In January 2014, my son, David, 39, passed away following a 15-year addiction to heroin.
We started out as an average suburban family: Father, mother, David, and Bill, an older brother. David’s father was a police officer, and I worked part-time as a secretary at the boys’ elementary school. Our lives centered on our community and the boys’ activities. David’s first taste of an opiate came from morphine, administered in a hospital when he was 15 years old to relieve pain caused by an injury. He later wrote that he chased the feeling morphine gave him until he found heroin. Before heroin, he drank alcohol and tried a variety of drugs.
Years passed. His father and I divorced. David was in court for a suspended driver’s license and marijuana charge. He scraped by and was not convicted on either of the charges. Tired of drifting between low-wage jobs and the occasional community college class, David convinced us that he was ready to go away to college. In January 1995, his brother and I dropped him off to begin the winter semester at a junior college in West Virginia, which sat a few miles from I-81 and what became known as the Heroin Highway.
Rarely did anyone ask about David. His relapses, numerous incarcerations, and failed treatments were not of interest.I felt confident that David’s desire to complete his education was a sign of maturity and his ticket out of the doldrums. I was wrong. David wasn’t attending classes and, without our knowing it, had switched to a more expensive single-person dorm room. David promised to pay the extra expense during the summer, but he didn’t and wasn’t permitted to return in the fall.
The next year, he fell in love with a woman who would become his wife. They moved in together and appeared to be on a good track. After a year, they were evicted and asked if they could stay with me until they found another place. I had suspicions they were using drugs, but my accusations only brought huge arguments and drove him away. They went to stay with his father who discovered they were both addicted to heroin. We immediately sent David to what became the first of many detoxes.
The shame and stigma of David’s addiction ruled the next 15 years. I learned early to keep the details of his addiction, life, health, whereabouts, and bad behaviors to myself. His father retired to Florida and had minimal contact. His brother tried to be there for him, but David cut him off. David eventually alienated everyone except for me and his wife, who was living with another man but still very involved in David’s life. I viewed their co-dependent relationship as a challenge and deterrent to his recovery. She refused to divorce him and enabled him to continue being an addict by paying his rent, buying him cars, and providing health and vehicle insurance. I walked a tight rope with both of them, often losing months of contact. Rarely did anyone ask about David. His relapses, numerous incarcerations, and failed treatments were not of interest.
People associate addict deaths with overdose, which is often the reason, but long-term addiction causes multiple physical and mental ailments. After 15 years of IV injections, most of my son’s veins were useless to allow the flow of heroin. He began injecting in an infected area of his groin, which then caused a staph infection to destroy two vertebrae in his spine. Two major surgeries were required to repair the damage. I thought surely this would be his bottom and he would finally beat the beast of addiction.
The surgeries were a success, but the beast was alive and well. A month later, I sat on the grass and watched as my son was rolled out on a gurney zipped tight in a black bag; a dark day I had feared and anticipated for years but still wasn’t prepared for. In the year before David died, fentanyl – 50 times stronger than heroin – arrived causing overdose deaths to soar. I had not heard of fentanyl until I saw it listed as one of David’s pain killers following his surgeries. My shouted concerns and arguments with his doctors fell on deaf ears. David’s cause of death was identified as “adverse effects of Fentanyl (pain), Cyclobenzaprine (muscle spasms), and Lidocaine (pain)” – all three prescribed following his surgeries. His manner of death was identified as an “accident.” There was no evidence of heroin in his system.
I no longer felt stifled by addiction’s shame and stigma.After his death, when I was cleaning out his apartment, I took his laptop, iPad, cell phone, and writings, which gave me access to his email and social media accounts. I had retired the previous August and was free for the next couple of years to dig in and try to find the son I lost. I compiled and cataloged his writings and letters with my journals and created a timeline of his life and addiction. The more I dug, my son became less of a stranger. Reading his stories, poetry, and essays, and re-reading his letters written to me while in jail and treatment brought back the deep and thoughtful person who I thought was lost. I no longer felt stifled by addiction’s shame and stigma. To my surprise, I found a partnership to guide my hand to help others and to fulfill a dream.
In October 2021, my son’s addiction memoir was published with the goal of helping others through our real-life experiences and to make my son a published author. My biggest hurdle to publishing the memoir meant admitting long hidden and ugly truths. Editors warned that my manuscript’s concept of addiction and repeated passages representing David’s total seduction by drugs and his inability to end his dependence on heroin along with a theme of self-destruction was redundant and would be off-putting for readers. I argued that my reader must recognize and understand addiction’s realities to cope with active addiction, recovery, and relapse, or to survive grieving a loved one’s death from addiction.
Patricia Street is the author of “The Last Stop.” A true story about losing a son to heroin addiction as told from the perspective of the mother and the son. Intimate scenes of an addict’s lifestyle and the parent’s struggle to understand addiction are revealed in real, raw, and vivid detail. David’s story is a window into the tragedy and impacts the opioid crisis is having on families across America. To read more from Patricia, visit: www.pgstreetbooks.com/books.
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Last Updated on September 19, 2022