“I was 22 and only smoked weed, drank from here and there, took pills sometimes. Some call me a late bloomer.”
So begins a letter written by Amber Rowland on April 11, 2016, and read aloud in Montcalm County’s Drug Court as a success story from someone who was bound by addiction, but fought to be sober.
Amber succeeded — she was sober for 16 months.
Two months after she wrote her letter, she was dead at age 25 from a heroin overdose. She had taken heroin for the first time since being sober and it overwhelmed her body. Her final moments were spent lying on someone’s porch in Belding.
If someone had opened her purse laying next to her, they would have found she carried a lifesaving dose of Narcan, used to revive people from heroin overdoses.
• • • •
Amber Rowland was born Jan. 8, 1991, in Carson City, to John Rowland and Christina Wert (they are now divorced). She grew up in Greenville and attended Greenville Public Schools.
“She was very outgoing,” recalled Wert, who now lives in Florida, where she works as a scheduling coordinator for Vascular Vein Centers of Orlando. “She didn’t have great grades, but every single report card said she liked to talk to boys, she had tons of friends. She was just an amazing little girl, she could just light up the room.”
“She was great,” added John Rowland, who works as a supervisor for Federal-Mogul in Greenville. “Everybody loved her, she’d help anybody out.”
“She loved people, just loved people,” agreed Amber’s grandmother, Donna Webster of Greenville. “That was Amber all the time. If you knew Amber, that was Amber, just full of life.”
Amber participated in dance and cheerleading at school and worked at McDonald’s and the Winter Inn in Greenville. She loved music, especially hip hop artist Gucci Mane.
“She loved to sing and the girl could dance,” her mother said. “She was just a great girl with a huge heart and her favorite thing to do was being with her friends and making everyone around her laugh.”
Amber had warm brown eyes and a charismatic smile that lit up a room. Her hair and makeup were always carefully done. She planned to become a beautician.
She was especially close to her younger brother, Terren Rowland. They called each other “peanut butter and jelly.”
Terren starting doing heroin when he was barely a freshman in high school. His father had been prescribed norco, an opioid pain medication, and Terren took some one day out of curiosity. Many of his friends at school were taking pills and Terren, who had only smoked marijuana, says he wanted to fit in.
After Terren began relying on the pills, his friend suggested he try heroin instead, as heroin was cheaper and provided a more dramatic high.
“And that was it,” Terren said. “I did my first line at 14 years old. Within the year, I was shooting up.”
Terren’s parents tried to help him, but they didn’t know what to do. They had never dealt with a problem like this before.
“I couldn’t even believe heroin was in Greenville,” Wert said. “I’d never even seen it before. It didn’t hit home.”
“My parents would try to talk to me, but nothing they said mattered to me,” Terren recalled. “The only thing that mattered to me was my next high. After you use heroin for the first time, you’re stuck.”
Amber: “When I moved here, I thought I had it all figured out, knew exactly who I was and was here for one mission and one mission only. I wanted to get my old brother back. Little did I know I was taking on something much greater than myself. I was judging everyone while trying to save them at the same time. I didn’t realize surrounding myself with the people I did would bring me down as far as it did. They couldn’t. I was stronger than that. I thought. They were just dumb for not being able to stop getting high. But I was uneducated and was soon to find out just how uneducated I was. My brother always told me, ‘You will never understand,’ and he was right. I didn’t, but it didn’t take me long to understand.”
When Amber turned 18 years old, she moved to Florida to live with her mother and work as a bartender. She started taking Xanax when she was about 20 years old. She had an anxious personality and she found the pills helped her relax and not worry so much.
When she was 23 years old, Amber moved back to Michigan to try to help Terren escape the drug scene.
“Amber actually went home to save her brother,” Wert said. “She hated heroin. There were so many of her friends that were on it. It was just too hard for her to run from.”
Amber: “I met a guy who I claim to love more than anything who had the same problem everyone else I loved did. I had everything, my own place, friends, my brother, family and my amazing boyfriend. What could go wrong? After a year of putting everyone before myself, everyone I judged I turned into. The man I loved put a needle in my arm for our one-year anniversary. I thought maybe we wouldn’t fight so much, put his hands on me so much, break my stuff or be so mean to me, in general, no more. Through it all I still loved him. That was our love. So I did it not knowing I was kissing everything goodbye.”
Amber met her boyfriend at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. That’s how she was first convinced to try heroin.
“She was dating a boy and this boy was on heroin,” Wert said. “They were fighting all the time about heroin. On their one-year anniversary she thought if she would just try this, they would get along better. From that point on, she doesn’t remember a whole year of her life.”
John Rowland recalls being shocked at how rapidly his daughter became addicted to heroin.
“It was a quick process,” he said “Amber was a quick downhill fall, real quick. I never thought she would do something like that.”
Amber: “I hated everyone who got my brother high. In the blink of an eye, the number one person I’m supposed to protect was the person I sat in bathrooms with, day in and day out, holding his turnikit (tourniquet) for him so he could hit himself faster so it was finally my turn. That very moment is when I made the person who means the world to me addiction worse. I made situations worse. Shortly after my apartment turned into the junkie hotel. My relationship got worse. Everything I hated that my brother, the lying, stealing, manipulating, I was now the mastermind. In everyone’s eyes, I was still the good kid. We stole from family, friends, stores, houses, didn’t matter. If we got money to get high, we didn’t care. All this resulted in getting my house raided not once but twice. Went to jail, bonded out and ran. I wasn’t ready to give the lifestyle up. I couldn’t just stop getting high.
“I lost everything. I lived in hotels all over Grand Rapids with my dope dealer boyfriend, selling body massages and happy endings on Back Page, allowing my other half to stand on exits with a sign saying ‘Need money for food’ in 30-degree weather to support our habit. We would sit and admire people who woke up normal while at gas stations stealing Kit Kats and Slushies just to eat cause we couldn’t risk spending an extra dollar cause we needed it. Why couldn’t we just stop getting high? Who was this girl I turned into? I finally understood.
“First time ever being in trouble. I had four felonies. I’m convicted of three trying to protect the ones who were turning me in. I turned myself in after my brother beg me to. Did my time, got out on Drug Court and didn’t think I had to change anything. There was nothing wrong with me. I was addicted to heroin. I’m clean now. I can still do what I wanted to. After multiple violations for my bad choices and my nasty attitude, I went to boot camp. My first homework assignment was to write a paper that read at the top of it, ‘Who am I?’ The girl who knew exactly who she was couldn’t even write two sentences. I had no idea who I turned into.”
According to Montcalm County 8th Judicial Circuit Court records, Amber was arrested Oct. 29, 2014, and charged with being in possession of heroin and maintaining a drug house in Greenville.
While out on bond, she was arrested again for maintaining a drug house on Nov. 6, 2014.
She pleaded guilty to all three counts and was sentenced May 14, 2015, to four days in the Montcalm County Jail with credit for 112 days served, and three years probation. She was also assigned to participate in drug court and boot camp.
Meanwhile, Terren was arrested for delivering heroin in Greenville on Nov. 3, 2014.
He pleaded guilty as charged and was sentenced April 30, 2015, to seven months in jail with credit or 114 days served and three years probation. He also was assigned to participate in drug court and boot camp.
Amber and Terren were released from jail four days apart. Terren says they were sober together for the next year and a half.
Amber: “I did three months in the hardest place I could have ever imagined and actually graduated, coming out a completely different person. I saw things different, feel different about things. I don’t entertain drama or people who are irrelevant to me. The people I thought would be my friends forever turned to strangers. Strangers turned into my best friends. I could sit here and point fingers on who to blame on why I am where I am, but I better be standing in front of a mirror while doing it.”
Despite successfully completing Drug Court, Wert knew her daughter was still struggling in Michigan. Amber would text her mother and say, “Mom, please take the week off and come get me now.” The next day she would say, “I’m just kidding Mom, I’m fine.”
In June 2016, Amber and her mother got into an argument over the phone because Wert was concerned Amber was drinking too much alcohol. Terren, who was on probation but knew how concerned his mother was, said he was going to cut his tether and go get Amber and drive her down to Florida. Wert called Amber back and they argued again.
“I said why would you put your brother in this situation?” Wert recalled. “The last thing that Amber said to me was, ‘I’m sorry I’m such a f***-up, mom.’ Then she hung up.”
Mother and daughter texted each other later when they had both calmed down. Wert told Amber to turn off her phone and Facebook to get away from bad influences and to get a ride down to Florida.
“I said, ‘Come to your Mom because I love you,’” Wert remembered.
Wert didn’t hear from her daughter for two days, but she wasn’t worried. Terren — who had removed his tether — had called his mother and said he was driving down to Florida, so Wert assumed Amber was riding along with her brother. In reality, Terren had tried to convince his sister to go to Florida with him, but she declined. When Terren said goodbye to Amber, she was back with her ex-boyfriend and high on heroin, but otherwise functioning.
Terren was on the road when he learned his sister had died, just hours after he had last seen her. He called his mother to tell her the devastating news. Wert, thinking her children were in the car together, asked how Amber was doing.
“He said, ‘Mom, Amber’s dead,’ Wert recalled, the traumatic recollection overwhelming her with emotion.
“And I thought she was in Indiana,” she said, struggling to get her words out as the memory overtook her. “I said, ‘She’s in Indiana,’ and he said, ‘No, Mom, she didn’t come.’”
Amber had taken heroin for the first time since being sober. She overdosed and passed out on a porch in Belding. She was taken to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids, where she died on June 14, 2016.
“She was doing good,” John Rowland recalled. “Over one weekend she hooked up with a guy she knew and it was over in a weekend. It was just like bam, it was over.”
John stopped talking as tears choked his voice. The wound of losing his daughter remains as fresh and painful as it was last summer.
Amber: “A mistake is an accident made through oversight, misunderstanding, insufficient or incorrect information. A bad choice is a choice to do something known to be wrong. I didn’t make a mistake. I made more than a few bad choices that got me where I am today. And I can mostly stand here and tell you how grateful I am for all of them.”
Amber’s memorial service at Hurst Funeral Home in Greenville attracted so many people that all the young folks were asked to sit on the floor to provide room for everyone else.
Wert said parent after parent hugged her and said, “This could have been me. This could have been my child.”
“It hurts my heart that there were so many parents that said that,” Wert said. “There’s something going on in our town. I love my hometown, I can sing the fight song word for word right now. When I think about Greenville, I think that we were such a strong community that all of our kids were everybody else’s kids. So when Amber passed away, I think it affected so many families because she was part of their family, just like other kids were part of my family. It didn’t just affect one family, it affected so many families. That’s what Greenville is about to me. There’s such a community bond there. It’s sad for me to come home now because there is heroin in our town and it’s killing our kids.”
Amber: “They said God works in mysterious ways. Maybe this is what needed to happen to get my brother back. Here we are, clean and walking this journey together. I can’t tell you I know exactly who I am cause I’d be lying. But I can tell you I’m not that girl I was when I walked through those doors the first time. I have to give credit to Judge Kreeger … and the rest of the Drug Court panel. I also have to give myself credit as well because I’m the one who wants this. I also can’t forget my recovery family, my amazing, supporting family, the few select friends I have, and my brother.”
Terren returned from Florida and turned himself into police on Sept. 29, 2016, a few months after Amber’s death. He was sentenced Oct. 12, 2016, for violating his parole and sent to jail for 12 months with credit for 281 days served. He successfully completed boot camp and rehab and was released in late March.
Terren, who is now 23 years old, is six months clean, and counting. He lives in Greenville and keeps himself busy by working a local job grinding plastics, reading a lot of books and — most importantly, he says — attending addiction meetings and talking about his feelings.
“Meeting-makers make it,” he said. “The best part about recovery is getting your feelings back, and the worst part about recovery is getting your feelings back.”
Terren says the first 30 days of sobriety were the hardest. The first 14 days were physically draining; the next 14 days were a mental battle. Someone told Terren a craving for something lasts about seven minutes, and that’s how lived his first months getting sober — seven minutes at a time.
The combination of hurt, anger and loss resulting from Amber’s death inspired her family and friends to start a community conversation about heroin. A rally was held in Veterans Park in Greenville in the summer of 2016, hosted by multiple volunteers, including Christina Allison, who owns Burning ScentSations in Greenville, and her sister, Kelly Border, who owns BSS Alternative Wellness Center in Greenville.
A photo collage poster of Amber at the rally was decorated with 37 hearts in honor of 37 area heroin overdose deaths in recent years.
Since that rally, 14 more hearts have been added to that poster.
“That whole generation there, I don’t know what happened,” Allison said. “It’s out of control. We don’t understand what happened. We were good parents. Where did heroin come from? All of a sudden it’s here, and we all got blindsided by it. Everybody’s so scared about their dirty little secret that they don’t want to talk about it and let people know that it’s in their family too.”
“It doesn’t pick class or money or age,” Border added. “Heroin affects everyone.”
Allison believes right now more than anything, community education is needed.
“I 100 percent fully believe we need to educate these addicts about calling for police and medical help when there’s an overdose,” she said. “Amber had a Narcan case in her purse, but her friends panicked and left her on a porch to die when they could have opened her purse. They could have taken her to the hospital and not gotten into trouble.”
“The more they lose each other, the more they lose hope,” Webster noted. “We have to do something. Something has to be done in this city. It’s destroyed all these families. It’s been destroying us, separating us all.”
“I believe Montcalm County and surrounding counties need to step up and make their own rules,” Allison said. “Forget about what everyone else is doing. Make our own rules to help our own people. These addicts, they need education. They need to know they can call when their friend is on the floor, overdosing, and not be afraid. The addicts need to know to communicate with one another. They need to say, ‘If anything happens to me, I carry a Narcan kit in my purse, or in my glove box. I think everything comes down to education.”
Terren wants to organize another addiction awareness community rally in Greenville, hopefully sometime in June.
“If we can all just get together and fight this, maybe we’ll actually have a chance,” he said. “Every day I wake up and I just want to change the world. My goal is to make recovery cool. All my friends were doing drugs, so that was cool to me. I just wanted to fit in so I started doing drugs. You go into schools and it’s all people smoking weed or going out and drinking and doing drugs on the weekends. I don’t want that to be cool anymore. I want having fun sober to be cool.
“There’s a stigma with addiction,” he said. “People are afraid to talk about it. We can’t be silent, we can’t just talk about it at our meetings. We have to get out into the community and tell our stories to everyone.”
A silver necklace with an anchor hangs around Terren’s neck. The anchor contains some of Amber’s ashes. Terren says he doesn’t cry when he thinks about his sister. The thought of her gives him strength.
“She’s with me every single day,” he said. “I use her death as a motivation to help others. I know that her story can change a lot of lives.”
“Thank you guys for not giving up on
me when I felt like giving up on myself.”
— conclusion of Amber’s letter
Monday, April 17, 2017
Part 2:“It’s At An Epidemic Level”
Local police agencies have seen heroin use become common.