The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opioid addiction and overdoses in children devastate their parents

Vicki Bishop lost her son Brian to addiction. “His disease took over my life,” she says.
Vicki Bishop lost her son Brian to addiction. “His disease took over my life,” she says. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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“Brian has been dead for 136 days,” says his mother, Vicki Bishop. “I watched him die over many years, and it was a long, slow, horrible death.”

Her son’s decades-long battle with opioids blotted out the sun in her own life, says Bishop, 65, of Clarksburg, Md. It held her in the clenched fist of shock and anticipation shared by millions of American parents who are traumatized by a child’s substance use.

“I spent so many years in stages of anxiety and depression,” Bishop says. “I worried about Brian 24/7. His disease took over my life.”

This is the collateral damage of addiction, the impact on those who love and worry about the addict. Many parents don’t survive the midnight calls about arrest, overdose, violence, and hospitalization emotionally intact. Chronic exposure to the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol often manifests as what is sometimes called complex post-traumatic stress disorder, or C-PTSD, a response to a continuous interpersonal trauma in which the sufferer has been held captive, physically or emotionally. The symptoms include dissociation, explosive anger and a sense of hopelessness.

“The average parent is traumatized from ‘losing’ their child for years before it becomes a full-blown substance-use disorder, so the PTSD takes some time to form,” says New York neuropsychologist Sanam Hafeez, who studies post-traumatic stress disorder.

“This complex trauma,” she says, develops from “feeling like a failed parent and having to defend their child to others. It is stoked every time parents find themselves being lied to or stolen from, calling 911 or seeing their child unconscious — or worse.”

Bishop, who works at a law firm, says she grabbed at everything she could think of to deal emotionally with her son’s drug dependency. “I attended therapy to learn how to cope and determine which of my behaviors might be enabling. I read science-based and self-help books, I hid everything of value from Brian, I took anti-anxiety medication, and I did yoga to learn to relax. It is all exhausting.”

Addiction psychiatrist George Kolodner has seen firsthand the devastation wreaked on both addict and loved one. “I work with both sides, and the pain each of them suffer is so great,” he says. “But the parents’ pain is especially complex because they always seem to bear a feeling of responsibility — that somehow they could have done more.”

No relief

Debbie Santini of Sykesville, Md., has two young-adult sons struggling with opioid use — one in early recovery — and, like Bishop, she often finds herself overwhelmed emotionally.

She says she’s heard it all: “ ‘Mom, I wrecked the car, I need a detox, I need a rehab, I’ve overdosed, I’m in the hospital, I have an abscess on my face, I’ve been held up at gunpoint.’ You go through all the screaming and yelling and crying and worry, and it takes years off your life.” One of her sons, now 25, began snorting heroin early in high school; her other son, 23, was in a car accident at age 17 and released with an opioid prescription. His troubles flowed from there.

Santini, 51, who works for the Maryland Coalition of Families, a nonprofit support network, says she can never quiet her mind. “It never goes away,” she says. “I can be driving to the grocery store, cooking dinner or getting ready for bed — and I’ll have an instantaneous moment of panic about my sons. I start praying and then grab my phone to check on them.”

And she tries to think instead about the future: visualizing her children as happy, healthy, drug-free adults, married with a child or two. “I stay positive,” she says. “That’s truly the only way I can keep going. It’ll suck me under if I go the other way.”

She has a mantra that keeps her afloat: “Life is going to be good to my boys because it’s been so bad for a long time, and they deserve it.”

She also turns for support to a “very good group of girlfriends,” many of them struggling with similar issues. “We connect in moments of crisis when one of our children needs immediate assistance or when we just need to vent to each other. These relationships help keep me grounded and focused.”

Other parents

Peer support has helped many parents suffering from isolation and anxiety caused by their children’s addiction.

For the past six years, retired Phoenix police commander Kim Humphrey, 56, and his wife, Michelle, have shared fears, cautionary tales and suggestions at meetings of PAL — Parents of Addicted Loved Ones, a national network for parents and spouses. The Humphreys’ credentials as leaders, unfortunately, are solid: For at least a decade, they struggled with their sons’ addictions, which began when both were teens and eventually progressed from marijuana to crystal meth and heroin.

Well over 1,000 people have passed through the Humphreys’ PAL meetings by now — “and they come in total hopelessness,” says Kim Humphrey, who recently became the organization’s executive director. “All they anticipate at the end of the road is their child’s death, and they can’t imagine any way out of it.”

The physical symptoms of attendees can rival the emotional. “Parents develop heart problems they never had before, they have had strokes, they’ve been so sick they can’t even go to work,” he says. Humphrey himself missed weeks of work, and he and his wife reached a point where they didn’t even want to leave their home.

“People are so afraid that someone is going to ask them about their sons or daughters,” he says, “and they won’t know how to reply.” It happened to him, too, more times than he can count.

“I’ve had people say to me: ‘That’s really awful. What do you think you did wrong?’ I’d say, ‘It’s horrible, isn’t it? We’ve been trying to figure that out,’ and then I’d walk off and go, ‘I never want to talk to that person again.’ Because all I could think was that I must be the worst father on the planet. But I don’t know how, because just like you, we had a strong, stable family unit and raised our kids to know right from wrong.”

To cope, they attended PAL meetings, participated in therapy with an addiction counselor, and “focused on finding joy in our lives, regardless of the choices of our sons.”

The tide turned for the Humphreys when their sons finally were ready to get off the drugs. Now ages 26 and 30, the sons have been in recovery for the past four years, one working in technology and the other in addiction treatment; he’s now also a homeowner and an adoring father.

“They are the kind of sons I always wanted,” Humphrey says.

And the constant anxiety and constant worry that his sons might relapse have finally ebbed. “The reality is that those thoughts pop into your head every once in a while,” Humphrey says, “In the past, they’d stay there and it would take a while to shake them. But the more we practiced focusing on being grateful, the quicker the thoughts left.”

Not so fortunate

In Vicki Bishop’s case, her son Brian Meyer’s struggle with substance use began early. “Brian was 15 when I first became aware that there was an issue,” she says. “It was alcohol. I knew we were in trouble even then.” After suffering a severe workplace injury in his late 20s, Meyer was prescribed opioids. Once that prescription ran out, he found heroin and soon had job trouble, was often homeless and always was physically and emotionally fragile.

Bishop’s continual anxiety and worry was exacerbated by her feelings of isolation. “There are a lot of judgments out there against people who have addicted children,” she says. “When you’re walking around with a secret, your stomach is upset all the time, your heart is always pounding. You feel a lot of ‘Why my son?’ ”

Bishop spent years being ground down, she says, always on high alert anticipating “the call.” When he fatally overdosed on Halloween last year, she says, “I felt my heart burst.”

While her son’s death has released Bishop from the roller coaster of dread, “there’s no great sigh of relief except maybe the knowledge that your child is no longer suffering,” she says. “Really, it’s just a difference in the way that you’re having to deal with it. Now I’m just trying very hard to breathe.”

Some good news in the fight against opioid overdose deaths

‘When did it all begin to fall apart?’ A son’s addiction and a mother’s guilt

Unseen face of the opioid epidemic: Drug abuse among the elderly grows

Nearly 1 million people were out of the workforce because of opioid addiction in 2015