Book Buzz: Here With You

Here With You: A Memoir of Love, Family, and Addiction by Kathy Wagner

The opioid crisis has reached epidemic proportions with virtually no place escaping its devastation. Here in Whatcom County, according to data provided by the Whatcom County Medical Examiner’s Office, there were 136 overdose-related deaths in 2023, up from 91 in 2022.

Libraries and other agencies now offer free naloxone, a medicine that can reverse an opioid overdose, and groups like All Hands Whatcom, Whatcom Has Hope and the Native Transformations Project bring community members together to seek community responses.

A story of how one family has been impacted by this epidemic, “Here With You” by Kathy Wagner, is a searingly intimate account of Kathy’s son Tristan’s struggle with addiction that ended when he lost his life to fentanyl poisoning. Kathy lives just over the border in the metro Vancouver area and will be visiting Village Books in Fairhaven at 6 p.m. Thursday, May 9 to talk about her book and her son’s life.

Tristan was the youngest of Kathy’s three children and she describes him as being a sensitive, very loving child. Kathy’s two older children had troubles of their own, keeping her full of worry as a single mom; the middle daughter, Tanis, is a Type 1 diabetic who was not always attentive to managing her disease, and Jenn, the eldest, was reckless, strong-headed and dealing with her own demons in the form of alcoholism.

Kathy thought the first few drug and alcohol episodes when Tristan was 14 might just be teenage experimentation, but when Tristan started regularly not coming home at night and went to four schools in less than two years due to being expelled, she had to face the reality that Tristan’s brain was different. Drugs would never be “just a phase” for him but were “his North Star” that led to “a dark and tangled trail that ended nowhere — at least, nowhere good.”

After failing to get Tristan to go to a residential rehab program, Kathy leaned into his love of martial arts, finding a yearlong intensive program in China where he could study with a Shaolin master. Borrowing from his college education fund to pay for the program, Tristan and Kathy traveled to China together and Kathy studied at the same school for five weeks, beginning her own healing journey with Tai Chi and meditation classes. Tristan excelled under the disciplined regime and direction of the teacher Shifu Wang … until he didn’t.

Leaving China before the end of the program and returning home, the following years were a roller coaster of hope and despair for Kathy as Tristan alternately excelled in a rehab environment, only to break the rules and be asked to leave. During this up and down time, he enrolled in culinary school, nurturing his love of cooking, and worked at several upscale restaurants in the Vancouver area, although the jobs always seemed to end with him being let go after failing to show up one too many times.

Kathy worked hard on her own recovery journey during this time, attending Nar-Anon meetings, setting and keeping difficult boundaries, and learning to say “no” to providing money, a place to stay and other support. Anyone who has loved someone struggling with addiction will find Kathy’s story painfully familiar.

Whether you have firsthand experiences with addiction and recovery or just want to better understand the impact of this crisis on individual lives and families, “Here With You” is a brave and timely account from one mother’s perspective.

To learn more about how opioids infiltrate communities and how different communities have been impacted by the epidemic, check out Sam Quinones’s excellent books “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic” and “The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth.”

Kathy Wagner will be at Village Books in Fairhaven at 6 p.m. Thursday, May 9 in conversation with local author and writing coach Anneliese Kamola.

Lisa Gresham is the collection services manager for the Whatcom County Library System,

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, May 5, 2024.)