Although my mother’s life was claimed in the opioid epidemic that plagues the United States, I desperately want the world to know that my mom was more than just a statistic. She was a fighter. A warrior. A saint. An angel. A friend. A confidant. A mother. A wife. A lover. A daughter.
Ohio is the state I lived in and grew up in. I imagine because of boredom, it’s become one of the leading states for opioid overdoses, and in 2017 Ohio ranked as the second-highest state for opioid deaths.
Her story is my story. Her addiction is my affliction. In order to better understand the untimely death of my mother in 2005, we’ll have to turn back time to where it all began.
When I was 12 years old, my mother started experiencing chronic pain in her back. Testing confirmed that she had an extra vertebra in her spine that was causing the pain. As a result, she was put on prescription pain pills. Like so many opioid addicts, her addiction started as a way to relieve pain under the care of physicians. However, a few years after the struggle began, she was feeling intense physical pain that was brought on more by the withdrawals and less by the original physical problem.
Before you jump to conclusions, it’s best that I make one thing clear. My mom was not the typical “party” mom. She was not a drunk. She was not belligerent. She was normal. Happy-go-lucky. Loved the world. She loved her kids more than life itself. My mother loved to cook and treated every single person with warmth and hospitality. As a child, every friend I brought to the house loved my mom and some even called her mom.
At her funeral, childhood friends who knew my mom before her addiction were completely shocked that my mother would do drugs because she simply didn’t seem like that type. However, addiction does not discriminate and it can truly happen to anyone. Our doors were always open and she was there for anyone that needed help at the drop of a dime. Perhaps the reason I carried so much guilt for years after she died is because I wasn’t there for her when she needed me most.
Fast-forward to the last three months of my mom’s life. For years, she had been getting pain pills, Percocet to be exact, from a lady with “chronic pain” that was using my mom for money and favors. When this woman moved to Georgia, my father and I were so relieved, thinking that our problems were over, but things just got worse. She had asked to use the bathroom at a couple friends’ houses of mine. I discovered later that she was stealing medication from people’s cabinets.
Lies. Betrayal. Deceit. It was a lot to handle for my 19-year old soul. I still defended her to the very end when friends were upset she stole from them.
She wanted to get clean. She really did. Rehab seemed like our best chance of getting her back. My dad helped to find and admit her to an inpatient rehab center about an hour away. Little did we know it would serve as a connection for a new hookup that took her life. About a week after she was there, we were invited to visit her. As it turned out, we were set up for an impromptu “intervention”.
When we arrived, Mom was absolutely glowing. She showed us around and talked about all the friends she had made. Counselors had my dad and myself tell my mom how her addiction negatively affected our lives. The first thing Mom said was that I was the mother and she was the daughter. Well, the counselors drilled her telling her how dysfunctional that was and that I needed to live my life and stop worrying about my mom all the time. It ended in flowing tears from everyone, especially my mother who felt so guilty for the stress she had caused.
A week later, she came home, but she wasn’t alone. She invited a girl she met from rehab to the house and they were supposed to be recovering together and going to meetings to help each other out. A few days after she was at the house, I knew something was off. I was in nursing school (clinical rotations) at the time and still trying to work a few days per week to make my car payments.
I had just picked up a shift at the nursing home on a Friday, when I learned that the woman my mom had staying with us just got $1000 dollars wired to her. I knew Mom was going to use that day. I called my father, bawling and telling him that I knew they were going to do drugs. Just like the counselors told me, Dad regurgitated the same crap. “Go to work. Don’t worry about Mom. I will take care of it. You need to live your own life and not worry about her.” I went to work that day. A decision I will forever regret.
When I got home at 10:30 PM, I asked Dad how Mom was doing. He said that he took care of everything and the lady would be gone in the morning. I had a test that Saturday morning at college so I went to bed. He failed to tell me much about her day. He failed to tell me that he had to dress her for bed because she was so messed up.
Failed to tell me that my cousin had seen Mom that day and reported that she was holding onto the walls, claiming that she had been drugged because she was ashamed to admit that she had relapsed. My cousin offered to take her to the emergency room and she refused. All of these things would have prompted me to go into her room and check on her - but I didn’t. I went to bed and got up early in the morning for school. Unfortunately for Mom, her morning never came.
While I was at school, that woman came down early in the morning to check on Mom, even though she normally sleeps in. She went into the room - and then quickly left our house. Dad went in to check on her and found her cold. Blue. Dead. I will never forget being notified. A sheriff approached me while I was sleeping on a couch right after I aced a test and was waiting on the rest of the class to finish. He came to me and said that my mom had died. I dropped to my knees and honestly, and embarrassingly, soaked myself. I don’t know what happened, it was like my body just gave up. I asked if it was from pain pills and he just nodded. I knew that it was.
The county coroner estimated her time of death was somewhere around 2:00 AM. It would be six weeks before we would have conclusive autopsy results which confirmed that morphine was the drug that took her life. As a nursing student, I would later learn that my mom had severe undiagnosed sleep apnea and that morphine causes respiratory depression. The level of morphine in her system was not in toxic amounts, it was the respiratory depression that ultimately took her life.
Acceptance is a strange thing. Truly, in those first moments after hearing the news, I had some moments of acceptance where I concluded that she was no longer suffering. No longer in pain. To be quite honest, while I was riding home in the cop car, I felt like God put me in his arms and held me letting me know that somehow, it would be ok. However, those were brief and it would take me several years before I finally forgave myself for not calling in to work that day and spending my time with her.
Funeral planning was actually a very therapeutic process that I went through. Anything that she loved, she didn’t love it just a little bit, but she loved it a lot. Every single detail of the funeral I wanted to be absolutely perfect. Her favorite football team was the San Francisco 49ers, so I matched her outfit and everything from the flowers to the coffin to match that color scheme.
I even matched my outfit to the outfit I had her in. There are endless possibilities when it comes to having a memorial created to honor the life of a loved one. I had a diamond made from a lock of my Mom’s hair. For me, being able to plan and make decisions regarding that memorial helped me cope with and process her death.
They say time heals all things. While there is some merit to this expression - it’s certainly not the truth. The hole left in my heart will never be healed. It’s been 14 years and if I think about her for any length of time, I could still spend the day shedding tears. However, about four years ago I made a conscious decision to choose happiness - no matter what.
Time did teach me how to control my emotions and that I could choose to dwell in the past where I feel depressed about losing her, or I can live in the present and make the most of every single second that I share with the ones I love.
As for me today, I choose to live in the moment and hold the ones close to me tightly as I love them hard. No time for anger and resentment either, let it all go. For the rest of my life, I will always wish that things had happened differently. I wish I had gone into her room and checked on her that night after work. But, the gift time has given me is the acceptance to move on with my life and not beat myself up over things that are simply out of human hands.
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