"I take solace in the fact that I can take the love I have for my son, and turn it into something that can help others."

I was born and raised in the suburban Pittsburgh area, moved out to the Philadelphia region with my family, settled in the West Chester area, and have pretty much stayed in this area. I currently live in Wayne, Pennsylvania.  My son, Zach, was born 24 years ago. He was quiet, reflective, quirky, and super funny. I had a really close relationship with him, and we clicked because of our quietness and our bit of introversion. He was 6’3” and a tremendous athlete. He played basketball, football, tennis, and other sports. He was a hard worker and all of his bosses held him up as a model employee. He loved food and always raved about my cookies to his friends. Just a kind person in general. I always describe him as a love bug.

I became a stay at home mom when Zach was born but went back to working full time when he entered first grade. When Zach was in second grade, his father came out as gay and we divorced. Though we were divorced, we both still loved Zach and played major roles in his life; we’re still close today. When Zach entered Stetson middle school he developed anxiety issues. We didn’t notice these right away because we thought he was just quiet and shy. He would sometimes break down in tears after a basketball game. I thought it was stress but eventually learned it was his anxiety catching up with him. I spoke with his pediatrician, and she decided to prescribe Zach Zoloft to treat his anxiety.

Zach eventually entered Rustin high school. Not too long after, I found a couple of blunt wrappers in his shoe and thought he was smoking tobacco. I later learned he was using the wrappers to smoke marijuana. I think he was using marijuana as well as alcohol to self-medicate his anxiety issues. It should be noted that my mother was an alcoholic, and it’s possible that something in our genetics may have contributed to Zach self-medicating. In 2013, Zach graduated and was accepted into Temple University. We were all excited for him, but I don’t think he wanted to go. Considering how anxious he was, I think making friends in a new environment wasn’t something he was looking forward to. He would still come home on the weekends to spend time with us. At this point, he was primarily using marijuana instead of taking his anti-anxiety medication. Zach was seeing a psychiatrist while attending Temple, and got a prescription for Adderall. I’m not sure if he was using other drugs at this time, but I do know he was snorting the Adderall. Despite this, he was stable and was doing well in school.

After his first year at Temple, he broke up with his girlfriend and things started going downhill. I’d pick him up on the weekends and could tell he was high, even with his sun glasses on.  It was hard for me to admit what was going on at the time, so I never really confronted him about it.  We took him to several therapists and psychiatrists for his anxiety, but I think he just preferred self-medicating over long-term cognitive behavioral treatment plans. He would eventually tell me that he had tried everything except heroin while he was attending Temple. He said that the drugs erased his anxiety completely. It all eventually became too much for him though, and he transferred to West Chester University to be closer to home. Despite this move, I could tell he was still using drugs. I called his father and we both sat down with Zach to talk about his drug use. He was honest with us and told us he was using Xanax and Ketamine. We drug tested him that next morning and found out he was using a variety of benzodiazepines and opioids.

We took Zach to the Mirmont treatment center, but he never went back after his initial evaluation. He would do well and become sober, but tended to relapse. It was decided that he needed inpatient treatment. We wanted to take him to Caron, but they didn’t take insurance. As a parent, you want to do everything you can for your child, but some options are just financially out of reach. We had been paying out of pocket for years so that Zach could see psychiatrists, but couldn’t afford much more. We eventually signed him into Mirmont treatment and got him scheduled for inpatient treatment. Zach went on a bender the night before he was to go in. The next morning, he really didn’t want to go. Despite this, we just kept telling him that he was going. It seemed like a good program and offered a lot classes for parents, which my ex-husband and I took advantage of. He was in the program for three weeks, and was then referred to a recovery home. We wanted him to stay at Mirmont but were told that our insurance might not cover the recovery home if he stayed any longer. Altogether, Zach was in treatment for only two months.

After leaving the recovery home, Zach lived with his father and his partner; we thought he’d do well in a different environment.  His father’s partner had retired early and was able to watch Zach and spend time with him, which was really nice. Zach got a job at Lowe’s and was doing well, but relapsed. He eventually got sober again and was making good grades. He was getting close to graduating with a degree in computer science, but for some reason, started spiraling out of control. My ex-husband and his partner told me that it was clear Zach was using again. I picked Zach up from work to keep an eye on him until his father got back from a trip to New York. When he got into the car, I could tell he was under the influence of something and asked him about it; he said he had an edible. The situation made me angry with him. We were planning on going out to eat for my birthday, which was coming up, but changed our plans. We just stayed home because he was really out of it. I searched his backpack and found empty pill bottles; I didn’t know what to do. If I had taken him to the ER, I was afraid they would tell me he was just strung out and to go back home. In the end, I decided he would be fine and I went to bed. I went to wake him up the next morning and felt something was wrong. He was under the covers and there was a stillness to him; I realized that was it.

I later learned from the coroner that Zach had been gone for about nine hours by the time I found him. He had snorted a bag of fentanyl-laced heroin that night and had traces of OxyContin and Xanax in his system. We know that he bought the heroin in Philadelphia, but don’t know if it was the first time he used heroin. It’s been about twelve weeks since Zach passed away and I’ve felt a numbness ever since. Sometimes I get hit by a tidal wave of grief when I realize I won’t see Zach again; it’s difficult to wrap my head around. Stumbling through it all can feel like you’ve fallen into an abyss. While it’s been devastating, I’ve luckily had a lot of support from my family and am receiving grief counseling. I spend a lot of time reading and meditating about everything. I’ve attended several support groups, like “If Love was Enough” and have met many wonderful people. I’ve heard from others that the grief lightens up over time but I think it just depends on who you are. I think guilt often plays a major role. You often find yourself wondering what you could’ve done differently. Sometimes I wish I could go back and tell Zach, “I see you’re high, but let me give you a hug and tell you I love you.” It’s an easy thing to wonder, but I try not to think like that because I can’t change it at this point. Instead, I try to look at the positive side of things; like all the love we gave him. It’s comforting to share my story, and hopefully it helps others who are dealing with it. I take solace in the fact that I can take the love I have for my son, and turn it into something that can help others.

This is why I am sharing my story, so that it can help someone else dealing with the grief of a lost loved one. I think the grief is unique to each person but there’s something out there that can help each of us cope. There’s wonderful support groups out there to help in the grieving process. You don’t even have to share your story, it just helps to hear the stories of others and know that you’re not alone. It’s important to find a good grief counselor, someone who’s knowledgeable about grief and has experienced it personally. They can be instrumental in helping to ease the pain we feel. We have to take care of ourselves. To that end I’ve found meditation to be very helpful; just start with the basics and maybe try a bit of yoga. Regardless of how you do it, just take care of yourself and don’t be afraid to talk about your grief with others. I know there’s a stigma out there, but don’t let it stop you from talking about it. The more we talk about it, the less isolated we’ll be.

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