When there's an addict in the family: a first hand account

More than 14,700 opioid-related deaths occurred in Canada between January 2016 and September 2019. From January through September 2019 there were 2,913 deaths, of which 94 percent were accidental. 78 percent of these involved Fentanyl and most occurred in males between 30 and 39 years. There were more than 17,000 suspected opioid-related overdoses between January 2019 and September 2019 across the country. 

Closer to home, there were 96 opioid related deaths in Sudbury and Manitoulin between January 2017 and June 2019 and in May 2020, the health unit issued a warning as overdose numbers spiked in the district. 

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As a parent, I have cycled through feelings of fear, anger, grief, guilt and shame as I advocated for my son, or simply showed up. We need to talk about this epidemic on a very personal level. No one is exempt from this. We all know someone. This essay is very personal. It is not about his addiction. There are no statistics involved. This is my story, my experience. My family has been torn apart and somehow found our way back. Unfortunately, I don’t know how this story will end. 

My son is an addict. His drug of choice is Fentanyl, usually mixed with heroin. Lab reports have also shown traces of cocaine and hydromorphone, and I wonder if perhaps crystal meth isn’t in the mix somewhere. 

It’s been a little over three years since we, my daughter and I, found out. It was the week after Easter. I had returned home to the Island only to have to turn around and drive seven hours back to the city. He said he wanted help. He said he’d only recently started using.

Those were the first of many lies.

He was on the couch when I arrived, shaking, cold, miserable and angry. He’d lost his job and his house. His girlfriend, the one who introduced him to ‘popcorn’ (called popcorn, because when Fentanyl and heroin were crushed together and smoked, it smelled like burnt popcorn), his girlfriend had lost her children. The oldest had moved out after she came home from school one day to find her parents high and only a can of gravy for dinner. The boy, also a teenager, moved into his father’s home and the youngest was staying with her grandmother.

I brought him home with me, began making calls, trying to get him into a withdrawal management and recovery program before he changed his mind. His moods, when he was awake, alternated between extreme anger, love and most of all, guilt. I didn’t know where to start. I wasn’t fast enough. Within four days he was on an Ontario Northland bus heading south.

This was only the first of many recovery attempts. 

I began to visit far more frequently than I had been, always letting him know when I’d be there. He was always clean, neat and calm in the early months. Because he knew when I was coming, he was able to maintain appearances. He was able to maintain the illusion that he was working, that he was trying to be clean. It was important to him that I accepted the lie. 

He couch surfed for a while, going through friends and acquaintances every few days, sometimes lasting a few weeks before he stole something for the next fix or was found high or unconscious on the floor. He used people. He lied to people. He scared people. He went through 10 years of friends in under a year.

My daughter and I fought over him. She saw him more than I did. She talked to his friends. She told me he was lying. She told me he was using more frequently. She told me he was stealing. She was angry that I felt bad for him, that I would send him twenty dollars when he called me, pleading. He was hungry, I'd say. He needed bus fare to get to a job interview. When he said he needed work boots I bought work boots. 

I stopped sending money though. I sent Tim Horton’s gift cards or grocery cards instead. I bought bus passes. She told me to stop. Period. All of these could be sold. All of these could purchase a hit or two. I wasn’t helping him.

She refused to help him anymore. "If he’s ready," she said, "I will help. He’s not ready." She asked me to choose between them. We argued. She stopped speaking to me.

It’s hard to say no to your child, even if he is an adult. It’s hard to say no when he doesn’t have a home and he fakes tears and says he’s so hungry. It’s hard to believe your child is an addict. It’s hard to believe he chooses to live like this. It’s easier to believe the lie.

The reality is, I believed him because otherwise I would all too frequently wonder why this had happened. I wondered what I had done to make him choose this. I wondered how bad of a mother I was. I remembered his childhood, his love of baseball, how he liked to help people. I spent hours and days reviewing his life in my mind, always finding reasons to blame myself, even though my daughter could have made the same choices and chose a better life instead.

It was easier for me to believe, I think, because of the distance between us. There was the distance between visits and the distance between calls. He stopped answering my calls, and only called me when he needed money. 

Then came the accident, the phone call in the early morning hours from an unknown number. The call everyone dreads. He was resuscitated twice but had been upgraded to serious condition by the time I arrived. I didn’t have to call the funeral home, this time.

He was alive. He was in pain. He was angry. The man lying in the hospital bed did not resemble my son. Of course, he said, this wasn’t his fault. That’s a common theme, this failure to take responsibility. Until someone can say, "I chose this, I am an addict," until someone can say these words and mean them, they are not ready for recovery. 

There was a moment, during that first week in trauma, when everything changed for me, when I realized the story I believed was false. It was a brief moment lasting perhaps 10 minutes. He changed. His face changed. 

"Do you think I’m still your little boy?" he asked, spewing, spitting out the words. "He’s gone. He doesn’t exist anymore." 

It was disturbing, frightening even. When the rant was over, his face changed back. He smiled at me. I can be whoever I need to be, he said. 

Mostly that’s true. Not when he’s high or in withdrawal, because at those times he has no control. The drug is in control, or the need for it.

It’s hard to remember now who he used to be. He’s not that person anymore. Sometimes I catch glimpses of the boy he was, the man he was becoming, but I’m not sure anymore if they’re real or just a ploy for money.

Long term use of heroin changes the physical structure of the brain and that leads to hormonal and neurological imbalances. These changes can be permanent, even after drug use stops. Long term use will destroy white matter in the brain, so the user loses their ability to reason and make decisions and to have difficulty regulating behaviours or dealing with stressors. They forget things: appointments, what day it is, what they were saying.

The changes I’ve seen in my son could be due to head trauma from the accident; his occupational therapist agreed they resemble symptoms of acquired brain injury or severe concussion. He didn’t, however, attend appointments set up at the brain injury clinic. He forgot.

The lies he tells are elaborate. I don’t believe them anymore. It was hard to stop because I wanted to believe them. I wanted there to be kind people who gave him a meal, a blanket, a shed to sleep in. I didn’t want to believe the panhandling, the sleeping under tarps in the park or trespassing in someone’s garage. I wanted there to be recoveries, clinics, suboxone, counsellors. I wanted to believe I was helping him when I sent him 20 dollars because he was hungry or needed to pay his phone bill. 

The thing is, he knew where all of the handouts were. He knew where to find free food and clothing. A lot of 20 dollars over the course of a year can add up to thousands. He wasn’t buying food. I bought him a laptop in the hospital, a PlayStation 4 and games, a telephone. He sold those. Other phones were ‘lost’ the same way, but there was always a good story. 

His addiction seems worse now. Every time I think he’s hit rock bottom I find he has a lower threshold. 

My daughter and I are speaking again. She helps him now and then; not with money, but she will accept mail for him. She will offer him a meal or a care package, clean socks. He’s dead to her though, she says. He died three years ago. She wants her brother back. I want my son.

We can’t go back. None of us. 

Even if he chooses recovery now or at some point in the future, what he has experienced, what he has lived, has changed him forever. He could choose to be the compassionate, kind, goofy guy we knew but there’s something there, behind his eyes. Someone that isn’t him. 

We’re wary of him, my daughter and I. We don’t trust him. We hide money, the things that can be easily sold for a few dollars. 

We check in on him daily. That is, we call or text or email. Sometimes he responds the same day but more often it’s closer to a week. Sometimes his texts are in capitals. That means he’s high, we’ve learned. Sometimes he gushes with love and affection. That also means he is high; it’s just a different high. Sometimes his voice is sleepy, sometimes manic. He always tells us he’s fine. He’s on a program, he says, or he’s just managing the withdrawal himself.

These, of course, are also lies. He hasn’t been on a program in months and the previous attempt lasted only two weeks. He has the records sent to my email, so I know. He lies anyway. It no longer matters to him.

I am detaching from the outcome. I am weary of the process. I know that if he truly needs help, we will be there to support him. 

We check in on him because we’re not sure where he’s staying. We’re not sure who is with him. We’re not sure how often he is using. There are bad batches out there. 

It’s the silences that keep me awake, that keep me searching news sites and police Twitter feeds long past midnight. My daughter and I ask each other if either of us has talked to him recently, wondering if we should be calling Emergency departments, checking the morgues. We know that it is entirely possible we may have to identify his body one day.

I hope for a different outcome, even knowing this is the choice he is making. It is incomprehensible to me that he wouldn’t choose life, that he wouldn’t choose to be healthy and to live well, but the silences tell me all I need to know.

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