Rex Butler is living proof of author Mary Pipher’s words: “Life itself assigns us our causes.”
In 2006, Rex’s younger brother, Bill, was preparing for surgery to relieve chronic lower-back pain. He had been taking hydrocodone, an opioid medication, for pain relief, but when he developed a tolerance to it, his doctor switched him to methadone, another opioid. Unaware that methadone accumulates and remains in the body for a longer time than hydrocodone, Bill accidentally took too large a dose and—just two weeks before his surgery—joined the more than 16,000 Americans who die each year from prescription pain medication overdose. He left behind a devastated family: his wife, two sons and three older siblings, including Rex—who is now a vocal advocate for ending prescription opioid addiction and overdose.
A safety and environmental compliance professional and former member of the Iowa-Illinois Safety Council Board of Directors, Rex was already a confident public speaker who knew that he had to speak out. “I was consumed with grief and anger,” Rex remembers, “but almost immediately I began noticing at least two articles a week in various publications about methadone overdose deaths. It was mind-blowing. Then, when the National Safety Council launched a program focusing on the epidemic, I knew I could do more than just be collateral damage.”
Though an experienced speaker, Rex had to navigate the fragile space every advocate encounters as they move from the private to the public sphere. “I failed to appreciate how hard it is to talk about something painful that’s still relatively fresh in your heart. My brain told me I was ready, but the first and second presentations made it clear that I had work to do. I had difficulty keeping Bill’s memory in a safe place as I spoke to audiences. “
Rex credits the training he received from the National Safety Council’s Survivor Advocacy Program, his connection with other survivor advocates and his work with Living Proof with helping him focus his story on his advocacy goals: educating others about the epidemic, especially those in the workplace, and saving lives. “Now I can share it without letting emotions control the moment,” says Rex. “And it’s empowering. It gives me peace and pride knowing that Bill did not die senselessly.”
Like so many other advocates whose stories arise from experiences of grief, loss or trauma, Rex has found the experience of becoming an advocate transformative: “It has been a personal growth experience and one that has enriched my life in ways I never expected. I can see people thinking as they listen to my story. I’ve fielded questions about signs of abuse and misuse. I’ve had someone confess she was convinced her friend was in trouble with addiction based on things I mentioned in my presentation. I embrace these moments and I see them as belonging to Bill.”
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