The heroin addiction that took my son's life

I thought Trevor had kicked his habit when he returned to Chicago. Can I ever learn to cope with this painful loss?

By Sharon Huber
Published March 4, 2011 7:01PM (EST)

The doorbell rings again. With dread (my new companion) I pull myself up from the solitude of my office chair. It's Sept. 16, 2007. Over the eight days since my 21-year-old son Trevor's death, my front door has become a cave entrance for a myriad of callers to my -- to our -- disrupted home. The visits are mostly welcome, as a respite from the constant unfamiliarity of our days.

Of those who come, and frequently, is my dear friend Amalia, who brought over a real coffee pot, one that runs laps around my fancy French press. It can handle the demands of heavy consumption. We drink our coffee in silence in the screened-in porch, freshly painted in deep eggplant and squash hues with overstuffed pillows to soften the heavy wooden furniture. Gauze drapes soften the room, floating slightly with an occasional cool breeze. Coffee with such a friend helps staunch the bleeding of my soul.

Outside is the stone patio, completed only days before Trevor's death -- a poignant stage for his memorial, but, damn it, not what I had in mind when I had the work done. Amalia hands me a smooth, warm stone; I think and feel it is perfect as I hold it in the palm of my hand and then bank it in the pocket of my jeans. She says, "I got this worry-stone from a friend of mine years ago, when I was going through some heavy personal shit, and now I want you to have it." 

God, a gesture so plain gave me power for months to come -- the ordinary becomes extraordinary with the thoughtfulness of a friend. Who would have thought that a rock would lighten my load? Whenever I feel a tidal wave of emotion, or find myself entrapped, uncomfortable or sensing flames of grief, or becoming consumed by memories of Trevor, I slip my hand into my pocket, retrieve the stone, rub my fingers over the rock's warm surface until I find my way to the other side of the moment, like finding a way across an empty space.   

- - - - - - - - - -

Trevor died Sept. 8, 2007, from an apparent heroin overdose in his apartment in Chicago. The previous Sunday, Trevor had moved back to Chicago from his home in Decorah, Iowa -- from his father, Marty, and his sister Maddie, and his brother Colin, after having invested his summer here, withdrawing from the drug, going to counseling, trying to regroup and regain his health and his identity. He rejoined his younger brother Jase at the apartment they shared in Chicago, and had begun classes at Columbia on that Thursday -- two days before he died. Also left behind was his new and precious love, Melissa, who drove him to Chicago that Sunday and left Chicago on Monday, to pack her belongings and join him the day after he passed. Also left behind was me.

- - - - - - - - - -

So many flowers and plants and inscribed plaques are delivered, with a clang of my doorbell and the unmistakable refusal to make eye contact. These deliveries are no doubt chosen with good intentions, but they are like books on a shelf -- I will read them someday, when I can. I am grateful for, but can barely dwell upon, the diverse, even complex motivations behind such rituals of condolences -- affection, love, well wishes, support; but also guilt, tokenism, dismissal, awkwardness and an uneasiness toward death. To the delivery person on the other side of the door, this isn't routine, especially when the person behind the door is a mother -- heartbroken, who lost her young son suddenly, tragically and inexplicably. With each visit, I fight back the tears. I put forth my best face and try to be gracious, thinking each time what a reluctant participant I am in this drama -- this desperately unwelcome nightmare, this unimaginably surreal tragedy that happens to be my reality.

Early in my grief, the doorbell rings yet again and the woman behind the door is my lifelong friend Laurie with whom I now must share not only friendship, but also the solidarity of losing a child. Her penetrating eyes are filled with the muted colors of her own pain and memory. She doesn't stay long, but her simple words help me. "People will say a lot of stupid things. Forget about them!" And her words have held true.

I remember Matt and Amy, the young parents of two small boys, who very recently moved across the street. Their kind eyes, the freshly baked bread in their hands, still warm me, like their gentle smiles. In that visit, nothing was said, nothing needed to be. We knew what each other was thinking: how unjust is the loss of a son.

Mary comes by. Years ago, in what seems like a previous life, when Trevor was just entering elementary school, I worked with Mary on the PTO and frequented her pet supply store to buy fish, a turtle, birds and hamsters and all the paraphernalia necessary to keep young boys' pets alive. Mary has with her a half-empty box of Kleenex, which she gives me, saying, "I had to do something, I was in my car and heard the funeral notices and heard Trevor's name. You were always one of my favorite people, and all I had was this, but -- heck -- I figured you could use it, so here you are." 

- - - - - - - - - -

The previous June, Trevor confessed his heroin addiction to his father and me. He was emaciated, having lost some 25 pounds since the year began, down from 145 pounds. I was in Chicago with Maddie and Colin at the time, visiting Trevor and Jase. We left the Blue Man Group production, with its blissful partylike atmosphere, and Trevor joined us back at the hotel.  

"Mom," he said "we need to talk."  We sat in the well-lit hallway of the hotel, just outside the solitude of our room where Maddie and Colin slept. I can't imagine the courage it took for Trevor to confess, "Mom, I have a heroin addiction." I was frozen, speechless. Sometimes still I find myself in that empty space that sometimes gets so big I can't see or feel anything. He claimed he hadn't used since the end of May. Heroin is a drug of lies. But you want to believe your own child. I believed him. He told me when he had collapsed earlier in March it was in fact a heroin overdose, not exhaustion and dehydration, as he had told us.

A week later, my other son phoned to say he believed Trevor was using again. I left the next day and drove to Chicago. In that week his father and I had several conversations about Trevor, did lots of research on possibilities, and had discussed with Trevor what to do next. There was a clinic in Chicago that we spoke to and Trevor actually met with the clinic's owner, but was discouraged by what he had to say about the detoxification and follow-up treatment program they offered. It was a 28-day residential treatment program. Trevor, with dread in his voice, made clear, "Mom, I don't think I can do that -- I don't think I would survive."  He was convinced, and we concurred, that by coming home he could beat this drug addiction. We believed in him and believed that with counseling and observation we could do it together.

His first day home, he seemed to be under the influence again. He was not himself, shuffling his feet and nodding at dinner. He was out of character and looked tough.

I believe that was the last time he used over the course of that summer. In the next several weeks he regained his appetite, his gait was his own. He recaptured his smile and his wit.

He fell in love. His polite demeanor came back. He strolled the streets of Decorah, ukulele in hand, smile on his face, curly sideburns, charming everyone he met.

- - - - - - - - - -

Again the doorbell rings. At my door is another mother whom I barely know, but her daughter was one of the reasons that Trevor had regained the gleam in his green and hazel eyes and the sly smile on his face this summer past. Trevor and Melissa spent almost every day together for those many long, healing days. They were good for each other, both gentle souls, both soft-spoken. Melissa had taken Trevor to Chicago the Sunday before his death, and she was to move to Chicago the day after he died.

Melissa's mother has a cutting edge to her facial expression. Her eyes are harsh. My mouth suddenly goes dry and my stomach wrenches. She has been at the house several times this week, and was present at his service, but we haven't had any time alone. She hesitates, and then says, "We need to talk."

It is a clear Sunday as I sit down on the front porch. She doesn't sit down, but rather paces, with her arms crossed.  

"How could you let Melissa date Trevor," she demands, "when you knew he was a heroin addict?" I am stunned; I feel that because of her lack of compassion, I have every right to be pissed. But I remember she is a mother too, and that I need to carry myself with grace, the mantra I have been repeating in my mind this week.

Yes, we knew Trevor had a heroin addiction, and we also knew that for three months he was clean. We did everything we could to ensure his success; the rest was up to him. We are not going to second-guess ourselves. It is too late for that. I make clear that we knew the odds were against him. "Did you know that it's estimated that only 10 percent of heroin addicts get clean and stay clean?  And that half of them die?" But she is clearly disconnected from anything I have to say. I ask myself, what else did she really know about Trevor? 

"Remember, conduct yourself with grace," I repeat to myself. She is noticeably uncomfortable and I can't blame her -- who wouldn't be, watching her daughter suffer such loss and heartache. After a few moments, she left heavily, and silently.    

- - - - - - - - - -

I'm realizing I am going to be OK, and so is my family.

A friend tried to assure me of this only one week after Trevor's death, as we all gathered in my brother and sister-in-laws' home. We were watching, and enjoying, as Trevor would, Monty Python's "Holy Grail."  My friend told me later that in that moment she observed us and thought, "You know, they are going to be fine."

Why are we going to be OK? Well, because we are strong and determined and beautiful. We will no doubt grieve for the rest of our lives. Each day, we put one foot in front of the other and march forward with our heads held high. We take it moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day, and on and on. That's all we can do. There are good days and bad days, and it comes in crashing waves. Some days are so tough that getting out of bed seems impossible. Some days going to bed seems as labored. Some days such elation and joy of his gifts and talents come rushing back to consciousness that it is hard to keep a sober face.

We rely on friends, family, neighbors and even casual acquaintances to shore us up. We need their support, and reject any judgment. We ignore those who say stupid things, who gossip, who tell us to move on, and we allow them to be imperfect and forgive them. This is our grief, our pain, we continue to say: Let us own this odyssey of grief and let us go through our processes at our own pace; listen to our stories; let us say Trevor's name over and over. We have so much to remember, to share; please allow us to do so!  We will change, our lives have changed. Allow us to do so. We may seem to become angry, hardened. Allow us to do so. It will pass. Love us.

We are so fortunate. Trevor left us so much. Not just our memories of him, but his art, his music, his drawings, his writings, his sly smile and wit. Trevor gave us so much, and in doing so lost himself along the way. Trevor was so very genuine and gentle -- a spirit in a physical world. We feel his light and presence and I invite you to do the same. He will always be with us. He created this vast and diverse community. We are forever cemented together. Care and love each other. Be good to yourselves. We miss Trevor with great intensity. And we love Trevor.

- - - - - - - - - -

Before he left for Chicago, Trevor stopped by our house to say our goodbyes -- I was uneasy, heart beating like a hammer, beneath my weak attempt of a peaceful exterior. I need to be strong, after all, I'm the Mom. But I couldn't help but ask, "Are you scared?"  He looked straight in my eyes and said, "Of course, Mom. I love you."  After he left, I found a note he had written in his unmatched printed handwriting.

"Mom, Thank you for everything. I love you so much. Have some fun and I'll see you soon." -- Trev.  

- - - - - - - - - -

What happened when he returned to Chicago? Was it his neighborhood, his apartment, his room, his triggers, his appetite, his addiction? We will never know. We remember with detail his brother's phone call that night he died, the screams of pain, the tears, his beloved roommate's recounting of what she found, his personal belongings from the medical examiners office in my mailbox, the police records, the apartment to pack and clean, the memories of our dear son.

Now we are left to sort through 21 years: This is your son's life, package it up, and move forward -- what do you bring with you and what do you leave behind?  Our hearts will always open up to Trevor's world -- the miracle, the beauty, the milestones, the truths, the sorrow, especially: the pure love.

Sharon Huber

MORE FROM Sharon Huber

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Drugs Life Stories Real Families