Except for a toxic diet of fentanyl, heroin, and benzos, my son hadn’t eaten in the last week, nor had he changed his clothes. And because he’d lost his cell phone, I felt compelled answer the call that came in from an unknown number that evening. His voice was calm and clear when he announced, “I am ready to go to detox tonight.” The declaration sparked a glimmer of hope in me that I hadn’t experienced since his relapse months earlier, but years of his opiate addiction kept me grounded. Detox is only the first of many steps.
There was, as usual, a caveat to his readiness. “I pray you will understand I have to run a few errands first,” he began. “My last stop will be my apartment to make sure there are no needles or drugs. When I was in treatment before, it messed with me knowing there was stuff there.” I was appalled by the complexity he had unnecessary tied to his decision to get help. My son had tempted fate too many times, and we all knew the odds were against him arriving at the detox facility. I quickly interjected, “The bed is being held. I can come get you or it’s a quick Uber ride. Just go now!” He was unyielding; however, he knew that countless false starts had damaged his credibility. He did promise to check in throughout the evening, albeit with a borrowed phone that would only work when he had Wi-Fi access.
While dozens of realistic, worst-case scenarios played on a loop in my mind, I called on angels to guide him over his self-imposed hurdles. After two hours of sitting on the edge of my couch with my cell phone in hand, I called the treatment center representative who was waiting for his after-hours arrival. I had no update to give her on my son’s status, and her response was surprisingly blunt. “That’s very concerning,” she stated. We both knew that despite his renewed desire to get clean, he was likely to be searching for “just one more” high—one last fix that could, inadvertently end his life.
Another hour passed without contact. The tension was unbearable, and I couldn’t erase the image of him overdosing on his bed. It was nearly midnight when I decided to drive through the empty streets to his apartment. I switched the radio off, needing silence to prepare me for what I might find.
From the car, I could see the lights were on in his room. Though it was a relief to find he had made it over the hurdles, knowing he was inside but unresponsive validated my fears. I expected to find him unconscious, but instead I found the security door locked. I drove home feeling defeated, as if I had run through the terminal only to find the plane had departed. I sat at a red light and studied my car’s dashboard, searching for answers.
Back home, I fell into a superficial sleep until the sun came up. Facebook was the bearer of bad news, verifying that my son hadn’t been active on it in fourteen hours. Outside, I heard the squawking of parrots, the harbingers of spring in Southern California, and believed God was gracefully informing me that my son was gone.
It was a Tuesday, a workday, and soon I was inching cautiously though gridlocked traffic with streams of tears leaving stripes in the makeup on my cheeks. From the car radio, Tom Petty stabbed at my shredded heart:
Somewhere, somehow, somebody must have kicked you around some
Tell me why you want to lay there, revel in your abandon
Honey, it don’t make no difference to me baby
Everybody’s had to fight to be free…
The song “Refugee” seemed especially poignant given my son’s situation, he had been denied access to Medicine Assisted Treatment by the judicial system and that had snowballed into a nightmarish fight for his freedom. I thought about how I would document this sad reality in his obituary as I lightly dabbed my face with a napkin before applying mascara in the rearview mirror.
Work tasks filled the raw space that morning, but I checked my phone intermittently. Fifteen hours. Sixteen hours. I imagined that fentanyl was the killer and felt a momentary sense of relief: if he was dead, he was no longer suffering. The morbidity of the thought filled me with horror and guilt.
At the end of the day, I was walking to my car when Facebook showed a green light, indicating that my son was alive. I called him immediately, and his response to my emotional questioning was disturbingly flat: “I had no Wi-Fi, and I fell asleep.” The tone of his voice told me he wasn’t well, an observation that was confirmed by his next words. “I am not going to detox today until I get some more,” he stated. I slammed my car door with such force that I heard the bones in my neck crack. “Are you fucking kidding me?” I yelled into the phone. My voice sounded disturbingly animalistic, but the high-volume delivery felt tremendously satisfying. “No deal. This will never stop. You will use, pass out, wake up when detox is closed or there are no beds. I can’t do it. I really cannot.” He was quiet, then said, “I understand, Mom, I do.” I could taste the venom behind my words and hastily ended the conversation before I became vicious. “I have to hang up right now,” I told him. “I’ll call you back.” I drove onto the freeway sobbing, kicking the floorboard and hating that I had been given the gut-wrenching choice to either help him score or lose access to a window that might never open again.
My voice was hoarse when I called my boyfriend. “He needs a ride to get one more fix or he won’t go,” I blurted out. “I just don’t know if I can do this.” He immediately responded, “I’ll take him.” This was the third or fourth time in four years that he had run this exact play. I felt a flicker of relief but found it impossible to reconcile the absurdity of the request and the enormity of the task I’d handed him.
My son was relieved that he would have one last drug run and agreed to remain at the local library so he could meet up with my boyfriend. I felt like a monster as I imagined him sick and defeated, forced to weather my verbal assault in that public quiet space.
My boyfriend judiciously updated me throughout their risky quest, which ping-ponged them all over the county in the worst part of rush hour and kept my chest in knots.
When I finally anticipated them crossing the finish line, the treatment center representative texted me: “It has been an hour longer than you said, we are now closed. Your son will have to come tomorrow at 10:00 a.m.” I clutched my cell to prevent myself from shattering it on the ground and responded, “NO, he is there, in the parking lot!” I squeezed the phone, crushing my fingers to distract me from screaming out of frustration.
An hour later, my son’s admittance into the program was confirmed. The break in the action was appreciated, but the outcome was still highly unpredictable. I shifted my worries, anticipating the erratic next steps in this grueling journey we were taking, again.
Finally, after days of misdirection and false starts, he has contacted his mother, ready for detox and rehab. She is relieved but so exhausted. She’s had enough and has told him so. But he has to get high one last time so he can survive long enough to make it to detox. He is very sick, desperate, and so tired of doing what he is doing.
I offer to take him because it’s just easier for me to do it. I’m the paramedic, and they are the bloodied and bruised ones. An addict is like a drunk driver with passengers, the people who love him. I arrive at the library parking lot early, and he is already there, silently sick and anxious, too thin, painful eyes, a tangible fear. He’s a wonderful young man. I know him well, but he doesn’t pull my strings, and I don’t make him feel guilty. We’re comfortable, and it’s usually easy. I feel bad for his suffering, but I’m not suffering like his mother does.
I’m with his mom, so I’ve more or less been his stepdad for four years; never have lived with him but have done a lot of driving around, damage control, finding him in the canyon, giving him food, encouraging him, taking him to rehab a number of times. A lot of comforting of his mom, too, and worrying about his sisters. But I’m not his dad, don’t have that edge of family love to really get to him or for him to get to me—there is no pain between us.
In my truck, I give him a bottle of water, which he really needs, and off we go, navigating to another part of town where he can find a quick and cheap fix for his misery. I ask him what is in his bag, and he says it’s stuff to get high with. A kit. A syringe and a strap, I imagine, maybe a spoon and a lighter. I just need to know what’s in my car. No drugs, obviously.
On the way, I make him promise to only do as little as required to hold him over; I’m almost pleading. He agrees. He doesn’t have much money anyway, and I don’t want to pay for it. We get there quickly, just before rush hour, arriving in a colorless, working-class neighborhood of cheap 1950s houses with brown lawns.
His phone hardly works, so he uses mine to call and text. His connection tells him to wait five minutes, and he then goes around the corner, out of sight. I wait. People walk by, come and go, and I imagine that all of them must know I am waiting for my young friend, a boy really, to go and shoot up heroin, that I am the kind of guy they warn their kids to stay away from, a creep and a criminal.
He comes back quickly and wants me to go to the park down the street, so he can shoot up in the bathroom. That doesn’t sound good—I’m imagining an open stall where he can’t hide, a place sometimes used for dirty sex, the kind of place you wouldn’t want your child to go into. I imagine him passing out, an overdose right there on the filthy floor. But thankfully, there is no restroom at the park, just a mere patch of grass. So we go to find a Starbucks, with a private, locked bathroom.
He walks in ahead of me and quickly goes into the restroom. I order my first-ever Frappuccino; I can at least make a purchase while my young friend is shooting up in the bathroom. He emerges and seems more relieved than high, the anxiety gone, fixed. The previously painful, fearful eyes have changed into a sort of wide-eyed wonder, then minutes later just seem relaxed.
He’s happy about the Frappuccino, and since he’s hungry, we go to Burger King next door, and he sits and eats, content. We talk. He sort of laughs in relief, smiles, thanks me. He feels great.
It’s so simple, this trip he takes from misery to contentment. But the trip always ends badly, no matter how joyful the beginning. Heroin is a delicious fruit that always goes bad, goes rotten inside of you.
We leave and try to find the detox admissions office. Rush-hour thick, traffic is backed up everywhere. I tell him how the area used to be small farms and ranches next to a highway—tomatoes, beans, horses, chickens, goats. He laughs and says he loves baby goats, but they grow into big goats and then what do you do? He is content, full of food, going to rehab; I am relieved that the heroin score and injection business is over, without mishap—no park bathroom sleaze, no overdose, no criminals or guns, no police.
Existential calm amid a sea of cars going slowly. After twenty minutes in heavy traffic, we arrive at the intake office, only to find it is locked. We’re an hour late because of our junkie trek through rush hour. But a woman comes to the door, saying, “Sorry, we’re closed, where were you? We waited. We waited yesterday too.” Please don’t say come back tomorrow, I plead silently. Please. Finally, she says that I can take him to the rehab house for intake there—thank God. She says to him, “So, this is your idea, right? You want treatment?” He nods yes, wearing his sunglasses, cool heroin chic, that numbness that is always on the very edge of death. “Yeah, yeah,” he says with emphasis, almost snapping awake. He’s groggy, and even I need a nap, but we still have miles to go before we sleep.
Back into rush-hour traffic, and I get a text from his mom: “Tell him I love him, but also that this is the last time, no more, I’m not doing this again.” Up into the hills of a fancy, rural neighborhood. The rehab will take him, they are waiting, and we’re on our way. I tell him what his mom said but add a few words of my own, “You can do this ... you can be free of this.” He nods, a slight smile on his face. I tell him that it could have been worse today, the way things went. He again nods, knowingly, adding, “Oh my God, so much worse.” He knows where we’re going, having been here before.
A large, beautiful house on the side of the mountain. Two guys come out to meet him, calling, “Hey man, how’s it going?” and “Hey bro.” They bump fists. He hugs me good-bye and thanks me. “I fucking really have to go to the bathroom!” he announces and walks in, with them following close behind. One of the guys is saying good-bye to me, then shouting out at the other, “Make sure we get a urine sample!”
I get in my truck, text his mom that it’s done. A relief. He’s safe now. We’re all safe. At least for a few days.