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Losing a son to a drug overdose

By Leslie Cappiello

His death. Unexpected and sudden. Happy and grounded he seemed at this stage in his life at thirty and preparing for his 12-year-old daughter’s arrival. He had not seen her in five years, mostly because he was using or in jail or in another toxic relationship.  However, things appeared to be turning around after he was released from jail.  He began working right away, saving up for an apartment. I was blinded by hope. but in hindsight, he was hiding his return to drugs and girlfriend, also an addict.

As his mother, I could only pray and encourage him to make good choices; stay away from others that brought him down. To see himself worthy of a healthy relationship. He had a lot to offer with a big heart and a forgiving spirit. I overlooked the darkness that he struggled with and encouraged him the best I could with positive affirmations. I lived in fear but believing somehow he would make it out of the pit of discouragement that followed him around like a dark cloud.  But in my denial, I missed the signs. Could I have changed the course of his final day? I wrestle with this question and sometimes find myself screaming at God, but in reality, I know that we all make our choices, but oh, how I wish it had been me instead of him.

He had me, an older sister, and three other brothers; we were close and supportive of one another, but it wasn’t enough. He missed his father. He went to live with him as a teenager; little did I know that his dad would bond with our son through drugs. When it became obvious what was happening, it was too late. He was 18-years-old, and now a father himself. The responsibility of his choices closed in. I did the only thing I knew to do, hit the floor on my knees in fervent prayer. Hadn’t God promised that he’d keep those we love safe from harm if we believed for what we asked for? That was my daily mantra and continued the illusion that everything was just fine. After his dad’s death, the depression tightened its deadly grip. He couldn’t shake the pervasive longing for his father, though he knew their relationship was unhealthy. He chose to hide his mental instability by becoming the life of the party. And abdicating his role as a father.

As the years sped by, so did his drug use; continuing the revolving door of incarceration. Though he had many close friends who encouraged him to go back to school, he couldn’t let go of his sadness and move forward. When they started graduating from university, getting married, buying a house, and having children, the truth of his choices became glaringly obvious; however, the drugs roared louder.

We all encouraged him to seek help for his depression, instead, he pushed his pain and dreams into one more shot. The ache of loneliness over the death of his father, along with his fear of following a simpler path pushed behind the barbed wire of his mind, temporarily assuaged by the needle; became his dividing line. The temptation to use one more time, a last ditch attempt to fill the chasm of depression, finally closed the door to what could have been.

But the real story of who he was deep inside was known only to us, his family. From an early age, he grappled with anxiety and depression, though he was the class clown in school. I made sure I was home afternoons, holidays, and summers, and encouraged his love of reading. He spent many hours lost in the world of Harry Potter among other fantasy titles as he grew up, and countless books about history. He knew every statistic about every professional sports team; wrote clever sports stories, but never published. Though he was urged to. Step out and see, we’d say. His beautiful brown eyes and sweet smile energized a room like a power surge of optimism. He met no strangers and never complained, even in the depths of his addiction. His friends uplifted by his charisma and wit never knew he buried his dreams within. He was made for more, but he couldn’t see it. He sat his sadness through humor, masking his pain, and sealing his fate.

He lent his light to those who took but never gave.  His heart whispered, urging him to own his voice, his desires, instead of the agonized clanging rush hour of do. The beam of his truth flashing briefly then vanquished to the tightrope of doubt and confusion. Out, Out brief candle, life is a fleeting shadow of choice. My son chose to anesthetize his hurt, but his real story remains. He is kind. He is love.

I wish I would have talked to him more about his depression and anxiety, maybe one more time could have altered the course of his life. But I can’t turn back the hands of time, I can only offer his story in hopes someone will seek help, or know they’re not alone.

So, for now, I turn inward and feel the rain that comes to me in my nightly dreams, darkening its silent waste around me. I fold into my grief. My amputated heart throbbing with the weight of memories. The mirror tells my story of the unimaginable – the loss of my firstborn son.  I am a stranger to my own reflection. My hair white overnight. The anchor of despondency pushing me to the floor, supine; where I gladly want to remain.

I know I must get on with life, my other children and grandchildren need me strong; so I rise and wobble on wooden legs like a puppet floundering for the stage floor. I am no actor nor puppet, but a mother carrying deserted lanes of pain. In silence. The well-wishers gone. The weight of my sadness highlighting their unspoken fear that somehow my loss is contagious. Though by not talking about mental illness and drug abuse, we remain in the comfortable illusion that all is well; while the hurting sons and daughters continue to play Russian roulette, denying the fact the game is rigged. The game always wins, if played in secret.

I carry his smile, his voice, his dreams. He enriches my life, though I will never be the same. Nothing is as it was. His story teaches me to be kinder, gentler; fearless to be honest about mental illness, and the counterfeit high of drugs that offer everything, but delivers nothing.

Life has put me on a path that I never chose nor wanted. To honor my son, my lacerated heart must forge a new trail of living.  Walking now with a limp, I press on.

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