How I Forgave the Woman Who Helped My Son Die of an Overdose

By Diannee Carden Glenn 04/18/14

She introduced him to the drug that eventually killed him. It took a long time, but eventually I had to treat her the way my son would have wanted.

Drop the weight. Shutterstock

I don’t struggle with anger, but forgiveness is sometimes hard for me even though I know that without the release of both, my heart cannot be free. Among other New Year's promises I have made over the years, I’ve pledged to make an effort to be more forgiving; then I choose the easiest opportunities to fulfill my promise. For example, I forgave my high school typing teacher last year for giving me a failing grade because the answers on my test were all correct and she didn’t think that I could have gotten that many right, so I must have cheated. I had released my anger many years before but the forgiveness—well that took me 50 years. I can’t say that at the moment I forgave her, music played and the sun came out and I danced barefoot in the grass, but I did feel like I had lightened that load just a little.

Forgiveness is hard. Forgiveness means that you finally let it go. Forgiving the really hurtful events that you carry throughout your life like a bag of rocks on your back leaving you emotionally stooped over—that is tougher. You cannot force forgiveness. You cannot will yourself to forgive any more than a 30-year pack-a-day smoker—like my mother—could will herself to stop even though she desperately wanted to. But, once you actually forgive it is as if your heart sighs from the release.  

 It was like a sliver under the skin, not toxic, not festering, not painful . . . just there . . .

Christmas Day 2013 I received a phone call from a young woman we’ll call Mary. Mary is a friend of my son with whom he had a relationship many years ago when he was in college. It isn’t unusual for me to get phone calls, emails, and text messages from Michael’s friends even though they become fewer and fewer as the months and now years pass since his death. Michael’s story is a long and complicated one and I’ve told parts of it in several different venues depending on for whom the message is intended.

Michael had huge expressive brown eyes and even as a child it seemed like he could look right through you into your heart and know what you needed. He would tilt his head to one side with that crooked smile and say “Mama, I think you need a hug.” And he did give the best hugs. Michael could read children’s books word for word when he was three years old. He went to church, accepted Christ and was baptized when he was six. He was in Beta Club, on the honor roll most report cards, and was chosen to go to NC Governor’s School. He was an all-star pitcher and went to a national championship where his team lost only to the number one ranked Japanese team. He signed the Just Say No contract in the 5th grade. Michael was a regular kid. Michael graduated Summa Cum Laude from college and attended graduate school. He graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Social Work/Substance Abuse counseling degree.  

Michael died from an overdose April 9, 2012. He was 40 years old. I have briefly touched on Michael’s introduction to “hard drugs” when I have spoken to groups in the past and even I do not know the full story. But I do know that as a young man having graduated from high school and after spending the summer in Germany with his best friend, Michael left for college with all of the hopes and dreams of any 18 year old for his future. Michael was an outspoken free spirit who had always danced to a different drummer. Playing guitar and singing in a heavy metal band by night and studying to keep an A average during the day, he adapted well to college life away from home. His junior year at college he met Mary. Mary had a son who she was raising alone. Having had long term issues with his own father, Michael loved this girl and her son as if he were his own. At one point Michael attempted to legally become the child’s guardian.

Mary was a heroin addict. Now I don’t pretend that someone held Michael down and injected the drug into his vein against his will. I do know that on that day he didn’t wake up and say to himself “Today I think I will take the first step that will control the rest of my life and result in my death. Today I will take the first step to addiction." Nonetheless, he did take that step. He described that skin pops turned into injection use and eventually an addiction to the drug. I often drove to Raleigh to spend the weekend or the day with him and his girlfriend and her son. He was in love. I didn’t have any idea at the time that he was experimenting with heroin. Of course in retrospect the red flags were there. I liked Mary. Her son, let’s call him Joseph, was well behaved and we spent considerable weekends together. Mary was a slight, thin young woman with dark hair and sad eyes who was estranged from her family. She laughed easily and she clearly loved her son. Joseph loved books, as had my son Michael. Michael often asked me to bring his childhood books with me so that he could teach Joseph, who was a bright little boy, to read. Eventually their relationship broke up, her parents got custody of Joseph and Michael continued on but with a broken heart having thought that he had failed at being a father figure to the child. I still didn’t have a clue that he was using.

Years later when we discussed his addiction, how and why he took that first step, I learned that Mary had introduced him to the drug and that the money I had often given him to get his musical instruments out of the pawn shops was not for food but for heroin. Mary and Michael lost touch with each other. He struggled with his addiction, she with hers. Many years later while Michael was working on a protocol for drug users with Hepatitis C in New York he called me to tell me that Mary had contacted him through Facebook. He was divorced by then and her marriage was failing and she had Hepatitis C. She had seen on a web search that he was working with patients much like her. Michael was at the time a leading force in harm reduction in New York and nationwide and a fierce advocate for the rights and health needs of people who use drugs. He directed a pioneering intensive case management program that he had developed to deliver integrated multi-disciplinary hepatitis C care and antiviral treatment to active drug users as well as destigamize drug users living with Hepatitis C. They talked by phone about her son and where they were in their lives. He asked me what I thought about him redeveloping a relationship with her again. I suggested that it was not a good idea and that it is very seldom that you can ever rekindle an old failed relationship. He was in a good place physically and emotionally (in other words he wasn’t using) and I thought it was a Pandora’s Box better left unopened. They kept in contact for a while and then lost touch again.

In 2013, nine months after Michael died, Mary contacted me. She had just discovered that Michael had died. She was distraught and very upset over his death. “I’m a hot mess,” she said. I could hear her trying to hold it together. She said she had just discovered information about his death on the Internet and that she would  miss him for the rest of her days. She said, “It’s hard for me to describe my grief,” and then she tried to explain what Mike taught her in life and the love she had for him. She knew some parts of Michael’s story that I did not and I asked her to help me fill in some of the blanks. I talked to her and I listened but I never forgave her. It was like a sliver under the skin, not toxic, not festering, not painful…just there with new skin growing over it leaving an irritating “itch."

Christmas is a hard holiday for me because it was the one holiday where all of my children were together and Michael loved it so. He loved the excitement of his nieces and nephews opening presents and of course the food and the laughter. My husband and I decided to spend this Christmas away from home—no tree, no lights, nothing to indicate that it was Christmas day. My cell phone rang late in the day and I did not recognize the number. Usually I don’t answer calls that I can’t identify, but we had been getting calls from friends and relatives all day so I answered. I didn’t recognize the voice of the young woman on the other end of the line.

She started to talk and I asked twice, “Who is this?” It was Mary. One year and eight months after my son’s death from an overdose she was calling me again to say she was thinking of me. She was calling to ask how I was doing the second Christmas without my son and to tell me that she was with her husband in the car and he was driving her to a treatment center for detox and treatment from opiates. My throat closed up and I could barely speak. I had never asked her if she was using. I knew that she had been in and out of treatment facilities over the years but I had assumed that she was drug free. She told me that this time she was going to do it right, this time she was not going to relapse and this time she was going to work hard on her recovery. My mind raced back to similar discussions with my son. What I had said to my son in the past, and now said to Mary, was “I am very proud of you for making this decision." I said that she had to do this for herself and not for anyone else and that above all she had to love herself and imagine all of the wonderful things waiting for her in her new future. I encouraged her to stay the entire 30 days and asked for an address of the facility so I could send her a card of encouragement. What I had said to my son in the past, because I know these aren’t empty promises but are often promises that are hard to keep, (but didn’t say to Mary) is “One of these times will be the last time. If this isn’t it then this will be one more stepping stone towards what will be the last time. Don’t ever give up.”  

I hung up the phone and my mind began to wander as I stared out the window. I know my son would not want one more family to grieve, one more mother to mourn, one more child to ask why. And then I knew that if he were here he would look me in the eye and straight into my heart with that crooked smile and tilt his head to one side. He would say to me “Mom, forgive her, it is time." And I did. 

Diannee Carden Glenn is based in North Carolina and Florida and has been campaigning for the last year for overdose prevention. She last wrote about her reaction to the death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

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