My life didn’t start out much different from other people. I married young and three years later in 1988, we had our first son, Michael. Our second son Steven, followed a few years after. Things were sometimes difficult, due to my husband’s struggle with an addiction to drugs. In 1994 we separated, with a divorce to follow.
The boys still had contact with their dad, and he continued to fight his addiction, until August of 2000, when he passed away of a massive heart attack, leaving the boys without a father at the ages of twelve and eight. It was a hard time for both of the boys, especially Michael. From that point on it was just my sons and I.
The boys’ teenage years went by without many problems. It wasn’t until Michael was about 20 that he had to have surgery on his shoulder. He was prescribed pain pills that he took over the next five months. I didn’t realize at the time that this was the beginning of his own long battle with drugs. Over the next couple of years I saw the signs, but didn’t know how to help him. He was so good at hiding and I was so good at denial.
In 2011, shortly before my first grandchild was born, Michael and his wife decided to move to Oklahoma. It was close to his wife’s family and they thought it would be a fresh start—a way to get Michael away from the drugs. The move was short lived they moved back in early 2012. Over the next years he struggled with his problems. He tried to quit numerous times, and looking back I realize that he had little support from me.
In 2013, he was arrested for drug possession. This is when I realized how bad it really was. He was put on parole, and at times I really thought he could beat this. But the drugs always called him back. The next year, I received a call at 4:30am one morning. Michael was somewhere he should not be and I had to come pick up my grandson Dale, or he would be placed in protective custody. Michael’s wife who had been out with friends that evening, decided that she would take Dale and move back to Oklahoma. Michael was admitted to Sigma House for help.
The next weekend I received a call from Steven. He had been having some medical issues, although we had no idea that they were serious. He said his side was hurting really bad and needed to go to urgent care. I had Dale at this time while Heather was at work, so he went to the doctor alone. When he called me later he was crying and saying that they found spots on his liver, pancreas and bones. They thought he had cancer.
After a 10-day hospital stay with numerous tests and scans he left without a diagnosis. This began the roller coaster ride of more tests, trips to the urgent care, and the emergency room. In April we were called with his diagnoses of a very rare form of cancer called neuroendocrine cancer.
In May before they had a plan of treatment for him he was admitted back to the hospital for pain control and uncontrollable throwing up. While in for this stay they found he had fractured two vertebras in his neck. They started him on radiation for the pain control a long with pain pills. I was not aware at the time, but they were not sure if he would ever walk again. The whole office clapped the first time he walked out with his cane. When he was released this time it was decided he should move back home with me.
I remember a story from before he moved in with me…Steven was out of the hospital for a short time and we learned that his roommate did not pay one of his bills. We were going to take care of this, but Steven was so mad it was so unlike him. He kept getting madder and madder. I finally stopped the car and asked him if he was really so mad about the unpaid bill or at what was happening to him. I told him he could either use all his energy for anger or to fight his illness.
Michael moved in with my dad at this time. He was still struggling with his own battles that I couldn’t understand. He told me many times he was just as sick as Steven. I could not see this. Steven had cancer and he was fighting like hell to live. He did not have a choice on what life dealt him. Michael had an addiction—something I thought was a choice. He was still on parole and had spent many 10-day stints in jail for not passing his drug tests.
I noticed that medicine was disappearing from my house, so I moved it to a different location and kept only what was needed for a few days at my house. I kept it all under lock and key. This was such a hard time in my life with both of my boys struggling. Steven fighting to live, Michael just trying to make it day by day.
During this time, I had so many people tell me that they were sorry and that they couldn’t believe we had to go through this. At this point it came to me—why do we ask why? We only ask "Why?" when we are dealt with something we don’t like. I never asked why I was so lucky to have healthy kids and a good job. So I decided “why?” wasn’t going to be a question anymore.
There were two quotes that got us through each day. The first is that you can’t control what life deals you but you can control how you react. The second is that you never know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice.
With the help of co-workers, family, friends, and complete strangers I was able to plan a trip for us to Colorado. Before we left, we found out the chemo was not working and Steven had blood clots in his lungs. I didn’t know what to do, but Steven wanted to go so badly. With permission from his doctors, we made it on the trip and had the best time. He was even able to walk through The Valley of the Gods.
Shortly after the trip he had to have a hip replacement at the age of 23, followed by a second one four months later. He endured many different chemo, treatments and procedures over the next several months. We decided not to ask for a timeframe because he wanted to fight this each and every day.
All during this time, Michael was struggling still with his own battles—things that I didn’t understand at the time. There were periods where I thought he was doing well, he managed to get off parole and find a job. But he just could not break free of the drugs. It was a constant battle for him and I just didn’t understand. I was doing everything I could for Steven. I just didn’t have any idea how to help Michael. It seemed like the more I did, the worse he got.
In July of 2015 Steven was admitted to the hospital for the last time. He lost his 17-month battle with cancer on August 5th 2015, surrounded by family and friends.
The loss of Steven was so hard on Michael. For about six months I really thought Michael had come to terms with his demons and maybe even conquered them. But in March of 2016 things really started to spiral out of control. He realized his marriage was over for good and he couldn’t hold down a job. When he finally did get one, the drugs only got worse because he had the money to feed his habit. He was still staying with my dad, but in February 2017 he called begging to come stay with me. I told him he could but he had to stay clean and get a job. I tried to help him, but how could I when I didn’t understand? He was struggling daily with his own demons. On May 7th 2017 Michael lost his battle with addition.
This is what I read at his funeral:
As you all know now I have lost both of my boys, one to cancer and one to addiction. I would like to share a few of my thoughts.
When Steven was told he had cancer we asked for help, prayers and support.
When Michael realized he had the addiction it was covered up with shame.
As Steven started his walk he was so brave & strong to be fighting this awful disease.
As Michael started his walk it was with shame, guilt, and disgust with himself. He felt so alone.
As the cancer progressed, Steven had more & more support. He was fighting cancer - you have to be strong and brave.
As Michael’s addiction progressed he was thought of as weak, not in control. The shame and agonizing guilt was so overwhelming for him.
As for me the stigma of addiction is to hide it, cover it up and maybe it will go away. You try to keep it as private as you can. Who wants the shame of this disease…remaining silent is wrong.
As I stand here today, the only way we can fight this disease is to open up and talk about it. I want to share my story because this awful disease is leaving too many childless mothers and fatherless children.
You were loved Michael and will be greatly missed.
I miss both of my boys each and every day. I wish so much that I could have done more for each one.
What I feel most guilty about with the boys is that if a doctor would had told me they had anything that may have helped Steven, but it cost $100,000 I would have done anything to get it done. But with Michael I’m not sure what I would have done. With Michael, I was waiting for him to realize how big of a problem he had and for him to fix it. I said before that I loved my son but hated the addiction he had become. That is what I feel I did wrong with Steven...he was still Steven fighting this awful disease. With Michael I couldn’t separate the addiction from my son. I wish that I could have... maybe it would have made a difference.
I want everyone to know that I would not change anything, if this is the only way I could have them. I was blessed with both of them and no amount of pain or grief could ever replace the joy, love and memories both have brought to my life. My life and future was rewritten with the passing of each of my sons. I have to make a choice each day to get up and enjoy the happiness I still have in my life because I know that is what each one of my sons would want. I still have many bad days. And not a day goes by that I don’t think of and miss each of my boys, but I try and use my energy to fight what is dealt to me not for the anger that would destroy me.
Thank you for being my sons. I will love and miss both of you forever.
I also want to say thanks to Compassionate Friends (a non-profit helping grieving families) for the wonderful support, With you I haven’t had to walk alone.