I was catching up with an old friend recently when the conversation took a turn. We began to discuss the current opioid epidemic that is sweeping the nation. No longer is it a distant third-person account, told in one of those “I know a guy whose friend…” ways, but instead it’s a personal battle or the often heartbreaking experience of watching the ones we love deteriorate into nothing. Stolen from us by this beast of a disease.
I confided that night — at about 11 p.m. or so — that I never expected to see my beloved cousin, “my Timmy,” alive again. That the childhood best friend I had looked up to the entire first half of my life was too far gone after so many years of battling his addiction. I was heartbroken.
Little did I know, he had already overdosed for the last time earlier that afternoon. His battle was over. We just didn’t know it quite yet.
Expecting the news didn’t make receiving it any easier. Our family was devastated. Full of questions that grieving families always have: “What if?” “How did it get this bad?” and “Did we really do everything we could to save him?”
Still, as we mourned the loss of our 31-year-old son, brother, nephew, and cousin, we couldn’t help but remember and reflect on the outrageously goofy, sweet, big-eared boy with the thick glasses who still lived inside our memories.
We didn’t understand — because we didn’t battle. Our fight to regain the Timmy we remembered was nowhere near the inner-depths of hell that he fought every day to stay clean for just one week. Or day. Or hour.
For almost half his life, Timmy battled his demons while still trying to grow into the man he so desperately wanted to be. He was an all-star athlete, with a heart almost as big as his muscles, and still, addiction was stronger.
After Timmy’s death, his mother found a letter he had written to himself almost 21 months prior in a small drawer, next to an old Bible and a list of daily to-dos. He was broken. He was wounded, but for that small amount of time, he was clean. As his older brother would later say in his eulogy, “In his moments of clarity, Timmy knew he had a disease, and he wanted so badly to beat it.” His words now come to us as a rare, beyond-the-grave testament to the frame of mind of someone with a substance use disorder, far too often in their last moments of life:
I AM STRUGGLING…BAD!
Inside I’m screaming. There isn’t a day where I wake up and think about where I’m at in life. I really hate myself! I feel so completely out of place, that it disgusts me. The pain I’ve endured isn’t going away and it’s driving me crazy. A lot of times, I don’t feel like going on anymore. I’M COMPLETELY DRAINED. I’m so sick of hurting, man.
I mean…let’s honestly look at where my life is, right now. It’s literally pathetic. One week from TODAY, I’ll be thirty years old. I have not had a driver’s license in over nine years. For nine miserable years I’ve had to rely on other people for rides. I’ve had to beg for rides. I’ve walked thousands of miles just being stuck in my own head. I was never able to have my own schedule where I could just get up and drive or just go. How is it physically & emotionally possible to get ahead in life if you’re unable to get up on your own and just go? Everywhere I’ve lived, I’ve felt trapped…I AM TRAPPED! I couldn’t even complete college. All that money my parents forked out for me to receive an education and I couldn’t make that happen. Once again…letting down my family! Football? Well that’s just a bad dream. The sport I was really good at… my passion, my love… well, I messed that up too. It kills me and I know it really hurts my Dad. I guess “other things” were more important than playing football. Relationships? I’ve completely ruined. The people I’ve hurt over the years makes me so sick. Ever since High School I’ve always felt behind the “eight ball.” Always and constantly playing catch-up. Over the years, you slowly fade away. The negatives start to override the positives and then you accept it. You literally accept failure. Failure is all I’m used to…it’s all I know. It’s like I expect it! Honestly, I don’t know what it’s like to succeed at anything. I’m a thirty-year-old degenerate junkie!
Listening to Timmy’s words, I looked around the room at my family, most of whom were also hearing the letter for the first time. My eyes narrowed sharply on my uncle — his dad, a former football player himself — as the words “I know it really hurts my Dad” seemed to sucker punch him out of nowhere.
This seems to be a common theme in families across the world — the notion of “disappointment” from their loved ones who are struggling this way. In fact, we were never disappointed with Timmy, but sad. Just sad. It was hard as a family, all of us in our different roles, to watch his fall from grace, until like he said, he “slowly began to fade away.”
Now, being an addict has just taken its toll on me. Addiction has chewed me up and spit me back out. I wasn’t raised to do DRUGS. I was taught and knew how bad they were. But somehow, I got myself involved. Drugs have completely ruined me emotionally, physically, & spiritually. My relapses have beaten me up time and time again. The last five years have been such a nightmare that I’m having a really difficult time getting over the things I’ve seen and witnessed. The things I’ve done to my family and friends. The horrible people I’ve surrounded myself with… I don’t even know where home is anymore! I’ve lived in four states in the last five years. My head is spinning. Due to this awful experience, I’ve become a RUNNER. I’m so used to picking up and leaving. The number of towns I’ve lived in is over twenty-five. The amount of people I have met on this horrible journey that lost their life to this disease is ridiculous. So many people I’ve known throughout the years are DEAD! It’s affected me in a big way. So from twenty to twenty-five years old, I was in college. I kind of have an excuse for being a nobody. Now twenty-five to thirty… WOW, I’ve accomplished nothing. The only thing I’ve gained over the past five years is PAIN. The pain is now so great. I don’t know how to handle it. It all comes down to how bad life hurts and how bad I truly have screwed up my life. I am a nobody! I’ve amounted to nothing. I’m only existing!
It’s true — he was only existing anymore, constantly in and out of halfway houses, rehabs, and various seedy situations, losing friends, and having nothing to call his own. The physical toll of drugs is often chalked up to lost brain cells and weight loss, but there’s more to it than that: depression, anxiety, panic, severe and painful constipation, contracted infectious diseases due to sharing needles, rotting teeth, decreased sexual abilities, poor mental health, and a weakened immune system. Think about the compounding effect all of these things have on a fragile person’s psyche. Think about watching your son or daughter crumble into nothingness.
He kept going:
I basically have no friends. I am so lonely and because I can’t drive, I can’t just get up and drive to hang out with my brother and his kids. I can’t even be a normal Uncle. I’m the Uncle with a dead-end job who has no car and can’t afford to buy them Christmas gifts. I’m pathetic! I keep making the same mistakes, repeatedly. I know the consequences and I’m scared. I don’t know if I have anything left. I’m completely gassed out. I’m so tired of fighting. I’ve just lived way too long of a hopeless & miserable life. It’s complete bullshit and I’m so sick of it. I’m beyond tired. I’m beyond fed up with myself. I hate myself… I honestly hate myself! I have this huge heart! I’m such a loving person, but it gets me nowhere. I just endure more pain. If I were to get married tomorrow, who would be at my wedding? I literally can’t even think of five friends who would show. Do you know how embarrassing that is? Ok, what if I died? Who would honestly be at my funeral? When you think about these things it really screws you up in the head.
“OK, what if I died?” hung in the air, only interrupted by sounds of heavy breathing and wails of pain. Everyone in the room was clutching someone or something — fighting back the urge to lose it all. He was a loving person — silly and funny, always trying to make people laugh. Finally understanding how deeply he hated himself was painful, knowing all that could’ve been for Timmy. Like so many others addicted to drugs or alcohol, their lives and potential are cut short even before death ends the pain permanently.
But here’s the thing: We would always be there. Sure, everyone had to go on with their lives — especially as we got older, and jobs, kids, and our own goals began to take center stage — but his wedding? I’d be front row. And his funeral…well, I sat second row behind his brothers for that. To those who ever wonder “Who would be there?” — the line is probably longer than you think, and even in your deepest moments of pain and darkness, there are people begging to help pull you through. There are people who love you and want you to be happy.
So to answer his questions: Yes, Timmy, we would be there. We’d all be there.
And finally, he said:
I’m so SCARED right now! I hate myself for messing up, AGAIN! I’m really having a difficult time seeing how I get out of this mess. I’ve made a mess of my life. My situation sucks and I can’t stand what I’ve done to my life. Is GOD not on my side? What do I need to do? I keep falling and don’t want to get back up. Why keep fighting? Should I keep fighting just to exist?? Well, I’ve taken one hell of a beating. I’m completely beat up! I’m still trying my hardest to go to meetings and reach out to people. I’m just so scared for my Mom. She doesn’t need to witness me falling off… if I do. She doesn’t deserve it. I love my Mother more than anyone in this world. She is the only GOOD thing I have left in my life. Man, I’m just so tired of this nonsense. I hate having to struggle every second of my life. Something good or positive needs to happen in my pathetic life. SCREW THIS PAIN!
In talking with Timmy’s mom about sharing his letter, her immediate response was a resounding “Yes!” Both her and my uncle (Timmy’s dad) had already decided to forgo the sugarcoated version surrounding Timmy’s death. What good would it do? Who would benefit that way? Instead, she opened up to me about the daily struggles of loving a child who is literally losing their life right before your eyes — the anger, the pain, the doubts. Had she done everything she could have to save him? What if…basically anything and everything you could second-guess as a parent?
But in the end, she knew that they had done everything they could to try to save their son. Like so many others, they attended the meetings, sought counseling, paid for rehabs, read all the books and information available. They tried tough love, and when that didn’t work, they brought him home despite their fears of “enabling him.” But the cycles never changed, and his urges and behaviors — like many afflicted with drug addiction — never went away.
If there’s one thing Timmy’s mom wants other parents to know, it’s this: You’re not defined as a parent by which path you take or the lengths you’re willing to go (or not). There’s no easy fix to solve it, and recovery doesn’t happen overnight (if only).
In many cases, the ending is ultimately your worst nightmare. In the end, there is no right or wrong way to save your child. There is no right or wrong way to love them. You will always love them because deep down you see what you’ve always seen: your child. Your precious, sweet, amazing kid.
It’s our family’s hope that reading Timmy’s letter will help to change the narrative of what it means to love someone with a substance use disorder and to humanize the person we know is inside.
It’s our prayer that anyone battling addiction can read this and find the motivation to seek the help they truly need. The help they deserve.
We’re not naive to the fact that Timmy chose to start doing drugs; in his letter, there are moments when he shoulders the blame, and in the smallest way, it helps to know that he took responsibility for his actions. But still, these aren’t just uncontrollable “junkies,” flagrantly disregarding the pain they cause their loved ones or the damage they’re doing to their bodies. They’re real people, often with genuine hearts and living in an inescapable real-life nightmare.
Across the world, mothers and fathers are burying their children, children are losing their parents, siblings are carrying their brother or sister’s casket, and cousins are losing “their Timmy.” It’s time to open up the conversation to the reality of the situation, to the reality that so many families face: Every single day, people are losing their battles with drug addiction, and there’s no end in sight.
Our family has already lost Timmy, but if his letter can help rewrite even one person’s story, then we know that the kid with the big heart (and an irrational childhood fear of lint between his tiny toes) will be smiling down on the positive impact he was finally able to make.
To find help for substance use disorders, click here.