Brian O'Neill: It's a true fall fundraiser to help combat addiction

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The love comes into Gary Mendell's eyes when I ask about the oldest of his five children, Brian.

"He was just the best," he says. "The most compassionate, funny, most caring person you'd ever want to meet.''

Mr. Mendell is now touring the country trying to stop more Brians from dying.

The year before Brian began high school, he smoked pot for the first time. That's not uncommon, but Brian wouldn't stop there. A descent into harder drugs followed. Treatment began when he was a junior in high school, but it took years before he got into a program that treated the anxiety and depression beneath his addictions.

He stayed free of drugs for more than a year, yet that wasn't enough to save him. Brian hung himself at 25, saying in his suicide note that blood tests would show that he was still clean. He just didn't want to hurt anyone anymore.

For Mr. Mendell, 57, the pain never goes away. He and other grieving parents have launched Shatterproof, a leap of faith if ever there was one.

I met with Mr. Mendell at a Downtown coffee shop knowing only the basics: On Wednesday, June 25, volunteers will be rappelling 26 stories down the side of the Westin at Liberty Center all day long, no experience necessary, in a Shatterproof fundraiser.

How could something so wacky help with addictions, and where would the money go?

Mr. Mendell says the Latin root for rappel means "to summon,'' and Shatterproof sought an eye-catching way to summon America to confront widespread addictions. An extreme problem calls for extreme fundraising, he said.

Though a lot of us use psychological jargon when we talk about addiction -- throwing around terms such as "enabling'' and "co-dependency'' and ''self-medicating'' -- Shatterproof doesn't believe we know nearly enough about the root causes. Many never get past the societal stigma to see addiction for the disease that it is, Mr. Mendell said.

We devote billions of more dollars to cancer research than to drug addiction, yet the latter is far more prevalent and causes more harm to society. That's not something Mr. Mendell ever thought about until he lost his son.

"Just say no'' has taken us only so far. He'd like to see more research into the genetic causes, the innate predilection for drugs that so many clearly have. If we knew more about who was most at risk it would maybe save another parent's child.

Mr. Mendell, a hotel executive from Connecticut, has used his contacts to set up these events from coast to coast. Pittsburgh will be the sixth of 20 cities with rappelling fundraisers, and his hope is to do 30 next year. He showed me a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story from last month about 50 people sliding 20 stories down the Hyatt Regency in that city, and he guessed it was the first time "good cause'' and "addiction fundraiser'' were ever in the same headline.

The irony is that Mr. Mendell is afraid of heights. More than seven stories up in one of his hotels, he can't even walk to the window. He said he was shaking when he walked to the elevator for his first rappelling event in San Jose, Calif., last December, but he's now done a half-dozen and he made me believe it was easy enough for anyone to do.

He suggested I try it.

Unfortunately -- or perhaps fortunately -- I have my own unbreakable commitment that day and so cannot slide down the side of the Westin. That's a shame because I'm now very curious about what that hotel looks like up-close from the other side of the windows.

If you are, too, and particularly if you know someone who has suffered addictions, here's your chance to take a bold step. It costs only $25 to sign up for the rappelling event at secure.shatterproof.org/pittsburgh, and the goal is for each participant to raise $1,000 or more through online appeals. Shatterproof raised $550,000 through its five previous events this year.

Rope specialists will provide training. All participants will get the obligatory T-shirt. Why not? This is surely a safer way to get high than a lot of others.

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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