday at the 2009 Evergreen House Annual Conference. The Pine River couple lost their son Andrew in the fall of 2006 to a heroin overdose. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Two and a half years ago, Jerry and Cathy Osterloh of Pine River lost their son.

It was just two months before his 20th birthday when Andrew Osterloh overdosed on heroin at his parents' home. His mother found him dead.

"Drugs have changed our lives forever," Jerry told the attendees of the 2009 Evergreen House Annual Conference this week in Bemidji.

The two-day conference, titled "Strengthening Youth and Preserving Families: Confronting the Epidemic of Alcohol and Drug Abuse," was held Thursday and Friday at First Lutheran Church. Attending were 215 youth-serving professionals and parents from throughout the region.

In Thursday's keynote address, titled "Andrew's Empty Shoes," Jerry told the story of his son's addiction and death from a parent's perspective.

"Nine years ago, my wife and I were just a normal couple going to school functions," he said. "Andrew was a young boy with self esteem. He was happy. He always had a smile."

When life changed

One day when Andrew was in the eighth grade, he brought home a boy in need so the boy could take a shower, Jerry said. Afterward, he said, some friends began making fun of Andrew. As the bullying continued, Andrew's self esteem dropped and his vulnerability increased.

He quit basketball. He started hanging out with new friends. He became angry. He showed a lack of respect for authority. He changed the music he listened to and how he dressed.

He began using drugs.

One day, his older brother found Andrew and two friends snorting a white powder.

"We were absolutely devastated," Jerry said.

He said he and Cathy had a long talk with Andrew and he promised to never do it again. They gave him a second chance.

"And over the next several years, Andrew was given many chances, and we were enabling," Jerry said.

Although Andrew entered treatment at times throughout the years, Jerry said he and his wife also tried to help him on their own at times rather than always seek professional help.

"We were becoming enablers," Jerry said.

Up and down

In his senior year of high school, Andrew's life began to turn around.

"It was his best year in high school," Jerry said. "After graduation, Andrew got a good job."

He also enrolled in college in Brainerd.

The drugs, however, reappeared and Andrew's choices cost him his driver's license and job.

The situation escalated, and his parents eventually put a restraining order on Andrew.

"This wasn't our son," Jerry said. "This was the demons of drugs."

Andrew tried to commit suicide. He entered treatment. When he was released, Jerry said, they had their son back.

However, Andrew started using drugs again.

On the night before Andrew died, Jerry told him good night. He didn't know those would be his last words to Andrew.

As Jerry told his son's story Thursday at the conference in Bemidji, a table nearby displayed a pair of Andrew's shoes and photos of Andrew.

"Cathy and I only have memories and empty shoes," Jerry said.

Getting help

Jerry said he encourages anyone who is using alcohol or drugs to get help immediately. He urges people not to wait another day.

Becky Schueller, executive director of Evergreen House, said if parents are concerned about their children, or youth are concerned about themselves or their friends, they can call Evergreen Shelter at 751-4332, 24 hours, seven days a week. If the shelter can't help, it will connect callers with people who can help, she said.