I’ve lived in Collegeville for almost 30 years and currently work as a secretary at a local middle school. I have three kids, Chase who is 17, Maddie is 23, and TJ who would have been 25 today. TJ was super funny and everyone got along with him. He was a prankster and liked messing around with his siblings. He enjoyed sports and videogames. From an early age he was inquisitive, wanting to know everything with no answer being good enough. He had been employed since he was 15, was a boy scout, and was very involved in our church. Around freshman year, he started gravitating towards a new group of people. I started noticing the smell of marijuana which led to several arguments. He began to drink and by senior year he was experimenting with pills. He started having run-ins with the police for things like smoking and drinking with his friends. I’d stay up at night waiting to hear the car pull into the driveway. I would thank God every time I saw his shoes in the mudroom, that he made it home safe.
After graduating high school, I was surprised to find out that TJ wanted to attend IUP in the middle of Western Pennsylvania where it’s cold and didn’t offer anything he originally wanted for his college experience. Despite this, it was the school his friends had chosen to go to, influencing him to attend with them. As he transitioned to college, money was becoming a huge issue with him; he always needed money and never had any. We don’t know how he was supplying his habit.
Whenever TJ came home on Christmas or summer break the whole house would turn upside down. We’d constantly argue about him being home by a certain hour. I felt an enormous change in his sophomore year when he moved off-campus into an apartment. My kids and I drove up to visit him and his apartment was in awful shape. It was dark and dirty with covers on all the windows. The sink was piled two feet above the top of the sink with moldy dishes. It was scary seeing his living situation. This was the environment in which TJ would begin experimenting with Heroin.
TJ made the switch from pills to heroin when a friend offered it to him and told him it was the same high for a cheaper price. He started using heroin in the spring and the situation went further downhill. He moved back home for the summer, and for the first time in his life, he couldn’t keep a job. He’d constantly nod off at work and was consistently being fired for being a liability. I recall one day that summer where I told him that his boss had called to fire him. He began crying and I realize now it wasn’t just over the job, but everything that was falling apart in his life. He hated what drugs had done to his life – he told me many times he wanted his old life back.
He went back to college and to this day I regret that I let him do that. The addiction was out of control by the time he came back for Christmas break. I’d try and confront him about the issue, but he always denied having any kind of drug problem. It was at that point that I decided to set up an in-home intervention. While he was in his room, I saw something sticking out of his shoes in the mudroom. I found out they were Suboxone patches after some online searching. While I knew TJ had been using drugs, I was oblivious to what drugs they specifically were. This was when I discovered it was an opioid.
When I called the intervention counselor, he informed me that TJ was probably using heroin and I couldn’t let him leave the house under any circumstances. I was tired from staying up the last two nights waiting for TJ to come home and called my ex-husband to keep watch. At one in the morning, my ex-husband woke me up and told me had I had to go downstairs. TJ had cut the screen off his window, climbed through it, and had been picked up by someone. We searched his room and found little baggies, wax paper, and needles. I texted him to come home in five minutes or I was going to shut off his cell phone and he came home. TJ began to go through withdrawals and was kicking and screaming until the intervention. He realized what was going on when he was brought to the intervention and promptly denied everything.
We couldn’t get through to him until his brother Chase came down from upstairs and began crying that he didn’t want him to die. That’s what made TJ go to rehab. He spent a month in rehab, and when he came out he was a different person. TJ couldn’t believe or understand how he got sucked into this, and I felt that I had my son back. He got a full-time job in construction and was working hard. I felt like he was “fixed”. I had no idea what I was dealing with. I did not understand the disease and that it would be a lifelong process.
While in rehab, TJ informed us that the police raided and found drugs in his apartment the previous fall. The police leveraged the situation to pressure him into becoming an informant. The police never notified the school or myself what they found in his room. If they had, the college would have expelled him, and I would have found out about his drug use sooner. I could have sent him to a rehab and possibly saved his life. He had been in contact with a police handler until I took away his phone and sent him to rehab. TJ and his rehab counselor called the handler to explain what had occurred but he never picked up.
After TJ got out of rehab in March, I received a call from this handler who demanded to speak with TJ. When TJ reached the handler, he was yelled at and told that if he didn’t come back to Indiana County the police would come get him. We hired a lawyer and after six weeks of negotiations with the district attorney, all charges against TJ were dropped. Despite the good news, the whole ordeal took a toll on TJ and he resorted back to using. I began finding paraphernalia around the house and confronted him about his relapse. He kept denying it until I threatened to drug test him, which he admitted to using again.
We took him back to rehab for the second time. We stayed there for an hour while they checked him in and we said our goodbyes. I got a call an hour later that TJ had left the rehab facility. For two days we couldn’t find him until we finally got in touch with him through the phone. I told him that he had to let us help him and he had to go back to rehab. He replied that it wouldn’t make a difference and the rehab facility would just teach him the same things they taught him last time. We were eventually able to talk him into going back to rehab. After two weeks, I got a call from his counselor. She informed me that TJ was ready to leave. She said that it had been established that TJ didn’t want to die or go to prison and the bottom line was that TJ could walk out at any time if he wanted to. The two days TJ spent on the streets were too many, and so I brought him home from rehab. I found an out-patient treatment center that was a good fit for TJ. I scheduled an appointment for that Thursday. I went to work early in the morning that Thursday. I called TJ from work but he didn’t pick up so I left work to check on him. When I got home, his door was locked and so I called 911. At around 11 AM, we found him unresponsive in his room. That was the day we lost TJ. He had gone out that night and at some point obtained Heroin and overdosed in his room during the night.
TJ passed away in May and there was a recovery walk that September. His friends wanted to have a team for TJ and wanted to walk in his honor. Around a hundred people showed up in Philly to walk for him. After the walk, I was contacted by the father of one of TJ’s friends who was a drug counselor. He told me about this group, Narcotics Overdose Prevention Education (NOPE), that holds assemblies at schools warning children about the dangers of drugs. He wanted to know if I’d be willing to speak at these assemblies about the loss of TJ.
At first I was hesitant because I couldn’t speak about TJ without getting upset. I now speak at these NOPE assemblies and embrace my sadness when I speak about him. I want the kids to see how upset I am so they realize how much pain they can potentially cause their family by engaging in drugs. I see it as a productive way to grieve for TJ while informing others of how serious all this is.
From this experience, I’ve learned that parents have more power than they give themselves credit for, and they need to apply it to their kids. People get addicted to this stuff within a week, it doesn’t take long. It sneaks up on you and your world is blown apart. Don’t ignore it and don’t believe everything your child says if you suspect they’re doing drugs. Smoking pot and drinking is not OK for teenagers, and as I learned it can quickly spiral out of control. People say pot is not a gateway drug – I can assure you it was TJ’s “gateway” to harder drugs. Even after you figure out what’s going on it can difficult to get them the help they need. Finding good treatment and dealing with insurance can be incredibly complicated; many people don’t even have insurance. It is ridiculous that not enough resources are going to those who want to help themselves. It makes me angry that we tolerate all these kids dying and this has become normal. And it all was started by drug companies that led the public to believe that the poisonous painkillers that were created for end of life treatment would not be addictive.
This is why I am sharing my story, so people know the people afflicted by this aren’t criminals but are our children. People shouldn’t be ashamed to talk about the loved ones they lost due to this epidemic. The only way we can begin to solve this is by talking about it.