By Theo's mom, Violeta
East Hampton, New York
October 7, 1989 - May 17, 2015
Just One Life
If there is anything worse than losing a child, it is losing a child to a drug overdose, because grief is often accompanied by judgement and blame. It is a gut-wrenching thing to watch your child suffer at their own hand.
Losing a child to addiction means you didn’t get to say goodbye. It means that (if you are brave enough to be truthful about the cause of death) every day you have to deal with the stigma that surrounds addiction. You question every decision--you look for what you did wrong, what you didn’t say, why you didn’t have the sense that something was wrong. You look back over the years and dissect each part of their life – scanning for clues. You look for places to lay blame but mostly you blame yourself. You find an online group of mothers just like you, where there is no judgement and everyone has the same questions and feels the same pain. You force yourself to read the coroner and toxicology report hoping there is an answer there. And you cry — a lot.
I lost my son Theo, when he was 25 years old to a fatal combination of heroin and Fentanyl. I remember him as a warm, open, loving, bright, intelligent and handsome man. He had a huge laugh and a fabulous smile.
He was an outstanding athlete and won many trophies and awards. He played linebacker in football and love it. He was also gifted intellectually and an honor roll student in high school.
A tattoo on his wrist read “Just One Life." He lived with wild ambition and no regrets.
Theo was a brilliant storyteller and always found a way to make you laugh. He seemed to make friends wherever he went and in turn, he made everyone feel welcome. He loved his little brothers with all his heart. He was a loyal friend to many.
We were very, very close. Even during his years of drug use, he and I never became distant from each other. It was torturous at times, but the one thing that was always apparent was that he loved his family and his family loved him - no matter what.
He’d say, “I love you Mom, I am sorry Mom…”
Theo started smoking pot during his last years of high school. At the time, friends told me that all the kids were smoking pot and I never imagined that his drug use would progress to pills and then cocaine. We believe his addiction started about seven years ago, but it’s hard to say for certain because this disease entered our home slowly and quietly. Over the course of those seven years, he experimented with a variety of drugs, including his final drug of choice, opiates. Theo tried hard to stop many times. He felt broken and guilty for the hurt he inflicted on me and his little brothers. He once wrote about the “fairytale life” that he had screwed up so badly, and towards the end of his life his self-esteem was completely eroded. He always took responsibility for what he did.
When his behavior started to hurt the ones he loved the most, he decided it was time to do something about it. On September 30, 2014, my son called me crying and asked for help. It was the first time he admitted to being addicted to drugs. Although I was shocked and heartbroken, I didn’t criticize him because I knew he was hurting. He said he hated living in addiction: “Mom, please help me! I will do anything to get out from this hole..."
He shared with me about how having a little fun at the age of seventeen had escalated into a full-blown drug addiction. He said how alone he felt despite the fact that he had so much love from me and so many others. Soon after our conversation, he entered a rehab.
I reached out to someone at the treatment facility about how I could best support Theo during his time there. The man said, "Theo is the most motivated person I have ever worked with.” He said that Theo’s desire to improve his life and his appreciation for the littlest things made him stand out, “if every person I tried to help had 10% of his motivation, a lot of families would sleep better at night."
He was motivated to get better but the system failed him; his lack of insurance prevented him from attending any dual diagnostic programs, especially those out-of-state, which limited his options. The available programs weren’t able to address his lack of confidence and ongoing feelings of letting people down. He needed intensive treatment and to be properly evaluated and for mental health issues. He was limited to one thirty-day inpatient program and then bounced around to several sober living homes, one of which he was kicked out of for using Facebook. He had been clean for about seven months when he relapsed.
They kicked him out of the halfway house in the middle of the night with a heavy bag of his possessions, no money and nowhere to go. Throwing people out of rehab or a sober living house for displaying the very symptom of their disease is nonsensical and dangerous. For my son, it was the perfect storm.
Theo was in Florida and we live in New York. After he spent two days on the streets, we found help and sent him to a treatment center in South Carolina. At the time, I didn't know that this facility also admitted drug dealers who were forced by law to be there as part of their probation. Being forced to go to rehab is a very different thing than going willingly. One person who was dealing drugs gave my son and two other patients drugs for free. They were kicked out and one week later my son was found dead after having used drugs from the very same dealer. He died in a shady motel room. That drug dealer is still on the streets.
The system in this country is broken and people are not aware. Kids are dying.
The numbers are appalling---about 47,000 people die from drug overdose annually in the U.S. That is more than the number of Americans who are killed in car accidents and gun violence combined. Half of those drug-related deaths are due to opiate drug abuse.
There has been lots of talk, some media attention, and little action to fight this epidemic, which shows no signs of abating. Legislation languishes, insurance companies still do not provide the coverage necessary, and the shame and stigma of addiction continues.
Watching a child battle with addiction is like a roller coaster; you learn to be hyper-vigilant, living always with fear. You have hope as well; as long as they are alive, you have hope he will get better. But the sound of the phone ringing at night makes your heart sink. His potential death is always in the back of your mind.
That fateful day finally came on May 17, 2015.
Friends flew across the country to be at his funeral. Incredible sadness about how his death might have been prevented permeated the air. Because of the embarrassment he felt, Theo never asked his friends for help.
All I have of Theo are memories, and of course his clothes and a few other things. It’s hard to hold a grave marker. What I miss most about my son is his affectionate nature, his great sense of humor, and the little things like hearing his feet bouncing up and down the stairs, the smell of his cologne— everything.
Children are supposed to bury their parents. Parents are not supposed to bury their children.
Not a day goes by that I don’t think about who my son would be, what he would look like, his wedding, his children – the bleeding never stops. There will always be an empty chair--empty room--an empty space in every family picture. Time can’t fill the space. Gone is still gone.
When you lose a child, nothing is ever the same again. Every facet of your life has a memory of your child. Every room in the house, every trip in the car, a song, a picture, a book, a walk in the park. There is a hole in your heart that will never be filled. You search and search for answers that just aren’t there.
To the kids reading this story: you are loved and have so much to give to the world. The temptation to abuse any kinds of drugs is very real, but the courage to resist that temptation is also very real. Ask for help.
To the parents reading this story: get informed, learn as much as you possibly can about addiction early on. Talk honestly about the risk factors of becoming addicted by experimenting with drugs. Talk about family history of alcohol or substance abuse. Show them your love, no matter what.
Death is not a time for blame, it is a time for reflection. We must get loud for the stigma and shame to end. In its wake, it is time to speak. It's time to stop pretending that substance use disorder is a choice, and it's time to stop shaming people who struggle with it. I believe that in order to end this crisis, those whose lives have been touched must share their stories.
The message is everywhere: be happy, don't take anything for granted, seize the moment, live life to it's fullest… “Just One Life.”