Not My Child

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I have a confession to make. A closed-minded, somewhat prejudicial, and yes, ignorant confession. I’m embarrassed to admit this publicly, but here it goes…

There was a time in my naïve little world, not so very long ago, that I thought drug addiction, certainly opioid pill or heroin addiction, only happened to ‘certain people’. When I say ‘certain people’, I don’t mean people of a particular race, creed, color, religion or even socio-economic class. I just mean “NOT MINE”.

NOT MY CHILD!

Do you know how many people have uttered those words? Do you know how incredibly dangerous those three words actually are? How many of us have seen a drug addict in public, in a newspaper, a documentary or movie and thought “I’d never let that happen to my child”? or maybe we just pull our son or daughter a little closer in a subconscious form of a protective barrier.

NOT MY CHILD!

How many of us have looked at a drug addict and wondered “how?”how did he/she get that way?” How many of us looked right at a drug addict and wondered “who parented them?” (or “who didn’t parent them?”). How many of us have seen a drug addict and been thankful we knew our own kids knew better?

NOT MY CHILD!

Seriously, let’s just pull back the curtain and be honest. How many of us, as parents, have laid eyes on an addict at some point in our lives and just simply looked away because it was not our problem, not our family and did not affect us or our children.

NOT MY CHILD!

OK, I’m being as raw and honest as I can by admitting that I was that mom. I was that mom who thought my family was protected from such things. By no means did I ever think my kids were perfect, but surely, they were somewhat immune to drugs and crime and illicit behavior, right?

NOT MY CHILD!

I mean, I tried my best, right? Didn’t we all? We raise ‘em right! We sent our kids to school, got them involved in sports, church and other outside activities. After all, idle hands are the devil’s workshop, right? Isn’t that what our mothers taught us?

We all knew who the “bad” kids were when we were growing up in school. We were taught to steer clear of them and that’s what we taught our kids. We all remember the “birds of a feather” saying so we figured if we surrounded our kids with the “good” kids, they would turn out just fine. We made sure they got good grades, played sports and went to Sunday school. We taught them right from wrong.

NOT MY CHILD!

I knew I made mistakes as a mom. We all did. But I was certain my two boys had a strong foundation and solid, core family values. I stayed entwined in my boys’ lives, so much that I was probably what I now have learned was a helicopter mom. Always hovering. Always knowing who they were with and what they were doing. Making sure they were making good choices, not poor choices.

NOT MY CHILD!

Their father and I divorced when my boys were quite young, but we co-parented decently well and later each re-married very supportive spouses. The boys loved both their step-parents and for the most part we were a pretty good functioning, middle class, Christian, all-American family. Sure, there was the occasional teenage mischief – sneaking to a party or drinking before a football game or having ‘a few’ friends over when we were out of town. But nothing earth shattering and certainly nothing we considered out of the ordinary. For the most part, our average life in our small little town was just that – pretty average.

NOT MY CHILD!

Then the boys grew up and started their own lives. Our oldest, Clay, was falling in line for a generally successful life. College Education. Home Ownership. Steady Girlfriend. Even the Dog.

Then – IT happened.

Addiction. In this case, opioid pill addiction.

NOT MY CHILD!

It crept into our family like a thief tiptoeing in the night. Slowly and quietly. For a year or so, none of us even knew, Clay hid it so well. He was what I now refer to as a “functioning drug addict”.  Until he wasn’t. Until he couldn’t.

NOT MY CHILD!

When Clay’s addiction spiraled, it spiraled fast and hard. He asked for help. Even he thought this only happened to other people. He was as devastated as we were. We sent him to rehab. We rented his house out so the mortgage would get paid. He spun into a 6-year cycle of getting clean, relapsing, getting clean again and relapsing even again. Over and over. Each time he relapsed, he hit harder and his life spiraled faster out of control. Yet, every time he said, “I got this, Mom. I’m going to be fine.”

NOT MY CHILD!

He would run out of money and would sell or pawn everything he had to get money to buy his pills. He’d pawn some of his most prized possessions – his hunting bow, electronics, watches, fly rods – anything that would bring a buck. His dad and I would drive from pawn shop to pawn shop to buy back his belongings. I’d lock them up in my house and swear he’d never get them back until he was clean. Then, guess what? He’d get clean, stay clean for a bit, I’d give him back his stuff and – you guessed – back in pawn. I lost count of the number of times we bought back his things. Until we just couldn’t do it anymore.

NOT MY CHILD!

I remember pulling his phone records once, calling every number I did not recognized and threatened if they were the person selling my son pills I would hunt them down and kill them.

NOT MY CHILD!

I remember driving the streets at night looking for him. I remember activating the “Find My Friends” app on his phone when he wasn’t looking so I could track his movements. I even remember calling the police once when he was at a known drug dealer’s house. I was so desperate for help I thought if he got caught buying pills maybe that would scare him straight. Of course, when the police got there he was gone. Nothing to see here.

NOT MY CHILD!

I remember being so upset, even angry with my son and not really understanding much about addiction. I hadn’t yet educated myself enough to understand the disease. I think maybe, no, not maybe, definitely, I was in denial. Absolute, uneducated denial. I did not understand.

NOT MY CHILD!

I was hurt and confused. I was ashamed. At him. At me. I remember screaming at him, “Just STOP! For God’s Sake on this Earth just STOP IT! GET YOURSELF TOGETHER and STOP!”

NOT MY CHILD!

I remember after a particularly bad relapse he came begging for help. He was hitting rock bottom. He was broke and his life was not his to control anymore. He was in debt to multiple drug dealers. They were threatening him. He was scared. I remember driving him to three different houses, waiting in the car after I gave him the money and watched him knock on the doors, hand the drug dealers the money and shamefully drag himself back to my car.

NOT MY CHILD!

One of the hardest memories was the day Clay told me he had turned to heroin. A drug dealer had introduced him to it because it was easier to get and much cheaper. Seriously? Heroin? And IV use at that? My son – who was terrified of needles even as an adult – was now an intravenous heroin user?? NO WAY!

DEFINITELY, NOT MY CHILD!

What I did not understand then that I do now was that my son wasn’t the only one who needed help. We needed help. We as his parents, step-parents, grandparents, family and friends – we all needed help. But how do you ask for help? How do you say, “My son is a heroin drug addict and I don’t know what to do?” In a world full of labels, shame and stigma, where do you even start to find help? When you feel like you are suffering in silence, how do you ask for help? When you feel as if somehow you failed as a parent, how do you ask for help? Not only did we not ask for help, hardly any of our friends even knew the battle our son was fighting, the battle we all were fighting. 

NOT MY CHILD!

By now, just rehab wasn’t the answer for our son – it was detox, then rehab, then long-term treatment. Oh, the anxiety of looking and looking for a long-term treatment facility that we could afford or that was state funded or that took his insurance but most of all that even had a BED! It was overwhelming. It was a constant state of worry when his time was coming to an end at one facility and we were waiting for a bed at another. But we never gave up hope, we never gave up on our son. We knew under this sad addiction was the smart, athletic, gorgeous, kind-hearted son we raised. Our son was not this person saying or doing anything for his next fix.

NOT MY CHILD!

There weren’t always only bad times. When our son was “clean” things were wonderful. He’d start to put weight back on, he’d get a good job, his contagious laugh would start filling the room again and we’d feel at peace. He’d say, “I got this, Mom”. Or, “I’m doing great, Mom”. But, then, he’d become complacent. We would become complacent. He’d stop going to meetings. “I’m not like some of those guys, Mom.” I’d nag him to go. Then I’d stop nagging. I’d trust him. I believed in him. This time was different. He was different and he ‘’had this’. Just like he said.

NOT MY CHILD!

Our son’s favorite long-term treatment center (located in Greensboro, NC) was his last. He shined. He thrived. He made friends, the counselors loved him, his faith in the Lord soared. He no longer said, “I’m not like some of those guys”. He threw himself into his treatment. He was open, raw and honest about his struggles. He wrote me beautiful letters and poems, we visited on a regular basis. He called weekly, then daily, then multiple times a day. He even stayed on as a ‘step-down’ part of the program after he completed the initial 7-month program. He got a job, he met a girl. They were giddy over each other. He sent me daily snapchats and texted throughout every day. Life was really pretty grand. He did it, we thought. He finally beat his addiction like I always knew he would. I never had a doubt. Life was getting back to normal.

NOT MY CHILD!

I cannot say I was surprised when our son said he was ready to leave the step-down facility and get an apartment of his own. After all, he was 29 years old and had a girlfriend and wanted some independence. AND he had been clean for 11 months. He was ready! I mean, he wouldn’t relapse now after getting so far, right? He had applied for a job as a peer counselor at the treatment center. The director didn’t outright turn him down, just told him he needed a little more “time” under his belt. Yes, Clay was disappointed, but it gave him a goal. Something to work toward. He was motivated. And we were excited for him. We helped him get an apartment. The last night before moving out of the center, our son sent a message to me, his dad and both his step-parents in a group text, “I was just laying in bed praying before I fall asleep and wanted to tell u all that I pray for y’all and love y’all so much! It means so much to me you have stuck w me and never gave up on me when I fell short and I have the best parents anyone could ask for! A night text doesn’t do justice to the sincere gratitude and love I have so thank u so much for all that all of u do for me and I love u so much!! Goodnight J” Surely, this genuinely kind-hearted son of ours was not going to relapse.

NOT MY CHILD

The next day, our son took possession of his new apartment. He went grocery shopping and sent me a snapchat with the caption “New Life Begins”. We spoke on the phone and again in text. “I love you, mom”. “I love you more, Clay”. I didn’t realize that would be my last conversation with my son, because I had nothing to worry about anyhow.

NOT MY CHILD

At 3:53 pm September 28, 2018, a Detective with the Greensboro Police Department contacted me by phone. “Is something wrong, Officer? Has my son been in an accident?” He did not answer that question. Instead, his strong, steady voice delivered the world stopping, most painful news of my entire life. My son had been found in his apartment, unresponsive at 10:10 that morning and he was gone. Pronounced dead on the scene.

ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY NOT MY CHILD

I remember falling to the ground screaming. I called the detective a liar. Over and over I begged him to be lying to me. I threw the phone.

DEAR GOD, NOT MY CHILD

I grabbed the phone again, still screaming, crying uncontrollably, asking how they were sure it was my son. My son was clean. He had beat his addiction. Maybe someone else was in his apartment. There’s no way it was him. I wasn’t there to identify him so how did they know it was him? There was some terrible, horrific mistake and there was no way this was true. There was no way my son, the one who first made me a mom, my oldest boy, my sweet, successful, smart, beautiful, kind-hearted Clay was gone from this world. Ripped away from us.

PLEASE, GOD, PLEASE – NOT MY CHILD

Friday, October 5, 2018, our immediate family met at the funeral home to say our final goodbye to our beloved Clay as he lay in a private room, in an open casket, the day before his Celebration of Life funeral service. It was crippling. I wanted to grab him and shake him and wake him up. I did not want him to leave me. He had so much still to accomplish in life. Career, marriage, children, oh, how he loved children. Through all my pain and grief, I just could not believe that laying there, looking so peaceful was my first-born child. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it.

THAT IS MY CHILD

In the time I’ve had to look back and reflect on our journey, I realize my grief is still rather fresh. But I’m focused enough to know the mistakes I made along the way but also the positive things I’ve learned. One of my favorites, I learned from another mom and now like to now share with other parents – Three C’s – I didn’t CAUSE it, I cannot CURE it and I cannot CONTROL it. Hear me clearly as I say – Addiction does NOT equate to bad parenting. And because society has somehow made us feel that way, too many parents are going without the support they desperately need.

I’ve learned that my son had Substance Use Disorder (substance use disorder is a disease that affects a person’s brain and behavior and leads to an inability to control the use of a legal or illegal drug or medication). My son did not choose to be addicted – who does, who would?

Most of all I learned I should have reached out for help and support sooner. In all honestly, I wish I could have reached out sooner, but resources in some areas are very limited – then there’s that whole stigma and shame beast again. I have since removed the mask of shame covering myself, my family and my son. I am proud of my son. I am proud of how hard he fought. I am proud of how much he helped others. I’ve had people reach out to me sharing stories of how my son helped them get to treatment and encouraged them to stay clean even when he was struggling himself.

THAT IS MY CHILD

I’ve learned stories of my son peer-counseling other guys who were tempted to leave treatment and convincing them to stay. I’ve learned of him having faith filled talks with other young men and helping lead them closer to the Lord. I’ve learned of him leaving a random but favorite bible verse in a mailbox on the middle of a hiking trail in hopes to “minister to someone who may need it someday”. (It was Matthew 11:28)

THAT IS MY CHILD

I’ve learned that healing comes in doing and serving and there are a lot of families and loved ones affected by the drug epidemic who need to be served in our community. That is why I have teamed up with Lisa Falbo, my co-founder of The SHARE Project to execute our mission to be a Source of Awareness and Support for Families and Loved Ones Affected by the Drug Crisis. We envision a world where addiction is de-stigmatized and better understood as a disease and where family members and loved ones of those afflicted by addiction never feel like they have to suffer alone or in silence.

We are working to strip the shame and stigma from the drug epidemic so ordinary people caught up in this extraordinary crisis have a safe place to land. If you find yourself the parent or loved one of someone struggling or suffering from substance use disorder, WE want you to know that WE DO UNDERSTAND and YOU ARE NOT ALONE! We want you to know that it is ok to say:

THAT IS MY CHILD

And know that you are not judged, you are loved, you are cared-for, and most of all you are supported.

Be Brave today. Make that first step, reach out, ask for help.

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