"If we can get rid of the stigma, more people will step up for help."

Growing up I moved around a lot and didn’t want my kids to be uprooted so often like I was, so I made sure my kids were born and raised under the same roof. I stopped working after I had my oldest son to be a stay at home mom. I was heavily involved in my children’s lives and volunteered with the school, boy scouts, sports, just about everything; I really enjoyed it. My oldest son, Jake, was a normal kid. He played T-ball, basketball, all the sports that young kids play. He was a leader in the neighborhood, and all the kids would play whatever game he came up with. He was very funny and had a contagious laugh. He loved animals and had several of them growing up. He grew to be tall at 6’4”, but was a gentle person. He never hurt anyone or caused trouble. He was just a goodhearted kid with a great smile and gave the best hugs. The summer before his senior year in high school, Jake had his wisdom teeth taken out; he was prescribed Percocet.

I began noticing a difference in Jake later in his senior year. I noticed he was slacking off a little and sleeping a lot. I asked him if everything was okay and he told me he was fine. I just assumed that he had senioritis.  I did question his actions, but he was still going to work and completing school assignments. Still, I didn’t know how to respond to the situation and believed Jake when he told me he was fine.

He eventually left to attend college at Temple University. I realized he had a problem when he spent the majority of the money in a mutual fund I had with him. I spoke with him about it and that’s when he admitted he was addicted to opioids. It was difficult to accept what was happening. I had to look in the mirror and say out loud that Jake was an addict. I had to acknowledge it so I could deal with it.

I decided to take him to our family doctor, where we were advised to go to the emergency room. My husband felt that such a severe measure wasn’t needed, and that Jake was just going through an experimentation phase. Jake had no choice but to agree with him. I took a week off to monitor Jake while he went through detox in our home. I was eventually able to get him into rehab, but he signed himself out after 11 days. I never encountered a situation like this and had no idea what to do. I had a friend in recovery, and I asked her what I should do. She referred to me to a group meeting. I never thought in a million years I’d be sitting in a meeting about opioid addiction. It was hard hearing everybody’s story, it was the same story over and over. The meetings didn’t give much hope but did educate me on the nature of Jake’s disease. They helped me prepare for the reality of what was to come. Jake heard good things about treatment programs in Florida and wanted to go there for his recovery. My husband didn’t feel it was appropriate though and encouraged Jake to stay local. As an alternative, Jake wanted to try Vivitrol injections, and we found a doctor who was qualified to provide them. Jake still wasn’t getting all the help he should’ve been receiving though, like counseling.

One night, tensions were running high because of Jakes actions with his addiction. I know he still loved us and knew right from wrong, he just couldn’t help it though. He was upset that I wouldn’t let him take a car to Philly, but acquiesced and allowed me to drive him to the train station. We talked about his substance use disorder on the way there and we both began crying. I told him that I loved him very much, but I couldn’t do anything for him anymore, but when he was ready, I’d be there for him. He just had to be the one to say that he needed help. He told me he’d be fine.

I had a really bad feeling that night. I texted him that I loved him and to have a good night, and that I would always be there for him. The next morning I got a call from his girlfriend while I was at work. She said that Jake was unconscious and not waking up. When I arrived at the hospital, the doctor asked me if Jake had a “do not resuscitate” order. I knew in that moment Jake was gone. I asked the medical staff to donate any organs they could. They informed me that he had marked himself as an organ donor; he saved two lives.

I later learned that Jake was still taking opioids while on the Vivitrol shots. He had been increasing his use because the shots had been blocking the effects of the opioids. He was tapered off the shots and his tolerance lowered, but he was taking the same dosage of opioids, leading to his overdose. I found a small amount of solace in knowing that he passed away peacefully in his sleep and not traumatically in an alley somewhere.

When his girlfriend discovered him, though she did, she was afraid to call 911. I wish more people knew that they will not be held responsible when calling 911. I was afraid of what this event would do to her but she’s doing well today. I’m still in touch with her and am happy that she’s found love again. It’s been hard for me though, a piece of me died with Jake that day.

Even though it happened three years ago, I still find myself crying at least once every day. I had to become stronger to deal with it, especially with the separation with my husband. I still have two boys who really need me, so I had to take care of myself. Jake was their big brother and their best friend, and I knew this would be a really hard thing they would have to deal with. My two sons and I talked a lot, I don’t think they knew how bad Jake actually was.  I think the whole situation has made me closer with them.

There was a lot of discussion concerning whether we’d mention Jake’s cause of death at his funeral. Jake’s father didn’t want people to know about it and said we shouldn’t mention it. I told him that I wasn’t ashamed and was very proud of Jake. I didn’t feel it was right to sweep it under the rug. I asked my sons if they’d mind if it was mentioned at the service and they said no. A lot of high school students were going to be at the funeral and they thought it was important for them to know how Jake passed away. My boss called and told me that several of my coworkers wanted to know what happened. I told her to inform them that it was a drug overdose. I know other parents have a hard time disclosing their child’s overdose, but its important people know what’s happening. This isn’t something that we should be ashamed of. Addiction is a disease that doesn’t discriminate and we shouldn’t stigmatize that disease. I think if the stigma wasn’t so bad, Jake would’ve spoke up earlier and gotten help. If we can get rid of the stigma, more people will step up for help. It doesn’t help people with substance use disorder when they are negatively branded. We tend to think that addiction only happens to the toothless homeless guy, but nothing is further from the truth. It happened to my baby, and it can happen to anybody.

I found a group for parents who’ve lost children to addiction, and I’ve met a lot of nice people through it. We support each other, do walks and interviews.  I try to do things like this to help others and by helping others, I help myself heal. Many mothers call to ask how to prevent their kids from becoming addicted or what they need to do once addiction has taken hold. I often don’t know what to say.  I give them the names of the groups that I go to and just trying to be there for them.  I do advise parents to not give their children painkillers if they’re injured, and if they do, monitor it. If you think something’s going on, it probably is. Realize that they will look you in the eye and tell you what you want to hear.

There were a lot of things I had to change in my life that I never thought I would be doing with my own child. If they’re addicted, know that recovery won’t be quick and easy. Know that there will be a rollercoaster of emotions. There will be lying.  There will be arguments with your spouse. There will be fights between siblings. It tore me apart because I know Jake didn’t want any of this to happen and was being tormented by this disease. I just don’t want him to have died in vain.

This is why I am sharing my story, because I don’t want anyone else to go through what I’ve been through. I was very naïve to everything when it was going on. I didn’t realize things were as bad as they were. I was afraid to ask for help because of the stigma attached to it, and I didn’t know what to do. If I can help another mother see the warning signs or get help, it’d be worth it to spread my story. It helps me to help others going through this because I feel like I wasn’t able to help Jake. If I can help other people, Jake’s life wouldn’t have been lost for no reason.

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