A Hard Truth to GRASP: A Mother’s Story

zachZachary died on July 19th, 2013, due to a drug overdose. Not because he was a junkie or because he was an addict. Because he wasn’t just an addict. He was a son, a brother, a human being with love in his heart, and goals for the future. He died of a drug overdose because he had a disease, leaving a family behind to pick up the pieces and to figure out, what next?

Zachary isn’t around to tell his story, but the one person who probably knew him better than anyone else is, his mom. And this is her story. This is a mother’s, Louise’s, experience, strength and hope. 

“He’s probably screaming at me for doing this,” Louise says while laughing. 

“Do you really think he is screaming at you?” I asked her. “Yes,” she says kind of laughing again.

Louise, Zach’s mom, lives about 30 miles north of Boston. While she never had a problem with drugs or alcohol herself she said it does run in the family.

The genes didn’t doom Zachary to having the disease of alcoholism and addiction from the day he was born, but they definitely played a role. “People don’t believe there is a genetic basis to this disease.” she tells me. Which is surprising because the numbers back Louise up. Studies show 50-60% of the disease of addiction is due to genetic factors.

Zachary was born August 18th, 1991. “And when he was born, he didn’t look at me and say mom when I grow up I want to be a drug addict.” And none of us do. None of us plan on having this disease. We are just like every other kid out there.

And as for Zachary, he was just a kid as well. An especially bright, smart, determined one. “Of course he was my kid so I am going to tell you he was cute. He was funny, goofy funny, he always told jokes, he always made everybody laugh, he had a very sensitive side to him, and he was a great athlete.”

“He learned things so quickly. He loved hockey. He was passionate about hockey. He loved life.”

“When he put his mind to something he could do anything.”

So what went wrong? Nothing. This disease doesn’t discriminate.

Louise did more than most parents do to be aware, and also to talk to their kids about drug and alcohol use.  She even talked to Zachary and his two older siblings about their genetics and about drugs and alcohol. “As soon as they hit double digits, like 10, I did talk to them often about drugs and alcohol. Ya know, they knew their history. And I said you guys really have to be careful. If you’re going to experiment you might not be able to step away,” “You really need to ask yourself is this really what I want to do,” she told her three children. 

“I really thought I was one of those parents that was on top of it all, I wasn’t by the way, but I thought I was.” And unfortunately it really isn’t until it’s too late that most parents realize that there is nothing they can do. 

Zachary’s disease progressed in a way that even the most careful parent probably wouldn’t have noticed. There were no signs of abnormal behavior. “He would challenge my authority at times and I would ground him,” she told me. But that was the most of it. 

“I did catch him with pot, he must have been 14 or 15, and I was concerned.”

“But I just thought it was experimenting, a right of passage.” “He wasn’t coming home high every day as far as I know. I didn’t smell it on him. If he was, I would of done something.”

And for most kids Zachary’s age, experimentation, especially with pot is normal. Over 83 million Americans over the age of 12 have tried marijuana at least once. 

And from that point on the story becomes a little more worrisome and the tone changes. “What was Zachary’s drug of choice?” I asked. Louise responds with one word, “Percocet.” 

Percocet is an opiate. It is normally prescribed for pain and can produce euphoric effects. It is highly addictive unnamed (2)and even the most careful users can end up finding themselves suffering what is known as withdrawal after taking it for a week or two. 

At age 16 was when Zachary tried Percocet for the first time. And it isn’t an uncommon story. Zachary had sprained his ankle during hockey and one of his friends on the hockey team, described as being on a “slippery slope,” had given it to him. And this is how most kids try opiates for the first time. From a friend. 

“My son, he told me, once he took the first Percocet he couldn’t stop.” she explains. And I knew exactly what Zachary was telling his mom being a recovered addict myself. I had felt what he felt that first time as well and I told Louise this.

She kind of laughed and went, “You want to know what I told him?” “I told him to knock it off.”

“I truly didn’t understand. I’ll tell you how naive I was! I thought well, its a prescription pill, how bad can it be?” “Because its prescribed by doctors. I never understood or maybe I had never heard of the addictive nature of those pills.”

And unless your child starts taking them, most parents haven’t and by the time you notice it could be too late. Today there is more information about it but prescription opiates still fly under the radar. Every day in the United States, an average of 2,000 teenagers use prescription drugs without a doctor’s guidance for the first time. AND the majority of both teens and young adults obtain prescription drugs they abuse from friends and relatives, sometimes without their knowledge.

And this is how it starts. Unfortunately Percocet being a prescription drug it has the illusion of being “safe” or at least more “safe” then it’s distant cousin, the street drug heroin. And Louise gets it. “There’s this false sense of it’s ok.”

Things went downhill from there. Louise began getting calls Zachary’s senior year from the headmaster at his high school, he had started acting up, and his grades began “tanking.” 

“He barely made it through high school.” “I did get him into a treatment program while he was still in high school. In Boston, once again I didn’t know what I was doing, me and my ignorance was bliss at the time.” she sighs. 

The program Zachary went to was only one night a week and he didn’t really want to go but he did. He completed the program and also managed to make it through high school. 

That summer things got much worse. “That summer I noticed a complete escalation in his drug activity. And he started stealing, the whole 9 yards. And by that time he had graduated to Oxys.” she tells me.

Oxys, the short term for the prescription drug Oxycontin or Oxycodone, are a highly potent opiate similar to Percocet. For addicts it is the next step up from Percocet. It gives you a more intense high.

At this point Zachary was in college but he never went to class due to his drug use. So Louise told her son, “Zach it’s not working, you need to do something else.” 

From that point forward Zach and his family started a long road in and out of detox and treatment centers. “I call it the roller coaster,” she explained. And here is why, “He’d go through detox, he’d go through treatment, he’d come out for awhile, he’d be ok for 30 days sometimes 60 days and then he’d relapse.” Then the cycle would start all over again.

And this is the disease of addiction. Characterized by being chronic, progressive and fatal. And always, the potential for relapse is there. And Louise didn’t quite understand why the cycle wasn’t working yet. “I thought you just need to detox. Now you’re off them, now go get a job, go back to school.”

And that kind of thinking or that kind of action does work, for short periods of time, but not for lasting sobriety.

“Then the monster would be unleashed again.” And Louise describes each treatment and detox center as Zach and herself going through cycles together. 

“6 months sober was about the longest time he had. Then that started not working out for him”

In 2013, things had hit an all time low. After Christmas 2012, Zach started using again and he was now using heroin, the disease had progressed some more. He was progressively more and more inebriated and there was an instance where Louise thought he should have overdosed but he didn’t.

He had been to treatment in Florida once before during one of the cycles, “I call them tours of duty,” she said. And Louise was ready to send him back down to Florida again for another “tour of duty” due to the extent of his using. She told him, “You got to get outta here cause you are going to die in Lowell.”

When she sent Zachary to Florida she didn’t know it was going to be the last time she saw her son. And why would she? No one sees it coming. 

“He had 60 days sober, and on day 61 he relapsed and died.” she explains. It hurt me to hear this.

Zach called his mom on day 60 telling her “Mom! I am 60 days clean!” And she gave a response of love like any mother would. She told him how proud she was of him and to keep up the good work. She was planning on coming down for his birthday next month. But she didn’t get to. “I came home Friday night from work, and the police were outside my door.” Zach had died.

“I don’t know what happened.” Louise told me. Even Zach’s sponsor, kind of a guide in a twelve step program, didn’t see it coming. And relapse, overdose, and death can happen like that with the disease of addiction. Out of the blue, all of a sudden. No one plans on dying when they relapse. No one expects it. 

I asked Louise about her feelings after his death, “Anger, guilt, shame?”

“I was everything. I was more sad than angry.” “My anger was directed at God more than anybody else. I put some anger there. I put some anger on the sober house.”

“How do you get through something like this?” I asked Louise, “What were the steps you started taking?”

Louise was honest, “I didn’t do anything for a month. I can become an isolator. I actually went into numbness, I didn’t feel.”

“I’m only coming out of it now.” Grieving is a different process for everyone. And for some this kind of numbness is necessary. And she has ups and downs. “I cried last week. Someone posted a photo of him on Facebook and I broke down.”

“I will miss him until the day I die. I will grieve him until the day I die.”

When Louise did come out of numbness though she started taking action. “I tend to be an action oriented person.” So it would only make sense that she started a chapter of the support group GRASP. GRASP is grief recovery for those who have lost someone from alcohol, and other drugs. GRASP is nationwide and we will provide a link for it. It is for anyone who has lost someone to substance abuse not only parents. GRASP provides compassionate support for anyone who needs it. Louise runs the Merrimack Valley GRASP Chapter in Massachusetts.

“I hope Zachary is proud of what I am doing.” 

“I didn’t want his death to be in vain. One way is GRASP. My other way now is if the media calls, I tell my story.”  She also is working with a group in Lowell, Mass that is trying to fight heroin addiction, to give them the parents perspective.

I asked about her goals and she said, “That maybe some of us can find peace.”

Another one of her goals has to do with the anonymity part of this disease. “If I remain anonymous people are never going to put a face on addiction. They’re not going to see the people that are hurt. They aren’t going to see the people that die.  I am sick of being anonymous. I am sick of being ashamed. I am sick of being embarrassed.”

She even used Zach’s funeral as a way to educate people by putting inserts into his funeral program about addiction.I knew they were going to talk about him and if they were going to talk about him I thought, I am going to educate them.” “The stigma has got to go away.” “It doesn’t matter how rich you are, how poor you are, whether you’re black, white, blue or purple.” And she is so beyond right. The disease of addiction knows no bounds

And then she coined this term, given to her by CBS—“I am making my mess my message.” 

“If I can help a parent, not experience what I have experienced, and if it is only one, that is fine.”

And of course as any parent would she still questions herself.

“Every day I get up, I judge myself.”

“I do wonder should I have done more?” 

But as every one of us with this disease knows, when we want to use, there is nothing that can stop us. Louise did everything she could do as a mother. She tried everything she knew how to do. And unfortunately it isn’t up to our parents. It is up to us. And in some instances it is up to our disease if we are using. 

Louise works to help other parents with exactly the same things she is going through, through GRASP, and even Learn 2 Cope (another organization similar to GRASP.) As she puts it, “We have to live with this.”

And in return of offering help, she receives help too. “You are not alone. There are people you can actually talk to that don’t judge you.” GRASP and Learn 2 Cope are just two of the organizations that Louise is involved with that offer that kind of understanding and support. 

unnamed (1)My last question for Louise was merely about her favorite memory of Zach. And she described a young Zachary (see picture to the right) that liked to dress up in different gear. And he came out of his room in a camo vest one day, with a little helmet. “It was the cutest thing you have ever seen in your life!!!” she tells me laughing. I can hear her smile. “He came out and said Mom! I’m an army man!” He was so proud.”

Louise also shared that she used to send Zach a special quote when he was having rough days. It happens to actually be the same one my mom sends to me. It is from the Winnie the Pooh and goes like this:

“Always remember you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

And then she shared with me the last thing Zachary said to her before he had died. Her last memory, and also her fondest. “He told me he knew what unconditional love was because I showed it to him. That’s my fondest,” the tears started. “So I know he knew that I loved him, because I used to wonder sometimes did he? And he told me he knew what uncondtional love was because I gave it to him. Which I guess is a good thing.”

It is an amazing thing. She is an amazing woman.

“And really that is all that matters in the end. Unconditonal love sticks around.” I tell her. And she finishes it for me, “Forever and ever and ever.”