RIO, Wis. - Mary Rauwolf would be the first person to tell you she didn’t understand. Doctors told her she must not be disciplining her son like she should be. Mental health was never a discussion.
Mary’s son, Conrad, was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Mary said he was volatile, but kind and compassionate. He had her dry sense of humor, and he loved their family cats. His love for those animals was his escape to a calmer, happier place.
“He actually looked at us and said, 'You know, I just don’t know how I fit into this world.' He just struggled to understand and feel like he belonged,” Mary said.
As Conrad struggled to understand why he acted differently than his brother, mom and dad, he turned to marijuana for some form of relief. The self-medicating then turned to experimenting with various drugs. Mary said Conrad was constantly in trouble at school and had multiple run-ins with police. At some point, without Mary or her husband’s knowledge, Conrad started using heroin.
Along the way, Mary said she and her husband spent countless hours on the phone and about $68,000 on treatment.
“It causes desperation of a nature, and despair, that goes so deep,” Mar described. “It affects the whole family.”
Two years ago, Conrad died of an overdose. Mary can barely say the date: July 17, 2015. He was 22 when he died.
“The last few years we really found a way to still hold him accountable, but the message to consistently be that 'you are valued, you’re worth valuing, and we love you,'” Mary said.
Mary refused to let Conrad’s story end when he was buried. She instead got up the courage to move out of the home Conrad grew up in. She and her husband brought their lives to a quiet farm in Rio. Work on the 100-year-old barns would have to hold off because less than 48 hours after moving in, Mary was in the hospital for a bilateral mastectomy.
What keeps her going are the handful of animals she and her husband have adopted and now care for on the farm, including four miniature donkeys and five special-needs cats.
“After we lost Conrad, it really was the animals and having ones that really needed us, special needs ones, that my husband and I talked about. We were really blessed to have that,” Mary said. "That really pushed us to keep going because I probably would have stayed in bed.”
On top of that, Mary plays an active role in the Parent Addiction Network, a group of caretakers and loved ones who support one another as they support someone struggling with addiction and other mental health challenges. Mary knows how lonely it can feel being a parent of an addict. Her goal is to remind those parents about the good people their children are at their core, just like Conrad was when he was alive. She also hopes to reduce the stigma surrounding the disease and help guide others through it.
“A disease is a disease is a disease. Period,” Mary said.
Unpacked boxes crowd her new home. It’s not easy to get settled in between rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. She does have Conrad’s old stuffed animals sitting on a coffee table, his skateboard hung on the living room wall, and plenty of pictures of her little boy. It’s Mary’s way of keeping Conrad’s story going.
“Overall, I do it because that way the end of Conrad’s story is not simply that he was a heroin addict who overdosed,” Mary said. "I continue the work because I want there to be more to his story.”
If you or someone you know is helping someone through an addiction and needs support, visit the Parent Addiction Network website at https://safercommunity.net/parent-addiction-network-home/.
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