“I need help, mom. I can’t pay my mortgage”. That was how the conversation started that forever and dramatically changed our family’s lives. It was early 2012. My son – my smart, handsome, athletic, successful, loving son, Clay, broke down and confessed that he was addicted to pain pills. Our 6-year struggle that ended in the most unfathomable tragedy had just begun.
Clayton (Clay) was truly the All-American boy. He was raised in a close-knit, Christian, middle-class family in small town Waynesville, NC. Although his father and & I divorced when Clay was in 2nd grade, we co-parented well and he had very loving step-parents. He was the oldest of our two boys and was very close with his younger brother, Bradley. Clay excelled both academically and athletically and was a standout baseball player. He was an avid outdoorsman and his favorite hobbies were fly-fishing, hunting, hiking and playing disc golf. He also loved to read and was a beautiful writer. He had a servant’s calling and loved volunteering, especially with special-needs kids at school. Clay had a tender heart. He loved big, spread happiness with grace and had a laugh that was so contagious you couldn’t help but laugh, too. To know Clay was to love Clay. He made friends with ease, was respected by his peers and appreciated by his teachers. “His smile is unforgettable” one of his teachers told me.
After graduating from high school in 2007, Clay attended Haywood Community College where he continued to excel academically, then transferred to Western Carolina University (WCU) where he chose business and entrepreneurship as his major. He dreamed of owning a fly-fishing shop being a fly-fishing guide. Even while he was full-time student, Clay worked hard to establish excellent credit and he purchased a home when he was only 22 years old.
All through his teen years, Clay suffered from chronic sinus infections. He also had a deviated septum from an injury. In 2011, he had a routine, outpatient sinus surgery. He was prescribed Percocet. When he ran out he called for a refill. The doctor wrote him another prescription. Then another. Unbeknownst to us, Clay became dependent on and addicted to opioids. For about a year, he was what I now refer to as a “functioning addict”. He was buying pills on the street secretly yet able to maintain a pretty outwardly ‘normal’ appearing life – steady girlfriend, good job, nice house. Then life started unraveling for Clay. The further into his addiction he spiraled, the more money it took. That’s when he asked for help for the first time. I remember the conversation like yesterday. We were sitting in my car and Clay told me he couldn’t pay his mortgage because he had spent all his money on pills. He told me he had a drug addiction and needed Rehab. And that’s when the dreadful, chaotic cycle of addiction and rehabilitation that became Clay’s life for the next 6 years began. I painfully watched my son go to rehab, get clean, get sick, relapse, go back to rehab, get clean, get sick and relapse again. Every time he relapsed it got worse. I watched with a broken heart as he fought and failed and his life was no longer his to control. He lost his girlfriend, he lost jobs, he sold most of what he had to feed his habit. We had to turn his house into a rental so he wouldn’t lose it. Still, Clay’s father & I never gave up on him. We helped him get to rehab after rehab from city to city, state to state. Each time hopeful that it would be the last. Somewhere around 2015 or 2016 after a relapse, Clay was introduced to heroin – by a drug dealer – because it was quicker, easier to get and much cheaper.
We couldn’t believe it. Our sweet son who had the world at his fingertips and who, by the way, was terrified of needles, had become an intravenous heroin user. We were crushed. He was crushed. He fought so hard to free himself from the strongholds of addiction. I remember him crying on the phone one day, “Why me, mom? How did this happen to me? I don’t want this addiction. I try so hard”.
October 31, 2017, Clay became an uncle. He checked himself into a detox center and rehab that very day. This time was going to be different, he said. He had an unstoppable determination to beat his addiction so he could be the best uncle possible. During Clay’s 2 month stay at a short-term facility, we were desperately trying to find a long-term treatment center. By chance, I bumped into a childhood friend of my son’s and he told me about the Greater Piedmont Teen Challenge – a faith-based, long-term recovery program for men. Reluctant and nervous but desperate to beat this demon of addiction once and for all, Clay checked into Teen Challenge January 8, 2018.
While at Teen Challenge, Clay flourished. His faith grew and he was full of hope and excitement. For the first time in several years – I had my son back! He wrote me, his dad and his grandparents the most positive, upbeat letters. We were overjoyed. He called me just about every day and we visited on a regular basis. We talked about the future. His dream was to work at Teen Challenge. He wanted to help others who fought the difficult fight of addiction. The Director of Teen Challenge wrote in one newsletter, “Clay is a special young man…..He is full of joy and peace….When you see Clay, you see a big smile. He loves people and wants to show the love of God”. That was my son. That is who he was.
Clay “graduated” from Teen Challenge August 4, 2018. He was accepted into their re-entry program which allowed him to continue living there but gave him more freedoms. He remained determined to stay clean and continued to surround himself with the right people. He met a lovely young lady at church and almost immediately they were inseparable. They went to church together, bible study and hiked. One afternoon, in early September Clay and his girlfriend went on a hike. While on the hiking they came upon a mailbox on the ground. Painted on the side of the mailbox were the words “A Box for Your Thoughts”. When they looked in the box, they discovered an array of poems, short stories and inspirational thoughts. Clay opened his backpack, got out a piece of paper, jotted something down and put it in the box. “We better get going”, he said. When his girlfriend asked what he wrote, Clay simply replied, “Just something I hope will minister to someone some day” and kept on walking. It wasn’t until she went back alone a few weeks later, that his girlfriend found what Clay had written and put in the box: Matt. 11:28 “come to me all who are weary and carry heavy burden and I will give you rest”.
Toward the end of September Clay had decided it was time to move from the “dorm” setting of Teen Challenge and into an apartment. We were so proud of him. We were so excited for his future. He talked about selling his house so he could buy a house in Greensboro because he loved it there. We were overcome with joy that he had fought such a hard fight and won. So we thought.
Clay found an apartment in Greensboro and was scheduled to move in Thursday, September 27, 2018. His step-mom arranged to bring him a bedroom set and my parents made plans to bring living room furniture the following week. I called Walmart and ordered him a TV. Everything was falling into place perfectly. His last night at Teen Challenge, September 26, 2018, Clay sent a group text to his father, step mother, me and my husband and here is what it said, “I was just laying in bed before I fall asleep and wanted to tell you all that I pray for y’all and love y’all so much! It means so much to me that you have stuck with me and never gave up on me even when I fell so short and I have the best parents and step parents anyone could ask for! A nighttime text doesn’t do justice to the sincere gratitude and love I have so thank you so much for all that all of you do for me and I love you so much!! Goodnight”.
The morning of September 27, 2017, Clay signed a lease for his new apartment and picked up the keys. His stepmother met him there with his bedroom furniture. He moved all his personal belongings in. That evening, he went grocery shopping with his girlfriend. He sent me a snapchat photo of the two of them in his new kitchen and the caption read, “New Life Begins”. It warmed my heart and made me smile. Thankfully, I took a screenshot of the photo. We talked on the phone that night around 8pm. He was excited about moving and thanked me again for believing in him. He told me he loved me. His girlfriend left around 9:30pm. That was about the time I received my last text message from my son. It said, “Goodnight love u”. I texted back, “Goodnight. I love you more”.
I sent Clay a text message around lunchtime on Friday, September 28, 2018. He didn’t answer. I wasn’t concerned because I knew he was at work. I sent him another text at 2pm. Still no answer. I figured he’d call me after work. At 3:53pm my cell phone rang from a 336-area code number which I knew to be Greensboro. I laughed to myself thinking it must be Clay calling from a friend’s phone. It was not uncommon for him to let his phone die. I was wrong. Instead it was a stranger’s voice on the other end and a call that would literally stop my world from turning.
My son had not shown up for work that morning and no one could reach him. Some friends from Teen Challenge asked his new landlord to let them in his apartment for a ‘wellness check’ because they were concerned. Their fear became reality. Clay was found at 10:10am. He was gone. Forever taken from this world at 29 years old. There was a needle in the bathroom and he was found slumped over on the floor of his walk-in closet. He was presumed to have died of a drug overdose. It wasn’t until 6 months later when we received his autopsy report that we learned his cause of death was ‘Acetyl Fentanyl and Fentanyl Toxicity’. Our son, like so many, was killed by fentanyl poisoning. My life has never been the same.
Through all the pain and grief, I knew I had to do SOMETHING. I knew there were other moms (and dads and family members) living the nightmare of having a family member affected by drug addiction or worse yet, who have lost a child or family member to the opioid drug crisis. My passion is to bring awareness and do what I can to help remove the stigma of addiction. But also, my desire is to offer support to other moms and families so that no one who finds themselves in these shoes ever feels like they have to suffer in silence. I fight this fight and I share my son’s story so people know – addiction does not discriminate. It can happen to anyone. I know first-hand. It happened to my family. It happened to my son… my smart, handsome, athletic, successful, loving son. He was over-prescribed Opioids and Opioids later stole my son from me, from my family. He fell victim to this horrific drug crisis which is now a national epidemic. For him and all the others, I fight on!
January 26, 2020, Michele (Clay’s mom)