Billy Derr’s Story

Jenny Derr and Billy Derr

By Jenny Derr, his mother

In April of 2016, our 24-year-old son, Billy was visiting us in Richmond. We had a good weekend–he was engaged, laughing, and spending a lot of time with us, which is not the typical behavior of someone in active addiction.

He had relapsed in October 2015, after a year and a half of sobriety, and seemed to be back on the right track. He was enrolled at Boston University taking two classes and he loved living in Beacon Hill. He flew back to Boston on a Tuesday morning, I took him to the airport, we hugged and I said I love you. I asked him to get a haircut when he got back.

I spoke to him later that afternoon. He had been walking through the city and was getting ready to go to class. That was the last time I spoke to him.

I texted him a couple of times that night but didn’t get a response.

The next morning I texted him again, and got no response.

I had the oddest sense of dread that Wednesday

I called a friend and started crying. I went to my Wednesday Nar Anon meeting and read a passage on Anticipatory Grief. If you love someone who suffers from the disease of substance use disorder, you know this feeling; the feeling of always waiting for “the call.” I cannot describe it adequately, but I knew.

I got home and pulled up Billy’s phone records, ours was the last call and there were no text messages. And again I knew.

I made the first call to the Boston PD at about 9 pm. The first time they went to Billy’s apartment they just knocked on the door and left when there was no answer.

How do you convince a stranger that something is wrong when you haven’t heard from your 24-year-old son? Not until I got another Mom on the phone, and explained that he was a recovering heroin addict and hadn’t used his phone in over 24 hours did I get their attention.

I had to call back and beg them to forcibly enter his apartment.

I made my final call to them at about 12:45 am, the dispatch Sergeant said the detectives were “on site” and would be calling me right back. At that moment, I knew that the fear I had harbored all day was real. It was only after multiple calls to the Boston PD that we got confirmation about 1:30am Thursday.

We were all gathered in our family room, me on the couch, Kevin sitting in his chair, Jordan sitting on the fireplace hearth next to Harrison.

When the detective called back he asked if I was alone

I replied no, that I was with my other two children and my husband.

He asked to speak to my husband and I just started crying, my youngest son walked out of the room, also crying, and slammed his fist on the wall. Our daughter just sat and cried. Overdose.

All I could think about in that moment was how do I tell my parents and family?

How do you make that call?

How would I tell Victoria who had just flown to Italy with her family?

How do you go on when you feel that a large chunk of your heart has just been wrenched out of your chest?

Visualizing him alone in that apartment since Tuesday night broke my heart.

I remember for the first several days after, I must have said “I am just so sad” a thousand times. Of course I was. Those words just seem so trite, but honestly I had no better way to describe what I felt. And as a Mom, you go into total mom mode too. Are your other kids ok? Is your husband ok? Are his cousins ok?

We decided that night as a family that we were going to be transparent about how Billy died. We were not going to sugar coat the obituary with the all too familiar “died suddenly.” It was so important to me that people knew how he died, and also how he lived.

Billy was funny, he was genuine, he had a smile that could light up a room, and the most beautiful baby blue eyes. He helped so many people that were also struggling with their own path to sobriety.

Think deeply, Feel fully, Hope fiercely

Billy had a tattoo that read “To Thine Own Self be True” which is a big phrase in recovery. It has many meanings but I think the things it best embodies about Billy were the words spoken at his Celebration of Life service: Think deeply, Feel fully, Hope fiercely. This was how Billy lived his life.

I wasn’t always so open about the negative.

For years, as we went through the ups and downs that go with this disease, I was very private. I didn’t fully understand then that this is a disease.

I didn’t want to hear the judgments, and all the things we “should be doing.” We were doing all we knew to do. Billy was seeing a doctor and a counselor, both whom specialized in the field of addiction. We had tried multiple treatment options as well.

In May of 2014 Billy entered a long term treatment facility. The year and a half of sobriety that ensued was a gift and a time we will all treasure.

We had our Billy back

We were able to repair years of damaged and strained relationships. Billy was making new friends, he had a new girlfriend whom he was so smitten with. We were able to enjoy a family reunion at the beach with my family– something we hadn’t done in years. The week was filled with laughter, a lot of dancing and just enjoying each other’s company. We have so many beautiful pictures and videos from that week.

Our society still has such a long way to go with regard to how we treat mental health and substance use disorders. I am convinced Moms are how change will come about!

We need to continue to educate families because this disease truly does not discriminate. Mandatory Prescription Monitoring Programs need to be enforced. All prescription meds should be locked up.

No child should have access to prescription meds of any type. Advocate for your child with the medical professionals. They don’t need Percocet when they have their wisdom teeth removed. And if they do, they only need it for 2-3 days, not 30!

The conversation needs to begin in MIDDLE SCHOOL

And it needs to be mandatory for parents and children. Again, this disease is insidious and it doesn’t care that you live in an upper middle class home and that you sit together and eat as a family every night.

These are our children, and with education and policy changes, we can prevent and save those afflicted with this disease.

Never in a million years did I think I would ever speak in front of hundreds and hundreds of strangers. I have. And I will honor Billy and try to fulfill his purpose. I miss him every day and if I can help just one other family, well this is why I continue to speak out and advocate.

Published by

Jenny Derr

Jenny Derr is an active advocate for substance use disorder

24 thoughts on “Billy Derr’s Story”

  1. Dear Jenny, I had privilege of coaching Billy while in Brookline and watching him blossom in Sobriety. This disease is hateful and blindsides the very best of us. His memory is cherished among all he touched here. My son is in his 26th year of drug addiction and I too await the call. Please continue to educate!
    Donba Wolfe

    1. Thank you, Donna. I love hearing from people who knew Billy and saw his light and gifts. I will hold space for your son, that he may find his way to sobriety. 💙

  2. Jenny,
    I remember Kevin in Theta Chi at JMU. Such a nice guy.
    Chip and I had a similar experience with Whitten being on his own in NYC, and he was alone in his apartment when he died. Gut wrenching.
    I am so proud of you for all the work you are doing. A wonderful purpose. Billy will not be forgotten – that’s our job – to keep their memory alive.
    You keep it up.

    1. Gray,

      Kevin attended Whitten’s service. I am sorry for your loss as well, it’s a hole that never quite fills. thank you.


  3. Jenny, you didn’t imagine speaking in front of hundreds, but it’s no surprise to me. I’ve no doubt there will be many many more that are touched and grateful for your efforts going forward.

  4. As my son is in ICU for the 5th time with alcohol withdrawal, I read this and continue to experience this story. Thank you for sharing. God’s timing is amazing.

  5. Your story mirrors my own with my son Ryan Jonathan May. He too suffered with addiction, and he was in recovery for awhile. Ryan’s job was to get people into recovery, and he saved may lives. He also had a wonderful new girlfriend that he was smitten with. On September 8, 2016, I too, felt the dread that you described. I teach, and I went to my principal and said that I needed to go home, because I felt that my son was dead. He died of acute from Fentanyl, Carfentanil, Ketamine and U4, there was no heroin in his deadly cocktail, he didn’t know. My story is different in that a month after my beautiful 23 year old died, his girlfriend discovered that she was pregnant with his baby. Kelly, moved in with us, and while she had our granddaughter 9 weeks early, but she’s fine. Ryann Adalynn May, will never know her Daddy, but she will grow up loved.

    1. Oh Patty. Thank you for sharing your story with us. I am so glad you have something of your son in your granddaughter. I am so sorry that you, too, lost your son to the dreaded disease of addiction.

    2. Patty,

      Thank you for sharing your story. I am so sorry for your loss but hope you have some comfort knowing a little piece of him lives on in your precious granddaughter. We have to continue to use our collective heartbreak to bring about change. 💙

  6. My 26 year old Son is in his 2nd week of a min 90 rehab. We’ve been battling this decease since high school.

    1. Roger thank you for sharing. I will keep you and your son in my thoughts. The longer you can keep him in treatment the better. I don’t know if you also attend meetings (like nar anon) but they are so helpful for the families as well. Big hugs. 💙

  7. You are a courageous woman and telling Billy’s story has helped so many-
    love you sister girl- I do!

    1. Thank you Margaret. You and your family have been such a model of grace and compassion no have honored Cameron so well. 💙

  8. Wow …. So similar in so many ways. And the irony is all of our children’s pictures – they are ALL so vibrant and alive , it shows in the photos. Like the enemy just couldn’t stand it…. And like that season you had all your family together with all those wonderful memories , we had our season also. My children’s ages are 38 , 29 and 14. So I raised three only children. Appx two years ago all three of my children were living with me for the first time !!! Joshua wasn’t using ( or not much if he was ) and we all had such good times ! We’d play practical jokes on each other , go out to eat together , we all went to church together. It was such a wonderful time that I’ll treasure in my heart forever. THAT cannot be taken away. Thank you for sharing and allowing us to get to know your beautiful son ,Billy

    1. Thank you Diane. I appreciated your candor as well. These children we are losing are beautiful. I am hopeful that with our continued voices being lifted we will help stop this. Big love to you 💙

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