John Leif Trang – 03-10-89 to 08-02-14
John Leif, known as JL, was smart, charismatic, and fiercely loyal. Born as our second child six years after his sister, he grew up with lots of love expressed by affection, time spent together, and opportunities given. My husband, John, and I were intentional in our parenting and I taught our kids at home for their early grades. JL was a typical boy who liked cars, swimming, paintball, and off-road adventures.
When JL was 12, we moved him from a small private school to a public middle school with 800 kids. At a time when having a peer group is so important, he had none. So he became friends with other new kids. His closest friend became the person who introduced him to opiates in 8th grade.
By the end of 9th grade, he was using them regularly – and we had no clue. At this time, in 2004, we had not even heard that kids were using Oxy’s. In June 2005 at the end of 10th grade, we were stunned to learn JL was smoking black tar heroin, or BT. For the previous few months we had noticed our sons’ personality had changed from an agreeable and respectful son to someone who was easily angered and frustrated. Now we knew why.
Thus began a journey of trying to find out what to do for a 16-year-old who is addicted to heroin and how to find a program to help him recover that was not $50- $100,000. So he went to a teen outpatient program in town. He was clean for 2 ½ years until an accident that resulted in a body cast and opioids. When the doctor stopped the prescriptions, he began buying Oxy’s on the street, but switched to BT because it was so much cheaper.
After several attempted recoveries in 12-step programs and the inevitable relapses, we realized that he needed to be in sober living. He began one out of town in 2013 but at the end of 6 months, relapsed again. He went to another sober living house in Tucson but the house manager was dealing BT and JL started using it IV. When a friend overdosed and died that Christmas, JL said he never wanted to use again.
January 2014, his addiction doctor told us JL could not relapse again and live because “heroin is the cancer of addictions.” We were given the option for him to use medicated assisted treatment (MAT) with Suboxone but due to no mental health insurance coverage and our fatigue, we encouraged our son to “just try harder” and go to another sober living program, which he did.
That spring, we had our son back. He was clear-eyed, working two jobs, and seemed to enjoy life. In June, his wisdom teeth were impacted and infected. He did not want to tell the doctor he had an opioid addiction problem and for reasons we still regret, we allowed him to have opioids before and after the surgery. During those weeks, unbeknownst to us, he began using BT IV again. He moved in with a friend, who did not use drugs, and that night they were drinking. Sometime in the early morning hours, JL went to his room and used heroin, overdosed, and died. Alone. When his friend broke into his room hours later, he was slumped over with a needle still in his vein.
Our hearts broke and our lives were shattered that morning. Although parents and friends of people with Substance Use Disorder (SUD) know that death lurks close by, we are never prepared for when it happens. We made the decision the first day to be completely honest about what happened to our son through social media. At his memorial, several hundred people came, including all of his friends, to remember and honor our son. Our way to help maintain our sanity and grieve well was to keep a daily journal together. It was natural for John and I to write to our son because we knew his spirit lives on and, we had so much we wanted to say, so much we didn’t understand. At the end of the year, we had a remembrance gathering with lots of his friends where they shared memories and we gave away many of his possessions. I also began turning our journal into a memoir with the hope that sharing our story well would help to reduce the stigma and shame that so many families feel, to help those who have lost loved ones as they grieve, and to help bring awareness to the devastating consequences of opioid and all drug addiction to those raising children in this perilous world.
Story by Jude DiMeglio Trang