By Lizz Dinnigan, Preventionist
Our cousin’s son Danny died several years ago of a heroin overdose at age 31. His mother and sister divulged their stories to me in two separate but candid and honest interviews. They each have distinctive points of view on how Danny’s unraveling due to substance abuse was handled and how they reconciled their resentment, frustration, and loss.
It was Thanksgiving morning in 2017 when Danny’s lifeless body was discovered in his childhood bedroom in Middletown, NJ. By the time he succumbed to his 14-year-long battle with opioids, his mom, Karen, felt only relief. She didn’t even attempt to sugarcoat it: “It was like a cement block was lifted off my chest,” she says. “I loved him to death, but sometimes I really hated his guts.”
Danny’s sister, Tia, is three and a half years his junior.
“It’s interesting because when I talk about him, it’s always about his death — how he died, coping with the death,” she says. “It’s never about the actual addiction, which is the most painful piece. Him living was more painful than him dying.”
Danny’s addiction devastatingly impacted his entire family.
“It’s something you’re dealing with every single day,” Karen explained. “My husband and I couldn’t go away on vacation. I couldn’t even attend a wedding. We’d worry constantly if Dan was left home alone. Who would he have over? What would he do? We were always focused on him.”
Recognizing the Signs
When Dan’s substance abuse began, he was 17. It started with cigarettes and marijuana.
“A mutual friend told me my brother was asking around for Roxi [Roxicet, a painkiller made of Oxycodone and Acetaminophen],” says Tia. “There was always something off about him. He was hyperactive as a child. I thought he was manic. He exhibited very erratic behavior. My parents attributed it to him being a wild kid, but the drug rumor made sense and clicked for me. It’s crazy, but I don’t know much about my own brother.”
Once it became clear he had developed an opioid habit (snorting Oxycodone and Xanax), Danny was soon diagnosed as bipolar.
“He did it to feel good and not feel the depression,” Karen says. “There were signs of a problem. He would come from school and take a nap. He wouldn’t eat or sleep at night. He lost weight and had no appetite. His teachers called to say he was falling asleep in class and that his grades were slipping. He was sneaking around.”
Karen says Danny became a liar, and that’s when she started uncovering his hiding spots.
“I would go through his cell phone and drawers while he was sleeping. He hid pills in cigarette boxes, socks, shoes, and the pockets of clothing hung up in his closet. I found cut straws he used to sniff Oxy. He would cut pages out of books and hide stuff inside.”
Denial and Accountability
Tia says one of the major hurdles she faced was that her parents were in denial, weren’t intervening, and shunned family counseling. Their attitude was “it’s not our problem, it’s his problem.” It made her very uncomfortable when Danny was living at home. She bought a lock for her door when she noticed her jewelry was missing. Tia became detached from and resented her family and moved in with her aunt.
On the other hand, Karen was conflicted. She wanted to maintain some sort of relationship with her son rather than alienate him.
“I didn’t want to push him away by getting on his case. But looking back, we should have worked harder to stay on top of him. I also wouldn’t have given in and been an enabler,” she says.
They eventually confronted Danny, and he checked into a rehab in Florida. He was in his early 20s, already an adult, by the time the family acknowledged the full extent of his addiction. But if an addict is over 18, they must admit themselves. This is where it gets tricky: Treatment is voluntary; they are free to sign themselves out of rehab (unless it’s state-mandated Drug Court).
For years, Danny was in and out of rehab, checking himself out every single time. He would do good for a while and then relapse.
“Danny was arrested in Florida for stealing a man’s credit cards and impersonating him,” says Tia. “My mom bailed him out. My parents always took him back home. No one was really helping him, but what were we supposed to do?”
Karen admits she was the enabler. Her husband insisted she kick Danny out, but she couldn’t do it.
“The first time I mustered up the courage to say no to him was when Danny left rehab in Florida and asked me for my credit card number so he could book a motel,” says Karen. “That was the moment I was done. I couldn’t do it anymore.”
Road to Recovery
Danny came back to New Jersey and got a job as a landscaper, but stole jewelry from one of the clients. Karen found the bag and turned Danny in to the cops.
“You get two choices,” Karen told him. “You can stay here and face the consequences, or you can leave. I’ll let you go, but you can never come back again.”
Danny confessed. He spent six months in the county jail since his parents refused to bail him out. Tia didn’t recognize him at his sentencing, She says he put on 50 pounds and grew out his hair.
“His face was healthy instead of looking like a pale, gaunt, zombie with lifeless eyes,” she says.
This was the beginning of his five-year recovery, even though it was forced. He chose Drug Court over prison and was sent directly from jail to court-mandated rehab. After a year, he went to a halfway house, then voluntary sober living. He was getting back on track. But a few months after he graduated from Drug Court, Karen found Nyquil in his closet. She realized he was using again.
“This is his life,” Karen resigned. “All I could do was pray. The night before he died, I could tell he was high. He left out a Xanax bottle. I just knew this was it. I kissed him goodnight and said ‘I love you.’ I dreamed I fell into a hole and couldn’t hear him. That morning it was Thanksgiving, and I went to the supermarket. I didn’t go in to check on him. His girlfriend called me panicked because he wasn’t answering the phone. I knew then that he was dead.”
At the time, Tia was in grad school studying to become a Licensed Professional Counselor. Coincidentally, she was working with homeless addicts as a case manager.
“That’s when I started to understand addiction, and my anger toward Danny stopped,” Tia says. “It was a stupid choice initially, but after that, it’s not a choice anymore. He chose to self-medicate, and he could not escape it. After all that time, he was going back to drugs, and I knew there was nothing I could possibly do. I don’t blame his dealer. My brother is the one who bought it. People have such different reactions — who you blame is an important piece. I blame my brother, but I also blame addiction. He ultimately didn’t choose to lose his life, his friends, his family. That is no choice someone makes. We all lost him. I lost my brother, they lost their son. We all experienced this traumatic event. They found him. That was punishment enough to finally understand the severity of it. Yes, they could have intervened sooner, but would it have helped save him?”
Where to Find Help
Pay attention when there are signs that something is wrong, and intervene as early as possible.
What is the first step in getting guidance or treatment when someone has an addiction? First, collect as much information as possible to determine how to proceed. What substance is being abused? What is their age? Socio-economic status? If the victim is underage, you can get them drug-tested at a hospital. If they’re an adult, you can confront them, but the choice has to be their own.
Start by contacting a resource agency such as Wellspring Center for Prevention (732-254-3344/wellspringprevention.org) that will help you navigate to the right services.