We moved to NJ when Chris was in the 5th grade. Prior to this he was diagnosed with ADHD and had started taking Ritalin. In elementary school Chris was in the gifted and talented program and he was so far ahead in math he was kept inside during recess to be taught math lessons one-to-one. Our family are members of the Catholic Church, where I was a youth group leader for 11 years. Chris was involved in multiple youth groups and attended the diocesan “Summer in the City” retreats to do community service. In high school he was inducted into the national honor society, and graduated HS with Honors. He went on to Rutgers University and graduated with his BS degree in Administration of Justice with minors in Sociology and Geography. He was awarded certification in Criminology. While attending Rutgers he worked in the County Prosecutor’s office, which is ironic as he would later serve time in state prison. In college Chris became addicted to caffeine, cigarettes, and then alcohol. He just seemed prewired or genetically predisposed to addiction. Most teens and college kids will try alcohol or drugs and never become addicted but about 1/10 have that genetic predisposition to a substance use disorder. His biological father’s side, being of Native American (Cherokee) decent, was riddled with people living with substance use disorders and addiction. We have the Nature/Nurture story of addiction. My husband’s family and my family don’t seem to have this genetic make up. My husband adopted Chris at age 6 when we were married. Chris did well in college even though addiction started to rear its ugly head with regard to alcohol. I questioned if his drinking was normal college age shenanigans or something more. After college Chris was employed by the State Government, and as a bachelor bought a single family home. He was extremely smart, and was a successful individual. He had taken the LSAT exam and had aspirations of becoming a lawyer or criminologist.
In 2009 he stepped off of an uneven curb falling and breaking all three bones his left ankle (trimalleolar fracture). The tendon also needed to be reconnected as it had been ripped off of the bone when he fell. He spent a long time in the hospital and the surgeon told us that he had put more hardware in Chris’ ankle than he had ever put into an ankle repair before. Chris had to stay with us in our home while he healed. He was out of work for months on disability. He went from wheelchair, to walker, to cane, to opiate pill dependent, and then to opiate pill addict. He became addicted to his prescribed Percocet almost immediately, although I was unaware of its grip for a long time. He had three surgeries when all was said and done. When the doctors quit prescribing his pain killers without tapering down, he found them on the streets of Trenton where he worked. They cost $1 per milligram and as his tolerance kept increasing, he needed more and more milligrams just to feel well. Feeling well, meaning helping with the continued pain in the ankle as well as feeling well from the pain of opiate wIthdrawal. Withdrawal, if you have ever seen it let alone lived it, is the worst pain imaginable. It’s an indescribable feeling of pain that convinces you that you are dying. Pain like no other. The pills physically changed his brain making it very difficult, if not impossible, to make good decisions regarding using and/or needing these drugs. One of the symptoms of this disorder, is to seek and use the drug no matter how dire or detrimental the consequence of using it might be. The consequence of losing your loved ones, your children, your job, your home, of going to jail, and even of the possibility of losing your own life are not deterrents. This symptom often causes those afflicted to do things that are criminal and out of character to obtain the drug. Many end up with criminal charges for possession, DUI, stealing, robbery, and the like. The individual often ends up in jail or prison.
My son became tolerant to higher and higher milligrams of the pills. He needed 60-80 milligram pills multiple times a day. He would sign his entire paycheck over to the dealer waiting for him outside his office in Trenton on payday. He was later introduced to heroin. It packed a bigger punch for, get this, only $10 in comparison to $80 a pill. He thought, with some convincing by the dealer, that this was his way out of a growing negative financial situation. He was behind on his mortgage and his other bills. In his mind he said, “Yes, sure sell me heroin and teach me how to inject it.” Remember when in full fledged addiction that positive decision making skill is compromised, and to him this less expensive option seemed to make perfect sense. It took some time before I realized that Chris had a problem. It wasn’t until he didn’t show up for my sister’s funeral (they were extremely close) that I knew something was very very wrong. I helped him get into treatment which he reluctantly agreed to. Chris went to an inpatient rehab facility in Florida but relapsed not long after completing the program. He would try to stop using on his own, but the severe withdrawal symptoms made him feel as if he was actually dying and he would relapse. Later he said to me, “mom, if you were dying and you knew the anecdote to cure you was just down the street on the corner for $10 wouldn’t you get it and use it?!” My son ended up receiving a three year sentence to prison due to making a poor decision while under the influence. He spent three years in State prison for being with two other “friends” who went into an abandoned house to steal copper piping to sell to obtain drugs. He was outside being “the lookout”. The house was not abandoned. Before he was even found guilty of his crime he was fired from his State Government job. He was released from prison and he had a criminal record. He was now a felon. No white collar job, in his field of study would ever hire him. After he spent 3-4 months in prison he was released on the NJ ISP program. This is a drug court program that has many rules to follow. Every aspect of his recovery and life was closely monitored. The program has a high success rate and I truly believed this would be how Chris would finally get well. He got a job selling popcorn at the movie theater but was “let go” when they ran his background check. A very discouraging scenario for a successful college graduate, who had worked hard to get well and get back onto the right track. He was trying to do the right things. He finally found a job delivering pizza for 5 dollars an hour. He happily did this job and battled, yes battled, the constant cravings for the drugs. He was in recovery for two and a half years. He did relapse in the beginning of the program when he lost the movie theater job, but did well after the ISP program placed him on medicine assisted treatment. My hopes were high. He was doing all the right things. He was determined and he wanted nothing more than to be well. After 2 1/2 years he accepted a better higher paying job at a warehouse and left the pizzeria. He was very excited until he found out that a third shift highly physical job would be extremely grueling. He could hardly walk due to pain after the long 12 hour shifts of physical work. His body got stronger and he adapted to the hard physical work. He confided in me that he was really starting to enjoy the job. He was feeling more physically fit and more able to do the work. Just a day or so later he was called in to the bosses office and was let go. The boss said that the job was not a good fit. He was still within the first 90 days on the job. He was crushed, he was broken, he was jobless, he was depressed, and yep, he went out to relieve his pain like he so comfortably did years ago. Sadly, he relapsed. It only took one time and he was right back into the grips of the drug. Relapse, I learned is normal when recovering from this disease. Relapses would become further and further apart as his brain would heal and he would learn the coping skills needed for long term recovery. Chris fought so hard, he would always get back up and start again, over, and over, and over again. Rehabs, detox, counseling, acupuncture, 12 step programs, etc., he had been to them all. He was the strongest person I have ever known.
During this period without a job he went to trade school to learn to drive fork lifts. He graduated and was certified to drive 9 different types of fork lift equipment. He was extremely proud. He then found the perfect job doing computer work/logistics at a local cold freezer warehouse. A blue collar job that utilized his white collar skills. He was happy. He loved this job. His knowledge and talents were being utilized. He said “Mom, I finally feel like I have an identity again.” He was a man with purpose. I was so proud. You know, these poor individuals become their disease. They are thought of as nothing more than that stereotypical junkie, an addict, a loser, a person with no willpower, a person that should “just stop”, a person that “chooses” the drug over more important things, and unfortunately, in their own mind someone who is worthless. So worthless, so horrid, and so unworthy of love that even their own families disown them through “tough love” or what they refer to as “detaching with love”. With no one to turn to, and no one who cares, guess what many turn to to escape? Drugs. But my son had an identity again, he was useful, he was needed, he was smart, and he was well liked at his new job.
He was just about at the 3 month anniversary of his hire when he would be eligible for health benefits, life insurance, and 401k. Unfortunately, on payday December 17, 2016 (for reasons unknown) Chris came in from work and relapsed. I heard him collapse upstairs above where I was sitting. I ran upstairs and found him in a ball against the wall in his room. I pulled him onto his back and he was black/blue. I called 911, administered CPR and two doses of injectable Narcan right through his blue jeans and into his thigh. He was non responsive. He was in cardiac arrest with no pulse, and he was not breathing. I was hysterical. Police and EMTs arrived and gave more Narcan. No response. Paramedics arrived and after about 37 minutes from when I made that call they were able to restore his heartbeat. He was in a vegetative state in ICU for 6 days. He tested clean for drugs in the ER and again in the ICU. Unfortunately, he was pronounced brain dead on 12/23/16 two days before Christmas. His liver and two kidneys became a Christmas miracle and they/he saved three people’s lives on Christmas Day. He was only 35.
Neither myself, my family, or my son were bad people. I was a good mom, I did everything I could. I did nothing less than any mom would do if their child had lung cancer, liver disease, or another disease caused by an addiction. He died knowing that I loved him and that I tried to save him to the very end. So often this is a terminal illness, but it shouldn’t be. People with substance use disorder can and do recover, but many things need to change to provide all people with that opportunity. Due to the stigma surrounding this disorder the many people in recovery stay silent. It is sad because those success stories could be encouraging to others. Upon autopsy the medical examiner determined my son’s cause of death to be “adverse reaction to fentanyl”. Fentanyl isn’t tested for in most urine drug screenings. So that is why he tested drug free in the ER and in ICU. According to his girlfriend he had purchased what he thought was heroin.
Chris was so much more than his disease. He was so much more than a number or a statistic. Addiction was just one facet of who he was. One small facet of the jewel we called Chris. He should not be, or have been, defined by his disease. This is an epidemic of unbelievable proportion. This is a public health issue more than it is a public safety issue. Yes, our children commit crimes and need to be held accountable for those actions. They also need to be treated for their substance use disorder, not only to keep the public safe, but more importantly to keep them safe from disease and themselves. They ARE worth saving. They are good people with a horrible debilitating affliction.
My son was strong. He always said, “I can tell you one thing for certain, there isn’t a drug addict out there that wants, or chooses to be an addict.” “If the devil has anything to do with anything, it is this drug”. He helped many others get off drugs and couldn’t understand how he could help everyone else, but couldn’t help himself. He wanted to be well more than anything in this world, and God knows he tried. He worked hard at it. He wrote an email to a local top Dr. and addiction specialist, literally begging him to take his case even if just for an initial consult with diagnosis’s. This doctor, by law, was unable to take on any new patients. His practice was full. That email was dated 5 months prior to Chris’ death. My son would get angry at people that would say, “yes it becomes a non choice overtime, but you had a choice that first time you used”. He said, “I never made that first choice. I just came home from the hospital and followed the discharge instructions”. Addiction and the dangerous outcomes of using the Percocet were never discussed with him. He was never asked if he or anyone in his family had a predisposition to becoming addicted to substances. There was no medical help from the prescribing doctors to teach/help him wean off the drugs as his leg healed. There was no place to turn for help when the drugs were no longer needed for the injury and your body had become dependent and/or addicted. When the pills were no longer prescribed, he became extremely sick, so he turned to the streets to self medicate.
I wish there were a special place for those who break the law due to the symptoms of addiction. Places that are secure (for public safety) but with all the amenities of home, of community, with education, expert treatment, with help in job placement, with tons of love, respect, and medicine assisted treatment. Jail and punishment does not cure addiction, and treatment for addiction needs to be advocated. Abstinence based 12 step programs should not be the only answer. People with substance use disorders need to be treated individually. What works for one may not necessarily work for another. We need person centered care to treat addiction. Access to that care should be available to all when it is needed. Too many die, too many people don’t “get it”, they just don’t understand addiction. The stigma has to go. We need to speak out and educate others. My son was 1 of approximately 65,000 who lost their life to an accidental overdose in 2016. I have cried every day for the past 2 years. I think of my grief, the grief of my family, my extended family, my son’s friends and the people who knew and loved him… and I multiply that times 65,000. Then add another 150,000 or so since his death. That is a lot of hurt in this world. If just choosing to stop was all it took to be well the world would not be in the midst of this epidemic.
Chris was my baby, he was my son. I remember when he was in the 5th grade. We were all watching the news coverage on CNN. We saw that about 15,000 Iraqi’s and “only” about 300 Americans had been killed in Operation Dessert Storm. As the 300 names of the deceased scrolled across the screen, Chris cocked his head and looked at me. He said, “They act like it’s nothin’ but a thing, but everybody is somebody to somebody else.” No one should lose their identity to one facet of who they are. No one should be defined by their disease, disorder, disability, ethnicity, skin color, age, by who they love, or by any one facet that makes them the beautiful person God created. Every life matters. “Everybody is somebody to somebody else”. Chris was SOMEBODY. He was a big guy with a big personality. He was successful, a great friend, someone who was excellent with children, and someone who would come to your rescue at the drop of a dime. There are many sides and facets to each of us, that when put together, make us beautiful and brilliant. Chris did the best he could to beat his disease. He was one of the strongest people I have ever known. If “love and try” could have saved him he’d be here today. He said, “No one in their “right mind” would “choose” this life. No one. No one wanted to become addicted, and those that are, are fighting a constant battle”. Please join me in continuing to fight in memory of those that have lost the battle, and for those still waging the war. Together we can help those suffering, and we can “Stop the Stigma” by starting the conversation and by listening to the stories. “Everybody is somebody” and everyone has a story. How each person developed their substance use doesn’t matter. Everyone is somebody and everyone deserves access to medical treatment for whatever ails them.
Chris died on 12/23/16. He saved lives with his organs on Christmas Day. Since Christmas will forever be “Chris” “Miss” for me; I will conclude by saying. “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with each of us.”
With much love and empathy,
Brenda Stephens Deckman