When word resonated throughout our family, friends and community, on Oct. 27, 2006, that Denny was gone--dead from an accidental heroin overdose--the words we heard over and over again were, "Oh my God, if it could happen to you, it could happen to anyone! How could this be true?" It didn't make sense. We were a good family! Denny was a great kid! But life had turned into a nightmare.
Denny, the oldest of my three sons, was a watchful, caring and loving big brother, energetic and full of life. He had a deep booming voice, a huge throaty laugh, an enormous sense of humor with an infectious smile, and he was never quiet! When Denny was in the room, you knew he was there, and he never left without giving you one of his famous bear hugs. An honor student at Cousino High School, he was identified early as academically talented. Biology and history were his favorite subjects. His dream was to study and do animal research in the wild. Steve Irwin and Diane Fossey were his heroes. He never outgrew his love of animals and of nature. He loved hockey and fishing, football and fishing, hunting and fishing. Fishing was where Denny found his peace.
But drugs entered the picture, beginning with marijuana. The changes were subtle at first.. He became withdrawn, quieter, slept more, lost the sparkle in his eyes. I questioned him about the changes, unsure but never suspecting drugs. He was my first born. Teens are moody, they sleep a lotâ€¦.was this a stage? Then the grades started to slip, friends were changing. I went to the school, teachers and counselors for help. I received blank stares. "Denny's a great kid, no trouble."
It happened so fast. In a matter of two to three months, he went from happy and healthy to moody, secretive and angry. What was going on?! I stood outside his bedroom door and prayed, "God, if there is something I need to find in this room, help me find it." My eyes fell on Denny's "treasure box." I opened it to find a bag of marijuana. Gone were all his boyhood treasures. He was 16 years old. I knew then, deep in my gut, this was serious. We were past experimenting. He was smoking alone, all the time, any chance he could.
Confrontations, unconditional love, grounding, heartfelt conversations about the dangers of drug use, tough love, rewards for positive changes, more prayers and always love. Nothing worked! We sought outside professional help. He improved for a while, grades were better, his old personality was back. Thank you, Lord! Was this over? Then he relapsed. Things got ugly. The typical drug behavior returned: changed personality, raging, staying out all night. Who was this young man? We were on the rollercoaster ride of addiction.
The summer before his senior year, when Denny was 17 and failed to complete an intensive outpatient program (IOP), we made the decision to send him to a wilderness treatment program out west (keeping his love of the outdoors in mind). Gone were the dreams of seeing him walk across the stage with his graduating class. There was no senior picture. We were fighting for his life! College funds went to rehab.
After completing a 60-day rehab, Denny came home and completed high school that same year. Then we entered a two- year cycle through brief periods of sobriety, relapse and use, the use always progressing to more and harder drugs. This wasn't who he was and he knew it. "Why me, Mom?" he cried. "Most of the kids who experimented in high school are fine. They're in college doing great. Why did I become addicted?"
After using Vicodin and OxyContin, Denny was now dependent on opiates. Where were my spoons going? I searched his room and found needles. It's heroin! "Heroin is cheaper than pills," Denny explained. He now knew he had a problem, the denial was gone, but he still thought he could do it himself. He had quit, gone through withdrawals, survived only to relapse. As a family, that very day, we started to plan an immediate intervention. Denny was 5'11", 230 lbs., athletic build. He never lost weight or had sunken eyes. But his pupils would get tiny and he'd develop a red blush band across his cheeks and nose. He'd nod off, sleep all day and roam the house at night. Always out of money. He lost all ambition. Life was about the drugs. We were losing him again.
We did the intervention. More of the roller coaster ride, ending with a court ordered Boot Camp. We were so hopeful that he would finally get the treatment he so desperately needed again. After successfully completing Boot Camp, he came home on a 120-day tether. "What about treatment?" I pleaded with probation. "Not at this time," I was told. "Wait until he fails a drug test, then we will move him to treatment." I pleaded, "It's too risky. This is heroin addiction. Dennis is still on our medical insurance."
We picked him up from Boot Camp. He was beautiful, so proud, 195 lbs. of solid muscle, bright-eyed, and clean! But most importantly he was done! DONE with drugs and scared to death. More than once he told me he wanted to go back to camp, to be under lock and key. He was afraid, afraid of relapsing. "Mom, all I want to do is to go fishing and play hockey again." He was working full time, spending his extra funds on his pets. We discussed future college plans. Zoology. His dreams were back.
Then after 8-1/2 months of sobriety, with only 11 days left on his tether, Denny walked out the back door at 9:30 on a Friday morning. He said, "I'm going to take my drug test (4 x week) and then I'm going to the mall. I have to be back by noon.' I LOVE YOU, MOM." He never returned. He passed his drug test, went to a drug store and bought needles (the receipt was in my car). He was found dead on the bathroom floor of Farmer Jack's. Whoever was with him ran when things went bad. How could they leave him? Why didn't they scream for 911 as they ran out the door? It was too late.
Denny was only 20 years old. He never failed a drug test. He never went fishing or played hockey again. We will never know why he relapsed that day.
His last three months back home with us was a gift. I was again able to see this wonderful young man for who he was--full of hope and promise, and a sincere desire to turn his life around. The light was back in his eyes and the smile was back on his face. One morning about a week before he died, I was reading my morning scripture meditation. He came and sat next to me. "Mom, what is your favorite book in the Bible?" I said, "Luke."
"No Mom, it's Romans. I love the book of Romans. Go to Romans 6:23." Then he read out loud to me: "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. That says it all doesn't it, Mom." I said, "Yes. It does, Denny."
I choose to come forward with Denny's story hoping to effect some change or awareness in society. These addicts are not "bad" kids, but good kids with a deadly disease. They deserve the proper long-term treatment. When we lose them we all lose.