I carefully folded a sweatshirt and placed it into my daughter’s suitcase on top of the colorful shirts, leggings, and Converse sneakers. I closed the bag and zipped it tight, mustering a smile and looking at her as she nervously bit a nail.
“Just think of this as going off to college,” I said. “You’ll come home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, just like your brother, and you’ll be home in time for my birthday.”
She rolled her big green eyes at me and sighed.
“It’s not college, Mom,” she said with a small bitter laugh. “It’s rehab.”
I had no idea my smart, beautiful, 33-year-old daughter was a heroin addict. Marked weight loss and the erratic, immature behavior told me something was wrong, but she convinced me that she had an eating disorder and the stress of losing her job was making her anxious. Xanax was prescribed, but that was all. She has always been a happy person, or so I thought. Apparently, now that we’ve been let in on the big secret, I realize that it’s all been a lot of smoke and mirrors. The jobs, the vacations, the holidays and the endless selfies she sent to me, always smiling a big, happy grin... Why would she lie?
She lied because she was a junkie.
I recently read in the U-T that in San Diego, a record 190 people died from methamphetamine use last year. Heroin was the leading cause of drug-related deaths for people aged 25 to 34, and prescription-drug overdoses were the primary cause of accidental death in the county followed by vehicle crashes.
My daughter might have died from a drug overdose without my knowing she even had a problem.
One night in June, my husband and I met her in a dark parking lot in Marina Village. She had called and said she needed to tell us something. My legs buckled as she spoke of the pills, smoking heroin, and almost setting herself on fire. She fell into my husband’s arms and sobbed as he held onto her tight. I was so frightened I screamed and lost control.
Within seconds I pulled myself together. I also hugged her and we wiped away each other’s tears. After what seemed like forever, I pulled away, stared hard into her bloodshot eyes and announced, “You’re coming home with us.”
She nodded in agreement as I knew she would. Even though she was an adult, she was still our daughter and she understood that we would take care of her. It was the way our family worked.
I took her keys, kissed my husband goodbye and we got into her car to go to the hospital, because it seemed like the best place to go for help. I wanted some professional guidance on how to help my daughter detox and the emergency room was the only place I could think of to get that advice. I drove as my daughter rested her head against the window.
“Damn, you’re almost out of gas,” I said, looking at the gauge.
“Sorry,” she whispered.
I sighed hard, one of the first of a thousand sighs that would come over the next few months.
I drove across the bridge to the nearest gas station in Ocean Beach, which is where she had been living for the past four years. I didn’t want to go there, but it was the only gas station for miles.
I got out of the car and looked at my daughter.
“You’re not going to make a run for it, are you?” I asked, half kidding.
“No, Mother, I’m not going to run.”
I glanced at the pump and saw that it was old-school: no credit-card slot. I sighed again and walked inside the small vestibule.
“Hi, how are you today?” the chipper girl behind the counter asked. That’s when my tears started.
“Umm, 30 dollars on pump two, please,” I said, choking on my words. I signed the receipt and ran out. I pulled the nozzle off and started pumping, tears streaming down my face. I looked up and the clerk was walking toward me.
“Here,” she said, folding a soft caramel, my favorite candy, in my hand. “You looked so sad. Take this.”
She ran back in as I tried not to collapse into myself, as my daughter slumped down in her seat.
What can I say about Grossmont Hospital? That the staff was kind and reached out to help my child? That they treated her addiction as a disease or that they gave her medicine to help her detox? Not exactly.
“I could really use a Xanax about now,” my daughter whispered as we sat in the large, very full and noisy waiting room.
“Not funny,” I hissed back.
She shrugged. “Not trying to be funny.” She reached down for her purse and searched. “Can I have my keys,” she said, obviously not finding what she wanted in her bag.
I rifled through my purse and found her keys, which dangled from a pretty pink cylinder thing. I handed them to her.
“Here, take these and go flush them,” she said, unscrewing the cap as I peeked in.
I understood now why I never found any drugs in her purse. How could I have missed the cylinder?
I sighed again and again and walked into the ladies’ room, entered a stall, and poured about 20 multicolored pills into the toilet. I stared into the bowl, trying to fathom how these innocent-looking pills could have turned my daughter’s life upside-down.
A few hours later, as my daughter lay on the emergency-room bed, she was calm and collected as we waited for a doctor. Other than her gaunt face, she looked fine. Maybe detoxing wouldn’t be so bad.
“So, Mom, this is what’s going to happen,” she told me calmly as the IV dripped vitamins and minerals into her shaking body. “I’m not going to sleep for a week. I’ll throw up some and have the shakes much worse than this, and it’s going to be pretty terrible, but I did it once, I can do it again.”
“You detoxed before?”
“I was clean for almost a month.”
Before I could respond, she said, “It’s going to be for good this time. I want this.”
I smiled weakly and said nothing.
As we waited I smoothed back her hair and talked about her brother and her grandmother. We discussed my friend’s new boyfriend and smiled a little here and there, trying to pass the time with quips and laughs instead of anguish and tears.
The doctor abruptly pulled the curtain back and I stepped aside for her to speak. The doctor glanced at me and then back to my daughter.
“We got your toxicology report back. Do you want your mother to hear this?” she asked.
My daughter sat up as best she could and stared the woman down. “Of course. She knows everything,” she said.
“Fine. You tested positive for heroin, cocaine, Xanax, Oxycodone, and Adderall.”
Hearing this aloud from a medical professional made me dizzy and I held on to the lone chair in the room.
“Right,” she said defiantly. “But this is the last day I’m ever going to use. I’m going to go to rehab.”
The short but fierce doctor stared back. “You will 100 percent fail,” she replied.
I looked up as if I’d been slapped. Tough love was fine for other people, but this was my kid.
My daughter’s mouth fell open for a split second and then she recovered.
“So, can I get something to help me detox? Maybe some Subutex?”
The doctor wrote something on the paper on the clipboard, tore it off, and handed it to her.
“Nope. By the looks of the drugs in your body, you know what you’re doing. Good luck.” She turned and walked out through the curtain.
For a moment we were both shocked into silence. I took a deep breath, smiled a tiny smile, and gathered my child’s clothes and handed them to her.
“Okay, you heard the doctor,” I said. “Let’s get you home so you can get healthy again.”
Her eyes watered and she held out her hand. I grabbed and squeezed it tight.
“You can do this,” I said quietly. “We can do this.” She nodded and then we went home.
I drove her to our home in Orange County and my husband made a bed for her as we helplessly watched her detox.
She threw up black tar even when she was sleeping, and only held down one or two Pedialyte Freezer Pops a day.
I bathed her and washed her hair. Her body was so thin it made her tiny hands look like a man hands. Her face was so gaunt that her white teeth were the only thing I could see.
My husband and I fought over what to do, who to call, just like when she was an infant and had colic, but we took turns watching over her, stroking her hair, wiping her vomit, and singing to her.
Around day ten, just as we thought we might be over the hump, she began to hallucinate. Babbling incoherently about monsters, and people climbing into her window. I was at a loss over what to do after the hospital debacle, so I went online to the “Ask a Doctor,” site. I had used the service before when hornets attacked my husband and we lived an hour’s drive from the hospital. I typed in my question and listed the drugs she was kicking.
“It’s the Xanax,” the “doctor” wrote.” Get her to a hospital now as the detox can cause permanent damage!”
I gathered her up in my arms and placed her into the car. We were at Orange Coast Memorial ER in five minutes.
This time it was different. They were caring and they fought with her insurance company to keep her overnight. We waited seven hours for approval and my husband and I watched as she became more and more delirious. As the hours passed, we took turns leaving for a breath of fresh air. Finally I could take no more.
“I have to get out of here,” I said, looking around at the multiple healthcare professionals caring for my first born. “I’ve reached my breaking point. Meet me at home.”
Within the hour my husband walked through the front door.
“I just went through the worst day of my life,” he said wearily. “No parent should ever have to go through that.”
She came home two days later. As she slowly regained her strength, I made calls to the county health department, her insurance company, and friends I could trust. I called rehabs and studied them as if I was helping her find the right college. I spoke to kind people on the phone who assured me I was doing the right thing, but they told me my daughter would not get better unless rehab was her own idea.
As soon as she could make sense of where her life had brought her — sleeping at her parents’ house, jobless, and broke — she asked if we would send her to rehab.
“I have nothing right now,” she told us honestly. “I want my life back.”
As she slowly healed, she started to remember her old life. She showed me the tiny scars on her face from smoking heroin.
“I hope they never go away,” she said, softly touching the marks on her once flawless face. “I want to look in the mirror every day and remember.”
My daughter started to ask for some of her personal items and pleaded with me to go to her apartment and gather her clothes, shoes, and precious photo albums.
It was not something I thought I could do on my own, and my husband refused. He was afraid his heart would break when he saw the condition of her once-cute apartment, so I called my two best friends, the same two friends who had known my daughter since the day she was born.
The apartment in Ocean Beach is located in what is also known as the “War Zone,” in a neighborhood full of homeless kids with dirty dreadlocks, long-haired bikers with pit bulls on studded chains, and clouds of patchouli oil floating in the air. My friends and I had no idea what we were walking into as I unlocked the apartment door’s four deadbolts.
“Holy crap,” muttered Rae as she stepped over a small bottle of propane and walked into the cluttered room. A coffee table was filled with glass pipes, little spoons, Bic lighters, and dirty, singed dollar bills and more propane bottles with butane lighters attached to the top.
“What the hell?” said Vivian as she slipped on some rubber gloves.
I was speechless as my friends went to work. Rae started packing up the kitchen and Viv disappeared into the bedroom.
I stared at the couch I had given to her. It had burn marks, some so deep the stuffing was sticking out.
I looked around at the photo collages she had created hanging everywhere on the walls. I walked over to a small photo of her and her brother and my husband taken in Washington in 2010. The kids were laughing and my husband was smiling at his children with a big grin as if to say, “Aren’t they perfect?” I took the picture off the wall and tossed it into a bag.
“Oh, no you don’t,” I said angrily, grabbing more frames filled with friends and family. “This is pretend. You didn’t care about us, so you don’t get to have these anymore.”
“You okay?” asked Rae.
She stared at the frame in my hand. “You’ll be fine.”
And so it went for the next four hours until we drove away, not daring to look back.
In July I found a six-month program in Hillcrest we could afford. The time away alarmed my daughter, but we talked and she realized that four years of drug use would not go away in 30 days. So we anxiously waited for the call of an open bed.
The phone rang almost a month after she stopped using.
After I packed her bags, we drove to the house, an older mansion near Balboa Park. We walked up the steps and she turned to me, holding back tears.
“I’m not going to be that girl who cries,” she said. “Let’s do this.” I knew at that moment that my strong-minded, happy daughter would one day come back to us. Not perfect, but scarred and finally grown up.
Five months into her stay, my daughter has gained 30 pounds. She attends countless meetings, has learned to cook meals for 20 women, and she has more than one friend for the first time in her life. She rides the bus to the beach, attends plays, and goes to yoga. She feeds the homeless, is in counseling, and recently found a job. She is planning to go into drug counseling in the future, but as her psychiatrist said, “That’s a long way down the road.”
One Sunday morning this summer she called and asked me to look in the paper for her photo. She had attended a resource fair for people dealing with and recovering from addiction and the U-T photographer had snapped a few photos of her. I drove to the store, grabbed a paper, and turned the front page to find a color shot of my daughter, her arms raised toward the heavens, her head thrown back in laughter. The expression on her face was filled with pure joy.
“I don’t care who sees it,” she told me. “Part of my recovery is being honest about who I am.”
Remembering this, I drove home with four copies of the paper. I cut out the photo with the headline that boldly announced, “Recovery Happens,” and placed it in her baby book.