'Battling the stigma:' Brother's death leads Shelton woman in fight against substance abuse

SHELTON — Vanessa Shimer loved spending time with her brother, James Karcher — a person she thought of more as her best friend than sibling.

The two shared a birth date, July 24, although James was the younger by three years.

When James died from an accidental Fentanyl overdose — the culmination of a decade of struggling with substance abuse — nearly two years ago at age 28, Shimer was devastated.

It was like she lost a part of herself, she said.

“I know that is such a cliché thing to say about your sibling, but he truly was my other half,” Shimer, a Shelton resident, said.

“He was younger than me but was always there for me,” Shimer recalled. “(He) wanted to know what we could do to hang out or when we could watch a new movie with candy. We loved watching the Batman series together.

“He was incredibly selfless, always putting others before him even when he was struggling on the inside. And very charming, had a great big smile and a laugh to go along with it," she recalled. “The stigma that went along with (addiction) haunted him because he was not a bad, dirty person like we often hear these labels associated with this disease. He was an absolute beautiful soul and is so incredibly missed by so many.”

His death left her lost, Shimer said. She did not know how to mourn James’ death or what to do to honor his memory.

Her search for answers ended when she learned of Shatterproof, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending the addiction crisis in the United States.

"The grief my family and I have felt since he’s left us has been painful,” said Shimer, now an ambassador and junior Board of Advisors member with the organization. “However throughout that grief and a deep passion for a change, I was drawn to Shatterproof.”

Shatterproof was founded by Connecticut resident Gary Mendell after he lost his son, Brian, to addiction.

"We don't wait for change, we create it,” Mendell said. “Together, we're building a future that supports those struggling with addiction and lends strength to their loved ones and communities by advocating for change, providing resources and taking action to prevent and defeat this horrible disease."

To aid in funding substance abuse prevention and assistance programs, Shimer is holding her first-ever fundraiser on July 24 at Caloroso Eatery & Bar on Center Street. Because that day would have been her brother’s 30th birthday this year, Shimer said she hopes to raise at least $3,030.

James was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes as a child, and struggled dealing with the condition, Shimer said. That, combined with what she called other “everyday battles” as he grew up, led him to using drugs.

Shimer said she felt the upcoming benefit would be good way to honor their common birth date.

"A special thing in my life has been that on my third birthday, I received a present and that present was him,” she said. “As you could imagine, it was always our even more special connection and last year being my first birthday without him was very incomplete.

“This July he would be turning 30, so in one of my sleepless nights, I just said, ‘I’m having a party for him’ which then led to making it a fundraiser dinner with proceeds going to Shatterproof. I just think it’s an excellent, very cathartic way to honor his birthday while also bringing awareness to substance use disorder to our community," she said.

Shimer said during the 10 years her brother struggled with substance abuse, he went to countless detox facilities, treatment centers and sober living facilities.

“Some were wonderful, and others were the complete opposite and that is something we can work on changing,” she said.

He was living in South Florida for just over a year and had some extensive recovery time, Shimer said. He told her he felt he needed to be back in Connecticut to be with his family and make up for lost time.

“It wasn’t even a week before he was in touch with an old contact and ... my brother was gone a few days later,” Shimer recalled. “He was sick, in pain and dealing with such internal turmoil. I knew he didn’t want to leave us, but I have to believe his higher power needed him more.

“Unfortunately, he was given pure Fentanyl instead of heroin, and he was killed instantly. Fentanyl has taken a skyrocket rise in our communities and taking so many young individuals,” she said.

James’ death changed their family drastically, she recalled. She joined a grief counseling group and later found a therapist who helped her find her voice and “purpose for service.

“Shatterproof came into my life through my many stages of grief,” Shimer said. “I was listening to a podcast called Last Day which is about two sisters who also lost their brothers to accidental overdoses. In that podcast they had (Mendell) — who also shares on the loss of his son — on as a guest and they just touched my soul, and I knew I needed to get involved.”

In addition to raising money to support the group’s efforts in revolutionizing treatment and minimizing stigma, she said she also wants to be of service to those who are now suffering — or still suffering — from a similar grief.

“Even if my efforts just touch one person or start a conversation or help someone see substance use disorder in a better light,” Shimer said, “then that is a big accomplishment to me.”

The benefit event is open to the community. Tickets can be purchased at alohajames.eventbrite.com. For more information, email shimervanessa@gmail.com