Since the death of my son, Chad, last fall, my spirit often wanders alone on a small island where grief is my only companion, and where the tide is always cold and dark. I think it is like that for each member of my family. Perhaps this is true for all families grieving for a loved one who has overdosed and died.
We become an archipelago of grief, connected not by a flag but by a common and brutal enemy. Our children — or sisters or brothers — were addicted to substances that killed them.
I am not surprised that 12-step groups were not enough to save Chad. People like him need so much more: He needed the kind of long-term support services that we routinely provide to people who have cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. He needed job training. Mental-health counseling. Housing support. Most of all, he needed medication-assisted treatment, the only evidence-based treatment for opioid addiction.
In one way, Chad was fortunate because he was still covered by our insurance. Yet even that could not cover the obscene costs of private-pay residential treatment programs, or the kinds of two-year treatment programs that might have helped him. Like so many other families, we would find online descriptions of places that gave us some hope, only to learn that we could not access or afford them.
And like other families, we found that even when we could get medication-assisted treatment, we could not monitor our loved one around the clock to be sure that he was taking his medication. People with addiction disorders miss the highs. They run into old “friends.” Someone convinces them that medicine is for the weak.
And the merry-go-round spins. Addiction, waiting in their lizard brains, switches back on in full force. It affects every aspect of their lives.
We thought if we could get Chad away from the things and people that triggered drug use, he would be himself again: his loving, generous, funny, sweet, smart, dear self. That is the Chad we knew. I knew a boy who played with his younger brother, their faces alight. I knew a man who pulled me back into a raft on our trip through the Grand Canyon. I knew a son with a life ahead of him.
For all that I knew, I knew nothing.
The evening before he died, Chad texted his girlfriend that he was anxious and worried. Later that night, he overdosed on what proved to be a cocktail of legal and illegal drugs. He was alone in his room in a “recovery house.”
My spirit washed ashore on the archipelago of grief on Oct. 1, 2017. Chad would have turned 25 six days later.
It was a beautiful Indian summer day. I’d been sitting on the deck behind our house in the woods, sketching songbirds at our bird bath. There were six, which tickled me, since we had six children. One bird was flying away.
From the front of the house, a male voice called my name. I stood to see five people coming toward me, two of them police officers.
It could only mean tragedy.
“Chad, not Chad, not Chaddie,” I think I cried. “No, no, no, not Chaddie, no.”
And then I crumpled. An officer helped me up. He gave me the raw details, and I collapsed again.
My husband was gone for the day. It was left to me to deliver news that would break six other hearts, and consign them, too, to these islands of grief.
Since then, the waters around us seem so wide and deep, especially because we are grieving for someone who died, in the end, by his own hand.
Many who know us stay on the mainland, wave once and then turn away. Some visit our island to tell me that I’ve grown too negative. That I should have expected it. Honestly, I think, what parent ever gives up hope?
I am grateful to a cousin who has masses celebrated in Dublin for Chad: “The love that dreamed and formed you still surrounds you here today,” the priests recite.
I am thankful for a Facebook friend who mails a book. The neighbor who invites me to take a walk. I’m especially grateful to the friend who arrives one day to wash a cloudy window in my home office. At first, I am mortified.
“Don’t be,” she says. “I thought this would give you a clear view and a new perspective.”
People have suggested that I become an advocate, but I haven’t the energy yet. Perhaps others can. Start by learning about the disease of addiction. Understand what lies behind the false promises of the “rehabilitation” system. Understand the evidence behind medication-assisted treatment, backed by long-term supportive care.
Most of all, please stop blaming the souls who succumb to the disease, and the families who tried so desperately to save them. Instead, try to visit those islands where the grieving live. Welcome them into your embrace. Share a glad memory of their child. Say the child’s name. Hold hands for a moment as they stand in the tide pools that come and go, and bear witness.
Janice Lynch Schuster is a poet and artist living in Annapolis, Maryland. She wrote this for The Washington Post.