Many people still think of addiction as a moral failing and refer to victims of substance misuse disorders as meth freaks, alcoholics, junkies, crackheads and garden-variety drunks. Even though The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines addiction as a ‘chronic, relapsing brain disease” that changes the structure and functionality of the brain, heroin and opioid addicts continue to be plagued with the barrier of stigma which prevents proper pathways to treatment and essential medical care.
This my daughter’s story. She is one of the 129 people a day who overdose from a substance use disorder and ultimately succumb to their disease. This is my daughter. This is Justice Briana and I’m here to tell you her story in the hopes that someday another family won’t have to face this disease alone and deal with the immense scrutiny of stigma which is preventing critical education, treatment and care for people facing this disease.
The summer of 2014 was the first time heroin became part of the dialogue in my home. This was the summer I learned of Justice’s heroin addiction. It didn’t happen all at once, there were signs, but at the time I lacked the education on addiction and what it meant to be addicted to heroin. The missing spoons, the weight loss, the long sleeves, and yes the nodding out. All these signs came with what I believed to be logical reasons. Justice was a full-time student in a dental program with a 4.0 average so her being tired and even losing weight made sense with the late night studying sessions and missed meals. The spoons, well I honestly thought my kids were throwing them away. As a parent I wanted to believe that Justice was doing well and being honest with me, but in the pit of my stomach I guess I knew something was wrong.
“I am a heroin addict” those 4 words were the most devastating words I had ever heard out of my daughter’s mouth. Those words hit me like a ton of bricks. For 48 hours I laid in bed and cried. When I was able to get out of bed I stood in the middle of my room and thought now what? What do I do? Who do I call? How do I make sense of what I believed to be the most horrific news a parent could face?
As I slowly started to navigate through this nightmare of a world I knew nothing about, I started to realize that there was not enough help or support out there. I knew I was alone. I didn’t know a lot about heroin, but what I did know drove me into an inconsolable panic. I also was fully aware of the stigma that surrounds heroin addiction and so for the first time in my life I felt what discrimination must feel like. From the insurance company giving me the run around, to the detox centers telling me with lack of empathy and compassion to call back another time because there were no beds available, and sadly even to the look on my doctors face when I discussed Justice’s addiction with him during an office visit.
If this had been any other disease there would have been instant help and resources. That discrimination led to feelings of shame and for the first time I felt like I had failed as a parent. I quickly came to realize that addiction isn’t like other diseases and we were better off staying silent. I mean let’s face it there are no cards from family or friends saying “thinking of you”, or surprise visits with offers of help, no, more often than not those friends and family members disappear. They leave for fear the stigma of addiction will attach itself to them. This was a situation I quickly learned I was going to have to figure out alone.
And so for two years I dealt with my daughter’s addiction with little involvement from anyone I perceived to be on the “outside.” In the fall of 2014, we were finally able to get her into a detox center and after 5 days they released her with a packet full of paperwork and numbers to call for a methadone clinic. I knew very little about heroin, but even less about methadone. I was nervous of the unknown, but Justice reassured me that with this program she would be able to get back on her feet and resist the urge to use heroin. I begged her to go into a rehab treatment facility instead, but she refused. Who needs rehab when you have methadone? So every morning we drove into Hartford and she stood in line to get her dose, and in the weeks that followed I slowly started to see my daughter again, the daughter before heroin entered the picture.
She cleaned herself up, got a job, and started talking about her goals again. I thought to myself, Wow that was easy. We really dodged a bullet! Boy was I wrong. A few months after Justice was back to her old self I started to notice some hauntingly familiar behaviors returning. Although she was still going to the methadone clinic every day I noticed that she started sleeping all the time again, and what little weight she had managed to gain initially, was beginning to disappear. Her motivation to fulfill her dreams were once again gone, methadone might help ease the cravings, but methadone by itself will not break the cycle of addiction. This I had to learn the hard way.
So here I was once again trying to navigate through this world alone, our lives were beginning to feel like scenes from the movie Groundhog Day, but this time I told myself I was ready for it, this time there would be no enabling, this time I was determined to find her the help she needed and I was sure this time we would put this nightmare behind us. This time we would nip it in the bud. Wrong again. This time, it took weeks to get her back into a detox program and when she finally got in she checked herself out after 3 days. I knew at that moment we were destined for a long and lonely road of heartbreak and misery. For the weeks and months that followed, I think we truly lived through hell. The sickness, the mood swings, the missing items, the lies and manipulation, it was finally more than I could take.
In the spring of 2015, I gave Justice an ultimatum, get help or move out. To my shock and dismay, Justice chose to be homeless over getting help. This was the very first time I realized the full scope of Justice’s addiction. This drug had such a hold on my daughter. As painstaking as this was I knew I had to let her go. No easy task for a parent, but I was determined to let her hit rock bottom. This was the “tough love” approach that was ingrained in me as a kid growing up in the 80’s. The war on drugs and addiction was supposed to be eradicated by allowing the addict to lose everything that mattered.
Well, that rock bottom came in the summer of 2015. Justice came to me crying and begging for help. As she laid on my couch in and out of sleep, my mother and I began making calls. We called every detox and rehab center within a 100 mile radius only to be told the same thing over and over, call back tomorrow morning. Anyone who has dealt with this knows that tomorrow morning is often too late. After hours upon hours of begging facilities to take Justice, she got up from the couch and walked out the door. At that moment I knew I had lost her forever, I knew the next time I saw my daughter would not be good.
And, that day came on August 23, 2015. This day was Justice’s rock bottom, but rock bottom for heroin addicts is far worse than anything I had imagined. This was the day that my young, beautiful and free-spirited twenty-one year old daughter suffered from an anoxic brain injury after a sudden cardiac arrest due to a combination of a severe asthmatic exacerbation and a heroin overdose.
Justice had been a severe asthmatic throughout most of her life which required daily maintenance and upkeep, but heroin and living life on the street came before anything else. After a day of being out on her own her pocketbook was stolen which contained this lifesaving medication and she went a week without her inhaler. The morning of August 23rd she came to me for help. She needed her asthma prescription refilled, but she also realized that she needed recovery and treatment. On that premise, I allowed Justice to stay with me that day until we could find a treatment facility who would accept her. That day, we watched a movie together and had a really nice talk about life, about her life. She once again talked about her hopes and dreams and about a life without heroin, this made her smile, this made me smile. It was the first time in a long time that we were able to spend quality time together without fighting about heroin. Not long after the movie started, Justice left my room to go play with her cat Max. After she left my room I decided to turn the movie off and get on with my day when I heard a terrible scream. I raced down the stairs to find Justice on the floor gasping for air. My instinct at that moment was to get her in my car and get her to the emergency room. I live about 4 minutes from the local ER.
On the way she begged me to run the red lights, which I did. I rubbed her back and in as calm of a voice as I could muster, I told her everything would be all right. As we pulled into the parking lot of the emergency room Justice’s whole body seized, and I knew at that moment I was losing her. I ran into the emergency room and screamed for help. A triage nurse was there and followed me to my car. As I opened the car door, I saw her little face blue, her body not moving and I screamed and begged God to not take my little girl.
All I remember from that moment on was being more scared than I have been in my entire life. I saw a whole team of people come outside and try and save my daughter’s life. I stood there helpless and alone. All I could do was look to God.
They saved my daughter’s life that day, but it’s been a very hard journey. Justice’s brain injury is so severe that the likelihood of recovery is very slim. More than likely I will have to make the decision to bring my daughter home with hospice care. No parent should be faced with these decisions. If we had the proper treatment beds, and the essential services to combat this epidemic maybe my daughter could have received the help she needed, at the very least with the proper programs maybe I could have been better equipped to navigate through this hell and not be intimidated by the fear, shame, and stigma.
Without stigma we could build a better network of support services for both the family and the substance abuser. Eliminating the stigma would mean the funding for this epidemic would be a priority as it is with other diseases. Without the shame and stigma of addiction we could be educating our youth on prevention and teaching them how to navigate thru a world that often times will tempt them to follow the wrong path. Without the stigma of addiction families would no longer have to suffer in silence. We would no longer have to defend the disease of addiction.
Heroin took my daughter. She was 21 years old. She had barely lived. She never owned her own car, she never traveled the world. She never married or had children. She won’t see her brothers grow to be good men, or meet her future nieces or nephews. My daughter will never dance again. She will never see an amazing sunset, or feel the warmth of the sun on her beautiful face. I will never hear my daughter’s beautiful voice again or hear her call me mom. Heroin took that all away. We all failed my daughter. All those times she reached out for help and was denied we failed her. I have to live with this for the rest of my life. Could you imagine being told that your child could not get treatment for cancer because the funds or programs were not available? How would you feel knowing you would have to watch your child slowly die? These are things that parents of substance abusers are faced with every day.
Justice was my only daughter, she was my girl, she was my dream, she was my everything. I am here today sharing Justice’s story because I believe that no other person should have to fight to get help for addiction in this country like my daughter did. I am committed to ending the stigma of addiction by bringing education and awareness to the forefront of this war. THE TIME IS NOW for us to come together and fight for those programs and services. THE TIME IS NOW to save lives. If it takes a village to raise a child than it will take entire communities standing together to fight this war to save our children. Please continue to have this conversation with others. Share Justice’s story, help me be part of the change by changing the way people think about addiction.
One Mom’s Fight to End the Stigma of Addiction