My Son Was Repeatedly Failed by the Systems That Were Supposed to Support Him

    On July 9, 2021, we lost our oldest child, Rory, to an opioid overdose. He was 29 years old. Summarizing the last 20 years of Rory’s struggle with ADHD, mental health and substance use feels daunting. I remember the day he was born being overwhelmed by the need to keep him safe. It is heartbreaking when you realize that you aren’t always able to protect your children.

    During an emotional conversation earlier this year, Rory told me that he hadn’t been happy since he was nine years old. This broke my heart, and I wracked my brain to try to figure out what I missed all those years ago. He was always very active, but it wasn’t until 4th grade that he started to struggle in school. Years later, I recall a conversation with the school guidance counselor, and she mentioned that children with untreated ADHD are at risk of self-medicating. I don’t know if she suggested that Rory be tested but I do remember all the parents talking about how schools just wanted to medicate children to control their behavior. It wasn’t until the end of 7th grade that a teacher suggested I test Rory outside the school. She felt his behavior was his way of masking his frustration and low self-esteem. She was right. He was diagnosed with ADHD.

    We tried to find ways to work with Rory, but he was difficult, and much damage had already been done. The school referred him to a child psychiatrist, and he was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder. We didn’t know that he had already been experimenting with medications to help him feel better and they were much more effective than what the psychiatrist was prescribing. They were also dangerous, and before long, he was offered opiates. By the end of his junior year, he was using heroin, and soon after, he was injecting.

    I spent hour after hour searching for information and resources. Internet searches led me to marketers shamelessly suggesting we mortgage our home to save our child’s life. The economy had crashed, and our business was struggling. The marketers soon lost interest in talking to me because I didn’t have cash. Our entire family was falling apart, and I was especially concerned about the other children who were angry at Rory and also me for putting so much time into trying to help him. No one understood that I knew he had overdosed a couple of times, and I was desperate to find help to keep him from dying. He overdosed many more times over the next 11 years.

    A week after his 18th birthday, Rory got a DUI and possession charge. We finally got help finding treatment and state funding, but we had no idea that he would spend the next decade plus trying to get out of the criminal justice system. He was mandated to treatment repeatedly, but the programs never addressed his underlying issues, which now included coping with the grief of losing so many friends to accidents and overdoses.

    In the criminal justice system, positive drug tests were considered failure and non-compliance and resulted in punitive consequences. Violations meant jail and prison, which added trauma to SUD, bipolar disorder, ADHD and grief. Medications for opioid use disorder were discouraged or considered a temporary replacement that would eventually need to end. As he continued in the system, the worse his symptoms seemed to be. He was a commercial fisherman, the only thing he was truly passionate about, but he was not allowed to fish because of the risk of using substances on long fishing trips. He was so tired of it all. He was treated like a criminal for nothing more than the symptoms of his illness.

    Rory was so courageous. He allowed me to share his story over the past years because he knew he was not alone and wanted to help others. I am grateful for the training I got through Partnership to End Addiction that helped me have a close relationship with him. He knew he was accepted and loved no matter where he was in his journey. I will always feel sad that I couldn’t protect and keep him safe the way I had imagined 29 years ago.

    By Tonia Ahern
    September 2021

    Published

    September 2021