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"When you lose a child, it's like no pain on earth."

Patricia Mead was talking about the passing of her son, Joshua, in 2000. But she could have been speaking for any of her three sisters, who also each lost sons, within eight years of one another. All from heroin overdoses.

"I remember that feeling, too, when we were lowering George's casket. I said, 'This is it. There's nothing else,'" said Mead's sister, Polly Fisk. Her son, George Sorrels, died of an overdose in 2004. "Losing a child, there's nothing worse."

The opioid overdose crisis has reached epidemic proportions, in Northwest Indiana and the country as a whole. The Region saw a record number of drug overdose deaths in 2017. But the crisis didn't happen overnight. Families in the Region have been torn apart by drug deaths for years now.

Perhaps none more so than this one.

The saga started Dec. 29, 2000. Joshua Mead, 23, wasn't getting along with his loved ones, with his pregnant girlfriend. So he went out drinking.

He consumed a fifth of Southern Comfort that day. He took several Xanax bars. He hung out at a bar in Highland until close.

His buddy who drove him home wanted to get some heroin. They did some, and Joshua passed out at a friend's house.

That night, he was gasping for air. His friends thought he was snoring. When they turned on the light, he was blue.

"I went to the hospital. I didn't know he had passed on. I went to the emergency room. I went in there and closed his eyes," said his brother, Michael Mead II. "It's affected my life a lot till this point. I've never let it go. And it's been 17 years."

Another cousin dies

Patricia Mead had bought a burial plot with four spots at a cemetery in Portage: for her, her two sons and daughter.

Sorrels later asked her: If he died, could he have the spot next to Joshua? "I said, 'George, you're not going anywhere,'" Patricia recalled.

He had been in and out of rehab throughout his teens. At one point, his mom had him admitted to a psych ward, saying he was suicidal. But the facility could only keep him for 72 hours.

"I called the counselor and said, 'He's going to die. He's using drugs. He's going to overdose and die,'" Fisk said. "They just couldn't do anything."

A few weeks before his death, he and his mom were sitting at the dining room table when he said, "What is wrong with me? I can't get it together."

"I didn't know what to say. I said, 'Well, you have to pray,'" Fisk recalled. "He's like, 'Well, I'll just die.' I said ... 'Oh, hell no, you're not going into the spirit world with Josh and driving me crazy.' We laughed and laughed and laughed."

On Feb. 20, 2004, Sorrels got in a fight with a family member, left the house, did more heroin than he should have, and died, in Whiting. He was 22.

"He just had a high spirit," Fisk said, smiling at the thought of him. "Oh, my gosh, he was just wonderful."

He liked to write. He had a witty sense of humor. His mom said he could have been a comedian. She said he lit up rooms his with "electric smile."

More tragedy

Almost three years to the date of Sorrels' death, another of his cousins died, in Lafayette. A year and a half after that, the fourth one passed away, in Porter County. They were also both 22. All four cousins are now buried in Patricia Mead's cemetery plot in Portage.

"When Josh died, all of them knew and they continued to use," Patricia said.

"That's how powerful the drug is," Michael added.

At her Crown Point home late last year, Patricia, along with Michael and Polly, showed pictures of the four young men, their funeral programs, poems and letters they had written from jail. The three said they had all lost several other people close to them to heroin in recent years.

"You have no idea," Michael said.

Fisk said her other sons struggle with addiction. She has learned to set boundaries, to not enable.

"Sometimes helping an addict, if they're really advanced in their addiction, will kill them," she said.

All these years later, the women are left to wonder what they could have done differently.

"There's a lot of guilt trips, back to the time when they were 2 years old," Patricia said. "Maybe I shouldn't have given them a spanking."

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"I should have caged my boys up," Fisk said. "I should have disciplined them more."

"When you are a parent you have no training," Patricia said. "All of a sudden, you have a baby and say, 'What do I do with this thing?'"

What are solutions?

Patricia said she wishes addiction were treated more like a medical condition and not a character flaw. She hopes society would show more compassion to overdose victims, to not look at them as wastes of life who are better off dead.

"You've got to treat it like cancer because it will kill you," Fisk said. "It's just a matter of time."

"Usually the people that are on drugs are the most sensitive, the most creative people," Patricia said. "They get hurt, their feelings. They have the biggest hearts. They can't tolerate a lot of stress and, you know, this world is very stressful."

She said the four cousins weren't bad kids. They just liked to have fun, often together.

Michael said solving this crisis starts with education, starting at home, with parents.

"Say, 'Hey, this is what this s*** does,'" he said. "This isn't smoking pot. This isn't getting drunk. This is heroin."

Patricia also believes America has to get a handle on its pill consumption, and needs more long-term treatment centers, where the patients can't leave.

"Ask Donald while he's building the wall to build some rehabs," Fisk said.

Michael said it's hard to talk about his brother's death, but he's doing it in the hopes he can reach other people dealing with addiction.

"If I can help one single person live one more day, one more hour, I would do it," he said.

But it's not easy. He's a private person. And he's still grieving, all these years later.

"It took me a long time," he said. "Everybody's different. One way or another you have to accept it and move forward with your life. It's hard, but you've got to do it. Otherwise you'll be f***** up your whole life."

"This is not only a story," he added. "It's life."

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Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.