Family and friends will celebrate the late Rick Merrick and raise awareness for opioid abuse at Woodlands Tavern on Saturday, March 11

Nick and Rick Merrick grew up knowing their father would die young. Diagnosed with Crohn's disease, their dad retired early from his job as a police officer — Nick was around 5 years old — and the children were aware it was only a matter of time.

“There were at least three times when the doctor called us into the hospital to say goodbye,” Nick said.

Dealing with their father's looming death wasn't the only hardship for the brothers. Nick, who was diagnosed with Crohn's disease at age 11, was experiencing his own bouts of physical pain. By the time Nick was 14 and Rick was 12, they were experimenting with drugs to cope and escape, Nick said. Marijuana progressed to acid, and they were also exposed to opioids.

“I was inundated with painkillers when I was 16 years old by my doctors,” Nick said. “So it was in our house really early. My dad was on methadone treatment as far [back] as I can remember.”

Eventually, their father died at 56 years old, and both brothers developed an opioid addiction. Nick went to rehab in his late 20s and recovered; Rick succumbed to a heroin overdose at 33 years old on Dec. 15, 2016.

“That was something that he couldn't really let go of,” Nick said. “It is always how I thought he would go, but I hoped it wouldn't happen.”

Family and friends will honor Rick with the “1st Annual Rick Merrick Benefit for Opiate Addiction Treatment & Awareness” at Woodlands Tavern on Saturday, March 11. Donations taken at the door will be given to the Trini Foundation, which provides yoga instruction and access to wellness professionals for people in recovery.

Event organizer Curtis Manley remembers meeting Nick and Rick when they were kids in their hometown in Groveport. Manley was older than Rick, but they developed a friendship by the time Rick was 16. However, it took years for Rick to shake the “kid brother” image; Manley called him “16” and then “Ricksteen” until the Merricks' mom unexpectedly died from colon cancer years later.

“Her room number was 16 in the hospital, so at that point [Rick] was like, ‘OK, I want to go by Rick,'” Manley said.

In addition to being friends, Rick and Manley worked together. “I put on concerts and threw festivals and [Rick] was always there to help,” Manley said. “[He] would show up and work for four days with almost no sleep just to do anything he could.”

That also included taking pictures of shows. Having learned the art from his father, who made money on the side taking photos, Rick graduated from Ohio State with a bachelor's degree in photography. He even took Manley's wedding photos.

Though they were close, Manley had no idea Rick had a drug problem. “I just kept thinking he was just burning the candle at both ends,” Manley said. “I didn't recognize what he was dealing with.”

“He had a functional user thing going on,” Nick said. “It comes with using so young. You learn to cover it up really well.”

Nick knew Rick was taking pills, but the progression to heroin use — a “simple step” for opioid addicts, Nick said — was a surprise.

“I didn't know he was using needles until I cleaned out his apartment after he died,” Nick said.

“In his dark times … he was concerned that there weren't people that loved him and that he didn't have value,” Manley said, and explained another goal of the benefit is to reach other addicts and help them “recognize that there is help, there are people that understand, there are friends that you can talk to [and] you are loved.”

The benefit will also feature musicians and poets in recovery who will share their struggles through their art, and facilitate closure for those who've lost loved ones to addiction.

“We're gonna have a board where people can write the names of their friends they've lost and just write that last thing they wish they had said to them or that thing that they really hoped that they knew,” Manley said.

“I don't think there's gonna be a single person in that room that hasn't lost somebody to an opiate overdose,” Manley also said, adding that he chose to keep the focus of the benefit on opioid addiction because of its prevalence.

“I buried so many damn friends,” he said, and wondered if Rick hadn't opened up to him for fear of being scolded.

“Sometimes you kinda think maybe somebody just needs a swift kick in the behind but really … [it's] to let him know that not only is there help but that people care enough to help,” he said.

“‘It's chemistry, it's not character,'” Nick said, quoting an opioid awareness commercial that stuck with him. “It's a disease and at that point the rush that you're looking for is an impulse. … Before I had this under control I stole from my family.”

“We shame it so badly,” he continued. “I swear to God it's not their fault.”