If your child is an addict, I am your worst nightmare.

A movie called Four Good Days was in my suggestions on Amazon Prime. The movie stars Glenn Close and Mila Kunis. It’s very much worth a watch, but I found myself sometimes shouting at the TV, sometimes closing my eyes, and sometimes just feeling it right in the gut. Although Stephanie was never a heroin user (that we know of), she used and abused plenty of other substances, and she treated life as though it would go on and on forever.

Like the parents you see in such movies (like Ben is Back), I had to resort to hiding any medications that she might steal from us. We stopped keeping alcohol in the house because it would disappear so quickly (and I really don’t keep any in my house to this day). Her dad was prescribed Xanax at one point for his anxiety. The pills started to disappear quickly from his nightstand. When we sat Stephanie down to talk to her about it, she didn’t deny taking them. Although we stayed calm, she left in the middle of the night after that talk. Her shame was great, but her addiction was greater. That’s unfortunately the way addiction is. It is a strong force that lies to you about other people, about your own worth, and about the state of the world. It convinces you that to survive, you must stay numb, because the world is such a scary place. Yet addiction takes our children to the scariest places and among the scariest people.

Addiction did all those things to my younger sister, and it almost killed our father. It did kill Stephanie. Although she was in AA, she was not careful with prescription medication. She had Xanax and Ambien from her psychiatrist, along with an anti-depressant, all for her severe bipolar disorder. But she was mugged and injured the week before she died. The hospital gave her pain medication, which I’m sure she asked for. The mixture of her drugs proved lethal. Regardless of the ruling by the medical examiner in Baltimore and by local police that it was an accidental overdose, I know that the addiction killed her. She couldn’t lay off of substances, once they were in her grasp.

In Four Good Days, when Molly (Kunis) shows up at her mother’s (Close) door, a battle of wills ensues. The mother tries to turn her daughter away. Molly has failed at recovery fourteen times already. But Molly just starts sleeping on the porch. Oh, how I know that battle!

When Stephanie turned up at my door on New Year’s Eve 2008, I wasn’t going to let her in the house. She looked like hell. She smelled bad. She had been living God-knows-where near or in Shepherdstown, WV, drinking herself blind. But she said she was ready to get sober and she knew that I had friends in AA. She asked for help. I now know a bit about where she had been, because I found one of her notebooks later, in which she wrote about having “a terminal disease” and being “abandoned by [her] parents”. She and a friend drank liters of alcohol and smashed the empty bottles in the bathtub. I shook with horror at the thought of it. You spend their whole life trying to protect them, but you can’t protect them from themselves. I remember when she was a child, sitting her up on the table when I dropped a glass. I scoured the floor to look for random slivers that might hurt her small, baby feet. And then…she found all the slivers in her addiction.

There’s the life before Stephanie died and after Stephanie died. Before she died, I still had hope. It’s all I had left. I prayed for her. I begged her. I covered up for her. I let her use us up. Her dad and I descended into debt trying to help her. I look at people now who have something in the bank and think, “Yeah, I could have had that, but I had this fallen angel who needed my help.” I don’t regret a single thing I did for Stephanie, but the damage was done, and some of it was permanent.

If I look back at photographs or videos of Paul and I before Stephanie died, it almost seems like we had more volume to our faces. Our skin didn’t sag or droop. Our eyes didn’t look so tired. We smiled. At the funeral, we already looked old. Paul, to me, is almost unrecognizable in those pictures. Sean looked hollow. My face had aged ten years at least. We all fell apart in different ways, but the visual of it was stark.

Afterward, people didn’t want to talk about Stephanie or why she died. To be honest, I was embarrassed to say that I thought it was due to her addiction. I think some people thought it was suicide, and I’ve had my moments of thinking that, as well. But in the end, regardless of whether she took one too many pills on purpose or not, her brain was telling her she needed them. Her brain was telling her she needed to sleep…sleeeeeep, yesss, come sleeeeeep the sleep of no dreams…..

Count your blessings if your child never diverted into drugs. Steve Carrell, as David Sheff in the movie Beautiful Boy, laments the lost child he raised. Though his son Nic (played by Timothee Chalamet) is alive, he is lost in his addiction. Their code word for the amount they loved each other was “everything”, meaning “I love you more than everything”. Stephanie and I similarly had that love between us, but it was stolen by addiction. We had started to recover our relationship, but then she was gone.

After some of the events of this week, I have to remind myself that most people don’t understand the difference between the daily grind and real hurt. They take an attitude about something that doesn’t even matter. If they had lost what I’ve lost, if they had endured half the hurt, they would know the difference. I have very little tolerance for pettiness anymore. I usually just walk away from it.

And when the time is right, I’ll walk away from this pettiness, too. I have to remember that, in the end, I don’t need some big house for retirement. I just need a little place to find some peace. I just need a place to be and remember and write. When I land somewhere, I hope it will be a place I finally feel free to scatter Stephanie’s ashes. I still have them with me in a beautiful urn. I just haven’t found that right place to let her go. Maybe there is no right place. Maybe the only place there is is in my heart, where she will always be young and beautiful and alive. And where addiction is only a bad, bad dream.

May your children live long lives, and may you never become like me.

Peace, Jude

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