My Son's Addiction

By Laura Tanksley 10/01/15

All I can do is watch as the devastation and destruction unfolds. This is the reality for those of us struggling with the suffocating grip that substance use disorder projects onto our loved ones.

Laura Tanksley
via author

Through a foggy haze, I see the silhouette of a man standing on the railroad tracks. The familiar tone of a train whistle breaks the silence, as a dim light emerges from the distance. I turn to the silhouette. Through the damp night air, I recognize the gait of my first-born son. The earth vibrates beneath my feet. The light becomes brighter; the whistle louder. Panic sets in. I open my mouth to scream out to him, but nothing emerges. My brain tells me to run to him; instead I stand there, just out of reach. I struggle violently to break free from an invisible hold in order to plunge forward and whisk him from harm's way. Again, I try to scream. My voice emerges a whisper, barely audible over the rumble of the massive machine barreling down the tracks. I stand paralyzed, waiting for the inevitable impact. All I can do is watch as the devastation and destruction unfolds. This is the reality. The everyday occurrence of those of us struggling with the suffocating grip that substance use disorder projects onto our loved ones.

Early on, Chase's use was infrequent, occasional and random, with no commitment to drug use, or a specific drug. It's a subtle transformation—late nights, borrowing money—then my possessions started to disappear. With each missing item, Chase's presence became more scarce. It was clear that random use had transitioned into substance use disorder.

Tattered and frayed, Chase approached me, “Mom, I need help. I'm out of control. I can't stop using.” I asked what he was using. He answered, “Blues”—the street name for Oxycodone. He'd used long enough that withdrawing became unbearable. When dope-sick, his boss “helped out” by providing "Blues" or Suboxone so that he could function on the job. I accompanied Chase to a rehab center only to be advised that “he wasn't addicted enough.” We left—hopeless and defeated.

Following months of homelessness, Chase was arrested for burglarizing unlocked cars—a futile attempt to fund drug use. He was sentenced to probation, and substance use evaluation. I thought, “Finally, the help that he needs.” Except that the evaluating facility wouldn't see him for five weeks. I knew that the lure of this drug was stronger than the threat of jail-time—he wouldn't make it five weeks, and he didn't. Probation turned into jail-time.

A year later he was released. I was hopeful. He hooked up with a girl that was on drug court. Her daily attendance at 12-step meetings was required. Would he attend with her, introducing recovery to abstinence?

He moved in with his girlfriend and her mother. The mother received several prescribed narcotics—she sold them, traded them, shared them with Chase and her daughter. When the prescriptions ran out before the next doctor's appointment—and they always did—the mother-daughter duo looked to Chase for a “fix.” Heroin enters. Chase's all or nothing attitude was just what the duo needed—if they planted the “seed” of opportunity, Chase followed through.

By now, panicked phone calls from Chase were the norm, however, this call contained a tone of terror and despair. He had ripped off a drug dealer. On the street, it's known as “hitting a lick.” He said, “Mom, this guy doesn't play around. If he finds me, he'll kill me.” I loaded him onto a bus with a ticket for our hometown, 1,600 miles away, with a distant relative arranged to receive him. What other alternative was there? I hoped this was a turning point.

More felony charges followed relocation, and he fled back home—picking up right where he left off with his girlfriend and her mother. He hit several more “licks,” sometimes narrowly escaping. When that wasn't an option, he committed theft.

Finally, he agreed to rehab. I dropped him off and breathed a sigh of relief—for 27 days. He left rehab, and stayed with an associate of his girlfriend’s mother. After several months, he decided to make the cross-country trip to face the felony charges that he left behind. He turned himself in, and served 75 days in jail. As they were processing him for release, a hold for extradition emerged. His past was catching up with him.

I knew of the “enemies” that he'd made, and the chance of his facing them in jail. I hired an attorney, who assured me that she could have him released within a day or so of his arrival— and she did. While awaiting sentencing for the new charges, the judge agreed to rehab on the other coast. Again, a sigh of relief.

We talked frequently. I reinforced that relapse is sometimes part of the process, until one day the phone rang and Chase said, “Mom, I overdosed. I'm sorry.” Sobbing, he told me that they gave him Narcan. I asked him where he was. He asked EMS where they were taking him, and I realized that he was in the ambulance. Stunned, I left work to figure out what was next.

Once home, the phone rang. The caller ID read, "St. Mary's Hospital," reluctantly, I answered. The voice on the other end was Chase's nurse—she couldn't find him. Two hours after overdosing, he left the hospital. I tried his cell. Finally, he called to assure me that he would return to the hospital. When I asked him what happened, he said, “I was with some people that I met. I went into the bathroom to shoot up. When I came out, I was talking. The next thing I remember, there were voices calling my name. It was like I was in a hallway. I opened my eyes, and I was surrounded by strangers. At first, I looked for police uniforms, then realized it was EMS. They saved me with naloxone.” I begged him to return to the hospital to detox. He stalled for a day and a half, assuring me he would return to the hospital.

In order to access detox services, those with no resources or income are forced to declare suicidality. He returned to the hospital with the declaration that he was having suicidal thoughts. The hospital admitted him to the psych ward, where he remained for three days. His attorney advised bringing him back home to apply for another facility. He made it to his court appearance and was sentenced to one year at the third rehab facility, and probation. He made it two or three months at the third rehab facility before his probation was revoked and he was again incarcerated.

Rehab is not a "magic cure.” He has been to three rehab facilities, tried methadone maintenance, and overdosed more than once. Each interaction with recovery brings knowledge, strength, and empowerment, while relieving the burden a little bit more. As he actively uses, I advocate for the humane treatment of drug users through a harm reduction approach. I hope for a time when he can put the dangerous aspects of drug use behind him. I continue to search for a method that works for him.  As miserable a journey as this is for me, it's threefold for him.

Laura is a mother from Florida, and co-founder of Florida's first harm reduction community organization, the Suncoast Harm Reduction Project. 
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Laura Tanksley is a mother from Florida, and co-founder of Florida's first harm reduction community organization, the Suncoast Harm Reduction Project. Find Laura on Linkedin.