(Editor’s Note: The following was written by the mother of Brian Christ, who died of a heroin overdose at home in 2004. Brian’s death changed the lives of many, especially his parents, Lee Ann and Tony Christ, and sisters Katelyn and Ashley. We share this story not to scare, although we are fine if that’s the impact it has on young minds and families, but to inform and remind. An event in Brian’s honor, Brian’s Christmas Songbook, is being held at the Ocean City Performing Arts Center on Saturday, Dec. 15 to influence young children to resist the temptation of drugs. The event will feature classic and contemporary holiday songs, storytelling, vocals by Melissa Alesi and Lauren Glick and others and performances by the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra. Tickets for the 4 p.m. performance are $10 each and can be purchased at the performing arts center box office or online at www.ticketmaster.com.)
by Lee Ann Christ
Special To The Dispatch
I talk about my son Brian not to keep his memory alive, because his memory is in my heart forever and right behind almost every thought I have. So it is not to keep Brian’s memory alive that I write this, but to help keep other children alive and to help support those who have lost children to addiction by sharing his story and my faith journey. We had 10 months dealing with our son’s addiction. He died at home sitting at his computer from an accidental heroin overdose on Dec. 15, 2004. I will tell you about our son from my perspective as his mother.
Brian was born on Sept. 16, 1982. Here I have a memory: I was at work on the 3 to 11 shift the December evening I found out I was pregnant with Brian. It was one and a half years since Tony and I had married. My hand was glued to my stomach most of the evening and I had exclaimed one too many times that I just didn’t feel well. My fellow nurses were putting the picture altogether and eagerly approached me with what I thought was an off-the-wall suggestion: to take a specimen to the lab. We finished administering meds and treatments, passing each other with expectant grins on our faces. Nearing the end of the shift, the call came up that I was pregnant. Screeches of joy and laughter and sisterly hugs followed from my workmates, and I was ecstatically speechless.
I drove home slowly on the cold, clear, wintery night. Sliver sparkles of moon low in the sky flickered through the blowing tree limbs. The stars seemed to lead me home: “the lamps of the angels”. It was not the usual exhausting, distressing ride home after a long shift in the hospital that I normally experienced. It was a peaceful glide in which I was not aware of any fatigue or discomfort, only aware of a new life. Tony was out of town for a few days and I waited until I got home to call him as I wanted to let it fully permeate my mind before giving him the good news. He could not contain his love and excitement. It rushed with his voice through the phone line. We were to be parents and we were tremendously happy. The weeks following, I would go to bed and lay with my hand again on my abdomen, and the life inside would connect me to a thrill of expectancy and the unknown. He who had been a twinkle in God’s eye was now with me, and that would be my first remembrance of Brian.
Brian grew up a carefree, sweet, fun-loving child surrounded by both sets of grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and eventually his two sisters, Katelyn and Ashley joined the family. As a toddler I carried him around on my hip all over the place and he was forever pointing at things in wonder. He said things that made us laugh, and sometimes amazed us with his command of language and concepts at an early age. Bright from the beginning, people listened to him when he talked. He drew others to him. As a family we had fun together, especially in Ocean City, where Tony’s parents had property, and also when we would take a trip to Disney World. There we were all present, with no other worries, to plan and relate and enjoy each other.
We were busy with work, volunteering, sports, and other activities with the three kids. As with all families, there were times of harmony and times of discord between Tony and me, as we were both headstrong. We tried to work on conflict quickly and let the kids know we loved each other after a dispute and that we loved them. In retrospect, making the marriage the priority and then the kids would’ve been best. We sometimes did the opposite. Still, we were a close family with extended family ties and support. We did our best.
Brian was bright, funny, and witty to the point of sarcasm when older — curious and loved by all. He lit up a room. He accomplished things easily even as a little child and moved effortlessly from one activity to another. He had lifelong friends that he met in kindergarten that stood by his side in his time of trouble. He wrestled in high school like his dad, but chose Tae Kwon Do as his main sport and excelled at it, eventually attaining his black belt. Starting as a Cub Scout he made his way to Eagle Scout. After school he worked at Radio Shack and also worked a summer for Congressman Tom Davis, from Northern Virginia. From that he got an invitation to the Naval Academy, but realized it wasn’t for him. He seemed very motivated, focused, and in control. Did he have so many expectations from everyone who knew him that he couldn’t live up to them all? This is the kind of question you ask. He liked to please people and went out of his way to help others. He had just the right thing to say to his grandmothers and grandfathers to make them proud. He helped set up his aunt’s computer in her kindergarten class. He helped his sisters with homework when he wasn’t practical-joking them. He didn’t balk at chores too much. All along he was the “Golden Child.”
Did all the attention and praise lead him to have a false sense of what he could accomplish on his own? When you lose a child, your thoughts are wrought with false guilt. True guilt would have been to hand him the drugs. We tearfully and honestly brought up concerns of being too tough on him or not good enough parents to him at a session with the psychiatrist at the treatment center he checked into. His sister, Ashley, was also present. Brian turned to us and said emphatically, “It’s not your fault.” However, until you come to the realization that you are not in control of another’s choices and just who are you to think you have the power to make another person make bad choices, you don’t rest easy with not being at fault.
How Could This Happen?
After he died, I convinced myself I had let him be on his own too much. Because he was so capable and dependable, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and didn’t check in with him as much as I should have. I thought I didn’t give strict boundaries and that I left too much of his religious upbringing to Sunday School at the Orthodox Church or to his Catholic High School, or that I didn’t always demonstrate the best example of maturity to him. These things pound your mind. Tony convinced himself he was too hard on Brian, expecting too much athletically, academically and by needing too much to impart a lasting appreciation on him of what his grandfather had accomplished as an immigrant to this country.
As a teen, Brian didn’t want to work at the establishment his grandfather had built in Ocean City, although he did appreciate the hard work of his grandfather and all his relatives. He had already worked there when he was 12 years old — he had been there, done that. The summer he was to work there at age 15 was the only time we really saw defiance in him, an angriness that was so uncharacteristic. He refused to go to work after it had been arranged. Tony made him go anyway, but the manager released him from the commitment. It was only for a few weeks, but was a commitment. His sister found cigarettes in his backpack that same week. He told us he wanted to fit in while walking on the Boardwalk. We talked with him about his worth, fitting in, friendships and commitments and had him attend a smoking cessation class when we returned home. He seemed to us at that time very sensitive and a little insecure and at the age where you really don’t know where you fit. That was a red flag we missed at age 15.
As we saw in treatment-center records after he died, that defiant period, which would soon pass and lead to a much more confident and social Brian who got superior grades, had great friendships, participated in family life with us, and had big dreams for the future, was the very period he started smoking pot and doing ecstasy and alcohol. He stopped it for a while and pulled it together as he entered his junior year of high school, but that was the introduction to drugs. Except for tobacco, we didn’t know about or find any of these. He was smart and could cover his tracks.
Our experience with addiction started in February of 2004 when Brian, then 21, called his dad from college and told him he was addicted to heroin. He asked for our help. We later found out that four months before, in late October 2003, he had started snorting heroin and had been injecting it since January 2004. In September of 2003 he came home and told us he had withdrawn from the first semester of his fourth year at University of Virginia. Back in 2000, he had been admitted to many schools, but narrowed it down to Carnegie Mellon and Virginia; he chose UVA. The climate was better, he thought, and the girls were pretty there, he said. He met a nice girl and they started dating seriously for the next three years. It was the first dating relationship for both. His classes were going well and all seemed good. The reason Brian gave us for taking a break from school was the break-up with his girlfriend that summer and that he needed a break from the intense studies. He seemed down and we asked if he would see a counselor, but he refused. His mood picked up around the end of October 2003, and he went on to return to school in January for the second semester.
For the three-and-a-half years prior to his withdrawal, while he was at college and home during the summers, we didn’t see typical signs of drug use: his grades were good in Electrical Engineering, he ran a business part-time called University Painters, he had many friends, and he communicated with us, usually on Sundays, telling us about his week and asking about our week. Cell phones and email were new back then, making us rely on less frequent means of getting in touch. We were not naive enough to think he had not drank beer or tried pot by this time in his life, but had no reason to believe it was more than trying it out or that he had a problem. He even stated he didn’t like pot and that gave me a false sense of relief.
We would find out two years after he died when we obtained records from the UVA student clinic that he had an incident leading to a counselor visit. At the visit, we saw in the notes, he admitted to heavy drinking in the summer before college and the ability to “hold” his alcohol, getting a buzz after six to eight beers, where someone else would be reeling. To us, this was a big red flag of someone prone to addiction, not to the school.
He was assigned mandatory counseling, which the records show he never attended, and there was no follow-up visit. We were not notified even though the infraction took place only two hours after he turned 18, two weeks after he arrived at school. We would have had the chance to intervene, pull him out of school if necessary, and assess what was going on with him, had we been told. Brian didn’t tell us either. The other notes in his record were for sore throats, a nicotine patch, fevers, and then, four years later, the final note in January 2004 said, “heroin addict”. They referred him to the University of Virginia Hospital for an abscess in his arm from shooting up. There was still no call from the university, but Brian did call us.
Our Initial Coping
We were numb when he arrived at the house. I probably hadn’t said the word heroin three times in my life. I immediately knew this was too big for us and called out to God for help. Brian had a plan to go back to school and start a four-day-a-week outpatient clinic with counseling. We advised against it, but had no authority because of his age. He agreed to go to a local hospital for evaluation for their treatment program in this area first, but that didn’t work out. A psychiatrist who was a family friend said to go with his plan. We very reluctantly went with him to Charlottesville to sign him up at the Pantops Clinic. The psychiatrist had to remind him she was the doctor, not him, as he was asking for Buprenorphine, which stops the person from feeling the high of heroin. It was just starting to be used as treatment and I am unclear whether she ordered it for him or not. She allowed us to stay in the room even though, at 21, we had no legal right to be there.
We left later that night with his car, after going shopping with him for supplies and food, and with an overwhelming sense of doom. His plan didn’t work out. The next day when he didn’t answer his phone, we panicked. Thinking maybe he would be a better negotiator with Brian, we sent his uncle down to UVA to check on him. He discovered Brian in a stupor after getting methadone. Brian agreed to come back to Northern Virginia and, after many frantic calls to many people, Tony’s friend from college, now a counselor, told us to take him to Hazelden in Minnesota. They had a bed and he agreed to go the next morning. I drove with a friend to UVA to retrieve his ID and other papers he needed to take with him, and in doing so found an article on his printer saying, “How to Get Off Heroin Yourself”. My heart was sinking, but I was running on adrenaline and could only think about the task at hand: getting him help. At that age they think they can handle everything by themselves. He and Tony left on a plane the next day, and Tony left him there for his 30-day program.
Tony, Ashley, 15, and I went two weeks later to Minnesota to the family program at Hazelden. We saw Brian only at a specified time for a half-hour of visiting, and again for the nightly motivational speaker. His favorite was a dynamic 85-year-old woman, a recovering heroin addict of some 45 years. We attended a week of group meetings, classes, and therapy. The temperature in Minnesota was less than I’ve ever experienced but even still, sometimes, when one of the group sessions would break and before the next would begin, I would venture out for a very brisk walk. Needing to escape the intensity of the group, and my own feelings and thoughts, I would head, shivering and coatless, hands in pockets, down toward the lake in sub-zero weather. I came to find that in these walks and in countless others since then I would find a deep sense of serenity. The walks were not for exercise, but for isolating and considering my thoughts and feelings for clarity of mind; but foremost they offered a time of meditation for my soul and a time for prayer. I went to bed each night there with a pulling in the apex of my stomach, so strong that it prevented any real sleep. I awoke with the same knotted, twisted feeling in the morning. The facility had a large pool which Eric Clapton had donated. Tony, Ashley, and I sought the solace of a nightly dip each night before bed, which also had a serene and calming effect. The three of us only saw each other in passing through the day’s schedule, and at meal time, where the addicts were ravenous from physical need and regaining an appetite, we others ravenous from the expenditure of what seemed like all our emotional, mental, and physical resources. We needed to fill ourselves back up, spiritually. Fifteen-year-old Ashley held up very well for all of this and touched a lot of souls in those meetings with her honesty and pain.
On the fifth morning, the day we left, I woke up with no angst, a little apprehension, but for the most part unexpected calm. That pull in my gut wasn’t there. That “gut wrenching” had sucked out the negative, foreboding, hopeless feelings I came with, and I had begun to learn to replace them with the positive—the ultimate positive, the Lord. Since then, with prayer and thanksgiving to Christ, I have been able to get through these hard times, slipping sometimes, but never falling. You fill up on the positive, leaving little room for the negative.
That lake in Minnesota I visited was mentioned in a radio show I heard late one night. It was a crackling, sputtering broadcast coming through from somewhere out West, as I rode back through the Blue Ridge foothills. I was returning from visiting our daughter Katelyn, who was in college. The man was talking about his experience at Hazelden and how it had changed his life. As a recovering addict, he now witnessed to others around the country. He said he was a Cherokee Indian and, I think, also a Christian. He spoke about his heritage and one night having had a vision over the lake. His ancestors in a large gathering appeared through a red horizon, telling him life would be okay.
I couldn’t believe I was hearing someone talk about the place where I had felt so at peace in all the chaos. I wrote down his story on napkins I had in the car, and sent it to Brian. We wanted to share whatever we could that would help him see his way out. We sent letters and I sent him some of the Psalms. When I went through Brian’s things, I found all the letters and encouraging things we had sent, in a place where he had more personal items. It made me joyful that these mattered to him enough to save. I know Brian walked along the lake also. At a low point in the program, he said he had decided to leave and started walking in the frigid cold out to a main road, passing that lake. He said the cold made him turn back. The alternative to leaving was coldness and emptiness. He turned back to recovery. The guys all chased him down as well. They walked back together to the hope that they had found.
Fathers, we found out while there, want to kill the addiction, and moms want to fix it. You can’t do either. The counselor at the Family Week at Hazelden told us, “Parents, it is not your fault. You are a piece of the pie in their lives. There are many outside influences with great pull.” This battle needs to be fought with reinforcements. It is a spiritual battle. The addict needs help, as do the parents and/or loved ones. The intense week of 9–5 therapy sessions with other family members and also with the addicts was life changing and eye opening. We left with hope, but with all of us in a kind of fog about what to do next. We quickly mobilized once back home. They advised Brian that the 30 days and even the two extra weeks he did on his own there were not enough to rid his body and mind of the drug. It embeds in the cells and creates a memory — a black crow on your shoulder pecking constantly to get your attention.
While he was still at the facility, we went into hyper drive to find a place for him to go afterwards. Tony and I found a place: I drove on a snowy March day up to Patterson, NJ, to a place called Straight and Narrow. Tony’s older friend had a son, then in his 50s, who went there for a heroin addiction when he was in his early 20s. He stayed for two years and came out clean and sober and able to make it in the world. It was right in the middle of the city where the residents could walk out the door and score drugs in a minute, but what was offered inside the blue concrete building evidently helped them not to do that. Brian was not interested. At 22 he had a lot of pride. His plan was to work as an electrician’s apprentice and go to Narcotics Anonymous meetings. The man who had gone to Straight and Narrow became his sponsor.
He lived at his grandmother’s for a while in her basement, but moved back in with us. We knew this was not the best thing for him. Our hands were tied because of his age. We could have kicked him out, but he was compliant. He took the home drug tests we had and he walked around barefoot, with shorts and short sleeves so we could see needle marks. The addicts manipulate and will do anything for the drug. It speaks for them. We had to be vigilant, but parents are not the best at that.
He stopped the N.A. because it was cult like, he said. His friends said they watched out for Brian not to drink beer when they were out, as it would lead right back to his drug of choice, but they could not hold him to anything really. About friends, we were advised by a member of Tony’s pool team from Uzbekistan, where 30% of the youth are heroin addicts, to “kill” all his friends—meaning, of course, he needed to stay away from triggers, or those who enable.In some of his papers after he died, I found a letter that Brian wrote to a counselor. It illustrates a little of what he was going through in his mind:
I’m just writing to say Hi and let you know that things are going well so far. I think I’m at about 50 days clean as of yesterday. Things have been going well for the most part at home . . . nothing too bad. I am still planning on leaving and getting into a sober house somewhere (probably not until June, because of legal obligations).
I’ve had some troubles the first week or so making myself get to AA/NA meetings. I’ve only been to a couple. Last night I went to a very good one, and I’m going to try to hit one Monday through Friday this week. Yet aside from a few cravings (mainly for alcohol more than anything else surprisingly), I haven’t felt much of an urge to use. I know however that I can’t get overly confident and slip up, so I’m just doing day by day.
Already, I’ve heard of a handful of Hazelden friends who’ve relapsed and aren’t contacting anyone . . . so it goes. . . . I hope they don’t crash and burn.
I’ve seen some of my friends and ran into a good friend of mine who I haven’t seen in about a year who has been sober since January 1st and going to AA, just out of the blue. I found out another one of my friends overdosed and died while I was in rehab. Two weeks after I left she was found in her apartment. I was actually quite close to her so it was very tough. It just reinforces the fact that I can’t go back or I will end up as worm-food (pardon the crudeness).
There is a DVD that I showed my parents called “The Corner”. I highly recommend watching it and it has a base in recovery. It is an HBO special series of “docu-dramas” (six one hour episodes), about real people from the streets of Baltimore. It deals mainly with heroin addiction, recovery, and the ill fate that awaits those who don’t try to get help for themselves. I’ll warn you it is a bit graphic, but I think it really shows how anyone can fall from grace on drugs and the harsh reality of trying to quit.
Hope Along The Way
There was a priest who spoke for about four hours with Brian a few months before he died. Father Stone’s earlier history of drug addiction and his life of crime came to an end in a miraculous way, and he eventually became a Catholic priest. We had been given his story by Ted Flynn when Tony reached out to him for help. The story was on tape. I told Tony after hearing it that we had to get him to speak to Brian. Tony called Ted, and Father Stone, after talking to Ted, agreed to come speak to Brian and us. One thing he said was that the trigger to use can be as simple as looking at a certain photograph, and the urge only lasts a few minutes. If you can get through it, you can make it past without a relapse. When you have emptied yourself of the drug, you have to fill up with other healthy, positive behaviors and strategies. The addict has a hole in his soul and tries to fill it with his drug of choice. Fr. Stone graciously opened up to Brian, and I believe it helped Brian’s soul, even though his body succumbed to his addiction. Years later at a seminar that Ted and Maureen Flynn were holding in Pennsylvania, at Maureen’s urging, I spoke to Fr. Stone, who was telling his story there. I went up to him at the break and thought he was going to tell me something miraculous that had happened to him, as Maureen had said, “Be sure to ask him what happened.” As he spoke, I realized he had a word for me. He felt a reason, ten years after, to tell me that when speaking to him, Brian had given his life confession, and Fr. Stone was assured that it was sincere and gave him absolution. It was a mother’s deepest desire being presented to me. It was an answer from Heaven to my prayers. I burst into tears of joy and thanked him for letting me know. That was a bit of a miracle for me.
Father Stone was able to reach Brian where others had not. He had been where Brian was. Seeking out someone who has made it and seeing what they did to get through and stay clean is beneficial. They have the experience the addict can relate to, and the hope they so badly need. Detoxification, treatment and these positive role models help build skills to overcome and persevere.
After Brian quit N.A., we told him that to live with us, he had to continue working on getting clean and sober. He found a Christian counselor. Part of that therapy was to see a psychiatrist who put him on Zoloft for depression in September of 2004. Zoloft has issues, as well.
In recovery, Brian was attending GMU, with plans to continue his fourth year at UVA in the winter. He was taking two electrical engineering courses. He had lost his license for a year the December before, so I drove him to class. One of the hardest things was to know that he was well aware of the dangerous path he had chosen and that it weighed heavily on him. He felt shame, it was obvious. He couldn’t really open up to us much about his experiences or his feelings, but he would every once in a while on those car trips to his classes. He said he thought he had ADHD. We had never considered that about him. He said his mind raced all the time and the heroin slowed it down and let him feel more normal. He self-medicated.
We didn’t shame him more. At Hazelden they had us all write a letter to Brian about our lost dreams for him. We said we were sorry things weren’t going the way we thought they would, that our dreams for him were changed, but, as long as he was clean and sober and healthy, we would support whatever he decided to do with his life. And our love for him was always there.
Another thing he told me a week before he died was about his sister’s upcoming wisdom teeth extraction. He stressed not to let them give her Oxycontin, that that had been his first taste of heroin. When he got his wisdom teeth out at age 19, the doctor handed him the prescription for Oxycontin. It was a new drug back then. I questioned why he needed a narcotic and why the doctor was handing him the prescription. The doctor replied, “He’s an adult.” Parents beware.
I remember the dinner I made the night before Brian died: pork chops, mashed potatoes, cabbage with butter sauce, cucumber salad, and biscuits. We ate dinner (Ashley was at a friend’s house) and then Tony went to his pool-team practice. Brian was supposed to go, but didn’t want to practice that night. Tony asked him to set up the Christmas tree in the house so we could decorate and he said he would. Brian and I were in the kitchen near the stove as I was getting ready to go pick up Ashley. I exclaimed to him, “Brian I love you, but God loves you more.” He nodded and seemed to take it in, and we discussed religious things for a bit. When I left the house, it was the last time I saw him alive. Those words stay with me. Katelyn asked Brian to go get ice cream, but he turned her down. He had other plans for that night that none of us knew about. He was home and in his room by 11 p.m. I called through the door, “Goodnight, I love you.” He answered back. We didn’t just bust in and check on him. We would knock, but that night we didn’t knock to go in and talk.
I got home the next morning from taking Ashley to school. I will never forget it was 8:10 a.m. Katelyn came running out to the carport screaming, “Something’s wrong with Brian.” I flew into the house and down the steps and found Tony in Brian’s room in shock and Brian sitting at his computer with his head slumped forward. I screamed that we needed to get him on the floor and somehow we did. I started C.P.R. in between screams to God and Tony helped alternating compressions and breaths with me. Katelyn frantically called 911. We were in shock when the paramedics arrived. I can’t remember if Brian was blue; I think he was warm. I am a nurse and I never had to do C.P.R. until then, on my precious son. We thought they said he had a pulse when they took him out the front door, but they didn’t. We followed in the car to Fairfax Hospital E.R. and were brought to the E.R. where they were working on him. I stood at his feet holding on to his foot, the only thing I could get to. They shocked him over and over. Katelyn and Tony were pale and looking on in disbelief and horror as they sat near him. When the doctors and nurses stopped and informed us he was gone, we crowed together and fell up against the wall weeping. My baby, by child, my son was gone. I was in pure agony. We all were.
Brian told me he prayed but wasn’t sure if God heard his prayers. I assured him he did. We don’t know why some make it and some don’t. My belief and understanding says that God does not cause harm and destruction, but can allow things to transpire. We can’t understand why, at least not in our present state of being. I have no doubt, though, that God heard my screams that morning in December as they flew from earth to Heaven. In Him, I have the ultimate hope and promise, that I will see Brian again. Since Brian has been gone I have been led to many experiences where I felt compelled to tell Brian’s story, and have encountered, so many of those times, someone who has a child who is addicted, or has just lost a child. To the first I try to guide them to help, and to the second to give comfort where God has comforted me. Other times it was me who was to be comforted.
God Uses Us To Comfort Each Other
It was in February, two months after Brian died. I was alone and decided to head out on a Saturday afternoon on Va. Rte. 7 West, and attempt to work my way through the outlets out that way: a diversion on a cold and dreary day in what could sometimes feel like a cold and dreary life, I had found out in the worst way. I got a mile past Tyson’s Corner and spied a big snowy field where my daughter had played soccer in the fall. Without hesitation or thought, I turned right, down the road to the field that was adjacent to a school, gladly abandoning the outlet idea.
The parking lot was deserted. It was cold and windy but, welcoming the solitude, I parked, got out, and began to walk. I walked quickly, hoping each step would take me somewhere I needed to go. I couldn’t divert my grief with ordinary things that day; I couldn’t release it out of my body with the fast pace I walked. Truth is, I wanted to run in that field and never stop running. The tears welled up in my eyes and soon flowed in warm paths down the cold skin on my cheeks. I let them flow. As I circled the lot a third or fourth time, to my right and down in the far parking lot, I suddenly noticed an older man walking. I wasn’t alarmed, just surprised to see someone else out in the snow and slush. I pulled myself up emotionally and became more alert and aware of my surroundings.
Our paths finally crossed and we slowed to greet each other. He had a friendly face and was in his 70s. We spoke of the snow on the ground being pretty and he said he liked it but wasn’t used to it in Pakistan where he lived. He was visiting his son, for whom he planned to help find a wife while he was here. I spoke of Brian’s best friend whose family was from Pakistan and all the fun times we had with them. He invited me to come and visit him there any time with my family. He was a magistrate and would love to show us around. We were warming up to be fast friends on that cold winter day. “Do you have a piece of paper?” he asked, on which he would write down his name, address, and phone number. I felt at ease and strangely curious about this encounter, so going to my car and opening it for pen and paper did not seem out of the question to me. As he was writing and standing within arm’s reach, he asked startlingly, “How is your son?”
That led from casual conversation into familiarity. Trusting that transition, I pulled down the sun visor in the car and reached for an envelope that secured pictures of Brian. With a shaky voice I replied, “He died two months ago, of a drug overdose.” I began explaining some of the situation. He listened with such care, and then reached with both hands toward me, cupping my face in them and wiping away the tears with his thumbs. He said quietly, “A son is a very special and important thing. I will pray for you and for his soul. Don’t worry, he’ll be okay.” He hugged me like a grandfather would, and I felt such a sense of belonging and comfort from a total stranger. I watched him as he turned to wave and walked toward some nearby houses, and wondered if he would not just disappear as he went up that road. I really thought I had met up with an angel that day.
I’m appreciative to have been touched by people like this and hope I have helped others in return. If we see someone down and out or needy in someway, who is to help them? You are. I am. When? When we have more resources, or more people with us? We are to help right then and there, in the here and now. When Brian was leaving the treatment center, he did so by himself so that he could take a few days to check out some halfway houses in Minneapolis. He would take the train back to D.C. He told us when he got home that one night he was having the urge to use and was walking the cold and windy city streets not knowing where to head. We being home were beside ourselves with fear of his relapsing and felt powerless to do anything.
A man and a woman approached him and asked if he could use an extra ticket to the performance nearby of Romeo and Juliet. He gladly took it and enjoyed the performance—avoiding a relapse. I found the ticket stub in his N.A. book from the center after he died when going through his things. I wept when I saw it, thinking, “Were those ordinary folks or angels?” I am thankful to that couple who went out of their way to comfort my son. That is my mission now: to comfort anyone that I encounter in need.
In my recovery, I often seek out solitude. A friend took me to St. Benedict Monastery in Bristow, Va., in the spring after Brian died. It had a garden, a grotto for venerating Mary, a small chapel, and a labyrinth inside the garden area near some old silos that were being restored with stained glass. I found a lot of healing peace there that day, just being and praying. Years later, I felt the urge to go back. I did and found that the gardens had expanded and the silos were complete. There was now a memorial garden for those who had lost children. I entered the gate to the large garden and took it all in, then headed to the labyrinth to walk the path and pray. It is secluded, so I was aware of my surroundings. I noticed within the compound a young woman in the wooded area near some angel statues. She approached and we exchanged greetings. She asked me what I was doing in the labyrinth. I explained what I knew: that it helped one focus on prayer or a thought and distances you from the outside world. She asked how I had found out about the monastery, so I told her my friend had brought me after Brian’s death. She remained on the subject and inquired how he had died. I willingly told her he had died of a heroin overdose. She had an immediate emotional response, bursting into tears, holding her head down, shoulders shaking. I put my hands on her arms and said gently, “What’s wrong?” She relayed that she had lost her brother the year before to a heroin overdose and that her mother was not doing well at all since then. We embraced in a tearful hug for the longest time. We finally caught each other’s eyes and she remarked, “We were meant to meet each other.” I agreed. I then relayed Brian’s story and she her brother’s. For many it is cathartic and healing to do so. I gave her information on grief sites and talked about my faith. This is an instance of a time I possibly helped another.
I have no qualms about talking to people now, sharing and listening. As Brian used to tell me all the time when I would be thinking too long about doing something, “Just do it, Mom!” Brian and I had a lot of discussions when I drove him around to school and work during the nine months he was with us in recovery. We both agreed: that smile you give someone just might save their life. Nothing is too small a gesture, especially in the eyes of God.
My Faith Journey
In order to finish the story I should tell a little about my faith journey, because that is what this eventually comes around to. I was raised attending Vienna Baptist Church. When I was a six-year-old singing with my Sunbeam group for the congregation, I can remember seeing the sunlight from the back of the church and having a wonderful child’s feeling of God being with us as we sang “God’s Beautiful World”. That translated to a love of Jesus and church and loving to participate in Sunday school, girl’s auxiliary, choir, discipleship classes, and eventually, as Protestants do, I accepted Jesus as my Savior and was baptized in the name of Trinity at age twelve. I tell you this because I fell away from the church as a teen, working my part-time job on Sundays and then going off to college and leaving my faith tucked away in my Bible at home.
Not until Tony and I were married in 1980 did religion resurface because we had to make some decisions. Tony was Greek Orthodox and I was Baptist. We were able to arrange a wedding ceremony at the chapel at Fort Myer, VA, with my pastor and his priest each performing their respective services. This was unheard of, but my father-in-law knew the Archbishop as a child and we obtained permission from the Patriarch in Istanbul.
I attended the Orthodox Church with our kids and have kept going, only choosing Chrismation though several years after Brian died. All of our children were baptized in the church. Tony attended with us, but not every Sunday. I was determined to have a solid religious upbringing for the kids, but I had a long period of adjustment to the liturgical service and I was somewhat resistant. I was learning as my children were. At the same time I was being a spectator in all of it I was also soaking it all up. There was an authenticity that it offered and transcendence in the liturgy that I was looking for. It is in the Orthodox Church, and more specifically at Brian’s funeral, that I came to understand the Fullness of the Godhead, as best as one can.
The day of the funeral, I felt my heart could take no more. Clinging to Tony’s arm, I felt like an empty shell. I didn’t know what was being said. We had to tell each other to breathe. At that very moment I heard Father John’s comforting words, “Tony and Lee Ann, you will see Brian again.” I felt a drop of water from above splash on my left cheek, roll down my face like a tear, and land over my heart, leaving a wet spot on my suit. Amazed I looked up and around, and clasped my chest in awe. My eyes went to the Icon of Theotokos, Mother of God, holding young Jesus in the half dome over the altar. I was filled with a joy of understanding that God was, He is, and always will be. I “understood” the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, moving in me for the first time in my Christian life—the Agape Love and the Peace that passes understanding. In my greatest moment of sorrow I had the greatest joy. The grief does not go away, but you learn to live with the pain because of the Hope of Glory.
The Harsh Reality of Addiction
Addiction is stealing so many away from us, and I hope someone will benefit from hearing Brian’s story. I do wish, in retrospect, we had pushed and worked more to get Brian the longer time in recovery. Know that for those of you with children under 18, your leverage is that they are not yet considered adults and you can intervene more easily. It is still up to the addict to do the work. I wish we had given him stronger boundaries while living at home, that we had continued seeking counsel ourselves past the Family Week therapy and the few Al-Anon meetings attended. I wish we had talked with him very specifically at a young age about the many dangerous drugs out there, not just about drinking and marijuana.
One thing we did tell him was to always come to us if he was in trouble. He didn’t perceive he was in trouble when, before the heroin, he was trying different drugs to fit in or to self-medicate. We read his record from Hazelden and saw he had tried an array of things before he landed on the heroin. We are blessed that he did come to us eventually. We saw him working and battling the addiction. We both felt Brian needed something drastic such as the Straight and Narrow approach or something almost monastic, where he would have left belongings, people, and goals behind for a good while, to start again with a simplistic approach to life, and build up his strength physically with manual work, and heal mentally and spiritually. He was very contemplative even as a child and we thought this approach would’ve been helpful. We don’t know.
You do your best with the knowledge you have. There is a lot more information out there today. To anyone going through this, find the help you need to streamline your life, to manage the tasks you have before you. Dealing with addiction takes all your energy, and you may have other children, spouses, jobs, daily activities of living that need your attention as well. Take time for quiet, prayer, deep breaths, exercise to release the anxiety. Take care of yourself to be of help—and stay vigilant. Persevere; don’t ever give up, even if you aren’t in contact with your loved one who is an addict. Faith is an action. Act in all the ways you can, and know that you can’t fix it, but you can be a part by finding help and support, in even the smallest way, for the loved one who is in this life-threatening situation. “Even though you can’t see the hand of God, you can feel the Hope of God.”
God bless and keep you.
(The writer welcomes all comments by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.)