My name is Melissa Flynn. I am sharing a story about my step-son, Nicholas. I call it a story because what I am about to share is just one small part of him. What I am about to share is not the sum and total of who he was and does not define him.
Nicholas battled a drug addiction for many years. I have now learned the better term for addiction is substance use disorder. The words drug addict, heroin, junkie, conjure up images in most people’s minds of a person who is just a “loser”, down on their luck, poor, uneducated, a criminal.
Nicholas was none of those things. Nicholas was a very intelligent, gifted person from a middle-class family in the Midwest. He was not a bad person. He was not “morally bankrupt”. He had a very serious illness. Addiction is a disease, not a choice. People suffering from substance use disorder do not choose to become addicted.
Addiction takes over a person’s life and changes them into someone you no longer know or recognize. Some of you may have a friend or a loved one who is suffering from a substance use disorder. Take a moment and think about that person before addiction took over their life and think about them now. Do they seem like the same person? For those of you that have children, think of your own son or daughter and imagine if their whole personality changed before your eyes. What would you do? What if you tried to help them and everything you tried to do either failed or made things worse? Can you imagine how that would make you feel? I describe the last 10 years of our lives like being sucked into a tornado. You get spun around and you have no idea where you are, how to get out and you have no control over anything.
I often hear families say, “we did not know what to do, we did not know where to turn or how to help.” For ten years, we fought this formidable monster called addiction. I can honestly say that we fought valiantly. We fought hard and we fought with courage, perseverance and strength. I would like to say that we did everything we could, but we still feel guilt, remorse, regret because we made many, many mistakes along the way, trying to find the magic answer that would save Nicholas.
I describe our fight like fighting a giant octopus. The octopus squeezes you with its many tentacles. We would fight to get one tentacle off of us and then another tentacle would grab us. It was a constant battle with little to no relief. The octopus squeezed the air out of our lungs, the joy out of our lives and the money out of our pocket books but we kept fighting. We kept hoping. We kept loving.
Because of the addiction, we didn’t get to see Nicholas for long periods of time. He was in jail, treatment or in the throes of his addiction and hiding from everyone. I got to the point where I felt like I didn’t even know who he was anymore. I wondered if the “real” Nicholas was “in there” somewhere. We saw glimmers of him over the years and it would give us a small sliver of hope that he would come back to us but the addiction would get him again.
I often hear that the person suffering from the substance use disorder needs to hit “rock bottom” and then they will voluntarily seek the help they need. I now know this is very dangerous thinking. First of all, the person suffering with the addiction is very ill and the chances that they will voluntarily seek treatment are very unlikely. Some do but most do not. Secondly, why should we wait for someone to hit “rock bottom” when the bottom could mean their death?
It wasn’t until we found Face It TOGETHER that we felt real hope. We finally felt we had the correct resources and support to help our loved one. We learned how to cope with the nightmare we were living in and we started to see a change in Nicholas for the first time in many years. It was a real change, not a front he was putting on to make everyone happy. We got to see the loving, smart, talented, caring, funny human being he was and not just for a day or two but for a few months this time. This was the longest period of time in 10 years that we got to spend time with our beautiful son. We finally felt we were on the road to recovery. We had joy and hope. We let our guard down.
Unfortunately, Nicholas lost his battle with addiction on May 26, 2018. He was 25 years old.
Since Nicholas is no longer with us, the tornado I described earlier has stopped. I feel like I’ve been spit out of that tornado and I’m looking around dazed and confused. The only thing that makes sense to me is to try to help in some way. I am sharing this brief look into our lives because I want to help families to get through the learning curve of how to help their loved one sooner. I want to teach them what to look for and how to help in the right way. My hope is to prevent what happened to our family from happening to other families. People are more likely to seek help sooner if they are able to talk about it and not hide in shame. We need to remove the stigma and allow people to talk about it openly just like any other illness. If you tell someone that a loved one has cancer, they don’t shame you, they try to help. Substance use disorder should be looked at in the same way. Families need assistance and support, not shame and judgement.
There will be those of you that know me and know my family and know our story that may be wondering why I am speaking out now. To quote Maya Angelou, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
I know that speaking out opens me up for judgement and criticism and I know not everyone will agree with what I have to say. To that, I say- what more can you do to me? The loss of a child is one of the worst things anyone can go through. Also, millions of people are affected by substance use disorder. If you stop and think about it, I would bet that most everyone has a friend or family member that suffers from some type of addiction.
I want to leave you with one final thought. Most people are unaware of the kinds of choices families have to make when dealing with this illness. Often times, legal issues add an additional level of complexity to an already complex illness. Nicholas was on probation while he was living with us the last few months of his life. When we needed medical assistance to try to save him, we knew that if we called an ambulance and they were able to revive him, he would go to prison. Why should a family even have to think about that choice? I’m not aware of any other illness that has the consequence of going to prison when trying to get help.
If sharing our story can prevent one family from suffering, one person from dying then the pain and suffering we went through in helping Nicholas and the pain and suffering we are experiencing due to his loss will be lessened somehow.
Above all, I want families to know they do not have to go through this alone. There is help and there is hope. I recently joined the South Dakota chapter for Addiction Policy Forum.