Our daughter Nicki’s battle with opioid addiction ended on the evening of August 7, 2015. I was awakened shortly before midnight by two Maryland state troopers knocking hard on my door. They did not have to say anything. I could tell by the look in their eyes that something terrible had happened. My worst nightmare was confirmed when the troopers told me my beautiful daughter Nicki had passed away from a heroin overdose at the age of 32. The phone calls I had to make to Nicki’s younger siblings and Mother were painful. The emptiness and sorrow I experienced at this moment is impossible to put into words. No parent should ever have to bury a child. It’s just not the way things are supposed to happen. No child should lose a parent at such a young age. How could we break this heartbreaking news to Emma, Nicki’s 11 year old daughter?
In spite of Nicki’s struggles with addiction, Emma and her Mom shared a very close bond. Nicki’s world revolved around our beautiful Granddaughter Emma. The following is a message that Emma posted on Snapchat not long after she lost her Mom:
“It’s felt like a short time”
But it’s been a long time since I’ve seen you and talked to you… and laughed with you… and hugged you… and I miss you so much. I just want you to be with me and it’s weird how I remember how soft your hand was… and how I would grab your hand whenever I was sad … and I just calmed down because I knew you were with me… and now I can’t stay calm unless I see a picture of you and everything’s OK again, but it’s still not because you’re not there but I feel like you are.
I was so mad at you at first and wanted to break down and scream, but then I would cry, then I would just not talk about it… and it’s hard to accept the fact that you’re gone, but I’m trying to
“I miss you Mommy”
I tried my best, we all tried our best to help Nicki get well from her addiction. Like many parents dealing with a child in addiction, I found myself in uncharted territory. As a retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel, I viewed addicts as weak minded individuals who just needed to toughen up and make better life choices. I was wrong! After this horrible disease gripped Nicki’s life, my view of addiction changed forever. Addiction is much more complicated than I ever imagined. In Nicki’s situation, I received well intentioned advice from individuals such as she needs tough love, you need to let her go with love, you can’t be an enabler, she must hit rock bottom first, etc. In my opinion, most of this is a bunch of crap. The Surgeon General has proclaimed addiction a disease. It needs to be treated that way. An individual who has cancer cannot will it away. If a person’s cancer reoccurs that individual is not kicked out of the hospital. Why are addicts treated so much differently?
Over the course of several years, Nicki overdosed eight times. I would argue there were plenty of “rock bottoms” in there. I was very involved in Nicki’s up and down battle with addiction. My frustration trying to find adequate treatment facilities for Nicki would often boil over with anger, confusion, and a feeling of helplessness that could be overwhelming. Sometimes there was nothing I could do but cry over the thought of possibly losing her. I deeply regret using the “tough love” approach after Nicki’s last relapse and release from treatment months later. I did not step up to help her find and pay for a place to live this time. Advice I received from individuals, and a few support groups, was clear that I should stop helping Nicki. The message being she needed to figure things out for herself. Well, Nicki found a seedy apartment that she shared with a couple of other individuals I did not know. A couple months later my little girl died alone on the bathroom floor of that apartment from a heroin overdose. I should have trusted my gut, and maybe she would still be here today. Looking back, like I do just about every day, I should have offered her support, encouragement, and a hand up. Nicki was beaten down physically and emotionally and needed help, not pushed away.
There is no parent handbook on how to deal with your child’s opioid addiction. Sadly, a lot of the facilities in existence today place an emphasis on numbers and money over the care of the individual addict. That was my experience with Nicki. Overcrowding, unsanitary conditions/bed bugs, and poorly run programs were more the norm. In general, there exists coordination issues among providers when transitioning through the various levels of care (e.g. detox, primary treatment, extended care, transitional living and recovery residence). In Nicki’s case, treatment centers claiming to be dual diagnosis programs did not have the proper staff in place to treat the underlying causes of her addiction relating to bipolar and depression. Often, there were no spaces immediately available at facilities for Nicki when she was in dire need of treatment. The waiting period an addict may have to endure before receiving treatment could be a matter of life and death. On several occasions I had to put Nicki up in hotels until a bed became available.
Aside from the physical and emotional toll addiction has had on my family, the financial burden became tough to deal with as well. We were not prepared to cope with this nightmare. When Medicaid did not pay for Nicki’s treatment at certain levels of care, I would pay out of pocket. This becomes very expensive over time, and in a lot of cases has caused many families to go bankrupt. It’s difficult understanding why insurance companies will only pay for 28 days of primary care treatment. I’m not aware of any hard fast expiration dates on treatment of other diseases. As a parent with no prior experience with addiction issues, I was very disheartened by the lack of empathy and care my daughter received at many of these facilities. I don’t think Nicki was provided a fair chance at recovery. As with many addicts who have gone through treatment, Nicki returned to an outside environment that treated addicts with disdain. The shame and humiliation Nicki lived through was tough to watch. She never felt quite good enough and had low self esteem. Eventually, the cycle of addiction would repeat itself. I believe Nicki lost hope and was made to feel less of a human being. The truth is Nicki was an extremely intelligent and caring individual. She loved being Emma’s Mom and her work as a nurse. Nicki was fond of sundresses, flip flops, sunflowers and butterflies. She was very funny, actually goofy, and had a knack for saying the inappropriate thing at times. She was glowing and fun to be around. Nicki made us laugh. She was a caregiver to many people, and I have many stories I could share on this. This is how I choose to remember Nicki’s life, not the dark side of addiction that stole our daughter’s identity. As a family, we are left trying to pick up the pieces of a shattered life, a life cut too short. We all miss and love Nicki very much. I would give anything to be able to hold Nicki again and tell her everything is going to be okay. It hurts very much to see Emma growing up without her Mom. I believe Nicki is in heaven and watching over Emma. This belief helps me to keep moving forward each day. It does not make the pain go away for my family and others close to Nicki, but it gives us hope.
My reason for joining the board of Brooke’s House was to honor Nicki’s memory and make sure she did not die without purpose. I have learned through many tough lessons that well run treatment facilities are hard to find, especially for parents who have little experience with addiction. I have a great deal of respect for our founder Kevin Simmers, our board, and the many individuals and groups in our community who have stepped forward to fight this battle. This is going to be a long battle and we need continued community support to be successful.
At Brooke’s House we are striving to build a model facility for women in addiction. Our goal is to provide a structured program that puts women first and gives them a fighting chance at recovery. Our board has spent a great deal of time visiting other treatment facilities, researching, and generally looking for ways to improve recovery success rates with women. We want our Brooke’s House women to take ownership of their recovery and form a close community. It’s our hope that Brooke’s House will provide the helping hand needed by these young women to become productive members in the community once they leave our house. We are keenly aware of the lack of treatment facilities available to women in the community and across the country. We also recognize the unique challenges inherent in a women’s treatment facility, as compared to facilities for their male counterparts, such as physical and sexual abuse to name a few. The stigma hanging over addiction needs to be removed. Every life we can help save from addiction is well worth the fight.