I lost my youngest son Joe on June 24 of 2017 to a heroin overdose. He was 32 years old. ”
When a death is caused by addiction, a parent is left with many questions, and I asked myself most all of them: Was this a suicide? How did this happen? Why did I not see the signs? What could I have done differently? Was I a terrible parent?
My own journey through grief since Joe’s death led me to look back at Joe’s life, through pictures, writings, cards he’d given me, old report cards, talks with people who knew our family and Joe’s story. I devoured everything I could about opioids and how they have affected our American culture in the last decade. I found a grief therapist who specializes in addiction and family dynamics. She encouraged me to write down Joe’s story. She thought it would help me process through my guilt and grief, and she was right.
As I wrote Joe’s story, the quote from Maya Angelou I’d heard on Oprah many years ago kept coming into my head: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.’
This quote I’ve always loved. It helped me get through my other losses. As I looked back on Joe, my own unawareness of his growing drug use, my building my own walls of denial, Joe’s slide into addiction, I looked hard at myself as a parent.
I tried my best to be a loving mother to both of my boys. I tried to guide them to their strengths, to pick my battles during the hard teen years, I did my best at that time.
But I missed so many signs. Signs that I see now and I torture myself for not seeing them. I don‘t want pity of any kind, especially my own. But I know my purpose now and I am thankful for that. My purpose for the rest of my life is to bring awareness to people like you, awareness that I did not have. Awareness of signs of drug use, of addiction, of experiences that can lead to drug use. I know so much now that I didn’t know then.
My son had all the advantages of an Alpharetta, Georgia life. A sprawling suburb north of Atlanta, Alpharetta is known for its good schools, churches, sports programs for kids, safe neighborhoods and beauty of natural parks near the Chattahoochee River. Our house was full of laughter and rowdy boys, I encouraged lots of time with friends at our home. Joe showed athletic talent early on and tried all sports. He played tennis and traveled to singles tournaments, got ranked in the state. He played on traveling soccer teams and on the high school lacrosse team, and in the summer enjoyed the neighborhood dive and swim teams. We were all busy. His father was a traveling businessman and I was a public school teacher for 32 years.
Life wasn’t perfect, but it was very busy, and good.
I realized in 2007 that Joe was struggling. Since graduating from Auburn University in the spring of 2006, he had trouble finding a good job. Finding a job with no experience in the marketing field wasn’t easy at that time of struggling economy and recession. Joe was competitive and a worrier. His hyperactivity, working for him as a child in sports, turned into anxiety and depression as an adult. Joe started self-medicating with pot and taking oxycontin and Xanax. I do not know how much or how often, Joe didn’t tell me he used these pills. I just knew at that time that he smoked pot and drank.
I knew Joe had mood swings after college and I helped him connect with a psychiatrist. I thought an antidepressant would help level his anxiety and depression. I also lined him up with a counselor. Joe’s dad and I questioned at the time what the psychiatrist was prescribing. We all went to a family meeting with the psychiatrist.
Joe tried hard. He started working out again and did get ranked in adult tennis leagues. He quit drinking. But, he still took pills for anxiety and became more reclusive. He quit hanging out with friends, lost his girlfriend, and stayed home. He isolated. He kept going to the psychiatrist but quit the counselor. He chose the pills instead of life changes. I saw it then, I saw that Joe was in trouble…but I didn’t imagine how much. My talks to Joe became lectures and he retreated. He was now 30. And an adult.
I started going to Al-Anon. I learned how to put up boundaries, loving Joe as always, but not allowing him to take over MY life with worry, making sure I was allowing Joe to take responsibility for his own life.
During his last two years Joe kept his addiction from his family and his friends. We had discussions about Xanax and oxies and he said he only took them as prescribed by his psychiatrist. He said ‘no, mom, I would never touch heroin.’ I believed him on that. I never even thought he was addicted to opioid pills.
As a parent, we all just want our children to be happy. To succeed in working toward their own goals. Joe died of an overdose the night before the first day of a new job in marketing, one that he’d worked hard to get, had passed a drug test for, one that had great potential for growth. I’ll never know what happened that night. I only know that he had a great day with friends on the lake and then called for someone to meet him for a heroin sell after dinner. He died alone in his apartment.
My Lessons Learned
The truth is, I did not see so many things, so many signs. I had not made connections that were right in front of me. Whether it was denial on my part, because I loved him, or ignorance because he was grown up before it became true addiction, or just because I put up boundaries for my own sake. I don’t know. But I do know this. Now that I know, I will do better. I want to tell you the signs I did not see… so that maybe you can have the chance to try to do something before addiction takes root.
- First, Joe was a hyperactive child. He was diagnosed with ADHD by a counselor and he was prescribed a small dose of Ritalin during school hours. I made sure he had a structured teacher each year and I tried to add structure at home. But I wonder.. about that pill. If way back then, I taught Joe that pills can be used for all of life’s troubles.
- Opioids were given to Joe for pain relief throughout his life. For various sports injuries, a broken arm, a knee injury, wisdom teeth extraction. I did not know that some people enjoy the calming of these pills. And they don’t forget it.
- Joe began with pot and drinking during high school. Then, as life got difficult after college Joe used opioids to cope with anxiety. He went to a psychiatrist. Be aware of what prescriptions are given, as some prescribers may give out too many opioids. I did not know.
- Isolation is a side effect of addiction. David and I both saw that Joe was staying at home alone. We both encouraged him to join groups. I knew Joe was struggling, but didn’t see that his isolation could be a major sign of addiction.
- In the last two years before Joe died I had some signs that let me know Joe may have moved into addiction. We texted quite often. One picture Joe sent me had a burned spoon in the background. I asked Joe if it was pot hash or what was that? He told me to delete that picture. I missed that sign for sure, and have nothing to say for myself except my own stupidity or my own desperate need for Joe to be all right, just using some kind of pot hash…
- One day I looked at Joe’s eyes when we were boating on a summer day. I saw pinpoint pupils. I said, ‘Joe, your pupils are pinpoints!’ I didn’t know that that is a sign of being high on opioids. Imagine my feelings of self loathing when a parent at my parent group talked of seeing her son’s pinpoint eyes and knowing he was using again. I didn’t know.
- Another sign in the last year was one conversation we had about constipation. He said, “Mom, I’ve never had this problem before.. what can I do?” I said eat more salads, drink more water, flax seed? I knew opioids cause constipation.. I had had surgeries before. I just didn’t connect.
- Another sign during the last year. Joe had terrible mood swings. Something like his car tire going flat would send him into rage and blame. I said to Joe, “You are acting so immature. This happens to everyone Joe, just plan better and know it happens to the best of us.” I didn’t know then that extreme mood swings are a sign of addiction. Immature behavior are signs of addiction. Their physical and emotional beings are struggling so much. I didn’t know.
As I said before, when you lose a child to addiction a parent has a lot of guilt and terrible loss. The first year I was so sad and so in shock that I felt as if life was moving at a slow pace. I have a photo of myself during the first week of losing Joe and I see only sadness, which actually slowed my whole body into ache and fatigue.
- First of all, time helps. Letting myself go slowly, cry, stay in when I needed to. I made a garden for Joe and made a place where we can light candles to honor Joe and others we’ve lost. Simple things. Time helps.
- Reading everything I could about addiction, personal stories and articles about opioids. Knowing that others were hurting too.
- I joined a small group of parents dealing with the loss of a child due to drugs or active drug use in their children. Such pain these good parents have carried.
- Going to a grief therapist helped me, and writing down Joe’s story really did help me process my guilt.
- Speaking at a drug forum to a large group of people helped me… I was never and never will be a public speaker. It helped though.. Sharing this story with you also helps.
- Looking for signs of Joe visiting helped me. I know this sounds strange. But it was comforting to write down how a hawk followed me to my car down an empty street one day…I knew it was Joe. Joe loved birds of prey.
- Finding purpose helped me. I volunteer at a shelter for men every week. Seeing the addiction in their lives and how much I understand that they are just like I am helps me. I like spending time with them.
- Making connections with a few of Joe’s best childhood friends has helped me a lot. Knowing how much they loved him, knowing they saw such good in him makes me feel close to Joe.
I will get through the rest of my life with love and as much happiness as I can find. I just remarried and my David made me a grandma in October of last year. My Joe would not want me to be sad. I am going on with Joe’s memory and love in my heart and the hope that I can cause more awareness to other parents. Awareness of things I did not see. I want to do better now that I know.