RALEIGH (WTVD) --It's hard to overstate the magnitude of America's heroin problem or the emotional wreckage it's left behind.
ABC11's I-Team talked to four parents of addicts with different stories and in different stages of their children's drug abuse. They live in Raleigh, Apex, Dunn and Erwin - but their stories could be recounted in any city or small town here in North Carolina or across the country.
Do you know someone struggling with addiction? Click here for help.
Together, these parents paint a disturbing picture of the rocky road that is heroin addiction; their reflections, however, offer a map of sorts about how to cope when addiction hits home.
"Heroin? Not my child!"
To the parent, there was a basic lack of understanding - and lack of willingness to understand - their children's problems.
"My idea of a heroin addict is like, you know, in the movies, somebody in a room, I mean, in an abandoned building or in an alley with a needle up their arm and spoon and lighter, that's my idea," said Lorraine Dumas, a mother from Raleigh who's teenage son is in active recovery in Arizona.
"Many of us parents of addicts struggle with the term addict," Dumas confided. "And it takes a while. I mean, once you have irrefutable proof that this is what they're doing, you can't really deny it. You have to come to terms with it, but it is difficult. It's very hard to accept that, 'Yes, this child who was a happy-go-lucky child, a very smart student, good friend, great son, funny, turned into an addict. How did that happen and why did my other two did not?'"
Amy Hartley is a mother from Erwin whose daughter is in Florida and, on any given day, may be in recovery or may be in relapse. She remembers never believing what she was seeing, even when it was right in front of her.
"I could never face the fact that my child, growing up like she did, could ever use Xanax or Oxycodone or smoking pot. Then I noticed she started going to school and skipping school. I didn't know what to do. I wasn't very good at facing reality. I just buried my head in the sand and thought, this was just going to get better. Then she dropped out of school."
"Many times I found stuff," Hartley continued. "And it was me. It was me not willing to face that my child that I raised in my family dynamics, church and school and people knew us, that my daughter was using drugs. She had me convinced, first of all, that it was everybody else but her. And I truly wanted to believe her. I didn't know that she couldn't go to school because she was withdrawing constantly from the lack of her Xanax or her Oxy or her drug use. The withdrawals were keeping her up and night, sleeping all day. She'd go to school and she'd leave. Until finally, everybody that was around her told me here it was, 'Amy, your daughter is doing drugs. Face it, it's OK. There's no shame in it. Quit trying to hide what you know in your heart is true.' And I did know in my heart. I just didn't know what to do."
It's a predicament faced by tens of thousands of families across the country. Here in North Carolina, heroin overdoses accounted for 364 deaths in 2015, up nearly 120 from the year before.
Nationwide, in 2014, more than 10,500 people died from heroin overdoses according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. According to another study by the CDC late last year, that number would jump more than 20 percent the next year, with the Tar Heel State seeing the second highest increase in the country.
Understanding it's more than "just a phase"
"Eventually we realized he had been trying weed," Dumas said of her son. "About 7th or 8th grade. So by freshman year, we thought, 'Well, it's a phase. Most people have tried it. He'll grow out of it. He's just, you know, experimenting.' But it became obvious that it started to be a daily thing and it was not a phase."
For Dumas, the understanding that her son had a serious drug problem came slowly. At one point, she said, another high schooler came to her door to say her son owed him a thousand dollars for heroin. Dumas says she still didn't fully accept it.
That changed when her son showed up at an ER on New Year's Eve with a friend who had overdosed.
"When we brought him home from the emergency room that day, I went and got a test kit and I tested him," Dumas shared. "And, sure enough, he had everything in his blood. Everything - cocaine, heroin, marijuana."
Amy Hartley also remembers when she realized it was worse than she was admitting.
"She had been calling me and telling me she wanted to kill herself and that she wanted to die. Her brother went out and looked for her and found her. He brought her home. She went up the stairs. Her brother and I went after her. She slammed the door. Her brother broke it down. She punched her brother and knocked a hole in her wall and i'm thinking, 'She's just, something snapped. So I called 911 that night thinking, 'She needs to go to the hospital.' The police came and she's just standing there like, 'Arrest me, I don't care. Arrest me.' And I'm telling her, 'Be quiet, be quiet. We need to go to the hospital.' And they tell me, 'She's high. She's on drugs. Do you understand?' And I'm like, 'No, she's suicidal.' I still didn't get it. I didn't want to get it."
At some point, like addicts themselves, their loved ones have to confront the truth of addiction and there are no ironclad rules for parenting addicts.
"You can't force an addict to recover," said Hartley. "You can take away their resources, and I'm at the point where I'm taking away the resources, but it's taken me several years to find out. And now her recreational use and then her addiction to various opiates has now turned into heroin. And I asked her a year ago, how that happened. I would ask her, 'Are you doing heroin?' 'Oh no, Oxycodone,' she'd say. 'I would never do heroin.' Until she moved away, had no resource for money and was introduced to heroin in South Carolina. She was living with a boyfriend at the time. And it's because it's cheap. 'Mom,' she'd say, 'you don't understand. When you have no money, it's cheap. I snorted it.' Now, I find out later it's IV use, every day. And that's when the reality hit. 'Wake up, mom.'"
"Before this happened to us," said Raleigh mother Lorraine Dumas, "we might have thought that a parent who had a child who was a heroin addict was a bad parent because they were not paying attention or they were not involved enough or whatever. And then boom it happens to us. It was really hard to admit. It's really hard for me to say my son or daughter or spouse is an addict because I know what people think."
There are ways out.. if addicts are ready
Dumas said when she found out her son had "everything" in his system, it was time to take drastic action. She signed him up for a "wilderness camp" out West. "We hired a transport company to come take him. They came at night, like at 4 in the morning and woke him up. They just woke him up and said, 'Get up, we're going.' No luggage, just the clothes on your back. That's it. And they transported him to wilderness camp in Utah. He spent 3 months in Utah in the middle of winter in the mountains with nothing but winter gear, you know, jackets, a tent. That was probably one of the most stressful, horrible nights of both my husbands and my life."
But Dumas said once her son was there, she felt a weight lifted that she hadn't even understood.
"You are not allowed to talk to them, the first couple weeks. Then after that, you only communicate via letters."
She said it was hard but a critical step toward bringing him back.
"I knew he was not causing trouble at home and he was also getting help. So that felt very good."
Steve Adams, an Apex father whose son Nate died of a heroin overdose last year, also sent him to a wilderness camp. It was years before Nate would overdose and more for behavioral issues, but Adams said it was a critical life experience for his son.
"When we realized there was a problem," Adams explained, "we explored wilderness camp and therapeutic boarding school, both of which he attended and both of which, I think Nate would tell you himself, changed his life very much for the positive. I encouraged him. I said, 'You have two choices. Someone comes in here in the middle of the night and they're going to take you and we won't know when you're coming back or you can look at it as an adventure. He looked at me and said, 'Dad, you're making the decision easy.'
Wilderness camp isn't for everyone, though. Amy Hartley considered it but couldn't afford it. Dana Johnson thought about it but figured her daughter would just leave, as she's done so many times at dozens of rehab programs.
It's not just the addicts who need help
Whatever remedy families turn to, Johnson stresses the addicts can't be the only ones involved.
"I don't struggle with the addiction that she deals with, but I have to as a parent. And I would tell any parent out there, everybody has to do what they feel like that they can live with. You listen and you draw off other parents; you draw from other people who've been in this experience. You listen to their stories. You see what's worked. Sometimes there's a lot of common denominators. Stay involved. Know what your kids are doing. Don't reach that point where you feel like, 'I've taught them, we've had the talk, we've talked about what to avoid, don't do drugs.' It's not a one conversation thing. Don't shelter them from it because it's real. It's a real epidemic that's all around. This stuff is everywhere. And it only takes one time."
"My husband and I both worked the steps," said Lorraine Dumas. "It's part of the steps to accept that your child has a problem and you have a problem. Because you become involved in all this drama. So you're both sick. You're all sick. It affects the whole family. My daughter was very angry. My husband was very angry. I was more concerned than angry, and disappointed. But it's what you have to deal with. It's the hand you're dealt, so you have to deal with it."
The signs: what to watch for
For many parents struggling with kids on heroin or opioids, the signs are there even if parents aren't fully grasping them.
"Watch the grades," Hartley implored other parents. "Watch their friend groups. Their friend groups could be the best in kids in the world and these kids are all still popping pills on the weekends. Talk to other parents. Know where they're going. Talk to the parents. Verify where they are. I wish I had been a better detective. Even though it was right there in my face, I was just, 'Oh no, this isn't hers. This isn't hers. Because it could never be my child. And now it is my child. And it's life or death."
"Look at their telephones," advised Dana Johnson. "Look at their computer usage. Make a point when you're going through their laundry to be looking through their pockets. Look in their rooms. Be attentive. Who are they talking to on the telephone? Who are they hanging out with? What's interesting to them right now? Where is their focus at? Because that's the only way you're going to know."
"There is no privacy," Hartley agreed. "We've raised kids that everything is their private business. I'd become a much better FBI/CIA detective. There would be no privacy. I've had moms tell me, 'Take the door off the hinges. If they don't like it, take the car. Take the phone.' I would have enacted a lot more consequences. I gave her no consequences."
Lorraine Dumas agreed and offered this advice as well:
"Keep your ears open and if you hear somebody tell you that they've seen your child do something or they heard your child was doing something, don't automatically dismiss it thinking, 'Oh, not my child. Don't do the ostrich thing and pretend it's because you're a good family because you see yourself as a good parent, or not of a particular ethnic group or a particular economic status, that it's not going to happen to your child."
Dealing with relapse
Parents coping with a child on heroin agree it's never really 'over.' That's something, they'll tell you, that people who are just coming into this crisis need to accept.
"In a matter of two or three years, we probably hit 38 different treatment centers," Johnson said. "We've tried every kind of treatment center there is. One run by a Christian foundation, a wilderness type, we've tried them all. We've tried halfway houses. Probably one of the hardest days of my life was leaving her by the side of the interstate at a Burger King with nothing but a backpack and a cell phone."
"I could not bring her back to my home," Johnson said bluntly. "I have a younger child. And I'm not going to live that way either. I work hard. It's my home. I'm not having drugs in my home."
As Amy Hartley reflected on her daughter's frequent relapses, she said, "It's almost like it's a comfort factor for her to not have to be responsible right now. It's a lifestyle."
"I'd lay my life down if I thought it would save hers. I really would. But you're not going to take my life because you're not doing the right thing. If she were dying of needing a kidney, heart, anything, I'd give it to her. If I thought it would make her life more productive and happy. I'm not there because I know treatment is available without my life being given for it.
"And there are wonderful treatment facilities," Hartley continued. "You can send them to the Betty Ford Clinic or wherever you want to. Until they are ready and they've had enough, they're not going to do anything. They want to but the addiction and the grip is so strong. It hijacks their brain. It takes at least 90 days to get through part of the hump and after that 90 days, if you can keep them clean and keep them focused and structured, the brain does start to heal. But it takes sometimes a year or two before the brain starts to heal."
"As a parent," Johnson said, "you just want to take that addiction away. You want to take them and shake them and say, 'Wake up! Why would you do that? Why would you do that?' And she says, 'Do you really think I want to be this person?' With the tears coming out of her eyes, you could see through her soul. 'I don't want to be this person,' she said. 'I don't want to be this person. I just don't know how to beat it. I've tried and I don't know how to beat it."
A parent's greatest fear: what they don't know
"I'm still a mother that fears for her daughter's life every single day," Hartley said about her daughter, who's still on in Florida bouncing in and out of rehab. "I fear that she might get down there and get raped, get beaten, get robbed. She has nothing. There's trade down there. The girls down there are getting abused, picked up off the street. When you're ready to use, you will go to the end of earth to get their fix. I just wish they'd go to the ends of the earth to get their recovery."
"Things go through your mind as a mother," said Dana Johnson. Her daughter is also in Florida and, like Harley's daughter, might or might not be sober on a given day.
"Is she going to be kidnapped?" Johnson wondered. "Is she going to be picked up for female trafficking? Is she going to overdose and her friends get scared and throw her body behind a dumpster? Or just leave her in a room for housekeeping to find. These are not things that don't happen. They happen. They're very real."
Getting through it
But there are also parents who may want to trade places with those who live with those fears because their own children are no longer alive.
"The biggest problem kids have is that they're immortal in their minds," said Steve Adams, who's 26-year-old son Nate died from a heroin overdose last year. "It's never going to happen to them and that's why they smoke, drink, and do so many things that as parents, we sit back and gasp. We're haunted by the fact that number one, we probably did the same thing and lived through it but still terrified now that we understand through years of wisdom what the implications are going to be. Heroin is fatal. Period. And kids don't understand that or the long-term impact."
Unlike many of the other parents the I-Team spoke with for this report, Adams doesn't think his son was an addict. He said Nate never lost weight or displayed any of the tell-tale signs of an addict. Adams said his son's death took him completely off guard, but he also acknowledged his own possible oversights as a parent.
"It wasn't until after his death and I was going through his text messages and his emails," Adams said, "that I saw the evidence from the conversations he was having, text and email, and that clearly, drugs were beginning to become a big part of his life. Now, at his age - 26 - I wasn't looking for signs like I would if he were 16, 17, 18, but I saw nothing. This was a total surprise for us. And I obviously wonder, what did I miss? what could I have done to prevent it had I seen something? But I truly did not."
Most parents will see signs. And as those we spoke with said the key is facing up to them.
"As strong of a woman as I feel that I am in so many other areas of my life," Hartley said, her voice trailing off, "when it came to her..." Hartley paused. "Weak," she finally said, "weak. I was her puppet. I didn't want to face the reality. And now that I'm realistic, I'm like, 'Oh God, is it too late? Coulda, shoulda, woulda? Yeah, if I had to do it again, I would do it a lot different."
"They have a sickness," said Johnson. "You don't just quit loving someone because they're sick. Does that mean you support their habits? No. Does that mean you enable them? No. But you can still love them. And you can still bring them back to treatment. Always keep pointing them to recovery. You don't know that it's not going to be the time that makes a difference and saves their life."
That's a message that Johnson said her daughter wanted to get out to anyone touched by this story.
"She had a message for me to share today," Johnson said at the end of the interview. "She said to give the program a chance. To try to work recovery. Because all the other stuff is still going to be here. It's not going anywhere. So if you give it a try, what have you lost? You've not lost anything. Because the drugs and the streets and all the things that come with it, they're not going anywhere. They're still going to be here. You know, it's going to be here but you're not. So give it a chance. You just can't flip a switch. All we can do is keep trying, you know? That's straight from her. She said encourage every parent, every grandparent, every mom, every brother, every sister, to keep encouraging to go to treatment. Don't give up."
Do you know someone struggling with addiction? Click here for help.
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