Journalist reflects on the death of her son and sheds light on addiction
Joline Guiterrez Krueger and her son Devin. All photos courtesy of Krueger.
Erin is Lifestyle Editor at Birmingham, Alabama-based Big Communications, a full-service creative agency. Street, an ivoh core team member, previously served as Deputy Editor at Southern Living. She’s also also a person in long-term recovery who cares deeply about media’s language and coverage of drug and alcohol use, and 23 million Americans affected by addiction.
Joline Guiterrez Krueger has been a journalist in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for nearly 30 years. For more than two decade, she worked at the Albuquerque Tribune, and upon its closure, joined The Albuquerque Journal, where she serves as a columnist. On March 25, the Journal published her column, “A Mother’s Anguish,” about the recent death of her son Devin from a heroin overdose.
In it, Joline traces the arc of Devin’s drug use. She believes the 23-year old started using in November 2016 after a breakup with a girlfriend. She learned that he began to use heroin after his overdose. “Until that moment when my sobbing, screaming younger son Nik called me to tell me something terrible had happened, I hadn’t known that Devin had ever shot up, smoked or snorted heroin,” Kruger writes in her column. “In that moment, I realized that the son I thought I knew so well, from the size of his jeans to the size of his heart, had a terrible secret.”
ivoh spoke with Krueger about the loss of her eldest child, why she decided to tell his story, and how motherhood has influenced her writing and vice versa.
Erin Shaw Street: So we can better understand the piece about Devin, tell us a bit your approach to your general approach to your column.
Joline Guiterrez Krueger: I write about people who actually read the paper, regular people you might not hear their story otherwise. We have plenty of reporters who cover lawmakers and coaches. But too often we overlook stories of real people whose lives are impacted in one way or another, stories that are important or even universal. Maybe it’s about a struggling mom or person affected by domestic violence. Since my background is courts and crime I’m drawn to that, but my columns aren’t always about crime. I’ve written about long lost sisters who were reunited through the Internet, a long lost dog or a found dog. I have written a lot about addiction, and have spoken to many many parents whose child has died of a disease, drunk driving or heroin addiction.
Because I’ve been a journalist for so long, in every single aspect of my life I think, “What’s the lead to this?” I have an experience at the grocery store and think, “How would I write this column?” I draw a lot from everyday life.
Krueger: Since 1993 I’ve juggled being a mother and a journalist. I’m a single mom of six kids, five of them adopted. I’ve been really lucky to be both a mom and a journalist, and I don’t know that I completely take one hat off for the other. Maybe that helps me when I talk with other people experience grief — the mother part of me can relate. The journalist part of me helps the mother part of me in helping find facts.
I’ve always been open about writing about issues regarding my children, including my developmentally disabled children, who I’ve referenced in writing about how we treat the disabled.
Street: You’ve interviewed and told stories about many parents who have lost children. How did you decide to write about your experience in losing Devin?
Krueger: When Devin died it was very sudden and totally unexpected. I had no idea that any of this [his drug use] was going on. It was a complete and total surprise to me. It was a quick descent into this hellish world. Everything went up in this big cloud of smoke. It was something I had to realize very quickly — we didn’t get a lot of time to prepare for this. One minute he was my son, who was fine, and then he was gone.
I took some time off after he died, and during that time [I] began thinking about writing a column about him. I didn’t mention it to my editors and there was no discussion. It wasn’t a group decision; it was what I wanted to do. To get my mind straight on things, I had to write it.
I felt before I wrote it the column, I was like a piece of driftwood in a very fast running stream. To write this meant that I had to put my feet on the ground and really think about what had happened. I started writing it on a Wednesday, rewrote it Thursday, and Friday morning I thought, “I have to turn this in today, let me look at it.” I finished re-reading it and tears came to my eyes. I hadn’t cried through the whole process of writing, which made me think that it wasn’t good. When the tears started coming I knew I was done. I crossed my fingers and sent it in. My editors called me that afternoon. I was in the car with one of my other sons and several of Devin’s friends, We were in a drive-through when the editors called and said that they really liked it.
Street: How have readers responded?
Krueger: I have gotten so many emails, letters, cards and calls that I have not been able to read and respond to them all. I’ve heard from many people who have also lost children, or have children who are still using. When the column was published I’d start reading them and get so emotional, I’d have to stop reading. One woman told me she had lost two sons to overdose. I could only read so many of these letters without being overwhelmed.
I have a pretty high tolerance for hearing stories like this. I call it “hitting a wall” — where the emotion is just too much. In 30 years of journalism I’ve only “hit the wall” about twice. This has been different. I’ve saved each and every one of the emails and letters I’ve received, and will try to respond to them all. The fact is, the opioid epidemic is big, bigger than many people realize.
Street: As a journalist who has covered heroin and its devastating consequences, how have you seen the opioid epidemic unfold? How has journalism responded?
Krueger: I think I wrote my first heroin story in 2010, when this lovely woman named Georgia Martinez told me her story, and the story of her son. All these years ago she opened my eyes to the fact that the heroin epidemic isn’t what you think. She was a wonderful mom who had a great family. Her son was an active young man, a snowboarder who looked like JFK Jr. And he died from heroin. Georgia told me then that it wasn’t just her son — that many of his friends were dying. The story of heroin isn’t the picture of the “junkie on the streets” people have in mind. It’s our children, our next door neighbors — literally, my next door neighbor also lost a son. But there’s still a stigma to it.
The Journal did a story on the heroin epidemic after my first column, and has done many others. There is a lot of reporting on the topic. [Last week Eric Eyre of the Charleston Gazette won the Pulitzer in Investigative Reporting for his investigation into West Virginia’s opioid epidemic.] Heroin affects every social strata, and it’s a major situation. Here in New Mexico, more people are dying of drug overdoses than car accidents and gunshots, and nationally that’s the case too.
When I was getting ready to write Devin’s column, I did a lot of research. There are lots of news stories about the drug epidemic. They tend to follow the formula where the lede introduces a person who has died, and then the news follows. Those stories are important, but I couldn’t find any written by an actual journalist who had experienced losing a child to heroin first hand.”
Street: How did you decide to take the approach you did in writing this piece?
Krueger: There were so many different angles that I could have taken in writing this column, but ultimately, I decided to share the nitty gritty of what happened. It needs to be said that any time I wrote a story that involved a young person and heroin I talked to Devin, and said, ‘Promise me you’ll never do heroin.’ He said he wouldn’t. It amazes me that even with all of this information that he would still make that choice. So you think, “What can you say to young people?” This drug seems more powerful than anything we can try to teach our kids.
This was a kid that was really educated — I didn’t shield him from anything. In fact, as a cops reporter, sometimes I had no choice but to take him to crime scenes. He had seen the seedy underside, the violent world that surrounds us. I’d tell him to be careful, but he said I was being paranoid. I think at some point, Devin was in pain, and [he] found something that made him feel better. He probably threw away everything we’d talked about.
It’s very hard for me that I had all these facts at my fingertips, and it ultimately didn’t help Devin. One thing is, and I’ve learned this from all my years in journalism, sometimes you can be the greatest mom in the world and your kids still make bad choices, or bad things happen to them.
Street: Will you continue to write about heroin and the opioid epidemic?
Krueger: I haven’t really thought about what my next column on this topic will be, probably because there are so many stories, and we have to keep telling them. I don’t want to be the person who writes solely about this, but I have a certain platform and perspective.
Street: What do you want people to know about Devin?
Krueger: He could have been a spoiled only child, but he wasn’t. After I had covered the foster system and decided to adopt, he was part of that decision and he embraced it. He was a great big brother [and a caretaker to several of his siblings]. He was a big bear a of a guy — 6’3 and 300 lbs. He could be intimidating if he wanted to, but also gave the best bear hugs. He had this amazing collection of socks and had this thing for exotic cheeses and beers. He was extremely generous. He also didn’t suffer fools.
Devin loved the Harry Potter books and when he was younger, fell asleep while I read them to him. He also liked the game Magic and had a Pokemon tattoo on his arm.
His nickname was “Suga D” and everyone around town knew him by that. He loved his dog and his dog still looks for him.
He was my travel companion, and such a smart kid. It was fun to talk with him. I think that’s what I miss the most.
Krueger’s approach to writing personal narrative offers many takeaways for media practitioners interested in writing about trauma and loss. When writing a personal narrative, writers can follow Krueger’s lead by considering the following questions: How can you write from your unique vantage point to address universal issues? Is there a story that you have not told that it is time to share? And how can your journalistic training and reporting skills add to and support personal narrative?
Read Krueger’s personal narrative “A Mother’s Anguish” here.
Editor’s note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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