10/12/97 – 5/26/17
“Every addict was once a little child.” And quite the child Joseph Abraham was. He made quite an entrance into this world, almost being born in the parking lot of the hospital and barely able to hold on for my doctor to get there with no epidural for Mom of course! He made himself heard as his little voice screeched over everyone in that birthing room! Welcome to the world Joe. Little did I know, his demeanor was established well before I held him in my arms for the first time, as he proceeded to live his life just as he had come into this world, fast and furiously.
Joe adored his big brother Matthew from the get go. Matthew, 3 ½ years older, was the best brother around. He would sit with Joe while Mom tried to get the perfect picture, all the while Joseph barely cooperating as we took picture after picture. Yet, Matthew never got impatient with his little brother and he was always his biggest cheerleader. They always got along and never fought. They were each other’s best friends.
Life seemed just perfect through pre-K and elementary school and even into middle school. Matthew and Joe were thriving in their environments. They both excelled in school, participated in soccer and baseball, played the piano and had lots of friends, including one another. I remember thinking how fortunate I was to be able to raise my boys in an upper middle-class neighborhood with good schools. As a teacher, I was able to take my boys to school with me for several of their elementary years. We were together a lot of the time. My husband worked retail and then owned a small business, so between the two of us, our boys were always taken care of, even on weekdays when they needed to go to the doctor, my husband was always able to take off and be with them. Our family and our life were good. We wanted for nothing. Reflecting back now, I had no idea what was ahead of us. I never imagined our lives would be thrown into such turmoil and my husband and I were ill-prepared for what was about to happen.
Joe began playing baseball as a young boy, but then really began excelling at the sport in middle school. Although he was an incredibly talented athlete, he was very self-conscious about his weight. Around the age of 11, he already weighed 150 pounds. On the positive side, his strength and size contributed to his ability on the baseball field and he found his niche. By the time he was in 8thgrade, he had hit numerous homeruns and was a star pitcher and first baseman. His weight still remaining at 150 pounds, but now he was nearly 6 feet tall! In 8thgrade, he was big man on campus as a middle schooler…………….
smart, athletic, handsome and had a steady stream of girlfriends, but one in particular stole his heart. Joe appeared to have it all and seemed comfortable in his own skin. But suddenly things began to change. One of his best friends developed brain cancer and passed away within the year and then another classmate drowned in Lake Lanier. As his Mom, I knew that these deaths would be hard to handle and Joe struggled with the loss of his friends, naturally. But I didn’t realize the extent to which he internalized these losses. He lost faith in God and began cutting himself to alleviate the pain he was feeling. I remember the day I came home from work and he was sitting at his desk sobbing, his head in his hands, wondering why everyone was dying. I truly believe this was a turning point for Joe…………the trauma of these losses on his sensitive heart became more than he could handle.
I stumbled upon this assignment that Joe submitted for one of his high school classes. I found this after we lost him. It was in a folder on our computer. Here are his words describing who he is:
“I am Joseph Abraham. I go by Joe, Big Joe, Abe, Big Abe etc. My life consists of baseball, family, God, school, fishing, and my social life. I have been playing baseball since I was seven, that surprisingly isn’t that long, but last year I played on the Mountain View bears 8thgrade team, and we ended up ranking 7thin the state. In addition, I played with the varsity summer ball this summer. It is my passion. I’m a Christian, who enjoys the outdoors, from fishing to white water rafting. Lastly, my social life, our 9thgrade class is probably the class with unbreakable friendships. We all grew up fairly close, went to the same elementary school (Freeman’s Mill Elementary) and have lost some extremely close friends, two in 4 months to be exact. Ansley from brain cancer and Carlos from a drowning in Lake Lanier, this is a big part of my life because there isn’t a day, I wake up wishing they experienced what I do (there is a pink and grey ribbon on my book bag to honor Ansley).” The loss of his friends was constantly on Joe’s mind and in his heart.
The summer before he entered high school, we caught he and his friend drinking beer. At 14 years old, we assumed this was typical adolescent experimentation and discussed it with him as well as his friend’s parents. But when we later discovered he was smoking marijuana and was continuing to drink alcohol; our concerns became greater. He got into trouble when a group of he and his friends had a party and social media got hold of it. As a result, his baseball coach put them on probation and his girlfriend broke up with him. Joe was devastated at this and sunk into depression. He found that smoking pot took the pain away. The pain of the death of his two friends, the pain of losing his girlfriend, the pain from the insanity of the social media posts. As parents we knew we needed to act, but we didn’t know exactly how. Our first thought was to have him attend therapy with a private counselor. We felt that this would be a good step and we thought it was, but his struggles continued.
In retrospect, I know now, that a “switch was flipped” in Joe’s brain. His tendency toward addictive behavior and his use of substances indicated this, however as his parents, we wanted to believe it was just normal adolescent experimentation. So, we continued with traditional private therapy and we moved forward with life as we had always known it: school, baseball, family time. Trying to keep hold of what we always knew and not diverting from the expectations and dreams we had for both of our boys.
But the “snowball effect of addiction” was going on in the background of our lives, it had begun to discreetly rear its ugly head, creeping up on Joe and ambushing him before anyone realized it.
It’s a sneaky disease and everyone who loved Joe or cared about him was affected. It was a confusing and terrifying time. Joe continued to play baseball and excelled as a freshman, even playing on the varsity team. The pressure of playing up and trying to keep up with the big guys may have contributed to him trying to be cool. Drugs would alleviate his self-consciousness and one day I came home and caught him in the family room surrounded by some of his older teammates. I just froze, not knowing what to do. Thankfully everyone left, but Joe would allude my questions and deny my suspicions. This was just the beginning. When he was 15, he got his wisdom teeth out and was prescribed oxycodone for the pain. I remember him needing the pain killers and watching the clock for when he could take the next dose. He liked the feeling they gave him. As his Mom, I didn’t want to see him in pain. Plus, this was a prescription, to be taken as directed by his doctor. It was necessary, right? But I think these medications may have furthered his journey down the road of addiction and his discovery of prescription medications and the use of other pills to find that feeling he so desperately sought.
The next 4 years we battled and persevered through many hurdles and nightmares. Our hearts ached as we desperately searched for answers and what to do. This part of the story is so incredibly painful that I cannot even begin to share what our day to day lives looked like and felt like. Suffice it to say that our family was barreling down this path, the snowball effect was in full force, and we were hanging by a thread. We lived as firefighters, putting out constant fires, trying to pick up the pieces and rebuild as quickly as we could before the fires returned. Our life, including Joe’s, was a rollercoaster. The constant barrage of problems included car wrecks, police visits to our home (sometimes in the middle of the night), night upon night of sneaking out of the house, broken bones, felony charges, fighting, punching walls, destroying property, things from our home going missing, quitting high school, running away from home, calls from jail, and the list goes on.
As Joe’s parents, we didn’t know what to do. We were scared and ashamed and confused. We talked to him and had him go to a psychiatrist, who prescribed medications. But when your son is self-medicating over and above his prescription medications, it wasn’t long before they refused to treat him any longer. I spent hours upon hours researching treatment facilities and options. I looked into interventions and sought help at local recovery centers. Each time I ran into obstacles. These obstacles were primarily financial in that insurance would cover the detox portion of treatment, but not the rest. I remember being on the phone one day to my insurance company and the stress of it all washing over me. I began to cry while I was on the phone. The lady on the other end was so sweet and apologetic. I hung up thinking we were all alone in this battle and my teacher’s income combined with my husband’s small business earnings were not even going to come close to what it would take to get Joe into treatment. And then, the biggest hurdle of them all…………………. how to get him to agree to go. So, we continued with AA meetings and NA meetings and setting boundaries and putting out fires. In hopes that we could help him to get back on track.
As part of the “snowball effect,” Joe had landed in some legal trouble. His Dad and I knew that the trouble he was in was a result of drug use, but the charges did now indicate that. As a result, he had some pending court dates. Sadly, these dates kept being postponed and postponed. It was frustrating to have this hanging over our heads. However, in the midst of these postponements, Joe’s life seemed to settle down. He continued to smoke marijuana, but his goals seemed to come back into view. He aspired to go out west and work over the summer and he was interested in attending technical school. He held a steady job and was earning money. He was so excited to buy the fishing kayak he had been longing for and was beginning to gain some confidence and self-esteem. This went on for about 9 months and then the court summons came. It was the fall of 2016. Almost immediately, Joe’s stress levels began to rise and an increase of drugs was set in motion. I could tell that it was more than smoking pot. His personality would change, he became angry very quickly and would sleep for long periods of time.
On October 12thI came home from work with balloons and a cookie cake in hand. It was Joe’s 19thbirthday. Part of me knew that there would be no need for any fanfare whatsoever, but the Mama’s heart within me wouldn’t have felt right to not. I walked in the door at 4:00 in the afternoon to find Joe passed out on the family room couch. He didn’t rouse himself until much later that evening. When he awoke, he was disoriented. Upon seeing the balloons and cookie cake, he realized what had happened. In that moment reality hit, because for the first time in his young 19 years, he had missed his own birthday. He was upset and sad. We sat with him and talked to him in a way that resonated with him at last. He finally heard the pleas we had been making for almost two years. And then I heard the words come out his mouth, “Yes, I’ll go.” Sunday, October 16, 2016, Joe flew to Pennsylvania to be admitted into a 30-day treatment facility. He only agreed to go after he had a chance to say goodbye to his friends……………. which meant an all weekend bender. I’ll never forget the extremes we had to go to in order to get him on that plane. It was like walking in slow motion. I was certain it would not happen. Joe is 19 years old, I explained to the Delta agent in the airport, but he is in need of assistance to get to his gate. I am thankful for the kindness of strangers as this woman approved for us to help him. There were moments in the security line that I had to grab him and hold him up. He was so completely out of it. I truly don’t know to this day how he made it, but he did. My husband and I just stared at the opening to the gate as he walked down the ramp to board the plane. We didn’t move until we were certain that he was on that plane. There was no turning back.
As a parent of a child with substance abuse disorder (SUD), you always carry hope within your heart. This hope always lead me to believe that there was no hurdle that we could not overcome. I always took it one step at a time and began living life just that way. Approaching each problem as it came and knowing that somehow, we would fix things and life would eventually be okay. No other thought ever truly crossed my mind. It was not a matter of if, but a matter of when we would get through this and come out on top with a bright future in sight. Joseph finally agreeing to treatment and getting the help he needed was a huge step, one that I felt cautiously optimistic about. I had never been away from him for longer than a week, nor had he been away from home for very long, so it was very difficult to see him go. But I knew this was a step in the right direction, so we stood strong and supported him even though at times he wanted to cash it in and come home. He knew he couldn’t. While Joe was in treatment, we began to see life settle down at home. The intense rollercoaster we were riding, slowed down and we had some time to breathe. We spoke to Joe regularly via phone and he seemed ok-ish. Some calls he was more optimistic than others. As the 30 days were coming to an end our anxiety levels began to rise again. What next? We trusted the folks at Just Believe and knew that it was too soon for Joe to come home, but we were caught in a financial trap, especially with the insurance limits. Just Believe was wonderful though. After realizing that our insurance did not cover his treatment, they issued Joe a scholarship for his time there. Something I did not know existed.
The next step is one I will forever question in my mind for the rest of my life. The initial decision was made with all the best intentions from a family that was trying to do the best thing for their son as he worked through recovery. We found a sober living home in Asheville, NC. There is a big recovery community there and we felt good about having Joe closer to home and in a beautiful environment. The cost was pricey but we were determined to make it work. In retrospect, I wish I had known more about the sober living option. Things started out pretty well, but began to stall out as time passed. I’ll never forget the phone call after Thanksgiving. Joe told us about some guys from the group that were drinking off campus. He was determined to work it out and let the house manager know. He assured us he was going to take some leadership in the situation and we believed him. Somehow, I’m not so sure that happened. We all have that nagging feeling at times where something just isn’t quite right but you can’t put your finger on it. We got the call after New Year’s Eve that Joe had been cited for underage drinking. He then proceeded to get in a fist fight with another guy in the house. Consequently, he got kicked out of the sober living home………………. I’d wished someone had told me that relapse was part of the process. Somehow I wasn’t prepared for that news. Amidst the turmoil and trying to find another place for Joe to live, he got picked up by the local police for failure to maintain his lane. Before we knew it, we were back on the familiar rollercoaster and our world was spinning. With Joseph’s legal troubles here at home in Georgia and now the violation up in North Carolina, he was in violation of his probation. We were advised by his new house manager to let him sit in jail up in NC. A decision that was extremely painful for us and for Joe, but we knew that we needed to do something and while we hated this option, we knew he was somewhat safe and alive. Shortly thereafter, he was transported back to Georgia and my son proceeded to sit in jail for the next 3 months. This time we had no choice.
Mother’s Day, May 14, 2017. I received the best present I could ever have. My son. I embraced him and hugged him after the longest period of time we had ever been apart. I had been yearning for this moment since last seeing him at Christmas. And ironically, he was released on Mother’s Day. I was both elated and scared. I worried what would come next. We had what we thought would be a good plan of support. Sadly, relapse came again. I had 12 days with my son. I wish I had know those would be our last. Would I have spent them differently? Probably. We tried to create a normal routine. As a teacher I was still in school. May 26thwas my last day. Joe’s brother was planning a trip home to spend a week with his brother. They were going to go hiking and camping and just be together. Joe visited North Georgia Technical College and was excited about the opportunity to go to college. We had the most amazing conversation after his visit. We sat outside until nearly 11:00 p.m. talking, sitting side by side and I had told him I loved him and he told me he loved me too. We woke up the next morning and both readied for work. I had an extra spring in my step that day. I’ll never forget it. That feeling of hope had returned and I believed life was back on track for all of us. Little did I know, that I would never see my son alive again.
On the morning of May 26thof 2017, I held Joe in my arms for the last time. My feisty, sensitive, handsome, intelligent 19-year-old son, my baby…. lifeless and cold. I instinctively grabbed a nearby blanket, trying to warm him and protect him. My body covering his as I sobbed and pleaded from the core of my being. Sounds coming from within me that I never knew could exist. In the early hours of May 26th, Joe made a fatal mistake. Purchasing what he thought was a small amount of heroin. He’d done it before, unbeknownst to me. He knew what he needed. Just enough to get him through the night. But fentanyl came into play. An instant killer. I truly believe that Joe never knew what hit him. We learned later that morning that his close friend and our neighbor also passed away on that same dreadful morning. Same dealer. Fentanyl.
I never ever thought I would lose my son to this beast. Our lives are forever changed. Somehow, I am still standing after 3 years. I don’t know how. But through Joe’s life and death, I have found my voice. The voice that stayed silent for all those years. Silence is not the solution. I know that Joe’s story has saved so many lives; some I know about and some I do not. I am so proud of you son.
Always in my heart.
Story by Kathi Abraham