1 Son, 4 Overdoses, 6 Hours


Sandy and Dennis have an older daughter, Jane, 37, an apprentice carpenter, who is not addicted. She has tried to distance herself from the family drama and has moved out of the area. Although she visits often, moving away has left her with what she describes as survivor’s guilt.

“I had to make a conscious effort to put space between myself and them, for my own self-preservation,” she said. “I’d already come to terms with the fact that my brother was going to die — I’ve already mourned him.”

Jane has thought long and hard about why some people from the same background become addicted and others don’t. She thinks she was spared because she never tried opioids in the first place.

“I don’t know anyone who just ‘tried’ it and then stopped,” she said. “Watching Pat do this was heartbreaking, but watching Betsy — who was outgoing, did well in high school and was planning on college — was super frustrating. I wanted to shake her, and say, ‘You know how this goes. Knock it off.’”

Sandy said that Betsy, who completed a highly structured treatment program and underwent cognitive behavioral therapy, seemed more motivated than Patrick to quit.

And Betsy, who started using drugs at 19, said she suspected that Patrick had a harder time quitting because he had started when he was 14. A Surgeon General’s report in 2016 said that the younger people are when they start taking drugs, the more likely they are to become addicted long-term. “His brain is still that young,” Betsy said. “As intelligent as he is, this is his only coping mechanism.”

It was especially difficult getting clean while her brother was still using, Betsy said, as she cuddled a frisky mutt outside the animal shelter. Now, Patrick stays with his father and Betsy lives with her mother; everyone is wary that if the siblings lived together, they could drag one another down.


Patrick’s sister Betsy struggled with addiction but is now clean and has a job at an animal shelter. She said she identified with the dogs. “They’ve been traumatized and I’ve been traumatized,” she said. “Now I want to be sober because I see what it’s doing to my family — it’s killing them.” Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Patrick said Betsy had succeeded where he had not because she had found passion in her work. She saw glimpses of herself in the shelter dogs and their painful pasts; when she was 8, her parents divorced and her father was drinking. She said she sometimes had to take care of him.

“She loves those dogs,” Patrick said.

He said that during periods when he has been clean, he tends to take on too much, as he did last year when he signed up for multiple coding courses at community college. He said the heavy caseload left him frustrated, with failing grades. That preceded the relapse in May when he overdosed four times in a single afternoon.

Like many parents in families torn apart by drugs, Sandy has blamed herself. For a time, she wondered if she was too permissive, even as she reported her children to the police and kicked them out of the house.

At Al-Anon sessions for families of alcoholics, Sandy learned what are known as the four C’s — “You didn’t cause it, you can’t control it and you can’t cure it, but you can contribute to it.” She said she came to understand that she had been an enabler. “Even though you think you’re helping them, you’re not,” she said.

Now, Sandy sounds almost fatalistic about addiction.

“You could be the best parent in the world, but if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what walk of life you come from.”

Patrick lives with his father, but he often feels crowded by him and visits his mother a lot, usually for supper.

As a late fall day turned to dusk, Patrick lounged on an overstuffed chair in her living room. He said he had not used drugs since he went to jail in July and had applied for a job at a local packaging plant. But he also said he had no self-confidence and no idea how to break free from his cravings.

“I’m afraid I’m going to screw it up all over again,” he said. “That’s what happens every time.”

He said he knew he was not a sympathetic figure, that people may look at his life and wonder why he cannot pull himself out of this hole, especially with so much family backing.

“I feel like I’ve got nothing to offer,” he said. “I’m depressed all the time, and I’m isolating myself. I don’t really know what sober people do.”

His eyes welled with tears and he scraped them, hard, with his open palms.

“I don’t want people to pity me,” he added. “But I don’t want to lie to people about my past, either. I have a hard time asking for help. I always say, ‘I got this.’ But I never got this.”

Seeking Solid Ground

On an unseasonably warm night in late October, Sandy attended a support group for parents of addicted children.

On this evening, 17 people showed up at the group, called Families Sharing Without Shame. All had adult children either in the throes of addiction or in recovery. As they sat in a circle, they shared their horror at discovering the drug use going on under their roofs. They drew nods of recognition when they said they finally understood why their teaspoons were vanishing from their kitchens (powdered opioids are heated in a spoon with water to convert them to a liquid that can be injected).

Unlike some of the other parents, Sandy seemed battle hardened, like one who had been immersed in a war for a long time.

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