Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Kool Aid Mom

A Mother Builds Awareness
          I met Cathy Warren on the southwest corner of Main Street and North Avenue in Webster, N.Y. She held a sign with a picture of her son with the words “Have You Lost Someone to Drugs?” written in black crayon. I rolled down my window and told her I never lost my son, but I understood her grief being my son was an addict. As I drove down the road, tears streamed down my face because the unimaginable hit me like bullets shattering my mother’s heart. It could have been my son. I turned my car around, parked it outside The Coach Sports Bar and stood with her on the corner. I told her about the many people who shared their stories of addiction with me and, like her, I wanted to help the parents, the addicts, and the schools to have a better understanding of drug addiction. Every little step, every stride, every accomplishment in bringing awareness to the epidemic taking hostage our loved ones and, in Cathy Warren’s case, taking their lives is a positive move toward healing and resolution.

The Story of Curtis Warren
          Curtis Warren was an avid reader. His grandfather introduced him to books at a very young age. He often read to Curtis in an animated voice, and Curtis sat next to him with eyes of wonder wanting to hear more. Eventually, as he learned to read himself, he and his grandfather would take turns reading to each other. Curtis grew to love Sci-fi and Fantasy novels. When the first Harry Potter book came out, he read it in one night. Science books intrigued him as well. He would read them to Cathy, and he would try to explain everything she did not understand. His love for reading kept him going through the difficult times in his childhood, the times he felt alone.
          Cathy called herself “The Kool-Aid Mom.” Her door was always open to Curtis’ friends, but when Curtis entered Spry Middle School, he fell into the wrong crowd. The friends coming through her door stole drugs from her medicine cabinets, but she still took on the protective role. Curtis’ friends were her children as well, and they knew it. One example was a young one man who ran away on a winter night, and the police searched for him everywhere. Cathy looked at a snowbank outside her window and saw lines scrawled across the newly fallen snow. The next morning when she looked again, she saw “Cathy, can I come in.” The young man did not want to come to the door, so he hoped she would see his request in the snow. Tears rolled down Cathy’s face as she told me the story. She had countless stories of wayward adolescents and teens flocking to her door.
          By the time Curtis reached high school, Cathy felt lost in the chasm of Curtis’ poor choices. Webster-Schroeder High School had her on the phone nearly every day. She attended superintendent’s meetings, signed a 504 plan, and lost her status as a cool mom. A barrage of self-doubt kept her awake at night. It was an assault and battery on her conscience. She felt like a terrible parent. After all, she was a single mom. Dad was completely out of the picture. She worried about paying bills and putting food on the table. She worked long hours to make sure she meet her boy’s needs. Even Christmas became a guilt trip because she bought the things they needed, not the things they wanted.
          The day Webster-Schroder High School called her at work and told her they expelled Curtis, she could not move. They arrested him, and he threatened to kill himself. She worked it out that he would go to Boces, but it lasted for one class. He threatened to blow up the school and held security off with a chair. She saw her version of hell take place within her home from that day forward.

The Downward Spiral
          Cathy saw his slow fade happen.  His eyes glazed over. A physical transformation took place, and it was like watching the metamorphosis of her son from a loving person to a person she no longer knew. The bad scenes escalated, and one night she called 911 only to have the police officers throw accusations about the medications visible on the top of her refrigerator. The medications were for her arthritis, nothing else. Curtis finally went to rehab and was clean for three months when his world collided with drugs the final time.
          During his last days, Curtis withdrew from everyone. Riddled with anxiety at night, he drank. He wanted to smoke weed, but it was too expensive. He once told Cathy, “I can go down the street and get heroin for free.” When he started using again, she didn’t understand he was doing more than smoking weed and drinking. Suddenly, his friends stopped hanging around him, and even some of his closest friends didn’t recognize he was in trouble.

The Overdose
          Cathy found Curtis rocking back and forth in the kitchen in front of her microwave. She assumed he was merely drunk. Eventually, she knew it was much more. She called 911. The EMTs cut off his shirt, and when they saw his acne, they assumed they were needle marks. He died of an acute overdose. He never mainlined.
          She later found out the drug dealer refused to sell him the heroin because he had been drinking heavily. He knew if he did, Curtis would die. In desperation, Curtis went to the city and bought his drugs off the street where dealers don’t care.

Cathy’s World Now
          Three weeks after Curtis died, Cathy’s mother passed away from a broken heart. It was the only way to explain it. Applebees Restaurant fired her after 17 years of waitressing. She went back to work too soon. When friends of Curtis kept coming into the restaurant and saying how sorry they were for her loss, she finally broke down and cried in the middle of the dining room floor. Her grief overwhelmed her and broke her into a million shards of memory. Cathy is currently going through her own ordeal as if she hasn’t been through enough already. She has melanoma under the retina in her right eye. She is undergoing laser treatment in NYC, and the tumor is still the same size. Cathy’s world will never be the same, but she is determined to bring awareness because too many young people are dying in Webster.

When the System Fails
          Two weeks after Curtis died, Cathy went up to see her mother at the hospital. She decided to take a detour into Rochester Mental Health. Her words to them said it all. No commentary needed.
          Two weeks ago, my son was supposed to be here, and you canceled his appointment.  Now he is dead. He was expected to be here at 9:00 AM this morning, so you need to go into group, and tell them what happened and how they should hope their mothers are never sitting here right now feeling the same grief I am feeling.

A Wish in Life Becomes a Wish Fulfilled
          Curtis firmly believed in relationships. He wanted people to be there for each other. He never wanted to experience the feeling of being utterly alone and isolated.  The need for companionship grew with his addiction. His mother worked. His friends found jobs. He wanted someone with him all the time, which was an impossibility. His death brought people together again. His friends have stronger bonds within their relationships with each other, and they tell Cathy over and over again how Curtis was their best friend. The outpouring to Cathy is a testament to how great Curtis truly was in the lives of his friends. It took Curtis’ passing to bring family and friends together again and closer than ever before.

My Hope
          Learn from Curtis and Cathy’s journey. You are not alone in this battle with your loved one. Cathy is one of the countless people facing the loss of a child. I have a tattoo on my back. Stagli Vincio. It means “stay close.” My prayer for you is you stay close to your loved one. Hold tight. Love them even when they are hard to love. Give them room to breathe, but be the gentle guide to becoming drug-free. If you have lost a loved one, share your story. We all need to hear it. We all need to bear one another’s burdens. We all need hope.  

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Pearls of Wisdom from Our Intervention

Have an initial plan: You don’t want to do an intervention haphazardly, nor do you want to do it alone. Have a family member, clergy, or close family friend join you in the process. Sometimes planning the time and place is difficult and you may need a trustworthy person, who is a friend of the addict, to assist you in getting him or her to the location at the correct time.

Choose Your Words Wisely: Do not condemn or be judgmental. If you challenge the addict with derogatory statements such as “I knew you would never amount to anything,” or “How could you be so stupid as to use drugs? What is wrong with you?” you will need to do more damage control later, or you will permanently drive them out of your life and further into the world of drugs. Express your love first and then draw the line in the sand.  

Love Letters to an Addict: Our letters, which I have saved, helped Geoffrey see the light. He always felt like a screw-up, so hearing heartfelt affirmations of love and the common belief in his ability to succeed gave him the confidence and determination to change from an addict into a recovering addict. Don’t be afraid to ask your family members to participate in this endeavor. My 15-year-old grandson had the most impact. If you believe it will work to have the friends and loved ones who wrote the letters present to read them personally, do it. We knew it wouldn’t work with Geoff because he kept a very private life.

Be prepared to follow through: I thought taking my son to the emergency room would initiate the process of getting him into a rehab facility. It didn’t work. Get in touch with your insurance company and find out your coverage and whether you need a referral or not. Find a place with an open bed before you start the ball rolling. Believe me; you do not want to do it on your own. You do not want to watch needless suffering when there means to help the transition to drug-free living.  Even his counselor told Geoff he should have bought Suboxone on the street to help him through the process. When I have called drug rehab facilities to help other parents, and the wait list is so long for an evaluation, I learned it is rather common for addicts to go to the street first. I don’t recommend it; it is still illegal.

Have Your Own Valuable Support System: I called on some allies as we prepared for the intervention. They were close friends from different parts of the country who I knew as prayer warriors. They knew the time and place, and they prayed. They listened to me and gave me advice. I am an adjunct assistant professor at a local college who has rarely canceled class. The head of my department knew only something serious would keep me from teaching my classes. When I shared what I was going through with my son’s addiction, she did something that helped me immensely. She met me at a local Al-Anon, an organization for families and friends of an addict. They helped me to see I was not alone, and it wasn’t my fault my son was an addict.

Continue to Be a Support System for the Addict: Even if my son is clean, I am still a listening ear when he is struggling with his cravings. I helped him find a medical doctor who was also a drug therapist for young people. He has been a godsend. Libby Cataldi’s poignant memoir Stay Close: A Mother’s Story of Her Son’s Addiction reveals the glaring reality of a mother’s struggle to heal her son. Her thematic focus is stagli vicino, which in Italian means stay close. It is one of the most important things to consider. They may be clean and sober, but the battle rages on. Stay close. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Story of an Intervention

Sandcastles are often ornate, skillfully crafted structures by artisans who love the simplistic beauty of combining sand with water. To protect these castles from the assault of ocean waves, an excavation of a moat is essential.  Last summer I watched the beach fortresses spring up in Ocean City Maryland, particularly by two little boys in front of my chair. They created it with a pail and wet sand, but it grew into an intricate medieval structure. As I watched them build the moat, I thought of how my husband and I set out to protect our castle walls, mainly for our son. We didn’t build a moat. We drew a line in the sand; but the line had more protection than any moat because it symbolized our love, commitment, and duty as parents. Our son was a drug addict.

Drawing a line in the sand is not easy for any parent of an addict. It simply means even though you love them deeply, you have to take a stand against their self-destructive behaviors. The consequences are clear and irreversible unless a change is made. Unlike the television shows chronicling an intervention, ours was not elaborate, but it worked.

Taking My Head Out of the Sand

The subtle changes like a whisper rarely caught my attention. My son worked long hours, which explained the 55 pounds he lost over the course of a year. The straws I found in his pocket were from work. When I followed him to the mechanic to get his car fixed, the weaving on the road was due to texting while driving. Everything had an explanation, my slow fade into denial.

My dreams spoke louder than my reality. I dreamed of lambs appearing in my front yard. A few minutes later wolves hovered and lay down with the lambs. Deception was their game until they were ready to move in for the kill. He ran out the patio doors to the front of the house and taunted the wolves. One bit off his toe. In my dreamscape, I told him he could have been killed. My subconscious pounded at the front door as the wolves of drugs tried to destroy my son.  

On Easter Sunday, in 2010, I watched my son barely able to keep his eyes open during our family celebration. Not one morsel of food entered his mouth. He simply moved his fork back and forth across the plate. When I questioned him later, he told me not to worry about it, but I did worry. I couldn’t shake my discerning heart telling me he would die if things didn’t change. I questioned his girlfriend, and she admitted he did cocaine in the past. I could tell by her demeanor she knew more than she let on. He was on drugs. My eyes finally opened to the harsh reality of my son’s addiction.

I may have had my head in the sand, but once reality barged into my conscious world I knew things had to change.  I sat on my deck twirling my hair over and over again contemplating the expansive lot behind my house. Deer often roamed the posted land knowing their freedom from hunters. They may have been free, but how could I dodge the bullets firing against my family? Against my son?  I found myself praying for a miracle. Playing his savior had been my role for far too long. I fought his battles at school and with his father. I made one plea into the heavens: “Do whatever you need to do, but please spare his life.”

The Intervention

Planning a drug intervention required an act of faith, an assurance that didn’t cause every nagging doubt to the surface when I tried to imagine his frame of mind and how he would respond. His anger, when set in motion, could crumple the most hardened criminal. I knew what we were about to do would either destroy our relationship with our son or set him on a path to recovery. Either way, it had to be done!

When my husband called our son from his bedroom in the basement, the anger in his eyes as he slumped in the chair revealed our compromised plan. I told his girlfriend to make sure nothing interfered with the intervention. Unfortunately, she was her own disease. I shot her a stern look and she whispered, “I’m sorry.”

“ Do you know how much we love you?” I asked.

“Yea. Just get on with it Mom. I know why we’re here.”

An emotional boundary formed the beginnings of the line in the sand. He needed to make the decision to change his own future. Saying “I love you, but…” required not only our love for  our son but a strong backbone as well. What he said next nearly broke my resolve to continue.

“It’s your fault Mom, all your fault. Not mine. You enabled me. You came to my defense when you should have been a mother who disciplined me. You should have kept me under your watchful eye and protected me. You didn’t.”

His words stung. I taught my children freedom with responsibility. I taught them to use their freedom wisely. He couldn’t blame me. He was eighteen, not a child.

I took out the letters we wrote to him, letters of love and not judgment. His oldest sister told him she feared getting the dreaded phone call that her baby brother died. She reminded him of the promise she made to him at his birth.  She would always be there for him, and his drug addiction didn’t change anything; in fact, she realized how she needed to be his ally, his cheerleader and his prayer warrior. His younger sister told him how our family never did anything the traditional way; we all fell flat on our face at one time or another, but his worth was far greater than his mistakes. Hearing words of affirmation made him fidget, but none of our letters hit him as hard as Ethan’s, his 15-year-old nephew.  When I read his letter, tears broke through crumbling down his castle walls. He knighted him his role model, and even in this dark situation he looked up to him and loved him.
Although I thought we made some headway with the letters, he was broken but not ready. He was remorseful, but not willing to change. My husband and I drew the line in the sand even further. From a mother who would die for her child, the deeper line nearly destroyed me. It was no longer a choice; it had to be done.  

“You will go to rehab or you will lose your phone. You will stop doing drugs or you will lose your car insurance and your place to live. It’s your choice, son.”

“I am leaving.” He walked through the basement doors slamming it behind him. Within five minutes, he packed a duffle bag and walked out the door. His car screeched out of the driveway leveling the line in the sand we created, one I questioned at the moment whether we should have drawn.

A knock came at the door at 2 a.m. His girlfriend told me my son was in trouble. Nothing more needed to be said. Six hours had passed since his last fix and withdrawal pummeled his body as he fought the desire for drugs. Agitation and nausea settled over him like waves as he told me over and over again how sorry he was for hurting me. I took him to the emergency room. What a joke! They monitored him until 4 a.m. and sent him home with a list of names to contact. Unfortunately for all of us, we were heading into Memorial Day weekend. The battle raged against my son the following morning.  The full assault against his castle raged and we had no line of defense. Alone on the front lines, we fought  nausea, diarrhea, and tremors. His labored breathing made me hold my own breath. He writhed in pain and I said prayers. What else could I do? I even questioned if I remembered CPR, just in case. 

During the grueling 72 hours we spent together, I learned my son mainlined three times the lethal limit of Oxycontin three times a day. As he lay on the couch, I saw one of his legs creeping out from under the blankets. A mass of tender twigs and broken wings now took the place of my former football player.  Occasionally he would say, “I am a nothing,” and I would remind him he was strong; he was special; he was still my baby boy.

We finally found a rehab facility for my son His final words before he walked through the doors removed all doubts. “Mom you loved me unconditionally and all I ever wanted was your approval and I now know I had it all along.”

The drug counselor put him on Suboxone, an opiate inhibitor. It hasn’t been an easy journey, but he has been drug-free for six years. He has helped countless others with his story and has experienced the pain of losing friends to their drug addiction. Building the line in the sand helped him to rebuild his castle walls and they are stronger than ever.

I am a firm believer we should make beauty from ashes, so I have worked to help other families in the same predicament. I have stood with them as they fight to bring their family members or friends up out of the ashes. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) (2014), drug overdose was the leading cause of injury death in 2012, killing more than motor vehicle accidents. Heroin addiction deaths have increased five-fold since 2001. It’s time to do an intervention and draw our line in the sand.