Sins of the mother: I blame myself for my son's overdose

My kids were young when I left them for a long time. I hated myself for it. But I was sure it was the only way

By Christina Hughes Babb
Published February 1, 2019 7:00PM (EST)

It’s 1 a.m. on a Wednesday and Josh, my husband since we were too young to buy beer, is just home from a hectic night at the restaurant where he works. He cracks the bedroom door and waves a hand. “Hello, good-night, I’m going to play a quick game of Madden,” he says. “I need to unwind.”

I say I can’t sleep either. “Sorry, hon,” he says, sealing the space between us with a doorknob tug.

Sprawled on the bed, my back damp with perspiration, I repro the wrong end of a coke binge. That dread. Panic. Exhaustion. Shame. People in Narcotics Anonymous like to say they are comfortable in their own skin. I know how that feels only in that it is the diametric opposite of what I am, now, and much of the time.

These episodes, tornadoes of varying scale brewing inside my guts, are part of my perpetual penance for past behavior. It was a decade ago that I atoned, served a sentence imparted by a county judge, but the karma police are less merciful. My internal storms often serve as a warning. They are coming.

Maybe I am just worried about work. Print is dead! The storm swells, and I start whispering Hail Marys, a habit I picked up in Catholic School.

There’s a knock at the front door.

My heart slams. On my feet. Sprinting to the entryway.

“It’s the police,” Josh says, shooing our dogs to the garage.

“I knew it,” I choke.

On the porch, two uniformed policemen.

“Is your son Stephen?”

“Yes,” I say. After my father, but we’ve always called him Cole.

The cop extends a hand, a small piece of paper between two fat fingers. I take it and dial the scribbled number.

My husband asks questions I don’t hear. I slip on my shoes and grab my purse as the phone rings at a distant hospital desk. “My son, Stephen. He’s there. Is he alive?”

There is a pause before the woman on the line answers.

“He is here in critical condition. He overdosed. I cannot tell you anymore,” she says. “Please get here as soon as you can, and his doctor can fill you in.”

I must have repeated, “Overdosed,” because my husband slams the heel of one hand hard against the wall Cole helped him paint buttercup yellow.

I place car keys in his trembling hand.

“We can’t leave Morgan,” he says.

Together we extract our 15-year-old from her bed.

“It’s your brother. We have to go to the hospital.”

Neither of us say, “It will be OK.” This family is wise to that tired lie.

* * *

There’s a nurse at our neighborhood high school. Her name is Nancy Cripe. Her son Stephen reminded me of mine. He was beautiful, hilarious, sensitive. Sensitive: people say that with admiration, but why? It’s really a curse to feel too deeply, isn’t it?

After Stephen Cripe’s father died, Stephen smoked pot to ease the pain. Then he discovered that heroin did the job even better.

After her son’s multiple stints in rehab and several lapses, Nancy decided to follow the advice of the specialists and practice Tough Love.

“He had a room at my house, but after he relapsed I told him he couldn’t stay here. I told him I’d give him bus fare and he could go to the 24-Hour Club downtown,” she studied the floor when she told me during an interview for a magazine article I was writing, the sterile tile ensnaring her soft smile. Teens clamored up and down the hallway outside her office.

Stephen Cripe didn’t make it to the 24-Hour Club, an around-the-clock Alcoholics Anonymous meeting venue and shelter, but instead scored, shot up and died in a Jack In The Box bathroom that night.

The hospital staff called her late and told her he was in critical condition and that she should get there as soon as she could.

“I guess they just don’t want to tell you over the phone that your son is dead,” she told me.

* * *

The hospital is a 15-minute drive. Josh gets us there in less than 10.

Three car doors fling open and a feral family bolts across the endless lot, past the handicap spaces, fleeing both from the enclosure trying to smother us and toward our dying beloved; we burst into an empty Emergency Room waiting area. The woman behind the glass stands to let us in. “He’s in here,” a nurse tells us.

My boy is on a vomit-and-blood spattered, sweat-soaked gurney. His skin is sheet white, and his freckles look painted on. Four visible tubes protrude from his body — mouth, nose, neck, arm.

A machine beeps.

Josh gasps, strangled by a sob. In two steps he is at his son’s side and brushing back his matted hair. “Cole,” he croaks. “Cole.”

Morgan and I each grab a limp hand. Josh and Morgan are both sobbing when the doctor enters.

“I’m sorry. I know this is the phone call no parent wants to get,” says the man in the white coat.

Thirty minutes ago our son was lifeless, he tells us.

Heroin, some sort of pills, too … two kids brought him in … we intubated him … got a pulse … his heart started … running some tests … permanent damage … not sure … kidneys … brain function …

“Where are they?” I hear myself ask.

“What? Who?” Someone responds.

“The friends who brought him in. Where are they?”

A nurse says she thought she saw them in the waiting room.

To exit, I punch a knob that looks like a cartoon destruction button and charge into the waiting area. No one is there.

I am wearing pajamas and untied athletic shoes.

I run to the parking lot. There is a security guard and I ask if he’s seen two teenagers. He says he has not.

I dart around the whole hospital campus before re-entering the waiting area. Here they are.

One is bony with greasy hair. Beside her sits a heavy-set boy, hair in face, in tattered T-shirt and grungy threadbare shorts. They do not look familiar.

They see me. They straighten. Their eyes double in circumference. Their force field is a sleepwalker’s disconnectedness. A walking-dead look I had seen in many faces.

For 10 years, I saw it in the mirror. We are the people who can’t tolerate life’s full force so we medicate.

* * *

Cole was just a little boy, Morgan so small, when I left them. I was gone for a long time. I hated myself for it. But I was sure it was the only way.

One November day, I shivered on a concrete floor and fought in vain to keep my insides from erupting. I would not sleep in my own bed for another 18 months.

I had been fueling my life — overwhelmed with young, unexpected motherhood and school and waitressing jobs and a career as a reporter and a husband with whom I shared an incendiary, juvenile relationship — with pills.

Stimulated opioid receptors rocketed me through all of it. Those little white dots made me normal, energetic, thrilled and immune to agonies with which I had once lived. I believed, maybe still believe that for a while, they made me a good mom.

Thomas de Quincey, in the 1800s, wrote “Confessions of an English Opium Eater.” It is considered the first addiction memoir. Penguin Classics published the edition that sits on my shelf:

Just, subtle, and mighty opium! for the wounds that will never heal, and for 'the pangs that tempt the spirit to rebel,' bringest an assuaging balm; eloquent opium! that with thy potent rhetoric stealest away the purposes of wrath; and to the guilty man, for one night givest back the hopes of his youth, and hands washed pure of blood … here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered; joy might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat-pocket … and peace of mind could be sent down by the mail.

The language is archaic but the description is spot on.

When those little pills ran low, should I fail to procure the necessary dose, I entered a realm of terror. Realizing that you have become a mere template of a person, prepared to do anything for relief, triggers panic unparalleled. The only relief is in a couple, then a handful, then 50 and 75 of them a day.

An addict needs her drug in the same way vampires need blood. Without human blood, vampires get sick. A vampire with a good upbringing  — one whose mother is a Catholic-school teacher and whose father is an attorney and war veteran, for example  — might feel conflicted about drinking human blood. They just proceed, pushing thoughts of consequence from consciousness, and do what they must to go on living.

I tried quitting, but opiate withdrawals aren’t like you see in the movies — writhing on sweaty sheets for 48 hours before awakening fresh and new. The heaviness, the exposed-nerve pain of being awake and the madness brought on by inability to sleep, hangs on for weeks, months, even years for some. The only thing to do was keep writing fake prescriptions until someone stopped me.

The night before Mother’s Day, after I had been home for a few years, we found Cole drinking whisky in his room, and Josh turned on me. “This is your fault. You gave this to him.” I know he did not mean the booze; he meant the craving.

* * *

The duo in the ER waiting room look awake, scared now. Jolted from the dream. At first I think they are frightened of me. Then I realize they think he is dead. They watched him die, after all.

I want to rip one’s hair out and strangle the other with it. Instead I hear myself asking what happened. Pity stabs my belly as they babble bullshit — “we don’t know where he got it, we didn’t see him do it, we don’t do it, we were just drinking …”

And then I tell them that he’s still alive, and that is only because they brought him to a hospital. I thank them for that.

The big guy’s head drops to chest and his massive shoulders begin to convulse. We move to a room. We wait for another doctor to arrive. I walk to the chapel.

I spent my childhood in Catholic school, went to church twice a week, knelt and I stared all the hour at bleeding, naked Jesus, ribs protruding, hanging on a cross above the altar. I asked a nun if the nails went through his hands and feet or wrists and ankles, because I had seen the crucifixion depicted in both ways. Sister Gabriel told me it was the wrists and ankles, because the nails would have torn through his hands and feet, sending his skin-and-bones human form spilling to the dirt atop Golgotha. I was in third grade. My eyes filled as I thought mostly of Mary, Jesus’ mother, watching her child’s torture. “Hail Mary, full of grace …” The nun told me not to cry.

I open a Prayers journal sitting near the chapel door. It is a lined notebook containing hand-scrawled pleas. For our son Jesse, that the seizures will stop … God, guide the surgeons’ hands. The baby needs her. So do I. Please, please, ple [water smudge] … For Rita’s soul, and mine, after sharing my life with her for 50 years. Maybe you could take me now? Ready. In a child’s penmanship, God please make my dad better. Dear God …

I slam the book; I shake my head to get the prayers of the faithful out of it. It is too much to bear.

Don’t cry. Maybe a nun told the same to Nancy Cripe once.

So sitting there, I recall a recent article that made me angry. Anger feels better than desperation, so I look it up on my phone.

The Dallas Observer’s headline reads, “Governor Abbott to Drug Overdosers: Drop Dead”

The bill was part of the legislature’s effort to respond to an alarming rise in opioid deaths from prescription pain medication and heroin. “Texas House Bill 225 was not controversial… it would have allowed people who call 911 to help a friend who's overdosed on drugs avoid charges for possessing a small amount of drugs themselves. So-called Good Samaritan provisions already exist in 24 states and Washington, D.C.,” reported the Observer’s Stephen Young. “The bill passed the otherwise acrimonious Texas Senate 30-1. It passed the Texas House 140-4. Protection from prosecution would have extended to the first person who called 911 as long as he or she stuck around and cooperated with medical personnel.”

The Observer goes on to report that Governor Greg Abbott vetoed the bill almost two weeks after it was sent to his desk and just after the Legislature left session, making a veto override impossible.

“What an asshole,” I thought at the time, about both Abbott and a guy who opined in the comment section, “Junkies should all be "dnr" [do no resuscitate] what's the problem? [sic] this is the best state in the union to work in and people have time to just want to destroy themselves and others? move to the northeast if you're so inclined — i don't want my tax dollars funding your lameness. [sic].” I doubt it has crossed his mind that the user most at risk of dying from an overdose is a first timer or someone who slipped after a period of sobriety.

After Southwest Texas State expelled Cole for possessing marijuana on campus, he moved back home with the condition that he would stay clean. I took him to counseling and meetings and found a psychiatrist to evaluate him. He tried. He was clean for several weeks.

The pair at the hospital — I do not know their stories. I do know that they snorted heroin and that Cole snorted the same amount. They had a tolerance. He did not. They got high. He fell face-first into a coffee table and stopped breathing.

Nancy Cripe’s son Stephen had been clean for several months, living in a sober house, when he relapsed. He died because his attempt at staying clean lowered his tolerance of the drug.

There are more high-profile cases, too. Actor Cory Monteith looked like Cole. Once, while Morgan was watching “Glee” my 2-year old nephew pointed to Monteith’s character, Finn, saying, “Cole? Cole,” and we all laughed, agreeing: he does look like Cole, huh? Monteith died of a heroin dose during the summer of 2013.

“After a period of cessation from opioid drug use, previously tolerated drug concentration levels may become toxic and fatal," read the coroner’s report.

They died because they tried to quit.

In the hospital room my husband is standing, hands on hips, staring intently at the beeping machine, as if it might stop if he averts his glare. He looks sad and tired; his hair is shorn, half grey, and his body is stout. His eyes are bloodstones, those green gems sprinkled with red jasper, less shiny than the fluorite crystals embedded in our children’s faces, but no less spectacular.

When I was pregnant, Josh looked just like Cole looks now — tall, lanky, long hair, olive skin. Except the bridge of freckles across his nose. Cole’s freckles — like his sensitivity, his obsessions, his vice, his tendency to keep secrets — those he inherited from me.

Now a doctor rushes in. It’s early on a Wednesday in September, and Cole is crashing.

This balding, quick-moving man tells us to leave the room and pulls the curtain shut. I stand, arms wrapped around myself, at the window. Josh and Morgan are there, but in this moment we are islands. I can see but a corner of spotless tile floor. A needle-cap hits the space, emitting a crimson splatter. A bloody medical glove smacks the wall and slides into its ivory crook.

I stare at the items, the wet red spray. I am quiet. I am screaming inside.

* * *

I wonder if, when my functionality depended on drugs, a friend had overdosed, I would have called 911, knowing I could go to jail, knowing that I could even be charged with manslaughter if the friend died.

I would have stayed, called 911, followed the ambulance to the hospital, even if I had to face grieving parents, go to prison, forfeit my family and suffer insufferable withdrawals — right? But when in the grip of addiction, morality and logic take odd shapes.

I used in secret, mostly, so I never had to decide.

The lives of beautiful, talented, loving people like Cole and Cory and Stephen Cripe often are in the hands of a sick acquaintance faced with an awful choice.

The boy who called 911 when Cole was dying allowed Cole to live and saved our family. He sent Cole a Facebook message a few days after the incident — it contained nothing but sorrow and regret. I don’t think he hesitated or thought of his own wellbeing when Cole needed help. Yeah, he was a junkie. And a human, with a heart, who, despite evidence to the contrary, cared deeply about my son.

The opioid epidemic, as we now know it in America, is confounding, terrifying. Those who have become slaves to the drug understand how this happened. We also realize that fixing it is unfeasible. The only way to keep even the slightest hope alive is to keep people — users and addicts — alive.

There is another thing 12-Step program members say, often after someone has relapsed and returned to the club, head hanging.

“As long as you are alive, no matter how much turmoil you might feel, you stand a chance. Just. Stay. Alive.”

* * *

It’s summer 2017 and a tiny girl sees the ocean for the first time. She scrambles from my arms and toddles fast and fearlessly into the surf.

“Shit,” deadpans my dad. Another caution-be-damned child, he’s thinking.

A gentle wave splashes her face just before I swoop her up and she spits and laughs and insists, “down!”

She runs, manic, in wide circles, evading anyone who might try to stop her, in and out of the water, pausing to point at ships and windsurfers. “Aha!” she exclaims. Like she just discovered life’s secrets.

Her joy is so infectious that a crowd gathers, giggles along with us, until, concurrent with the setting sun, the cherub plops prostrate on the wet sand, spent.

She is Issy, Cole’s daughter.

Cole is 22. He works two jobs. He engages in long, thoughtful discussions about politics, social issues, music and movies and writes gut-wrenching poetry that he prefers to call rap.

He stayed alive, so we still get to celebrate Christmas and birthdays. We did not become zombies. We don’t have to live in a post-apocalyptic, dead-child world. So I clutch and hold and sear into my soul memories like that day on the beach. Or the sound of Morgan singing. The way Cole hugs me tightly when he comes and goes, and how Issy pats my sweet dog Seamus’s scruffy head and tries to say his name, “Shay!”

I have decided that Karma is bullshit.

At least in the simple, earthly sense I once feared, it is. I have written hundreds of articles by now, the grind of the contemporary reporter. Some of the articles are about loving, hardworking parents whose children are kidnapped, raped, beaten, killed or run down as they cross the street; others are about cheaters and egomaniacs elected to public office or mean-spirited chefs who land a TV show. A dying child is prayed over by hundreds of believers, and lives. The same community prays for a dying child, and he dies.

“Life doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints.” It’s a line from “Hamilton,” which I saw on Broadway with Morgan. (That a sinner such as myself — a junky who left home for close to two years, who continues to make mistakes and keep secrets —scored Hamilton tickets is substantiation of its truth.)

The indiscriminate action of the universe makes me feel more detached from it, further away from comprehending it, less sure that God doesn’t Give you anything you cannot handle or Everything happens for a reason, those hackneyed yet comforting clichés.

I haven’t of late felt the premonition of doom. But I am certain that both agonies and ecstasies, if not Fates and Furies, lie ahead.

Deep nights, when I am the only one awake, I wonder: What will the death toll look like when Issy is 16?

Will it come for her? Someone she loves?

Christina Hughes Babb

Christina Hughes Babb is an award-winning journalist, writer and editor working in the Dallas/Fort Worth area for 15 years, or so.

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