Born and raised on the rocky shores of New England, Dave Ohlund has that stoic “Mainer” quality of “use what you’ve got, make what you need or make do.” Burly forearms and calloused hands belie his trade — a residential custom home builder. Dave and his wife Kim welcomed their first child, daughter Hannah in 1996, and son David Jr. into the family in 1998. They moved to Mount Pleasant in 2005 and Kim went back to school, in her mid 40s, to become a registered nurse. The family was the quintessential hard working American success story.
Soon their free time was consumed with kid’s sports practices, homework, family and neighborhood activities. Having come from the tight-knit community of Kennebunk, Maine, they craved the resulting meaningful relationships with others.
With the building boom in Mount Pleasant, Dave’s business thrived. Kim went to work with MUSC and has since been twice recognized as Nurse Of The Year. Hannah was very involved in travel soccer and maintained straight A’s. David, although capable of A’s, maintained B’s seemingly without effort. About the time David entered middle school, Hannah was accepted to Charleston’s Academic Magnet School for gifted students.
David Jr. was always fascinated with figuring out how things work. He fell in love with paintball and soon figured out how to disassemble, repair and improve paintball guns. When he transitioned from soccer to lacrosse, he studied the best techniques for stringing lacrosse heads and before long he had the best Wando players paying him to string their stick heads. When people needed help with a computer, he was the guy they went to. At school he got involved with the auto tech program and decided that he wanted to open a high-performance auto shop. Whether it was a good thing or a bad thing, David Jr.’s motivation made him the leader of the pack in whatever he was pursuing.
The first signs of trouble came in eighth grade when Dave and Kim would smell marijuana on David Jr. now and then. They confronted him about it and he made convincing promises and assurances. Then he got caught with pot paraphernalia at school and was suspended for a week, so Dave and Kim took him to teen drug counseling twice a week for a few months. There wasn’t a significant change in any of his positive activities, so there was hope that it was just a phase that he would grow out of. After all, he was succeeding in so many areas of life.
When he started high school he made a change in friends. Over the next two years he slowly started drifting away from his athletic and neighborhood friends. By the 11th grade he was withdrawing from sports, grades had fallen and he was living in his bedroom and sneaking out late at night. “The ‘Stoners’ are the only ones who get me; no one else understands,” he told his parents.
Toward the end of 11th grade things declined quickly. He was arrested for possession of marijuana and Xanax. Six weeks later he was arrested again. The charges were quickly piling up, attorneys and police were involved — suddenly life was very complicated for Dave and Kim who never had any exposure to these things. Dave, Kim and Hannah were very concerned about David’s addiction and were doing everything possible to help him help himself. Little did they know that this was just the beginning of an even more tragic downward spiral.
“People we thought were close friends began shunning us,” says Dave and Kim. “Suddenly we were no longer invited to activities, and there were those uncomfortable silences when you would see friends in public. But what hurt the worst is that I (Dave) couldn’t figure out how to fix the problem. As a self-employed builder, I solve problems all day long. As a man I feel responsible to fix the problems my family faces, but I had no idea how powerful the chains of addiction are. And those chains truly are too light to feel before they are too strong to break.”
“We researched and found a residential program for teens in Atlanta that had a good track record. We took David Jr. there and he spent what would have been his senior year of high school in a highly structured environment. He did well in the program and graduated from high school. But sadly, during this time David met a young woman who introduced him to heroin.”
David Jr. returned to Mount Pleasant and lived with his parents and began facing his legal troubles – all of his prior charges were now coming to a head. With the help of an attorney, David was sentenced to the Charleston County Drug Court Program- a great alternative to the jail time he was facing for his prior charges. David worked full time and performed well in the program until he discovered synthetic pot, called K2 or Spice, is not detected by NIDA drug testing. It wasn’t long before another guy in the program told him that synthetic opioids, like Fentanyl, wouldn’t be picked up by the mandated drug tests either. Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and morphine is 1.5 times stronger than oxycodone. With this knowledge, David tried to “beat the system” and began his final relapse.
On May 7, 2018, Dave and Kim found David Jr. on the bathroom floor. His body was cold and his lips were already blue tinged. Although fearing he was already gone, they feverishly tried CPR to resuscitate him. Paramedics arrived and took over, but before long he was in a body bag. Kim and David had to beg the paramedics to unzip the body bag to say a final good bye to him before the coroner took him away. They kissed his cheeks and forehead, and just like that the life known as David Ohlund Jr. was gone.
“In spite of counseling I have received, I often still feel like David Jr. is gone because I wasn’t good enough to fix him,” Dave says. “I will see old school mates of his or old friends of ours out in public and you can see them try to avoid you. If they can’t avoid you, they are clearly uncomfortable, as though we might be contagious or something. Thankfully much of our Life Park Church family stood by us, particularly Pastor Chad Moore. Family came to town for David’s funeral and then three days later we were attending Clemson’s graduation as our daughter Hannah graduated Summa Cum Laude with the Faculty President’s Award. It was a very tough time.
But Dave and Kim have not stood still or silent. They feel that David Jr. will have died in vain if someone doesn’t learn from it. As a result, Dave and Kim have spoken to audiences at Drug Court and at Seacoast Church’s Celebrate Recovery. They also have reached out to try and help several of David Jr.’s friends who were in trouble with him. The couple frequently talks, texts and meets with David’s friends, trying to advocate for them and help them in any way possible. They all have responded positively.
Tears streaming down his cheeks, Dave tells me that in spite of all he has learned in his own counseling, the feelings that somehow it was his inadequacy that caused his son’s death creep back. If he was the man he should have been he could have fixed it and David Jr. would still be alive. Somehow he should have known more or have done more. But the reality comes back and Dave has learned that the only way to move forward is to be of service to others. He works to be attuned to Kim and Hannah, to help them in any way he can and he shows up whenever anyone reaches out for help. Their stories through this ordeal are equally compelling and if I had the space in this column I would honor them too.
As I write these articles something about these opiates keeps nagging at me. I guess I am just floored at how something that is supposed to cure pain causes so much suffering. And everyone around the afflicted one gets his or her own full share of the anguish. So, please, make it a point today to give some thoughtful words and gestures to those you love. Life can be so fragile.
This article series, written the first and third week of each month, is meant to educate the community about addiction in general and the Opioid Crisis in specific that is affecting communities nationwide. We are hopeful that this series will make a difference. When appropriate the names will be changed of those the articles feature. Contact the author at David@PhoenixSC.org.