Vicodin tablets photographed by frankieleon, Flickr CC.

Death’s Door: Saving My Opioid-Addicted Son From Himself, Seeing God (Exclusive)

As a family who has fought for nearly a decade to keep our opioid-addicted son alive, we’re grateful that this deadly epidemic has finally been dragged into the public spotlight. Yet the media and government focus on the crisis too often ignores the underlying mental health and self-esteem factors that lead to addiction in the first place.

New studies are beginning to show what we learned the hard way after agonizing years of trying to help our gentle son escape the clutches of prescription pain pills, heroin and similar substances. Most users who turning to opioids to escape feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness suffer from anxiety, depression or other underlying disorders. What begins as a temporary escape from the inner pain each feels, soon turns to physical dependency that rewires brain chemistry in a way that eventually amplifies the feelings he or she was trying to numb. It’s a horrible cycle that is nearly impossible to break, which is why nearly 100 Americans are dying each day from opioid overdose, according to the CDC.

My son nearly became part of this statistic on several occasions, and twice was revived through CPR from death by overdose when he stopped breathing. At night, I’d pray for him to return safely, or when he wasn’t living with us, for him to simply survive and get well. His mother confessed that she’d lie awake, haunted by thoughts of planning his funeral. Any late-night phone call would create immediate dread in both of us. It was like constantly waiting for the inevitable worst, knowing that the most likely outcomes were jail or death since so many recovery efforts had failed.

Every hopeful attempt at rehabilitation was followed by a cycle of brief sobriety, relapse and detox, plunging our family tens of thousands into debt with seemingly no impact on our son beyond temporary relief while he was in a residential program. Ultimately, he’d pick up where he left off, with his possessions and items stolen from us back on pawn shop shelves, and him right back at death’s door.

My faith was shaken, and only through the support of a small men’s group and a few close friends was I able to keep praying to a God I was beginning to feel had abandoned me and my family. But we fought on, both for the sake of our other three children and for our son, who we loved so dearly regardless of the pain and hardships he brought. We were determined to keep him afloat at any cost, and we paid the price physically, emotionally and fiscally.

Over time, we accepted that only he could choose to help himself and we were as powerless to change him as he was over his addiction. Yet we also recognized that it was his feelings of isolation, failure and distorted perceptions of how others looked at him that triggered each relapse. Even a minor setback such as a fender-bender would bring such emotions to the forefront, and lacking resilience or another way to cope, he’d return to opioids to, as he once told me, “not feel.”

Long after I’d shifted into hope-neutral mode, I reached a turning point while with my son waiting for him to be admitted to yet another detox facility. A few days earlier, following the overdose death of his ex-girlfriend, he had pawned his belongings to buy enough drugs to end his suffering once and for all.  As was the case several times before, proving that God has a plan for him, he was unsuccessful. As I sat with him in the hospital waiting room, his depression and withdrawal symptoms on full display, it hit me that spending more thousands that we didn’t have to check him into a facility with strangers was ridiculous. To a person already at the lowest point imaginable, how could further isolating him possibly help him heal?

I recognized that what he needed most was his family’s love and unconditional acceptance. We walked out and soon he was on a coach at home for the painful process of detox, his beloved dog curled up next to him. Instead of marking his birthday in an isolated hospital bed, he even managed a smile when we sang to him the next day, even though he wasn’t able to eat his cake. As I watched him get stronger once the withdrawal period subsided, I realized that love and acceptance were far more powerful in his chances at recovery than any medicine, doctor or program could ever be. I also recognized that God had put us through the ordeal with a purpose – to share our story so that others might find some solace or insights on this terrible problem.

Today we understand that the journey is far from over, but we have allowed some hope to return to our hearts. We are encouraged that the opioid epidemic is finally receiving more focus, even while remaining skeptical that the words will translate into actions that make a difference. New efforts to hold drug dealers more accountable are welcome, and providing first responders with the overdose reversal drug Naloxone is saving lives.

Yet without more emphasis and understanding around the root causes that lead to addiction, such as social anxiety, depression, and others, there will be little hope in stemming the tide. It is far too convenient to slap the “disease” label on a complex problem that is more an outcome of deeper issues. This only adds to the stigma around addiction that kept the opioid crisis in the shadows for far too long. New approaches focused on both the mind and the heart are needed, and the power of family love and acceptance should not be underestimated.

Check out Rick Van Warner's book:  On Pills and Needles:  The Relentless Fight to Save My Son From Opioid Addiction



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About the author

Rick Van Warner is a 30-year veteran of journalism, crisis management, and media relations. Rick was compelled to share his personal story to help other families after recognizing the endemic nature of the current opioid addiction epidemic. A graduate of Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Communications, Van Warner began his career as a daily newspaper reporter. Always willing to tackle tough challenges, he also volunteered as a social worker within the New York State youth justice division, where he counseled teens confined to group homes after committing serious crimes. Rick lives in central Florida with his family