I’d like to say I was overjoyed with relief, but that lasted only a few moments. Then the anger and frustration and weariness descended, and I felt heavier than stone. Because the hope that had once kept the grief and fear from crushing me is slipping away. And I’m not sure I’ll ever get it back.
I remember the first time he’d gone to jail for a DUI charge 20 years ago (before he became a heroin addict) and how freaked out I was. I talked to a substance abuse counselor on the phone, and he told me to calm down. Jail isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a young man. He’ll be okay, he said.
And I learned through the years he was right. Jail isn’t the worst thing that can happen to my son. Prison isn’t the worst thing, either. Sometimes they can be the best thing that can happen to him. Sometimes they can be a life saver, like now.
The last time I heard from he told me he didn’t think he had long to live. He’d had two overdoses the week before. One where he woke up in the hospital. The other where he woke up in a motel room. His companions had left him for dead after stealing the little he had (a bike and a backpack stuffed with dirty clothes) and even the shoes off his feet. He was barefoot when he called, using someone else’s phone. He’d lost his own weeks ago (again).
I begged him to get help, to go an NA meeting, go to a church, go to a detox facility, go to a shelter. But he was too embarrassed. He was covered in staff infections, he said, and he looked like a zombie.
I’d seen him that way before. I knew what he meant.
I begged him to go to an ER and get medication for the staff infection. Then I gave him the address and phone number of detox, and told him to get there. He said he would. But it didn’t sound like he meant it.
“Say it,” I told him. “Say it like you mean it.”
“Promise me,” I demanded. “If you don’t want to die, promise me.”
“I feel like I’m dead already,” he said. “Like I’m in Limbo, you know? Or purgatory. Everything seems so surreal, like I’m walking around in a nightmare.”
I thought about driving the 200 miles to get him and pack him in my car and bring him home. But I’d already just done that, only a few months earlier. And it hadn’t helped. He wasn’t safe, even at home anymore. I’d picked him up off the streets so we could get him into a drug treatment program and brought him home, so he could make the daily calls you need to make while waiting for a bed. He sounded ready, optimistic.
“A few more days,” they told us. “A few more days and we’ll have a bed ready for you.”
The next morning I found him on the floor of the bathroom with a needle in his arm. He looked gray and lifeless. I called an ambulance and the medics revived him and took him to a hospital.
Two days later a bed finally opened up, and he got into the program. Then he got a job, and he got back in touch with his girlfriend and his baby girl. He sounded so happy. They applied for low-cost housing as a couple (she was also in recovery). They were going to make a life for their baby together. He came back home to pick up the rest of his clothes and books and surfboard. He looked healthy and happy.
“Okay, now’s the time. Now he’s going to make it,” I told myself.
Then a few weeks later I found out he’d relapsed. He was kicked out of the program. He lost his job. His girlfriend turned her back on him. He became homeless, strung out on the street (again).
And I was urging him to get into detox before the next overdose killed him.
“Call me,” I told him. “As soon as you get into the hospital, or get to detox, call me so I know you’re safe. You have to do one or the other,” I urged. “Today. Do it! If you don’t want to die, do it.”
“I will,” he said, but he wouldn’t promise me. And it was just as well. He’d made and broken those kinds of promises before.
I hung up the phone and the tears came and wouldn’t stop falling. I’d given up hope, you see. I didn’t think he’d do any of the things I told him to do. And I didn’t think I would ever hear from him again.
How many OD’s can you have before you have your last? Has his luck run out?
Apparently not. I didn’t hear from him until a week later, from jail. He said he was stopped by the police the day after our conversation and arrested for outstanding warrants. Thank God.
But the relief, as welcome as it was, was short-lived. Because jail is a kind of limbo too. For him and me.
As soon as he gets out, the insanity will start up again. All the nearly overwhelming logistics of starting over again from scratch will begin (again). We’ve been through this a dozen times already: The mad scramble to find some place to live, to get a job, to buy a phone and a bike and clothes and all the other things he needs to live a normal life, after having just lost all those things, again and again and again.
Then will begin the anxious, nail-biting wait to see if this time, this time at last, he’ll stay clean long enough to turn his life around. Or if the struggle to regain all he had lost will take its toll (again).
Everything is twice as hard as it should be. And it’s so heartbreaking–trying to pump up the hope and optimism again and again, so we both don’t sink down under the weight of the knowing that his chance of making it this time is slim to none.
But he’s safe now, I remind myself. That’s good! I don’t have to jump when the phone or doorbell rings, fearful for the worst. I can relax. When he’s in jail have been the most peaceful times of my life during these last fifteen years. And the most hopeful: “Maybe now he’s hit rock-bottom,” I tell myself. “Maybe now he’ll turn his life around.”
But those days of optimism are past. I know better now.
So. Jail is as good as it gets these days. Not knowing where he is and waiting for the Coroner’s call, that’s bad. And worse than that, as I’ve imagined a hundred times, is getting the call. At least I’ve been spared that. For now.
Count yourself lucky, I tell myself. And I am.