I found out my son was a heroin addict three days before Thanksgiving when a friend of his called me about the overdose death of one of their friends. I’d heard the news and was stunned—heroin? Granted this was in 2005, before anyone in my community on Cape Cod was talking about it. What came after that news however was even more shocking – “We’re afraid Dylan’s going to be next,” I don’t remember much of the conversation after that.
My son had been living with me, his younger brother and sister were off at college, while he started a moving company business. I saw him every day, and he did not look like Al Pacino in Panic in Needle Park, or like one of the guys in Trainspotting. My only references for heroin addiction came from movies apparently.
Early Signs of Addiction
I thought back to weeks prior when I’d found a needle in his pants pocket when I was tossing in a load of laundry. Later on, I found out he crafted the tale he told me—it was just a friend’s, and he’d been doing steroids to bulk up. I believed him. This was the kid who almost fainted in health class at the sight of blood in videos, who panicked at getting shots. How could he of all people be a heroin addict?
At this point, my son was about 26-27 years old. He had been abusing alcohol for several years, but it was only in hindsight that I learned how severe that abuse was. I discovered that there were other drugs as well, but once opiates became the drug of choice they took him down fast.
Recovery is a Long Journey
Dylan now has almost 16 years sober. I will spare you all the gory details of his overdoses, his missing for days at a time, the mysterious disappearance of his sister’s ancient Toyota, the hospitalization for osteomyelitis (a staph infection in the bone of his ankle from shooting up), and finding out years later how even as sick as he was, upon release he was shooting up into the PICC line that was inserted to deliver his meds. It was a lot. This was also after having had him sectioned—brought to court in handcuffs and shackles, and remanded to 30 days at a state hospital, which ended up being more of a jail. His father (my former husband) and I did that, and it’s one of my biggest regrets. There was no “recovering” going on, it was a prison. And it was awful.
For most families recovery isn’t linear. It’s more like two steps forward, sometimes two, sometimes ten steps back. It’s the absolute hardest thing I’ve ever been through. But the thing is, I never gave up. You can’t ever give up, because there is always hope.
When Dylan went to Mountainside I was still incredibly naive about addiction and recovery. I thought he’d go there for six weeks and come out…cured! Turns out it didn’t work that way. I am a single mom, and while his dad helped as well, it was a real sacrifice for me to get him into treatment. But of course, I was willing to do anything to make it happen.
At Mountainside, he found an amazing community. He’s still close to those people today. I loved their integrative and holistic approach to recovery, and for Dylan, getting outside and being challenged physically was a huge part of his recovery. When he left there and went to a sober house nearby, I was cautiously optimistic. I began to let my guard down. For over a year, I’d slept with my phone on the pillow next to me anticipating a call telling me he had overdosed and died.
Then, Dylan decided he was going to leave Connecticut and go to Colorado with another sober house resident. I knew, Mountainside knew, heck, even the dog at the rehab knew it was a terrible idea. But being an addict, and in such early recovery, he would not listen to anyone and went anyway. I’d later found out they relapsed en route to Aspen.
Third Time’s a Charm
Fast forward to me receiving a medical bill from an ER visit out there, and finding out he’d overdosed and had to be revived with Narcan. I was out with my mom when I got the call from him that he wanted to come back and go to Mountainside.
In the end, he did three stints there. It was hard, it was sometimes more than I ever thought I could handle. But he’s here, I’m here. And I know people can and do recover. Does it feel like it will never, ever get better when you’re in the middle of it? Hell, yes, but I have my son. He’s an amazing man. He now owns three sober houses and an intensive outpatient program in the Berkshires. I talk to him all the time, we are incredibly close. Like war buddies.
In the darkest of times hope is hard to come by, but in those dark times, it’s often all you’ve got. I was fortunate to have my younger kids, who never gave up on, or shunned their brother, despite how many times his issues seemed to hijack all the attention and focus. We all stayed close, even if at times they too felt exasperated and burned out.
I could have done better seeking support for myself. I did have a therapist, but at the time Dylan was using, about 18-19 years ago, people weren’t talking openly about addiction and recovery. There was family, but I did feel very much on my own, not something I’d want for anyone else. My friends didn’t really understand, and I’m heartened to see that as a culture we have become so much more open and understanding. Even our language around addiction has shifted. Words are powerful, and even small changes from substance abuse to substance misuse take the topic from a shameful place to something we can all talk about honestly, and with compassion.
What I Have Learned Today
It may sound strange, but I’m a better person for having gone through all this. I know what’s important and what isn’t. Almost losing someone you love more than anything in the world changes you. I’m more hopeful, more grateful, less judgemental.
Through this experience, I developed an appreciation for the smallest of things, and an enormous amount of gratitude for the bigger things—like still having my son, and the tiny things, like a bird outside my window. I developed a mantra while I was in the middle of it all that popped into my head one day when someone grabbed a parking spot I was about to head into. Dylan had had several overdoses, spent time in a psych ward and jail… As I felt annoyed at the snatcher of the parking spot I said to myself, “If this is the worst thing that happens to me today I’m doing very well.” All these years later I still repeat this mantra. As an annoying Pollyanna, I tend to share this phrase with people losing their patience over something small.
Along the way I also met a man, who as I write this today is celebrating 43 years in recovery from heroin and alcohol addiction. The irony of it all isn’t lost on me. As someone who hasn’t ever used drugs, and doesn’t even drink coffee, it was nothing, he was nothing I ever expected. But I
changed. The unspoken judgments I had about people struggling with substance use disorder were replaced with awareness, understanding, and knowledge. We have built a wonderful life together.
If I hadn’t had a child who became an addict and met so many amazing people in recovery over the years, I would have thought we were from two different worlds and could never work. Now I know better. It’s not always easy to remember, but you are not alone. Reach out for support, never stop trying and never, ever lose hope, because good things do indeed happen.