Tell me the story of your child’s addiction.
Our daughter had a fairly typical upbringing: small-town, outgoing, active, responsible, caring. She was a very good student in school and active in sports, captain of her field hockey team, helped organize Relay For Life, active in the church youth group, your typical well-rounded kid.
Senior year of high school, we noticed she was losing weight. She was exercising a lot. Doing a lot of running. We had her seen for what we figured out to be exercise anorexia. The counselor she went to see really did a great job with her. She finished off school.
She never really had any serious boyfriends. There was one in particular who paid a lot of attention to her – kind of a bad boy. Come to find out he would tell her that he was her boyfriend, but it had to be a secret. Then we find out that he was telling this to other girls, too. We came to see him as a master-manipulator.
She graduated high school and went off to college in Philadelphia. Gets on her field hockey team. So she’s on the field hockey team and seems to be doing pretty well in school. But she gets injured. Gets a stick in the back. Gets taken to the hospital. I run down there. She was diagnosed with a fracture in the back of her spine and was prescribed painkillers. The pain from her back never really went away. It got to the point where she couldn’t play field hockey and was in pain all the time. After a year, she decided to come back and live at home. Part of this was also that she realized she wanted to go into nursing and the school she went to didn’t offer nursing. So she came back home, took classes at the local college just to keep going, and at the same time applied and got into a nearby university that had nursing.
At this time, she had back surgery. She had four screws and two rods put into her back. They gave her opioids after the surgery, which really kicked everything into high gear.
Mental health-wise, something started shifting. She had lots of depression and she started to see pain doctors. A couple things happened – she made what would be seen as a suicidal threat. The university found out about it and their policy is straight to the hospital whether you like it or not. So she was in a hospital psych ward for a week. Came back out. She was living on her own – in her own apartment with her boyfriend. Very nice guy. We’ve known him for a number of years. Things were going well.
Then the mental health stuff started really going off the rails. She started seeing different therapists. The diagnoses ranged from depression to bipolar to dissociative disorder, all over the place. Then she got caught shoplifting, which really threw us for a tizzy. I’m condensing a lot here, by the way. The pain meds were being used. Eventually she got arrested again for shoplifting. She kept claiming it was dissociative ... that she didn’t remember. It got to the point where she lost her relationship with her boyfriend. Before the boyfriend broke up with her, we found out she stole pain meds from my father and then stole pain meds when she went to see one of her best friends ... she stole them from her father and got caught. So we sent her off to detox for her first 30 days of rehab.
The boyfriend broke up with her and said enough. It was just too hard.
She moved back home and things got progressively worse. She started a new therapist. The therapist, come to find out, was over-medicating her big time. Then we started noticing little things were happening. One night I came downstairs and she was on the couch. I couldn’t rouse her. I’m like, “Is she breathing?” I called 911. I started doing rescue breathing on her. They came, gave her Narcan and took her off to the hospital.
And that was when it really hit us that there was something more going on. We started finding things, like needles and Q-tips and things like that. At one point she said she wanted to kill herself. We took her to the hospital. The hospital sent her to a mental health and addiction facility; then she came out and did intensive outpatient at a facility. That was pretty bad. She would have these hissy fits where she would say “I’m leaving” and she would just leave the house and take off. What would happen is the bad-boy boyfriend I talked about earlier would swing by and pick her up at the corner. Or he would come by, bring drugs and hide them in a location near our house. She would leave the house, go out and get it, do her thing and come back.
Part of this was we were naïve. The dynamic also was that my wife was the hard-ass. I was seen as the softie. Part of it was denial ... pure denial on my part, which comes into play at the end.
During all of this, she finished her nursing degree and graduated no problem. She was very functional in that way. And then all the school bills started coming to us. So we were paying her education bills.
A couple more times we had the ambulance come to the house. She overdosed. They narcaned her right in the house. Here I am, in the position/job I am in, I think well respected in this town—people know me. And here they are, finding out this is happening in our house. Everyone was incredibly supportive.
This just kept going. This just kept going, going, going, going. Every day was just another thing. We were on pins and needles all the time. She turned out to be a master manipulator and would put my wife and I against each other. Eventually we said OK, enough of this. My wife and I became a unified front.
It came to a head ... when one day she was in her bed and I was up in her bedroom trying to get her going for the day. I found a needle. And I … I just lost it. My wife was home, so she came upstairs. I just totally lost it. Basically what I did was I just screamed at her. I literally dragged her out of her bed and onto the floor. I said, “Pack your bag. I’m taking you out of here. I don’t want you in this house anymore. You’re done. I’m taking you down and I’m dropping you off at a corner in Trenton. You’re done. I don’t want to see you again. You are not mine anymore. I am not putting up with this. You have had every chance in the world. We have given you everything we can. We have paid for everything. We have done everything. And you don’t want to do it. I am DONE.”
So she packed her bag. I came back upstairs and said, “I’m going to give you one last chance. If you agree to go to detox and rehab, I won’t put you on the street in Trenton. But if you say no, you are going. You’re done. I’m changing the locks on the house.” I mean, we were locking her out of the house at times.
She said yes, she would do it. I said, “Okay, then let’s go downstairs and look in our health plan to see what would work for you.” I’m very lucky that I had a great health plan. We looked together and found a program we both liked. She said, “I think I could like that.” I again said to her, “you’re willing to go?” She said yes. So I called them up and they connected us to their intake person. I gave her the information. She said, “I need to talk to your daughter because I want information from her. I also need to know that that she wants to be here.” So my daughter got on the phone and they talked. Afterward, the intake person said, “OK. Let me check with your insurance and I will give you a call back in an hour.” Sure enough, she called back within the hour. “Good news: your insurance will cover all of your expenses. Do you want a ticket for tonight or a ticket for tomorrow morning? We’ll buy it and you put her on the plane.” The next morning I drove my daughter to Newark. We were not really talking at that point. I was fuming. I decided that I would keep the strong fuming face on. I didn’t want her to think that she could get away with something, but inside it was killing me. We had a very tense goodbye. She had to make a plane change in Chicago, which made us very nervous. But she made the change. She got there. We got a phone call from the people at the rehab center: “say goodbye to your daughter. You’re not going to be able to talk to her for 30 days.” So we said goodbye and had no contact for 30 days. They were wonderful. At the end, they got her to go to a rehab place and from there she went to a sober house.
The bottom line is: here was a good, decent, pretty, smart, intelligent, National Honors Society, captain kid and she got into this. The way I think of it is she has a combination of an addictive personality and was prescribed opioids. Put them together and it’s a bad mix.
How is your child doing today?
Fantastic. We had a point when we saw where the rubber really hit the road and she did great. She works full-time in an office and part-time on weekends at a drug and alcohol-free social club. She fell in love with a gentleman there, got engaged. He was in recovery for crystal meth. He broke it off a few months before the wedding. I’ve got to think that he realized he couldn’t do it and just ended it. For us, that was a time to find out how our daughter was going to handle it. Now you’ve got the rug pulled out from underneath you … will you go back to old patterns? She didn’t. She rose strong, for which I am incredibly proud of her.
When did you first realize you were dealing with an addiction problem?
It probably was when she got caught ripping off drugs from my father. My mother called me up and said that my father didn’t have as many pain pills as he used to have in the medicine cabinet.
During all of this, what was your biggest fear?
I had two fears, to be very candid with you. The first fear was that I would lose my daughter. Obviously. The second was that I would have failed as a parent. The helplessness that you feel is profound. The feeling of not being able to help and fix it is devastating – it is that way for any parent and for any child. But for this situation, it is beyond what you can think. And you know ... you will always doubt ... did I do the right things? I was most fearful that I was going to find my daughter dead. And it is even scarier now because the drugs have gotten so much more potent.
When you think back, was there anything that put your child at risk for drug addiction?
Not really. That’s the scary part. It’s not like I was a bad parent and never went to her field hockey games or never gave her attention. I mean, I was around a lot and it’s not like I’m not a demonstrative person. I’m the demonstrative one. I’m the one who gives the hugs and kisses and says “I love you.” That’s the scary part about this whole thing—she basically had it all together.
Have you wondered whether you could have done something different as a parent to prevent your child’s addiction?
Other than lock her up? You know, I’m not sure. I mean, the influences of that young man ... he was the person who actually turned her onto heroin the first time. I mean, I put part of the blame on her, too. He has his own addiction issues. Still, could I have forbidden her to see him? I think it is somewhat naïve of me to think that I could have had that control over her. You know what it is like. You know – if mom or dad says you can’t do that, then you find a way. Part of parenting is realizing you don’t have control. She had a cadre of friends who were good kids. They weren’t crazy partiers. She didn’t hang out with the partiers. That’s the irony here.
Has your child’s addiction affected how people treat you?
I became closer with people who are on the same journey. You know ... all of a sudden you start to hear stories. We are not very public about this. We were public that our daughter had mental health issues, but not to the extent of the drug addiction. Some people in this community whom we trust know, but it is not really a public thing, mostly because of what our daughter has said. She does not want, at this time, to be doing that yet. There will be a time when she will, but not yet. I haven’t had a negative reaction, but she has had negative reactions. One of her closest friends she grew up with through high school basically shut her out. Her friend got married and told my daughter she was not welcome at the reception. That devastated my daughter. A lot of her close friends just walked away. A couple people—I will always remember them—a couple people stayed and did not walk away from her. I have great respect for them. But a lot of people basically trashed her.
Couldn’t your child have just made better decisions and not abused opioids? Was your child just weak willed?
No ... because the opioids turned her into a different person. She was not really our daughter at that point. Legally she was our daughter. But emotionally she was not our daughter anymore. All that left. All of her sense of compassion left. She did what she needed to do to get by and get what she needed. That was it. One of the ways I could see that she was healing was that I got my daughter back: we could have the conversations we used to have. And her compassion came back. It wasn’t all about money and “what can I get.” She wasn’t so self-centered. But once she had the opioids on board and the addiction set in, it changed her brain chemistry enough that she’d gone down the road and she was stuck.
Did you ever try shaming or punishing your child to make them stop?
Absolutely. Your first knee-jerk reaction is to do that. I said some pretty nasty things to her. That was my way of trying to shake her out of it. But I’ve come to realize that I could try that, but the reality was that I couldn’t use the same old parental tactics on her because she was different. The brain chemistry was different. It wasn’t her. The whole “pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get your act together” doesn’t work. Because they don’t have the capacity. It’s over. It’s done. You’re not dealing with your daughter anymore— you’re dealing with this addicted monster.
Did you ever felt ashamed or disgusted with your child?
It’s not easy to admit to people that your child has addiction issues. So, in a sense, I was ashamed. But I am less so now because this is a story of perseverance and what I would call success, although this will be with her for the rest of her life. And you’ll always have in the back of your mind, “will she relapse?” She was home at Christmas time and she was going to borrow the car. Well, the trauma in my head automatically starts thinking – well, ok, where is she going to go? What is she going to do? And I know it is probably unfair, but that’s the trauma. Lots of times way back when she would borrow the car, she was going to go score some drugs. When she was in the midst of her addiction, we went with her to make sure. Exhausting. Just exhausting.
Did you ever feel hopeless or did you ever want to give up on your child's drug abuse?
I don’t think I ever wanted to give up. Frustrated, yes. You feel like you are running this marathon and you’re just like, “when is thing going to end?” And you are pretty sure there was a goal out there. The statistics aren’t great for long-term recovery. They’re getting better, but they are not great. I guess there were periods of hopelessness because there were periods when we were like, “ok, what are we going to do to get this thing fixed?” We weren’t sure if we were going to find the right answer. You know that analyzer thing you plug into your car that tells you what is wrong with it? Wouldn’t it be great if we had a port on the side of us that we could plug in and see that “my problem is _________”? And that you need this to be fixed and whole and perfect. And what works for me might not work for you.
Parents in your position are often stuck between wanting to help their child and wanting to cut them off. Were you ever worried you were enabling the drug abuse by trying to support your child financially or provide meals our housing?
Yes. We were paying all of her bills because we did not want her to get behind credit-wise. We were doing it with the hope that she was going to get healthy. We didn’t want this to hit her in the backside. By providing a roof over her head, you do wonder how much we were enabling her.
How many times did you give your child money and worry they were using it for drugs?
I don’t have enough hands to count.
I think I would say I probably wouldn’t have done it differently because withholding money wouldn’t have changed things. She would have gotten money some other way. And that’s whole other dark side that you don’t want to go to, you know— selling yourself or whatever. I don’t even want to think about that.
Where do you think the line is between supporting and enabling your child?
I think it comes when you as a parent realize that you are out of control. We tried to support her, but when it got to the point where we knew we could not control her anymore, it became enabling. There is no hard and fast rule. That is the problem. Ultimately, as a parent, you want to be supportive of your kid. I think enabling is something you look back on and realize you are doing. You don’t know you are enabling until afterwards, and only through reflection you realize you were. I mean, surely you don’t go around planning to enable your kid. Again, that is me on the outside looking in. I see parents who I know are enabling their kids, but they don’t see that. They see themselves as supporting them. When you are in the moment of being a parent, you just want the best for your child and you’re trying to be as supportive as possible no matter what. The line is not something you consciously cross.
What happened or needs to happen to get your child into recovery?
For her, it had to be a significant emotional event. I, the softie, had to make the stand and say enough is enough. You’re done. You’re out. We’re not going to put up with you. For her, that worked. For my wife, the hard one, that would not have been enough of an event because she’s used to that. My daughter would always go to daddy and daddy would basically give her the benefit of the doubt or at least a soft shoulder. It doesn’t mean my wife didn’t care for her or love her. That’s not the point. She just has a low tolerance for BS.
Can you identify anything positive that has come from your experience with opioid addiction?
I’ve committed myself to working on the issue. I have a new understanding for people who are affected by addiction, no matter what kind. And a greater sympathy and awareness of what they have to go through.
The right people have shown up at the right time – everyone from the caseworker to the rehabilitation place to her sponsor. She has been an unbelievable support for my daughter. Angels have shown up through this whole thing, to be honest with you. I’m not a big angel person, but these people showed up. And now my daughter is counseling other girls who are in addiction. These little things have been great.
And I get my daughter back.
What are you doing to cope?
Obviously, I really tried to be clear in communication and goal-setting with my spouse. I reached out to friends and shared my concerns. I was telling someone yesterday that this can make or break a marriage. Good relationship skills are really important. For some people, it means going to a support group, just like an Al-Anon meeting. There are groups that meet for parents who have kids that are addicted. Those are important.
I pray. I pray and pray and pray. And I think the other thing is as best as you can, have a hopeful script playing in your head. As dark as it is, you hope there will be a good ending. Once we figured out we had a problem, I was telling myself, “I’m going to do whatever I can to try to make sure this works.” That can be hard to maintain because sometimes you can get really pissed off at your child. Actually, the most important thing to remember is that this is a disease and not something your child willed for themself. The disease took over her brain and basically stole my daughter. I needed to remember that she is separate from this. I had to tell myself that this is not my daughter anymore. I was fighting to get her back.
How are you doing today?
I am doing very well. You always have the worry in the back of your head: What if she starts using again? You will always have that. As an aside, I went to an opioid forum two weeks ago. The big issue is that if my daughter started using again, if she started off using the same dose she did when she stopped, that would probably kill her because her body is not used to that amount. Those types of things go through my head. And do I tell my daughter that? I don’t want to encourage her. I think we are both doing very well. We have our daughter back and she is moving along in life. She is very involved in the recovery community. But anyone who has PTSD ... you kind of have those trigger points in the back of your head that go off when certain things happen.
Do you have any advice for parents currently trying to help their child deal with opioid addiction?
If you think you need help, reach out for it. Talk to the school counselor, social worker, minister, priest, friends, family—see who is out there to support you. There are lots of groups that can help you and give you the support you need to walk you through it.
If you think there is a problem, better to nip it in the bud now. Don’t let it get too far down the road.
What advice can you give to parents of younger children so they can help their kids avoid opioid addiction?
Don’t be naïve. It can happen to anybody. If you think there might be an issue, there probably is. I also will say that if somebody experiments with pot, it does not mean they will not go down the full road of addiction. So don’t freak out—but don’t be naïve.
As far as prevention, don’t be afraid to talk about it. If they bring up the issue of drugs, don’t push it away. They are ready for that conversation. Another important thing to talk about is how it is a real danger. Even the most successful kids get hooked up in this. This is not a disease for dumb people or poor people or people who have no self-esteem. It hits everybody.
Another thing is to support your kids in having good friendships. That won’t prevent drug addiction, but I think it helps. Make sure that your kids hang out with kids that you would want them to hang out with, and encourage that.
And don’t forget to tell them you love them.
List two things you think need to happen that will help put an end to the opioid crisis.
First, we have to work to remove the stigma around opioids and particularly heroin use—and that it is a shameful thing to talk about. We still don’t want to talk about it. I mean, my daughter doesn’t want it to be her identity. It’s not like you are going to walk around and be proud of it. People still think that they are a bad person because of it. This is something that sneaks up on you and takes you. And if you have the right genes in your body, it doesn’t take more than one time. Take it once, dopamine gets released and it’s all over. It’s a done deal. You just want to go back to that dopamine release, whether you get that from drugs or alcohol or games or sex.
The second thing is probably continuing education with medical professionals as far as dosing goes. We’ve made great strides here, but it has been more legislative and not necessarily medical from what I understand.
Why do you want to remain anonymous and not have your picture connected to your answers? Why do you you want your image connected with your interview?
For two reasons. One - because I am a public figure, it would have a much larger impact. I know that that sounds selfish, but at this point I’m just not ready yet.
And two - my daughter has asked me to. My guess is that the reason why she doesn’t want a picture of my face connected with this interview is because she got burned by her friends. She’s afraid she’ll have more friends burn her. The stigma is huge. We’re not quite there yet. We’re getting there.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
No. I can’t think of anything else.