By David “R.J.” Vied
What I’m about to tell you is a personal encounter with the only thing deadlier than the drug: enabling. This article is from my personal experience. I have no college education; I’m no Harvard or Berkeley grad, nor do I hold any outstanding awards in this field. No, what I have on my resume are years of heartache and pain—a story of a private school altar boy turned homeless, hopeless heroin addict. This article is not a war story; you will not read the script of a Hollywood horror or action movie. My focus is to bring to light what many have a hard time talking about. Today, I am a couple years free from this insidious dis-ease, so please know, there is a solution to this nightmare—you may just not like it.
From Altar Boy to Party Animal
Growing up, I lived the life of a fortunate kid. Of course, there were issues in the home. Monday through Friday, my younger brother and I were dressed nice and sent to Catholic school, racking up nine years with perfect attendance. We did well in school, minus my brother damn near knocking himself out on the front steps and myself displacing a fellow classmate’s teeth with a Frisbee (sorry, Michael). I excelled in sports and obtained the Presidential Physical Fitness award almost every year. Then came the weekends.
No longer playing religious ambassadors, we joined the party. My parents made sure to keep the fun alive while having two boys, a new life and full-time careers. Sure, I’ve seen things a young kid should never see. I’ve seen alcoholism stick its ugly head in the front door from time to time. Bottom line: We were loved unconditionally and well taken care of.
A few years pass, and I’m a young adult and feel I can take this world by the horns. Long story short—and a few painful years later—a short-lived seven-day coma and more than 20 treatment facilities later, I found myself surrounded by people who loved me, yet I felt utterly and painfully alone. As a kid, I used to have this nightmare that I would be in a room filled with friends and family, yet no one could hear my voice, and no one could see my tears. In this dream, I have no recollection of the reasoning behind it, but the feeling was the same.
Long story short: I found myself a father of three, an unstable shell of inconsistencies. The once-athletic honor student, now I was the person mom was planning a funeral for. My father quit drinking some 20 years’ prior got to see his son slowly dying in front of him. A man I never witnessed cry, the strongest human on earth, was now a man ridden with anxiety, a three-time heart attack survivor who cringed when the phone rang past 9 p.m. I was lost, drowning in the idea of having to live another day. Finally, that all came to a halting stop.
Hitting Rock Bottom
The day was May 13, 2014. I was packing my bags and heading to what would be my—God willing—final treatment. I spent the hours prior screaming at my mother like she was my worst enemy and being shaken down by park rangers because my evil screams at my father scared the crowd eating their Sunday lunch, telling my idol, the man who changed his life for me, that I hated him and I wished he were dead. On this day, I will unknowingly tattoo their faces on my mind.
I packed up and was on my way to treatment, but before I was going into my routine facility tour, I made a pit stop. Driving on minimum gas. I found myself contemplating—no planning—the robbery of the century, or so I thought. As I hid my truck on a side street, I covered my face with a white T-shirt. The smell of this shirt was as if I borrowed it from a homeless man living in a dumpster. It was covered in blood from previous heroin use, and in some twisted way, it gave me comfort.
I walked to the front of a hotel. In my hand was a note that stated, “All the money in the safe. I have a gun, but don’t have to use it.”
I’m now a few steps away from the door when I see the cashier is no older than 18. She resembled my daughter, a tall, dirty blonde with a shy complex. Stopped in my tracks, I found whatever bit of clarity I had at the time. I turned around and left. My hands shaking and my body in so much pain, my mind was consumed with getting another fix, another encounter with the love of my life. Driving on fumes, I managed to make it where I somehow yet again convinced my daughters’ mom to let me stay the night. Sleeping outside in the cold garage, I found my way into her purse, stole her credit card and flew to the ATM. Of course, I put her card back into her purse because, I mean, I’m a good guy. What happened next is when I stepped out and God stepped in.
Falling to my Knees
After meeting my favorite drug dealer, I made sure to keep my promise and head off to treatment. I parked my truck at a local college rec center, proceeded to grab my pen and paper, and I began to write my goodbye letter. The feeling I had while writing those words are impossible to describe. Unless you were ever in a place when the greatest scenario was finally dying and no longer having to hurt the people you love, then I can’t describe it. I was finally about to not only set myself free but also everyone around me. I finished my last goodbye letter, made up my final batch of death and proceeded with the act.
I woke up in a familiar place. When I went out from the heroin, a group of nurses could hear my exhaust blaring. My heavy foot was my last cry for help. I was in the nurse’s station at a treatment center that I had “graduated” from several times before. My initial feeling was of anger and rage. The fact I was alive made me hate God that much more. But, I was alive. I was diagnosed with hepatitis C and was told my liver was shot. I was given a bed in the facility and one option: live another day or leave and start this hell all over.
That night, I was in my room, and I did something strange. I fell on my knees, filled with desperation, and I asked God why I was alive. Why didn’t he even want me? I begged for a way out. The next morning, I was confronted by staff and my therapist. I was given the option of a lifetime. They had found a facility in South Florida that was willing to help me with my trauma. My eyes filled with tears, and my legs gave out. I again hit my knees in front of everyone and thanked that same higher power I met the night before. To this day, I have not found a reason to go back to a drink or a drug.
My Breaking Point
Now that I’ve given you a little back story I’d like to tell you exactly which part of all this was the breaking point, which part I had to hear, comprehend and accept in order for me to make lucky No. 23 my last treatment.
Throughout my active use, nothing scared me. A gun to my head or a verbal death threat had zero influence on me. Either did losing all my belongings and living out of a trash bag. A lot of people think that just because you may die from using, that will somehow have an effect on one’s thinking. Honestly, the only care, the only love of my life, was that next high. If you’ve ever wondered why your child yells and screams at you but treats his dealers like they’re gold? Well, to be honest, they are gold. They hold the only possible thing that will encourage an addict to live 20 more minutes.
A lot of times, the drug itself is not the high. For me, when I was withdrawing and I received a text from a dealer letting me know they had heroin or pain meds, I immediately no longer felt sick. Just the simple thought of using was enough for this disease to allow me comfort. Alcohol and substance use disorder is the only disease that tells you that you don’t have a disease.
Going back to that day when I was screaming at mom and dad, contemplating armed robbery, and then committing credit card fraud, I heard one thing that stuck. I heard a word that was so painful that to this day it still hurts. For the first time in my life I heard the word “No!”
No, you cannot live here anymore. No, you cannot have any money. No, we do love you, but we hate this disease. To an addict, this word is the hammer on the thumb, the checkered flag at the end of a gruesome race. For so long, whether it was my partner, parents or friends, I always had a manipulation plan up my sleeve to get what I needed. If I stole, then I would be quickly forgiven by using the disease card. As an addict in active addiction, please understand that nothing or nobody matters. Yes, we love you. Yes, we would love things to be different. No, we do not like living like this.
Becoming a Father, not a Friend
I am a father of four amazing kids. My oldest, Hannah, is 13 going on 25. She is tall, smart and beautiful. She is also the child of an alcoholic and heroin addict. She didn’t get to hear dad read her bedtime stories, take walks to the park or go on father-daughter trips. No, she got to see a man struggling to keep his life together, a man who was either too drunk or sick to leave the house. I remember days spent when it was 78 and sunny, and all she wanted to do was go outside and play with Daddy. The two short days we would spend together, we never left the couch.
“Daddy, the movie is over. Can we go play now?” she would ask.
“No, sweetie. Play another movie. I don’t feel good.
“OK, Dad. Maybe next time.”
Or I would be drunk or using, and I was her best friend, driving her around in the front seat. Unable to look over the dash, she would cry as I drove like a madman, thinking I was being cool. Either way, I was never really there for her. I didn’t know how to be a father, only a drunk friend.
Today, we have an incredible relationship. She tells me she is proud of me, that she wants to come spend summers with me and have her daddy back. Today, I get to do that because today I am a sober father.
Loving an Addict
Every day I speak to at least two to three parents who have children in active addiction. Most times, I hear the same story. The crying voice I hear through my phone is of desperation. If only their child had that same desperation. To tell someone that they need to detach from their child is one of the most difficult tasks of my job. Having said that, I can only offer what I know.
What I know is that it wasn’t until the day I heard, “No,” the day my parents and friends said, “No more.” Until then, I always had a lifeline to hold onto. Once that line was cut, I hit my bottom. Not everyone needs to hit bottom. That’s a false statement made that I feel is dangerous. Having said that, there is no easy way to determine when someone is truly ready and willing to get clean. I do know they will prolong as far as the enabler will allow. I know this sounds harsh and cruel, but it’s what needs to be said.
They say detach with love, work your own program. Most times, the family members are sicker than the addict—and justifiably so: the sleepless nights, the anxiety, the endless tears. The traumas are endless, and only bring more pain each time. My advice—and again, I’m no doctor, just a person in long-term sobriety that lived it—if you’re a parent of someone in active addiction, you need to take a step back and ask yourself how is your child, husband, wife affecting your life? Has your life become as chaotic as theirs? Are you losing sleep at night and losing time at work? Think about it. Is this lifestyle any different than someone actively using drugs and alcohol? No, it’s not
Just like your loved one in active addiction, you need to have a desire to want a better way of life. Of course, you want that for your child. Who doesn’t? There’s only so much you can do without trying to play God. Your loved one must want to seek help. As long as you’re their lifeline, things will only get worse. Please have faith and hope that your loved one will find their way.
The day my father told me to leave was the hardest thing I had to stomach. Today I thank that man for that day, and I give my sobriety to him. He saved my life that day. By saying no, my parents saved my life. There are many programs out there for families affected by addiction. Support groups and club houses. There are approximately 28 million Americans addicted to a drink or drug. Times that number by 5, and that is the amount of people affected by it.
You’re not alone. You are strong enough. Who would have thought the best thing you could ever do for your child would be to say, “No. Goodbye. Get help, and we will be here after.” It’s hard to stomach. It really is. But who knows what my tombstone would have said if mom and dad kept feeding my disease.
David “R.J.” Vied is director of public relations at Reliance Treatment Center.