"It’s horrible to go through opioid addiction, and it’s even worse when you feel you have no one. It’s important to remember that addiction is a disease."

I grew up in South Philadelphia and married my childhood sweetheart. Despite the fact that he had addiction issues, I saw him as my knight in shining armor.  We were married for 15 years, and we had two sons.  Unfortunately, it was not a good marriage, and my husband was constantly in rehab. I always hoped that he’d get better, but it never happened.

Addiction has rooted its ugly head in my life since I can remember. Growing up I lost my two brothers from issues arising from addiction. Addiction would not only impact my brothers and my husband, but my son as well.

I could tell that my marriage was declining when I was pregnant with my first child. I tried to rekindle things, but it didn’t turn out well. My husband was still using and was abusive, making it an incredibly stressful pregnancy. My second son, Matt, was born healthy despite the stress. He grew to be kind, intelligent, and a musically inclined child.

As he grew older though, I noticed he was developing anxiety issues. I divorced Matt’s father when he was seven and thought the anxiety was due to changes from that, like changing houses and schools. I began to realize the Matt’s anxiety was on a deeper level and took him to see specialists. They all classified Matt as having anxiety and much later, he was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome.

As time went on, Matt became more distant. I began seeing less of him as he spent more time out with friends. I knew he was smoking marijuana, and I had caught him drinking a couple of times. I began to notice some of my Tylenol PM missing as well. Matt ended up injuring his tibia and fibula and was prescribed opiates. I later learned the pills were everything Matt had wanted. They gave him courage and confidence while taking away physical and mental pain. The anxiety and tics were eliminated.

While I knew something was changing in him, I didn’t realize what it was. It got to the point where Matt began stealing to get more. He stole his brother’s credit card and took money out of his account. When I found out, I told Matt that I was there for him but he had to tell me if he did it. He confessed and revealed to me that he had been taking pills non-medically and was addicted to Percocet. I called Matt’s father, and we decided that Matt had to enter rehab. He was in for twenty days, and I thought everything would be fine once he got out.

After rehab, Matt barely graduated from high school. He began making good money as a casino worker in Philadelphia though, and had moved out with his brother. He started to dabble in more than just opiates.  He was smoking a synthetic substance, doing Xanax, and was taking several pills a day. Things reached a head when Matt slipped a synthetic substance into his brother’s cigarette. My older son called me and said he felt like he was having a heart attack. I arrived and called 911 when I got there. After the event, I had Matt committed for a psychiatric evaluation. They released him within two hours and the next day we got him into rehab.

When he was committed, they put him into the psych ward because he was so mentally gone. I remember walking through the doors and hearing the eeriest sound I could imagine. He came out and told me that he was messed up in his head, that I was in the walls, and that they were going to kill him. The situation was incredibly traumatizing, and I developed a ringing in my ears due to the extreme anxiety. To this day, I have a hard time even thinking about it.  Fortunately, Matt became well enough to leave the psych ward and entered into a thirty day rehab program. I again thought that everything would be fine once he got out.

I found out that Matt had been manipulating his doctor into prescribing him Klonopin, and several other medications. We received a call from Matt’s boss that Matt wasn’t doing well, and was close to being fired. When Matt came home, I told him that he either had to leave or go into rehab. It devolved into an argument between Matt and my current husband, which led to a fight where the police were called.

Matt moved out after the altercation and had enough money to get his own apartment. He moved in with a woman who was also using drugs. I tried to keep an ongoing connection with Matt and brought him things he needed. I knew he didn’t want to be in this situation and knew the circumstances around his life were difficult to handle. It was during this time that Matt admitted to me that he was using heroin intravenously. Growing up I had seen my brother shoot up and to imagine my son doing it was too much to process; I couldn’t stop throwing up when I found out.

Matt had always been afraid of needles and he was now injecting himself four to five times a day. He ended up getting a severe infection in his arm. Despite the infection, he continued injecting and the infection was getting worse. I was attending therapy and Al-anon, and realized that the only way Matt was going to get better is if he initiated recovery himself.

He visited for Christmas Eve, and I opened up to him. I told Matt that he doesn’t have much time left, I couldn’t continue watching him die, and I didn’t want to have a life without him. I told him to let me know when he needed help. He eventually came to me for help on my birthday after he almost had his leg amputated. He developed an abscess from injecting, but was still shooting up despite almost losing his leg. He told me that when he shot up, he’d sometimes pray that it was his last bag, and it would take him away. Luckily that didn’t happen, and he came to me for help.

I’d spend days on the phone, but couldn’t find any treatment center with open beds. I finally found a place in Virginia that had one bed available if he could make it there. My older son and I got Matt a bus ticket and prayed he wouldn’t get off the bus before reaching his destination. Luckily, Matt made it there.

I got a call twelve days later that Matt had to leave. His insurance was no longer willing to cover treatment. I begged and plead with the insurance company that my son would die if they kicked him out from treatment. I would do anything for Matt, but didn’t have the five thousand dollars the treatment center wanted. I eventually got in contact with a woman who told me she would do everything in her power to keep him in treatment. She was able to keep Matt in treatment for thirty more days. After treatment, Matt entered a halfway home in Asheville, North Carolina with a woman he had met in treatment. They were doing okay, but needed help paying rent while undergoing methadone treatment.

After a couple years, Matt told me that he needed to get out of the environment he was in. His older brother and I picked him up and got him into a new maintenance program. Matt’s been in dry recovery for three years and full recovery for about a year and a half. He’s doing a really good job of healing his brain to become functional again without opiates.

It’s been a growth process for me. I’ve learned to forgive myself for what I didn’t know and am now kinder to myself. I have a relationship with my son that I never had before. I didn’t know how to become his friend because he hid so much from me. That’s not the case today.

My advice for parents going through this is to always let your kids know that you love them. You can hate their disease, but show them love as a person. Some believe that you need to hit rock bottom to finally get help, but I don’t necessarily believe that. It’s horrible to go through opioid addiction, and it’s even worse when you feel you have no one. It’s important to remember that addiction is a disease. It’s not right to throw someone with cancer out on the street, so why do it to someone with substance use disorder? This doesn’t mean you should enable them, but it’s important to be there for them and follow through in helping them when they ask for help. You have to fight for them, like how I fought with the insurance company to keep Matt in treatment. Matt wasn’t in a condition to fight, he was sick, and so I had to fight for him.

This is why I am sharing my story, because there are several people out on the streets who aren’t capable of fighting against this disease and they need help. Nobody wakes up wanting to be homeless and addicted. They’re human beings who’ve been abandoned by society. We need to show them compassion so they can get help. They need access to treatment. They need therapy and guidance in interacting with the world.  They need a chance to go to school, get a job, and be treated with dignity. Just because it’s an addiction disorder doesn’t mean they’re not deserving of help.

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