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In Memory of My Son, the Addict

My son died of a heroin overdose less than two years ago. I've found ways to cope, but last week brought it all flooding back.

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By Diannee Carden Glenn

02/12/14

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I am by nature a Pollyanna. Having been through much darkness in my life I have learned to protect my heart and my mind with as much positivity as possible—like the Hallmark cards that say to “shine from the inside out”.

This philosophy worked to keep some of the demons of the past at bay until the day after Easter in 2012 when I received a call from my son’s boss from the Emergency Room saying my son was found on the floor of his office bathroom with a needle in his arm and that emergency personnel were “working on him.” I knew when I was transferred to a Social Worker that he was gone.  

My retirement plans of quilting, spending more time with grandchildren and taking a class or two at the Senior Center disappeared when my son died from a heroin overdose. I have tried  to channel my grief into something positive. During the past year I’ve became an advocate for harm reduction and supported bills for Naloxone, overdose prevention, needle exchange and alternative recovery treatments. I am not a public speaker (I’m rather shy) but I found myself speaking at some events with a quivering voice about the tragedy of heroin addiction. Slowly, life—though with a void that will never be filled—has begun to turn into a routine.  

If you are grieving the loss of someone you loved, does it really matter if addiction is a choice, a disease or a combination of both? 

Last week I felt like I had been punched in the stomach— everywhere I looked were articles about the overdose of Philip Seymour Hoffman. All of a sudden I was back in 2012, dropping to the floor alone at my home sobbing. So much of Hoffman’s story mirrored my son’s. My son was not an actor, but he was a well educated professional, another middle aged New York resident who had struggled with his addiction over long periods of sobriety and relapses. In reviewing his bank records he also made two withdrawals from his account before meeting his supplier. He was found much the same way as Hoffman.  

I was not sure why I was so emotionally affected by the tabloid attention last week, but I found myself reading comments that were not only callous and cruel but uninformed as to recovery and relapse and addiction. You see, when my son died there were no callous comments, at least not out loud. There were overheard whispers of “Did you hear?” “Wonder what happened?” “What can you expect, he lived in New York.” There were the southern “Bless her heart” comments. Here in the South, we show support for a family’s loss by bringing them food. Everyone has a signature homemade warm casserole, specialty BBQ, fried chicken, collards or a special dessert. Concerned friends and relatives shower the bereft family with food resulting in leftovers piling up in the refrigerator. The phone rings with sympathy calls and we show our respect and love to the family by going to the funeral home, waiting in long lines to comfort them. It is what we do—to be respectful and kind and treat the grieving with dignity.

This did not happen with my son. There were no phone calls. No worried concerns. No warm casseroles. My next door neighbor—a "friend" for 30 years— announced, as I was walking out to get the mail, that she wasn’t going to participate in the food train because she didn’t think we needed “all that food.” After I told her my son died of a heroin overdose, she put up a five foot privacy fence between our properties. We have not spoken since.  

A week after my son's funeral a neighbor came to the door with a cake. I invited her in and she asked, “What is it that your son did in New York?” After I explained the work he did with Hepatitis C patients who were IV drug users and sex workers and his harm reduction philosophy, she quickly cleared her throat and left. When I returned the cake pan with a gift for her thoughtfulness, she didn’t come to the door. 

Last week I sucked in my breath when I saw that image—a spoon with heroin and a lighter underneath it that read “Candlelight vigil for Phillip Seymour Hoffman.” Even in a closed web site support group that I belong to for parents grieving the loss of children to overdose, there was bickering over whether addiction is a choice or a disease. I saw a rawness that I was not aware of.

If you are grieving the loss of someone you loved, does it really matter if addiction is a choice, a disease or a combination of both? I guess it all hit me at once—Is this what people really think? Is that what they whisper after I leave a room? It not only hurts emotionally for the loss of my kind, courageous son who made a bad decision as a college student, but for the family of Hoffman who have to be subjected to so many hurtful comments about him. I don’t know what went wrong. I do know that what happened wasn’t part of the plan.  

I posted a statement saying that if we could only know a person’s thought process during those last few minutes before putting the needle in his or her arm we could save thousands. A friend responded that those who have cheated death describe it as the “Fuck it moment.” She says we all have them when we decide to let the electric bill slide and buy that pair of shoes we’ve been eyeing for weeks. It is the same moment when an insulin dependent diabetic one day sees a plate of homemade sugar cookies and says “Fuck it” and eats the cookie, knowing the consequences.

Neither Hoffman nor my son planned to die. According to an article I read written by someone in recovery, “An addict in the grip always has a plan. ‘I will do this, get this out of the way and then I will resume life among the living'—the place where families and friends and colleagues wait and hope." But my son and Hoffman didn’t make it back to that place. 

Recently I was trying to sort out my feelings with a wonderful friend. I told her that I have always been a Pollyanna but am having a hard time with not taking to the streets shouting and carrying signs demanding policies where an addict can actually heal and change and recover without the stigma—a radical move for me.

She said, “Everyone needs a radical Pollyanna in their life.” I smiled. You know what—I think my son would like that. I can hear him proudly saying, “My mom is a radical Pollyanna. She actually repeated the word 'Fuck.'”

Diannee Carden Glenn is based in North Carolina and Florida and has been campaigning for the last year for overdose prevention.

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