Saturday, June 25, 2011

Tangled Web of Rambling

I spend a lot of idle time in the blogosphere, because I enjoy good writing and because the actual lives of people have always fascinated me. I read a tweet from someone whose writing I enjoy and respect, that directed me into the drama of a mother in TN whose son died a bit over a year ago of a drug overdose. The mother is a well-known blogger and she has a lot of internet supporters, and a lot of support is what any parent needs at the death of a child. Somehow I can't let the drama go, probably because a lot of it is about addiction, and the impact of addiction on families, and that is a topic about which I have far more first-hand knowledge than I would wish. Drugs and alcohol contributed to the early death of both of my parents. I was raised in a house of addiction. And so I project into this situation, and I react with rage, frustration, bafflement, compassion, every emotion in the book.

A summary, hopefully fair: the young man in question was 19. His parents became aware of early drug use when he was, I believe, 14. Eventually he was sent to two residential rehabilitation programs that combined treatment with education so that he could continue high school work. He left rehab when, at 18, he attained legal majority, and returned home, where, within a matter of weeks, he was using once again. From this point he used harder and harder substances, developing an addiction to opiates. I believe I am correct in saying that in the last weeks of his life he was injecting opiates, selling as well as buying drugs, and also selling sex for drugs. He was 19 when he died, having been found in the home of two people who, his parents believe, sold him lethal doses of methadone, were prostituting him and other young men, and failed to call for help for several hours while he was in extremis in their home. At some point before being found in that home, their son was involved in a drug deal gone bad that left him beaten.

Their son was taken to hospital where, his parents believe, he was found to have anoxic brain injury from drug overdose as well as from beating injuries. He appeared to recover some limited functionality but eventually succumbed to complications from his brain injury.

The blogging mom and many others believe this young man was murdered, based on statutes that allow for those who illegally provide fatal doses of drugs to be charged with murder. They believe that the criminal justice system has failed them and their son by declining to perform an intensive criminal investigation into the circumstances of their son's death, to include the injuries he sustained in the drug deal gone bad, the provision of methadone allegedly at the hands of those in whose house he died, and the failure of those persons to render aid. Further, they believe the criminal justice system has failed to take action on credible evidence (statements their son made while in hospital) about a prostitution ring the couple was allegedly running from their home. The parents have filed a civil suit against those in whose home he died, as well as a methadone clinic from which the methadone allegedly was obtained. Currently, the mother is also attempting to draw attention to alleged improprieties in the medical examiner's office which performed her son's autopsy, an autopsy which, it is alleged, failed to find any evidence of the serious beating injuries the parents believe their son sustained along with a lethal drug overdose. One hardly knows what to think. Could it be true that every single person in the justice system that has encountered this family has been utterly incompetent and unprofessional at best, and complicit in large-scale criminal activities in the city and county? Could the family be the victims of a draconian plot? Perhaps, I suppose--I don't know the county involved and certainly its medical examiner function has been heavily criticized and problematic for years before the death of the young man in question. Perhaps this grieving mother will end up doing good if there is widespread incompetence and she is able to bring about a cultural change in law enforcement.

I don't know how much any of the mom's effort at finding justice will help the family, though, and that's the rub for me. (By the way, google "Justice for Henry" to read the mom's own accounting and opinions.) I find myself by turns fascinated, appalled, and irate over the family's view of their son and his addictive disease, and fascinated, appalled, and irate over the information that is out there and accessible that seemingly they never, ever had.

One aspect that, I have to admit, sticks in my craw a bit, is that the mom describes her son, over and over, as "fighting a brave struggle against drugs." That phrasing, or similar, appeared in his obit and factors into every aspect of her war for "justice" for her son, and I have to say that I am so utterly ordinary that, if it sticks in my craw, chances are it sticks in other craws as well. Although I acknowledge that I don't know everything about her son's life, what I do know from what she has posted leads me to a far different conclusion: that her son was not, in fact, fighting any kind of struggle against drugs at all. I see a young man who attended treatment programs only as long as he could legally be compelled to do so. I see someone who made no attempt to alter his life for sobriety once home and who, within weeks, was abusing drugs perhaps more severely than he had before leaving for treatment, and who, within months, was on a downward spiral where death was becoming more likely with each passing day. I see, from his mother's own account, a man who resisted even the suggestion of treatment for his addiction to the very end of his life. In short, I see an addict who manifested, in terms of behavior, absolutely no intention whatsoever to change his life, other than talking about hating his addiction. I see also a man who manipulated his family to obtain a place to sleep, food, and a cell phone, and I can imagine him using talk of how much he wanted to change to keep alive the hope that led a family member to keep providing him with those basic needs. I see a man whose untreated addictive disease was not only killing him but destroying the family who loved him and believed in him. And I see a family who continues to hold onto their image of their clearly gifted, charismatic, artistic son as "bravely struggling" in ways that do not allow them to get, on an emotional level, the ways in which he participated in his own illness and, eventually, in his own death.

The family seemed never to be aware of the types of danger that awaited their son once out of rehab. Mind-bendingly, they seemed never to know how lethal the opioids were that flowed freely in their community and all over the country. Nationwide publicity about, for instance, oxycontin notwithstanding, they seem to have had no idea that their son had easy access to substances that could and did kill him. They seem to look back with nostalgia to the 60's and to their own youthful years as times when young people could use drugs as more or less a rite of passage, safely, and emerge on the other side better and stronger from the experience. They seem, and their supporters seem, appallingly ignorant of the deaths that have occurred since long before the 60's from addiction to alcohol and drugs. Thus ignorant, they seem to feel that their adult son (this point I do wish to make and make strongly--he was not a minor child) was failed by a social network including a criminal justice system that allowed terrible drug pushers access to lethal drugs and young people in a new and unique manner.

The mother and her supporters seem also woefully ignorant about addiction itself, about how addicts behave and about the huge mortality and morbidity associated with alcohol and drug addiction. Would that the same programs which offered to rehabilitate their son, no doubt at staggering expense, have demanded that the parents enroll forthwith in Al-Anon or Narconon, that they might begin to understand what demon gripped their son and how eager that demon was to demolish him and everyone around him. Would that they have been given the agonizing knowledge that neither they nor any other human being or human system would be able to impact their son's life in such a way that he would stop using, no matter what they did. Would that those programs, while working with their son, also told his parents what so many families living with addiction know: that you cannot and must not trust any word that comes out of the mouth of a person who is using drugs--that the beloved person is in fact possessed by a force they cannot control, and that the force of addiction renders the beloved person utterly unreliable and untrustworthy. Would that they have had some preparation for the horrific but not, in the larger scope of the world of addiction, surprising outcome to their son's disease, given their son's refusal until the bitter end to treat his addiction.

If I could have offered one piece of knowledge to this family in the last weeks before their son's fatal overdose, it would have been this: Your son is dying. Your son is dying as surely as if he were in a hospital bed riddled with cancer. Whether it happens quickly or slowly, your son is on the path to death, and there is nothing you or anyone else can do. Take the rose-tinted glasses off, look clearly at what he is doing and who he is doing it with. He is not "bravely struggling." It is not "just a matter of waiting until he turns around." You can hope, but his situation is beyond bad. It doesn't matter what you do, or what anyone else does except him; you are helpless in the face of almost certain death. Be prepared.

That wouldn't have changed a thing, I know it wouldn't. But, if they could have heard that, perhaps from other parents, they could have had people to walk with them through the truth of those days, to help them understand the law enforcement view, the depth of the injury, the devastatingly poor prognosis. The awful phone call his mother got would still have been awful, but would have been part of a context rather than a lightning bolt out of left field. They would have been able to see the fullness of their son's life--the enormous and real promise, and the enormous and real destruction--rather than holding the promise and understanding the destruction as something temporary which would eventually pass. It has seemed to me that, as the mother grieves over the idea that her son is not seen completely but only as "an addict," she too fails to see him completely. She sees the innocent youth, duped by older evil people into things he would not have done otherwise, rather than, yes, the addict, the man of immense promise whose life had been handed to a demon, a demon with which he, at the end of the day, did not choose to engage. When people say these sorts of things to the mom, she hears us saying he "deserved to die" and "deserved to die a terrible death." That is not what I am saying, really--no one "deserves to die a terrible death," but people with addiction die terrible deaths every day in every city, and it really does not matter whether law enforcement is impeccable or not, whether drug overdoses are prosecuted or not, etc. It is human tragedy and evil at its most immediate and painful. And the roots of addiction are complex and multifactorial and some people die even if and after they choose treatment for themselves, because the disease is so godawful powerful.

I tell families of persons dying of consequences of addiction that, if I had a magic wand and the capability to eliminate one disease from the planet, I would choose addiction without a second's hesitation. I have no time for libertarian talk about how anyone should have the freedom to consume any substance they like, on grounds that the harm is done solely to the user. That viewpoint is self-centered and utterly naive. Families, friendships, communities, cultures, economies are ravaged by addiction, and it is at this point impossible to predict who might be able to use something "safely" and who might not.

There are no easy answers and no simple places to put blame. I wish this family some measure of peace, and I wish that none of their other family members ends up in the same evil situation. I wish I thought for one moment that the success of their lawsuit would vindicate either them or their dead son, or even that I thought for one moment that their suit could or would prevail. Their lives are utterly and unalterably changed by their loss and it is always thus. I wish them more fullness of knowledge and vision even though I know it may bring more pain. And I wish there WAS an easy answer to what they are going through.