MANATEE -- Gerrie Stanhope has lost a son, a grandson and a son's girlfriend to drug overdoses, all within the past year.
Her son died first, overdosing in the bathroom of her home on Dec. 7, 2014, not even a month after he moved in with her to get clean.
"I saw my son sitting on the toilet, slumped over, appeared to be a little bit blue, not breathing, not moving," Stanhope said. She stood there in shock with her husband. "Gordon wouldn't let me go in, I just saw him from the door. And now I wish I hadn't, because every time I go in that bathroom I see him."
Brian Miller, who was 45 at the time of his death, struggled with drug use his entire life. His mother believes he started huffing paint with a brother when he was as young as 11, and his drug use evolved from there, going from marijuana to cocaine to prescription painkillers and then to heroin eight or nine years ago, when Stanhope said it got "really bad."
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Just months after Miller died, Stanhope lost her 29-year-old grandson on Aug. 21. (His mother asked that his name not be used.)
He had come down to Bradenton for a few months from Tennessee with his wife, Stanhope said. He'd struggled with drug use for a while, and was sent to what Stanhope called an unofficial halfway house, run by a man trying to help people who wanted to turn their lives around.
"He was at the store or something and came home and saw my grandson on the floor, dead," Stanhope said. "Then, a couple of weeks after that, my middle son's girlfriend overdosed. She had been using on and off for a while. So it's hit us a lot."
Stanhope is far from alone. Miller was one of 63 heroin and fentanyl overdose deaths in the Manatee-Sarasota area in 2014, and her grandson was one of more than 150 in 2015.
A family devastated
Stanhope's family has been hit particularly hard. Though Stanhope says she has never used drugs, nearly all of her children and grandchildren have either been addicts or experimented with drugs. Stanhope believes she must be strong for her remaining loved ones, including the two grandchildren who live with her. She describes losing her son in a detached and matter-of-fact way, almost as if the loss of a child happened to someone else.
"I've had a lot of people ask me, 'How can you be so strong?' Well, for one thing, I've got the 19-year-old and a 12-year-old that I'm taking care of. I'm working full time at 72 years old, and I should be retired," Stanhope said. "Life goes on. You have to go on, if not for yourself then for the other people in your life."
Stanhope says she can't be sure why there is such heavy drug use in her family, but she partially blames genetics, since the father of her children was an alcoholic. And she blames herself for not handling their addictions the right way. She has trouble stopping herself from enabling her children, and she gives them money and pays bills on their homes so they aren't out on the street.
"I know deep in my heart that it prolongs it, because it doesn't make them stand on their own two feet," Stanhope said. "But be supportive. You can be emotionally supportive, but you can't do what I do and pay the bills and give them a place to live.
"I'm very close. It's hard to turn your back on your own kids, but I'm getting there."
The biggest heart
Even though Miller was an addict for most of his life, Stanhope still saw the son she loved when he wasn't using. She says she could separate the drugs from the person.
"Of all my boys, I think he's the one that had the biggest heart. He was always saying 'I love you,' and he had two girls, always telling them that he loved them," Stanhope said. "When he was using he could be on the angry side, if you caught him at the wrong moment. But the heart was still there, and you could see that."
Miller had gotten out of jail on a drug-related charge and called Stanhope right before Thanksgiving in 2014, saying he wanted to stay clean and get his life back together. Stanhope told him he could stay with them, Miller got a job at a Palmetto restaurant, and she really thought he might kick his addiction.
On Dec. 6, 2014, the family had dinner and Miller brought up the subject of death.
"He said, 'Well, when you're gone nobody is going to be around to pay for my funeral.' And I said, 'Brian, your funeral is paid for. All your funerals are done,'" Stanhope said. "And he thought about that and said, 'I didn't know that, but I don't want to go in the ground when I die.' So he told me that and I was glad, and that's why we cremated him."
Miller acted oddly that night, calling his ex-wife on the phone at 3 a.m. and pacing back and forth in the garage. Stanhope told him he needed to go to bed because he had to work in the morning. He told her he would go in a minute. It was the last time she spoke to him.
The next morning, Gordon Stanhope woke up at 6:45 a.m. to let the dog out and noticed Miller was in the bathroom, according to an incident report by the Manatee County Sheriff's Office. He didn't think anything of it at first, but became worried after a half-hour passed, so he woke his wife.
Gerrie Stanhope went to check on him, but when he didn't respond at the door, Gordon Stanhope picked the lock, according to the report. When he opened the door they both saw Miller blue in the face, slumped on the toilet and unresponsive. There was vomit on the floor by him, according to the report, but no suicide note or drug paraphernalia.
Miller was pronounced dead at 8:36 a.m.
Despite her grief, she takes some solace that Miller isn't struggling with drug addiction anymore.
"My consolation is that the struggle's over, because deep down inside, I know he didn't want to do that. But it gets you," Stanhope said. "Even though I know it was his choice to use it, I think the choice goes away somewhat when you're addicted. You have to have it, from what I understand.
"All I can say to people is don't even try it the first time, just don't do it," she added. "Don't do it."
Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055. You can follow her on Twitter@KateIrby