Heroin: Part two of a three-part series
The Heroin Takeover
“My son is addicted to heroin,” said Heather LaRoue (whose name has been changed to protect her identity), an addiction specialist at a Sussex County outpatient counseling facility.
LaRoue, who has an associate’s degree in drug and alcohol counseling and a bachelor’s degree in psychology, said she didn’t know her son was using until he was arrested last spring.
“How did I find out? He got busted. There were things going on, behavior started to change. He started to lie a lot more, he couldn’t look me in the eye,” she said. “I knew something was going on. I just didn’t know what it was. He lost weight, he wasn’t motivated to work, so he became unemployable.”
LaRoue said her 25-year-old son, who is currently incarcerated for theft, would occasionally do home repair work to support his drug habit.
“When he did work, he would steal from medicine cabinets in clients’ homes,” she said. “He stole from me — that’s why he’s sitting in jail right now. Since you don’t want your child to die, but to get better, I got to a point where I didn’t know what else to do.”
Her son is currently working on staying sober while incarcerated, in the hopes of regaining custody of his 11-month-old son.
“He wants his child back, so he’s going to get clean for his child. Well, when he gets his child back, what do you think is going to happen? He’s going to find ways and means to try to get away with using again, because he didn’t want it for himself in the first place,” she said bluntly. “Addiction is very baffling and very uncontrollable.”
LaRoue said her son has been dealing with addiction for seven years. At first he had an addiction to illegally acquired prescription medication. Then, in February of 2013, he began using heroin. In August of last year, he was arrested while driving with a suspended license, as well as for heroin possession and unlawful use of a credit card.
“Before he got incarcerated, I was wondering every night if I was going to get a phone call or not. I was preparing myself mentally and emotionally through some counseling of my own, to prepare for a call saying my son had died… That’s basically what you have to do. It’s a sudden death. It’s not something you get to prepare for.”
LaRoue said that not many heroin addicts live long lives — a fact that many states throughout the country are currently documenting in a rise in overdose rates.
“One bad batch, one bad bag of heroin, can take a life in a matter of seconds. People are dying every single day. I just attended my 20-year-old nephew’s funeral,” she said. “The thing of it is an overdose on opiates gives no warning. It doesn’t tell you that you’re doing too much. It doesn’t tell you you shouldn’t do too much. If you do too much, you die. It’s just point-blank. The thing is you never know how much to do. Your body doesn’t speak up and tell you.
“In the last four months, we’ve had two clients that have died,” she added. “One came in one day for an intake, wanted help, was scheduled for the very next week to see a counselor, and died that week. When I say people are dying, they are literally dying every day, and there’s nothing to get through to them.”
In the process of dealing with her son’s addiction issues, LaRoue said she lost 25 pounds and had a heart attack.
“I had come to a point trying to do the tough-love thing, but I literally couldn’t put food in my mouth because I didn’t know if my own son had eaten that day,” she said. “It’s very, very damaging to anyone who loves that person because, literally, you are preparing for that person to die.”
LaRoue’s grandson currently lives with her, after she reported her son and his girlfriend to social services for neglect.
“I walked into their house, and both of the parents were knocked out cold, and the baby was crawling into a cluster of electrical power cords. And he had that in his hands and around his neck, and I said, ‘This is it. We’re done here.’ And the heroin addict doesn’t see it. They think everything is fine always…
“Right now, we have a no-contact order for a year,” she continued. “It has been very, very difficult. I’ve had to do some things that I’m not real proud of, but I know it was in the best interest of my grandchild and in the best interest of my son. I think it forces the family to act out in ways they never ever thought they would have to do.”
Her grandson has been living with her since July of last year and during that time has thrived.
“He’s a whole different person. He smiles all the time. He gets really excited when I come over to him or when I get home from work. I think of his parents just putting a bottle in his mouth or just putting him in bed, so he wasn’t going to be a bother,” she said. “You could tell that he wasn’t being nurtured. He was very isolated; he didn’t interact a lot with anybody. Now he’s in daycare, interacting and playing with other kids. At night, we always go for a walk and have a bath and practice walking.”
LaRoue, who herself is recovering from non-opiate addiction, said that she was an addict from when her son was 3 until he was 15.
“It might have been the way he was brought up — let me just take some responsibility here,” she said of his history with drug abuse. “He didn’t have a mother. I was not nurturing. I was very neglectful. I didn’t care about anything but drugs. That might have been where it began, and then he got with peers.”
Today, as an addiction specialist, LaRoue said her son’s problem has not affected how she helps her own clients.
“It has been very challenging. However, I have not allowed what has been going on with my son to make any decisions, judgments, assumptions or anything with any of my clients. I thought having my son addicted with heroin and dealing with all of these clients that are the same, that I would be more judgmental — but I wasn’t.”
She added that she was thankful to be surrounded by supportive people in her life.
“I didn’t lose it. I was able to maintain stability, but there were days when I just didn’t want to face the world. But I knew I needed to be the stronger person. I couldn’t fall to pieces just because my son was falling to pieces,” she said, adding that prayer also played a big role. “I pray every single day that he is going to get better somehow. I don’t know how, if he’ll have to sit in jail for the rest of his life to do it. But somehow I just pray that he gets better and doesn’t die first.”
As for those who are looking to seek treatment, LaRoue said recovery is possible.
“The thing about recovery — you can’t do it for anything else but if you wanted it. If you do it for anything else but wanting it, it will not work,” she said. “We could have all these addiction specialists, such as myself, saying, ‘This is the best thing for you, this is the best thing for you, this is the best thing for you.’ But if it’s not what they want, it’s not going to matter.”
At the facility where she is employed, LaRoue said counselors work to help teach addicts how to cope with their addictions.
“We work with people that really have no control. We tell them to come to treatment, teach them coping skills, how to cope when life shows up and how to get through it to the other side. We give them relapse-prevention skills, but the problem is it’s up to the individual,” she said. “Now we have a society and most of it is addicted to heroin, and to get everyone clean is just impossible. It’s a challenge every day.”
LaRoue said that, often, addiction specialists do not encourage addicts to go through withdrawal because of how difficult it can be.
“It’s not pretty. It’s very, very ugly. It’s a sickness that most people cannot tolerate. There’s vomiting, diarrhea, aches and pains; there’s fever. It feels almost as if you have a severe flu, except it’s very achy and painful. Sometimes you find yourself in the fetal position, in pain,” she explained. “The only option that we have is basically telling our clients to continue to use until they get on medication, which is a process.”
According to LaRoue, many recovering addicts don’t want to remain on medication-assisted treatment for an addiction.
“It decreases motivation for recovery. So what they do is they take the medication and don’t do anything else. They come off the medication, and they’re right back to where they started.”
Not only should addicts seek support, she said, but there are group meetings designed to help family members and friends who are dealing with the addiction of a loved one, provided by organizations such as Nar-Anon and Al-Anon.
“It helps the family be strong. It helps the family be aware of manipulation that the addict is trying to exhibit. It just helps them set boundaries, those kinds of things. It allows them to know what they’re doing is the right kind of thing, instead of feeling like it could be right or wrong.”
LaRoue said that, sometimes, one has to strike a delicate balance in order to help a loved one dealing with an addiction.
“You don’t want to not support the person. You don’t want to turn your back, you want to set your boundaries, and you want to stick to them and be stern about them. The addict does need support. They need to know they are still loved and still cared for. But they need to know that you are not going to tolerate their unacceptable behaviors.”
Such support meetings she said, will help the family members deal with the loved one who may be struggling with addiction.
“The one most important thing — you can’t feel sorry. You just can’t, because if you feel sorry, you’ll kill them. If you can see where the challenge is with family members, with anyone,” she said, adding that tough love is necessary.
“Tough love is not being the enabler. Tough love is not condoning the behavior. Tough love is setting boundaries even though they may not like them. My son wasn’t allowed in my house for a while. I couldn’t have ever imagined saying to him that he wouldn’t be allowed in my home, but you have to protect yourself and you have to protect your heart. It’s very hard to protect both things at one time.”
As for treating the growing heroin problem in the state and in the nation, LaRoue said she believes it would be beneficial for more people to look at the addiction side of what drives the criminal behavior.
“If we could get more judges to give more treatment instead of punishments, I think that could help out,” she said. “I do know we need to set examples for society but… the crime is not going to stop if the addiction doesn’t. I don’t think putting a heroin addict in jail is a solution. They can lie in bed all day; they don’t have to do anything. Putting them into treatment — they have to be motivated.
“We can punish anybody, but punishing them isn’t helping them. If you want the criminal behavior to stop, we have to treat the source — we can’t punish it. If we punish it, we’ll make it worse.”
As for prevention, LaRoue said education is an important key.
“Teaching the children today — counseling them and making them aware of everything. Making our children today better, so that maybe we can have a better generation coming up,” she said. “With this generation, I don’t think there’s anything we can possibly do. It’s really, really out of hand. And I don’t see any solution coming anytime soon.”
But if addiction has already afflicted a loved one, she said, the addict has to want to get clean for themselves and come to terms with what caused them to begin using.
“Before an addict can really get better, they need to find out the reason they used to begin with. They want to look into the underlying reason of the use,” she said. “The very sad part about it is that not everyone wants to get clean. Most people don’t. A lot of people use it to escape reality, not wanting to deal with life.”
LaRoue said she knows recovery is possible because she overcame her own addiction, but she is unsure if there is hope for solving the overall heroin problem plaguing society. For now, she is spending her time and effort focusing on her grandson, with the future of her family still unknown.
“I’m not quite sure. I just know my grandson is going to have a loving home. That’s all I know right now,” she said, pausing. “I’m hopeful that my son will get better. I’m not hopeful about the epidemic.”