In 1990, the day after my dad had his back surgery, my mom took my younger brother Joe and I to visit him in the hospital. After that, we went to McDonald's for dinner and then to the movie theater to see "Home Alone."
After months of worrying about my father before the surgery, we were finally trying to relax and act like a normal family. It was a big night out, a big deal for us.
My mom was trying to cheer us up, because we knew it'd be another few days, possibly longer, until my dad was going to be able to come home. I'd heard my folks using the word "complications" with the doctor when we stopped to visit my dad post-surgery. I wasn't an exceptionally medically gifted eight-year-old, but I knew what the word meant, and I knew it wasn't good.
I wondered if he would be able to walk, and when he'd be going back to work. Sometimes, before his surgery, when he came home from work, early in the morning, he and I would share a leftover peanut butter and jelly sandwich from the lunch my mom had packed him the night before. I looked forward to those soggy sandwiches.
My dad was never able to go back to work.
He's had chronic, debilitating back pain for most of my life and it was worsened by the surgery. When I was a kid, and people asked what my dad did for a living, I never knew what to say without feeling embarrassed or ashamed. I didn't know how much worse those feelings would get as I got older. I'd usually change the subject. Now I tell the truth, though not the whole truth, most of the time. I say two words again and again which I hope says everything and no more questions will be asked.
I remember pill bottles always being around. Full pill bottles. One day around the age of 12, I asked my dad why there were so many; why he wasn't taking his medicine. I was still under the impression that medicine was helpful, and doctors were helpful because they gave you medicine that made you better. Simple. My dad's answer was one that I've thought about more times than I can count in the past decade.
"Pumpkin, if I took all the medicine they wanted me to take, I'd be a drug addict."
My first hint of anything seriously wrong was during a trip home, after college in 2004. A couple of months had passed since my last visit. As I got out of the car, the sight of my dad, who had come out to the driveway to greet me, brought me to tears. He was smiling, happy, but he'd lost a huge amount of weight. For a guy that wasn't overweight to begin with, he looked like a scarecrow in billowing clothes. With his face drawn, he looked older than I'd ever seen. When I hugged him, I felt ribs and shoulder blades.
I was sure it was cancer. My dad is a lifetime smoker, and I thought maybe it had finally caught up with him the way it had with his brother, who had passed away at 50 from lung cancer. My dad was 47.
I asked him what had happened through tears. He told me, shaking his head and laughing a little, that it was the worst flu of his life, and told me he'd be getting a flu shot for sure next year. He assured me over and over that he was fine, doing so much better, but it was a rough couple of weeks. His eyes were happy, and I had no reason to doubt him.
I scolded him and my mom, once we got into the house, for keeping me out of the loop. They had done something similar months before, calling me after the fact to let me know my mom, who has multiple sclerosis, had been hospitalized for passing kidney stones. I hated not knowing that these serious medical things were happening, and they both told me, again, that they didn't want me to worry. I explained that knowing and worrying were different things, and they promised it wouldn't happen again.
It was years later when I looked back on that visit, and my dad's appearance, and realized that must have been right after the first time my dad went through withdrawal.
Less than a year later, I found myself in the position of having to move back home after college graduation. I didn't know that by then, their cycle of oxycontin abuse and withdrawal was well underway. My younger brother Joe was away at school, so it was just my folks and I. My parents were themselves, for about three weeks at a time.
Except they weren't.
My mother seemed to fall asleep a lot easier than normal. At the dinner table. In front of the television. In the car. After her second accident, my parents decided she shouldn't drive anymore, placing the blame on her MS. My dad, on the other hand, never seemed to sleep at all. I didn't think much of it, because I'd been out of the house for so long. I didn't know these were new behaviors, not just new to me.
What confused me and concerned me was that one week or so a month where they would both stay mostly in their room, in bed. Shades drawn. I'd be asked to pick up Ensure on the way home from work, or anti-diarrheal medication, or cigarettes for my dad. They wouldn't get out of their pajamas, or shower. I'd barely see them for days at a time, communicating mostly through their closed bedroom door, though because our bathrooms shared a wall, I often heard them vomiting.
The explanation was almost always food poisoning, or some kind of mystery sickness. It always struck them together.
One week of darkness grew slowly into two. Half a month healthy, half a month hidden. Any questions my brother Joe or I had were explained away, or dodged. I knew something was seriously wrong, but didn't know what.
My mom was hospitalized twice during these periods. One day when I was at work, I got a call from Joe saying he'd just brought mom to the ER. In the midst of her withdrawal and in the accompanying depression, my mom had tried to overdose on sleeping pills. The hospital admitted her and she spent some time on the psych ward, going to group therapy and doing crafts. Joe and I visited her, brought her snacks and sat in the rec room with her, and mom told us about the people she'd met and what she was learning in group. My father was too sick from withdrawal to get out of bed, never mind visit the hospital.
I was operating under the assumption the suicide attempt was fully depression-based, stemming from the incurable disease my mother had. And it was that, maybe, about 10%, but the larger part was her thinking that she and my father would never be able to get out of the hell they put themselves in.
It was a hell I didn't even realize they were trapped inside.
My mom tried suicide again, less than a year later. I heard her crying, wailing, from their bedroom, and my father talking to her. Pleading. She kept repeating that she couldn't do it anymore. "I can't do it anymore." She just kept repeating that phrase, again and again. It was haunting.
Hearing her desperation scared me beyond belief and my fears were confirmed when my dad came out and said he'd just called an ambulance to come pick her up. When the paramedics showed up, my disheveled, withdrawing father told them he was worried that my mother was going to try and kill herself. He didn't tell me that she already had, by swallowing every pill in their bathroom. Again. She was admitted to the same hospital and went to the same psych ward, and Joe and I went through all the same motions we had the first time. Again, my dad couldn't make it to the hospital.
It was torture. I was helpless, and every day, as I was working my part-time job or seeing what few friends I could make time for, people would ask, "Hey, how are you?" and I couldn't say anything to anybody. It was this giant heartbreaking burden I carried around with me everywhere I went, and then to add to that, I would beat myself up for feeling burdened at all. I just wanted to help my mom, and no matter what I said or did she didn't seem to be getting better.
Every day, I lived in constant fear of my mother committing suicide, even when she would suddenly "feel much better" for those two weeks a month when she and my dad had enough oxy to get them through. They'd share my father's prescription, snorting through the pills much quicker than a regular person would swallow them for pain.
Somewhere in the midst of this nightmare, my father's doctor, the one who performed his surgery and the one who prescribed him the thousands of pills over the years, was found dead. The circumstances were suspicious.
Because of the specific and, I'm assuming, outdated insurance my father had, in order to find a doctor who would continue to prescribe the pills at the rate he and my mother were using, my dad now had to drive two hours away once a month for the refill. He'd drive two hours in full withdrawal, get handed the slip of paper, drive back, refill it at the local pharmacy, and within an hour of dosing he'd be himself again.
Lively, talkative, cracking jokes, affectionate, making plans for all the things he had to do now that he was feeling better. Yard work, a car wash, grocery shopping, visits to family -- all the mundane things that make up a normal life. Miraculously, my mom would also instantly be over her flu, or food poisoning, or whatever they had called it that time.
It was 2007 when an aunt of mine finally clued me in to what was really happening inside my house. She lived across the country, but dutifully called my mom to catch up. Sometimes when my mom didn't answer the phone, she'd call me. I was on a break at work one day, and she asked me how things were at home. I told her things were okay, although my parents were depressed and stuck in their room again.
I'll never forget what she said next. "At least until your dad gets his refill," she replied. She didn't say it snarky, just matter of fact.
I don't remember my reaction to this revelation. I don't remember the rest of my shift at work or driving home that night, but I remember storming into the house, knocking on their bedroom door, and demanding they tell me what was actually going on.
The next day, when Joe came home for a visit, they told us everything. My mom had started using my dad's oxy after she had her kidney surgery in 2004. Even though my father was prescribed highly addictive pain meds all the way back in 1988, he never took them because, as he wisely told me when I was eight, he didn't want to get addicted. But when my mother told him how well the oxycontin had worked for her chronic pain, he finally tried it -- and was hooked. One pill turned into two, two turned into four, four turned into them crushing and snorting the meds because the effects hit faster that way.
Once things were out in the open, my parents spent their withdrawal periods out of their bedroom, out of hiding. My dad, in his recliner, in front of the television; my mom on the couch or at the computer. Both not eating, not bathing, getting sick constantly, weak, and in pain. Nonstop. Opiate withdrawal is fucking ugly, and relentless. It makes you physically sick -- vomiting, diarrhea, hot and cold sweats, chills, runny nose, muscle cramps, coughing fits, you name it -- but it also does a number on your emotional state. My folks suffered exceptionally deep depressions, anxiety, unprovoked anger and agitation, and a complete disconnect from anything that brought them any kind of joy in life. Including my brother and me.
The thing that killed me the most about appointment days was seeing the shine go back into their eyes. Even though it was superficial, it was undeniably there. All my effort when they were withdrawing -- every attempt I made to make them feel better, to get them comfortable, to try and get them to crack a smile -- just didn't compare to the pills.
It was laughable how useless my efforts seemed when my dad would come home from the pharmacy and they'd both disappear into their bathroom. The house would be clean, my mom would start cooking meals again, there was laughter and life in the house. As sick as it sounds, I loved appointment days, because I got my parents back even if only for a brief while. And I hated appointment days, because I knew it was the start of another ugly vicious cycle.
Joe and I struggled with our next move, if we even had one. Did we call the new doctor and tell him the prescriptions he was doling out were being abused? Did we stage an intervention? My parents wouldn't hear anything about us checking them into a rehabilitation center and they wouldn't give an inch in any direction when we suggested help.
Things went on in this new, enlightened version of hell for a while. Then my mother ended up in the hospital again in 2010 after another suicide attempt via overdosing on pills.
Another call from Joe while I was at work, letting me know that mom had been admitted. That third time, I didn't go to visit her. It was also the time she was in the longest. I was furious at her, now that things were out in the open, for not talking to me, letting me know how she was feeling. Not letting me help or get help before it got to that point of despair again.
When she was released, my aunt -- the same aunt who had blown my world open -- suggested that my mom go out there to her place for a prolonged visit. She actually suggested both my folks go, but my father's pride wouldn't allow him. Two weeks clean from being in the hospital, my mom boarded a plane and spent another two weeks reconnecting with her sister, going to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, sightseeing, and being happier than she had been in almost a decade, despite missing my father.
At home, my dad and I watched movies, ate dinners together, and tried to ignore the quietness in the house. He went to his appointment, but in a new attempt at controlling his addiction, he turned the pills over to my brother, who had agreed to be in control of them and dole them out in order to make them last the month. It was a sloppy solution, but it was a solution. It worked for a while.
When my mother got home, she and my dad starting going to NA meetings together. Things were finally starting to resemble normalcy again. I didn't point out the hypocrisy of my father using in controlled amounts and going to meetings, because I was so encouraged he was going to meetings in the first place.
I wish I could say it lasted, and they're both clean now, but it didn't turn out that way. My dad has been clean on and off. He's off again at the moment, though he doesn't bring pills into the house out of respect for my mother. I told him, if he really respected her, he would quit using, but that little suggestion falls on deaf ears. He's not ready to stop using. It's that simple.
Now that my mom is clean, his cycles seem particularly repulsive. His depression gets pitch black when he's out of meds. The light goes out of his eyes completely, replaced by the glow of the television, which stays on all hours. He's surrounded by an even larger cloud of cigarette smoke than normal.
Then, when he is able to start using again, he overdoes it, and doesn't sleep for days and days on end. Though he will occasionally pass out, standing up, for a few moments at a time. If one of us suggests that he try and properly sleep, he gets belligerent. He talks to himself constantly, sings, makes noise until he's hoarse, and drums on the counter, the sink, anything. It's pathetic, and childish, and annoying. It's difficult to focus on anything with the constant outer monologue and the musical accompaniments, and sometimes sleep can almost be impossible.
But mom and I live our lives around him, as if these things are normal. Sadly, even as bad as they are, they're more normal than things have been in the past.
My mom has managed to stay clean for several years now. That is the part of my story that contains the most hope for me. She's found strength in herself, through reconnecting with her family, therapy, regular doctor visits to keep her disease and her addiction monitored, and getting a dog. Really.
Having the pup around keeps her organized and motivated. It gives her a reason to get up in the morning, to exercise, to maintain a schedule. He's been a therapeutic little bastard, even if he's spoiled rotten. She and I are closer than we've ever been, our relationship as mom and daughter more open and honest than it's ever had the chance to be.
My parents are in their late 50s now. They live in a suburban, almost rural town. They don't drink, they don't gamble, and they usually drive the speed limit. My dad knows more about cars and music than I could ever learn, and he was happy to teach me how to put my first garden into the ground last spring. My mother is an amazing artist, can cook or bake anything without a recipe, and she'll school your ass in a game of Words with Friends without breaking a sweat. Together, they're two of the funniest people I know. My folks raised two kids to be pretty decent and productive human beings, with the right amount of confidence and humility, if I do say so myself.
They're also drug addicts. It's a part of them as much as any other part.
This is my story. It was not easy to get here. I wish I had noticed the signs of addiction earlier. I wish I had had the balls to do something other than cry, and worry, and get angry. I wish I had reached out to someone for help before things got to the points that they did. It's not so much a cliché as a brutal truth. It can happen to anyone.
If you're suffering because of someone else's addiction, show concern, be supportive, but take care of yourself first. Google local treatment centers, recovery meetings, information sessions, or support groups. If you're not sure where to turn for help, start here, or here.
This month I found out I'll be needing additional surgery on my wrist. I know once again my doctor will suggest Oxycontin, and I know once again I will tell him, "Never."