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Her only child was about to begin a new life. Addiction took it all away

Veronica Gower gets emotional on Saturday as she talks about her child who died last year from a heroin overdose. Gower cherishes a photo of Jeremy as Jennyand Jeremy’s favorite hat.
Veronica Gower gets emotional on Saturday as she talks about her child who died last year from a heroin overdose. Gower cherishes a photo of Jeremy as Jennyand Jeremy’s favorite hat. adrey@centredaily.com

Jeremy and Jenny Alterio were almost exactly alike.

Jeremy made friends easily with the same smile and laugh, was quick to put the happiness of others first and always seemed to know what to say when someone else needed help.

He also spent his life wanting to be Jenny and had only just begun to show the world on the outside who he was on the inside.

“They were the same in every way except Jenny loved playing with makeup, dressing up (and) online shopping for more feminine things,” his half-sister Taneaka Alterio said. “He/she described it best, ‘If you look at my room it’s half RuPaul, half game nerd and the rest comic nerd.’ The outside appearance was the only difference between the two.”

Jeremy shocked some people in March 2016, about a month before his death.

He picked a blonde wig, wore one of his favorite dresses and put on pink nail polish for a selfie and posted it to Facebook. He had opened up to a few friends and family in the years leading up to that moment, but not everyone knew.

“I had no idea that she was gonna do that,” his mother, Veronica Gower, said. “She was happy. She called me (and said), ‘Mum. I’m so happy. I’m so happy,’ and I was so proud. That was the proudest moment I have of her. That took guts. That took courage. Everybody should have that same courage.”

Jeremy, 30, had decided to pursue becoming a woman — just as soon as the ankle monitor was off.

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There were some things his mom didn’t know.

“I don’t think he ever wanted to disappoint me,” Gower said.

Jeremy didn’t tell his mother about the ankle monitor and house arrest until he had to. He had been found guilty of driving under the influence. The situation prompted Gower to have Easter dinner at her Spring Mills home three weeks before the holiday to make sure he was included.

He dressed as Jenny that day — the last time they would be together. There, he confided in his mom again about the emotional toll he was going through. The acceptance and support of many could not block out the rejection of others.

“Jenny sat next to me on my couch, laid her head on my shoulder and just cried,” Gower said. “She didn’t understand how people who loved her could be so mean.”

Gower didn’t know the full story until after Jeremy died April 7, 2016, in his bedroom.

An ex-girlfriend, she learned, introduced heroin to him about a decade before his fentanyl-laced heroin overdose. Gower said she never knew he had an addiction, but friends and some family did.

“I was preparing him for a life without me,” Gower said. “Every night that I wrote in my journal for her I wrote at the end, ‘I love my son.’ I was just gonna start writing ‘I love my daughter.’ I thought she’d know how much I loved her. I haven’t picked up that book since (she died).”

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Jenny had a lot to look forward to in 2016 — her transformation, plans to move out of her grandma’s Bellefonte house and being in her mother’s and Taneaka’s weddings.

“We were planning on her attending my wedding as my sister, Jenny,” Taneaka said. “I even got her to agree to buy a brunette wig instead of her bright blonde wig. We were so excited to see the resemblance between the two of us all dolled up together.”

Jeremy told Taneaka about Jenny in 2006, but there were always signs.

He secretly jammed out to TLC with Taneaka when they were children, tried on his mother’s clothes when he was a teenager and let friends put makeup on him when he was an adult. They thought the makeup was Jeremy’s way of giving everyone a good laugh, but it was an outlet for him to be Jenny, even for a few moments.

“My most favorite moment is one night after work, we met up for a late night trip to Wal-Mart, since there’s not many people around late at night,” Taneaka said. “I got to help her pick out a cute outfit and some nail polish for a date she had.”

Jeremy was happiest as Jenny, his mother and sister said, but some loved ones would not accept him as her.

“He could hide his track marks and reasonably function when he was on some kind of high,” Taneaka said. “You can’t hide a bleach blonde wig and bright pink lipstick. He spoke very candidly to me about why. (He said), ‘Doing something, getting high, makes me not care as much about the whole trans thing. I don’t have any other way to block out how I feel and a big part of me never wanted to be like this. I don’t know if I’d rather be a normal junkie (or) a clean and sober trans person.’ ”

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Gower has struggled with the unknown.

Why did Jeremy agree to get high the first time? Why didn’t anyone tell her? Could she have persuaded him to get help?

She would have tried.

“When you are addicted, you are addicted,” Gower said. “Even when he presented himself as Jenny, she was still using heroin. Once it has you in its grip, there is no getting out without professional help.”

Gower has dedicated herself to getting addicts professional help and making others more aware of the signs of addiction. She has sent letters to every politician, media outlet and talk show host she can think of, made a video in memory of Jeremy and joined Centre County HOPE Initiative — a local group that shares her mission.

The initiative, which stands for Heroin and Opioid Education and Prevention, pits parents, former addicts, elected officials, police and local organizations against substance abuse.

The group’s site lays out the facts. There have been about 60 overdose deaths since 2013 in Centre County. More than one-third of Centre County youth in sixth through 12th grade have taken “prescription drugs from a family member” in their home. Pennsylvania ranks No. 1 for overdose deaths for males ages 12 to 24.

HOPE’s mission is Gower’s mission, and she has ideas about what can be done for addicts.

She wants a treatment center in Bellefonte; she wants people to learn about addiction; and she wants people who are addicted to get lifelong professional help.

“They need to learn how to deal with it, because it’s a lifelong battle,” she said. “Their body will crave it for the rest of their lives. They need to learn how to deal with that craving and how to fight. It’s something you can’t do on your own.”

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There were friends who tried to stop Jeremy from using drugs. Others were addicts like him. And some still are — they could be next.

“There will never be a day where we don’t have to worry about loved ones experimenting in recreational drug usage,” Taneaka said. “However, we can teach more in schools. I feel that while growing up, I learned more about drugs and sex from my friends and the internet than we did in school. ... I can’t speak for right now, but then there was very little support for LGBT kids and you learned the basics about the different drugs and ‘just say no.’ Knowledge and support, I think, are the key to the possibly finding a solution one day.”

Part of the answer, Taneaka said, is also re-evaluating pain management programs.

The evidence supports her — according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, 80 percent of heroin addicts first abused prescription medication.

And sometimes you have to ask, like Gower once asked Jeremy if he’d ever used drugs. But he didn’t want to disappoint her.

So, he kept what masked his pain a secret.

“It bothers me that Jeremy spent the majority of his life suffering in silence, not being able to be who he wanted to be, to be Jenny,” Gower said. “Because I’ll bet there are more Jennys out there. I want them to know it’s OK. I want them to know that people love you, that people will love you no matter what. What’s so hard to believe a person could be born with the wrong sex? I want people to know her. I’m proud of her, and I don’t want her to be forgotten.”

Centre County LGBTA Groups

▪ Centre LGBTQA Support Network info@centrelgbtqa.org

▪ Central PA GLBT Potluck Dinners glbtpotluck@yahoo.com

▪ The Brunch Club for Gay and Bi Men info@thebrunchclub.org

▪ The Lesbian Connection TLCcentralPA@gmail.com

Centre County Prevention and Treatment Providers and Counseling

▪ PACCT 234-8222

▪ Centre County Drug and Alcohol Office 355-6744

▪ Clear Concepts Counseling 355-7629

▪ Crossroads Counseling 231-0940

▪ Penn State EPISCenter episcenter.psu.edu

▪ Quest Services 342-6740

▪ State College Medical 235-6988

▪ United Against Heroin Addiction 866-691-4192

Centre County Mental Health Groups

▪ Centre Helps 237-5855, 800-494-2500

▪ Crisis Intervention Team Coordinator 933-7101

▪ Centre County Mental Health Intervention 355-6786

The 24/7/365 hotline: 800-494-2500

Office Hours number: 814-237-5855

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