At my son Patrick’s funeral last summer, I read this passage from Washington Irving:
“There is an enduring tenderness in the love of a mother to a son that transcends all other affections of the heart. She will sacrifice every comfort to his convenience; she will surrender every pleasure to his enjoyment; she will glory in his fame and exalt in his prosperity; and if adversity take him, he will be the dearer to her by misfortune; and if disgrace settle upon his name, she will still love and cherish him; and if all the world beside cast him off, she will be all the world to him.”
Those words, about a mother’s unconditional love, could not be more appropriate for my story.
The Good Old Days
My husband, Louie, and I raised our three sons, Patrick, Kevin and James, in Middleboro, MA. The boys were close in age and kept me very busy, to say the least. We were constantly running between school, sports and summer camps. Three days a week, I worked as a rehabilitation counselor for the disabled. On my “easy days” I got dressed up and went to work—that gave me a break from cleaning sticky hands and refereeing squabbles. The rest of the week, I was the cool mom who served up healthy after-school snacks and watched over neighborhood baseball and soccer games on my front lawn. I had the best of both worlds.
Louie and I tried to create a well-rounded family life for the boys. They grew up with support from our extended family, attended good schools and had a lot of friends. When we had people over for holidays, birthdays and summer cookouts, there was very little alcohol around. I was so proud that my boys were learning that you can have fun without drinking.
When they were younger, I always described having three boys as being a whirlwind, but I never thought the teenage years would bring a whirlwind of addiction.
How it All Started
In 2002, James, my youngest son, tore a ligament and fractured his clavicle during a high school football game. The doctor prescribed him Oxycontin. At the time, it wasn’t unusual for doctors to prescribe 60 to 90 pills for one incident. I thought I was being a good mom by encouraging my son to take the pills to relieve his pain. I didn’t know any better. Nobody told us that the medicine could be addictive.
I don’t know exactly when James switched to heroin, but his teen years into adulthood were a blur of rehab stints and attempts to get clean.
Patrick’s addiction story began around the same time as James’s. However, he was an experimenter and had a daredevil personality. He was the kid who would jump off a bridge into a river or eat a worm to show off. Then, he was hanging around with kids who would try pills and that’s how he got hooked. He recovered from prescription opiates in his early twenties, but started using pills again at 26. It wasn’t until just a few years ago that he switched to heroin.
They were both handsome, strong and intelligent boys. But as addiction took its toll, James became physically and mentally ill from his disease. He gained weight and was always sweating and anxious, whereas Patrick became extremely thin and pale.
You realize that the person in front of you is no longer your son. He no longer acts like your son or looks like your son.
Before Patrick died last summer at the age of 32, I’d actually thought he was in a good place with his recovery. He had been clean for almost a year and had recently graduated from a halfway house rehabilitation program in New Hampshire. His fiancée and their 4-year-old son were planning to move there to be with him. He had everything to live for. But the addiction got the best of him: He died seconds after injecting himself with fentanyl, an opiate more potent than heroin.
Two years before Patrick’s death, James overdosed on heroin and died in his girlfriend’s bathroom at age 26, only five days after returning from an addiction program in Las Vegas.
And two months before James’s death, Louie, my husband of 31 years, died of glioblastoma, a terminal form of brain cancer.
Sometimes the pain of losing three of the most important people in my life within two years is almost too much to handle. There are days when I walk into my empty house and collapse on the floor crying. But I find strength in my faith and joy in my middle son, Kevin. He got married last year and I am excited to be a part of his future. We are the family unit now. We survived this nightmare together.
My Awful Reality
Dealing with addiction is truly like taking on the devil. James and Patrick couldn’t hold a job, they lost friends and they had serious issues with the law. I had to grieve the image I had of my sons’ futures. There were no college graduations, weddings or first big jobs. I lost my children far before I buried them.
Plus, in the 11 months leading up to Louie’s death in 2013, I had two sons who were in the throes of addiction while I was trying to care for my dying husband.
I find strength in my faith and joy in my middle son, Kevin. We are the family unit now. We survived this nightmare together.
Admitting to a hospice nurse why I couldn’t ask my two sons to help with their father’s care was a particularly sad moment. Kevin was the only one I could depend on. I had to hide Louie’s medications from James and Patrick. I hid morphine inside a bag of frozen peas so they wouldn’t steal it. Two weeks before my husband’s death, the police came to the house to tell me that my jewelry was being pawned.
On my last Mother’s Day with all three sons alive, Louie fell in the bathroom, and Kevin and I couldn’t help him up. We called for Patrick, but (I later found out) he had left the house to get a fix. Once, James promised to be at the house to care for his father, but he never showed up. I had to leave work early to be there myself. Essentially, Kevin and I managed most of Louie’s 24/7 care all while trying to maintain some form of normalcy.
The Shame of Addiction
No child wants to grow up to be an addict. Addicts know that they are an embarrassment to their families. They have their own guilt and shame; they struggle with their own demons. But often, they cannot win over the drugs. They hate themselves probably more than anyone else does.
Thirteen years ago, Louie and I were known as upstanding respectable parents. But with two addicts in the family, people starting thinking that there must be something wrong with us. My husband did not want a funeral because we’d been ostracized by some of our family and the community during the early years of the boys’ addiction problems. A few weeks before Louie’s death, James said, crying, “Dad deserves a funeral but we made him look like a fool.”
Kevin had his life turned upside down by his brothers’ addiction, too. Louie and I tried to do everything for him, but we were often preoccupied with James and Patrick. People asked Kevin, “Gee, how did you manage to turn out good?” He would get defensive, saying, “This has nothing to do with my mother and father, they’re great parents!” No matter how good he is, it appears that goodness can never outweigh the bad they brought into our life.
Speaking the Truth
When James died in 2013, I asked the person writing the eulogy (our neighbor and a close family friend) not to avoid the subject of addiction. For Patrick’s funeral in 2015, I took it a step further. I called the local paper and invited a reporter to attend. “My family has been ripped apart by addiction,” I told him. “I think you need to see and feel the pain we’re experiencing.”
It was important to me that Patrick be acknowledged as someone who started out as a young boy riding his bike, jumping on the trampoline and going to school plays, hugging his mother, playing hide-and-seek with his father and wrestling with his brothers. A reporter and photographer showed up and published an article about the experience.
Mothers love their children more than they love themselves, and I’m still that person. I want to love Kevin enough to set him free, to allow him to enjoy his own family. Motherhood still lives in me and I will carry on in order to lead him and my grandson(s) into the future.
I still love James and Patrick so much. By sharing the stories of my beautiful, loving sons and our family’s fight with addiction, I hope to end the silence, break the stigma and bring honor—not disgrace—to our family.
WHAT I WISH OTHER MOTHERS KNEW:
- Go with your gut. If you think that your child might be using drugs, you’re probably right. Don’t assume that just because your kid has been a good kid that it can’t happen to your family. Think: “I have to set aside my love for this child and I have to look at the truth. If my instinct says something’s wrong, it probably is.”
- Question the prescription. Pain medication can be highly addictive for some people. Do they really need it for a toothache? Is a bit of discomfort so bad? In my opinion, medication shouldn’t always be the only answer.
- Don’t think that you can’t be me. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, it doesn’t matter what financial bracket you fall in, it doesn’t matter what ethnic group you belong to, what race you are—addiction crosses all barriers.
- Reframe your mindset. Treat addiction like a medical issue, not a social problem. Blaming the person won’t lead to helpful solutions.
- Reach out for the right support. Check out The Addict’s Mom, Learn 2 Copeand GRASP (Grief Recovery After Substance Passing). These support groups are for parents of addicts and can help teach you how to navigate insurance, hospitals, treatment and legal issues. The stigma and trauma of addiction is unique—it sets you apart from someone in a general support group who, say, lost her child to leukemia. Someone once said to me, “but my child didn’t want to die.” Well, neither did mine.