By Justice's mom, Jennifer
Justice Briana Croutch
This is my daughter’s story…
My daugher, Justice Briana is one of the 144 people a day who overdose from a substance use disorder and has ultimately succumb to their disease.
I’m here to tell you her story in the hopes that someday another family won’t have to face this disease alone and deal with the immense scrutiny of stigma which is preventing critical education, treatment and care for people facing this disease.
The summer of 2014 was the first time heroin became part of the dialogue in my home. That was when I learned of Justice’s heroin addiction. It didn’t happen all at once, there were signs. But at the time I lacked the education on addiction and what it meant to be addicted to heroin -- the missing spoons, the weight loss, the long sleeves, and yes, the nodding out.
All these signs were what I believed to be of logical reasons. Justice was a full-time student in a dental program, with a 4.0 average. So her being tired and losing weight made sense with the late night studying sessions and missed meals. The spoons, well I honestly thought my kids were throwing them away. As a parent I wanted to believe that Justice was doing well and being honest with me. But in the pit of my stomach I guess I knew something was wrong.
“I am a heroin addict;” those four words were the most devastating words I had ever heard come out of my daughter’s mouth. Those words hit me like a ton of bricks. For 48 hours I laid in bed and cried. When I was finally able to find the courage to get out of bed, I stood in the middle of my room and thought what do I do now? Who do I call? And how do I make sense of what I believed to be the most horrific news a parent could face?
As I slowly started to navigate through this nightmare of a world I knew nothing about, I started to realize that there was not enough help or support out there. I knew I was alone. I didn’t know a lot about heroin, but what I did know drove me into an inconsolable panic. I was also fully aware of the stigma that surrounds heroin addiction and so for the first time in my life I felt what discrimination must feel like.
From the insurance company giving me the run around, to detox centers telling me with lack of empathy and compassion that no beds were available and to call back another time and sadly having to see the look on my doctor’s face when I discussed Justice’s addiction with him during an office visit. If this had been any other disease there would have been instant help and resources.
That discrimination led to feelings of shame and for the first time I felt like I had failed as a parent. I quickly came to realize that addiction isn’t like other diseases and we were better off staying silent.
I mean let’s face it, there are no cards from families or friends saying “thinking of you,” or surprise visits with offers of help. No. More often than not those friends and family members disappeared. They leave for fear that the effects and stigma of addiction will attach to them. This was a situation I quickly learned I was going to have to figure out alone. And for two years I dealt with my daughter’s addiction with little involvement from anyone. I perceived to be on the “outside.”
That fall of 2014, we were finally able to get Justice into a detox center and after 5 days they released her with a packet full of paperwork and numbers to call for a methadone clinic. I knew very little about heroin, but even less about methadone. I was nervous about this, but Justice reassured me that with this program she would be able to get back on her feet and resist the urge to use. I begged her to go into a treatment facility instead, but she refused. So every morning we drove into Hartford, CT and she stood in line to get her dose of methadone.
In the weeks that followed I slowly started to see my daughter again. The daughter before heroin. She cleaned herself up, she got a job, and she started talking about her goals again. I thought to myself, “Wow that was easy. We really dodged a bullet!” Boy was I wrong...
A few months passed and I started to notice some hauntingly familiar behaviors returning. Although Justice was still going to the methadone clinic every day, I noticed that she started sleeping all the time again, and what little weight she had managed to gain initially, was beginning to disappear. Her motivation to fulfill her dreams was once again gone. Methadone might help ease the cravings, but methadone by itself will not break the cycle of addiction. This is something I had to learn the hard way.
So here I was, once again trying to navigate through this world alone. Our lives were beginning to feel like scenes from the movie "Groundhog Day.” But this time I told myself I was ready for it, this time there would be no enabling, this time I was determined to find her the help she needed and I was sure this time we would put this nightmare behind us. I was wrong again. This time, it took weeks to get her back into a detox program and when she finally got into one she checked herself out after 3 days. I knew at that moment we were destined for a long and lonely road of heartbreak and misery.
For the weeks and months that followed, I think we truly lived through hell. The sickness, the mood swings, the missing items, the lies and manipulation; it was finally more than I could take. So in the spring of 2015, I gave Justice an ultimatum, get help or move out.
To my shock and dismay, Justice chose to be homeless over getting help. This was the very first time I realized the full scope of her addiction. This drug had such a hold on my daughter and as painstaking as this was I knew I had to let her go.
This was no easy task for a parent, but I was determined to let her hit rock bottom. This was the “tough love” approach that was ingrained in me as a kid growing up in the 80’s. The war on drugs and addiction was supposed to be eradicated by allowing the addict to lose everything that mattered.
During the spring and early summer of 2015 I saw my daughter on different occasions. Each time she asked for help and each time we were denied. Either insurance issues, lack of treatment beds, or because her dose of methadone was too high. The sad thing was Justice really wanted help, and each time she was denied. I had to watch her walk out the door never knowing if I would ever see her again -- if today was her rock bottom.
Well I witnessed Justice’s rock bottom on the morning of August 23, 2015. Rock bottom for those addicted to heroin is far worse than anything I had imagined. This was the day that my young, beautiful and free-spirited 21 year-old daughter suffered an anoxic brain injury after a sudden cardiac arrest due to a heroin overdose.
That morning Justice came to me for help. She needed her asthma prescription refilled, but also realized that she needed treatment for her addiction. On that premise, I allowed Justice to stay with me that day until we could find a treatment facility who would accept her. While waiting for a callback from a detox center, we decided to watch a movie. During that time that we had a really nice talk about her life. She once again talked about her hopes and dreams and about a life without heroin. This made her smile. It was the first time in a long time that we were able to spend quality time together without fighting about her addiction.
Not long after the movie started, Justice left my room to go play with her cat Max. After she left my room I decided to turn the movie off and get on with my day when I heard a terrible scream. I raced down the stairs to find Justice on the floor gasping for air. At that moment my instincts were to get her in my car and drive her to the emergency room, which is about 4 minutes from where I lived. On the way she begged me to run the red lights, which I did. I rubbed her back and in the calmest voice as I could muster, I told her everything would be all right.
As we pulled into the parking lot, Justice’s whole body seized, and I knew at that moment I was losing her. I ran into the emergency room and screamed for help. A triage nurse were there and followed me to my car. As I opened the car door, I saw her little face was blue, her body not moving and I screamed and begged God to not take my little girl.
All I remember from that moment on was being more scared than I have been in my entire life. I saw a whole team of people come outside trying to save my daughter’s life. I stood there helpless and alone. All I could do was look to God.
They saved my daughter’s life that day, but it’s been a very hard journey. Justice’s brain injury is so severe that the likelihood of recovery is very slim. More than likely I will have to make the decision to bring my daughter home with hospice care.
No parent should be faced with these decisions. If we had the proper treatment facilities, and the essential services to combat this epidemic maybe my daughter could have received the help she needed, or at the very least, with proper programs maybe, I could have been better equipped to navigate through this hell and not be intimidated by the fear, shame, and the stigma. Without the stigma we could build a better network of support services for both the families and the individuals struggling with addiction. Without the shame and stigma we could be educating our youth on prevention and teaching them how to navigate through a world that will often tempt them to follow the wrong path. Without the stigma of addiction families would no longer have to suffer in silence. We would no longer have to defend this devastating disease.
Heroin took my daughter. She was 21 years old. She had barely lived. Justice never owned her own car; she never traveled the world; she never married or had children; she won’t see her brothers grow to be good men, or meet her future nieces or nephews. My daughter will never dance again. She will never see an amazing sunset, or feel the warmth of the sun on her beautiful face. I will never hear my daughter’s beautiful voice again or hear her call me mom. Heroin took that all away. We all failed my daughter. All those times she reached out for help and was denied, we failed her. I have to live with this for the rest of my life. Justice was my only daughter. She was my girl, she was my dream, she was my everything.
I am sharing Justice’s story for several reasons, mostly because I believe that no other person should have to fight to get help for addiction in this country like my daughter did. I am also sharing her story because it is my way to honor her. It is my way to keep her memory alive. I had so many hopes and dreams for her. Hell, I’ve been planning her wedding since the day she was born. I am reminded daily that all those hopes and dreams are gone and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about how different life could have been. I miss my daughter more than I could ever convey in this story. Even when experiencing moments of happiness it’s right there, an immeasurable sadness just under the surface for all that I have lost.
I share my daughter’s story despite the immense scrutiny I may face with the hope that no other family will ever have to face what I have faced. Addiction is a treatable disease, and recovery is possible, but we need funding for the essential programs, services, and supports so more and more people can access treatment and sustain recovery. Until we improve access to treatment, overdose deaths will remain at historically high levels and heroin will keep flooding to meet the demand for it. It is time for us to come together and fight for those programs and services. It is time to save lives.
Please continue to have this conversation with others. Share Justice’s story, help me be part of the change by changing the way people think about addiction.