Heroin use has exploded in Alabama, and heroin-related deaths more than doubled in Jefferson County last year. That means more and more relatives have to cope with the mistrust, deception and shame that come with addiction. Despite the stigma, parents are reaching out for help.
One afternoon in 2003, Susan Brawley turned into her driveway and saw her son’s car there. He was supposed to be at a new job. She was upset and stayed outside a bit to cool off. Once inside, she couldn’t open the door to a bathroom.
“I knew immediately, I don’t know why,” Brawley remembers. “The door was locked, I don’t know how I found something to pick the lock, but I did. He was slumped over the tub. I didn’t see a syringe, but the police told me later, there was a syringe.”
Her son had been battling heroin for several years. That day, he died of an overdose. Brawley is haunted to this day. For years, she was consumed with guilt, feeling somehow she could have saved him. She says her other two children have struggled with memories of their brother. It’s taken time for his siblings to understand, forgive and try to deal with their conflicting emotions.
“When Aaron was using, it’s hard to understand what happens,” she explains. “It’s hard to see the metamorphosis of your child that you raised turning into this lying, stealing, devious person. It’s hard to believe it’s your son, and it was hard to for them to believe their brother. He was stealing from them. He was stealing from me, lying. It was all about the drug.”
Brawley says not a day that goes by where she doesn’t think about her son. Looking at his pictures, she wipes tears from her eyes.
“What I see this all American young boy, he was a Cub Scout. Who would look at these and go ‘this boy is going to stick a needle in his arm and die from heroin’?”
Susan Brawley and her family aren’t alone. Heroin deaths are on the rise nationally, and increased by 140 percent in Jefferson County last year. Parents and relatives of users are reaching out for help. Mike Martin is a family therapist in the addiction and family unit at UAB. He conducts support groups for parents who have a child addicted to heroin. He says when a child is addicted to heroin, the entire house is thrown into a tailspin.
“They’re coming into a crisis. Not only is it a crisis for the individual who is addicted, but it is a crisis for the family,” he explains. “Families go through a similar process that patient does in terms of their denial, anger, their fear, guilt and shame.”
Barbara Brewster has been a member of Martin’s family support group. Her son has been fighting heroin addiction for years. He’ll recover, only to relapse again and again. She says she’s in the eye of an emotional hurricane, and sees how addiction affects the entire family. Trust is elusive.
“If I get a phone call in the middle of the night, I go straight to that scary place,” Brewster says. “He’s hurt or he’s dead. You hear ambulances, I always pray because that scares me.”
According to Martin, it’s an all-too-common situation for parents and families of users.
“Addiction breaks down communication. Part of the healing process means they have to start figuring out how to rebuild communication and deal with the dishonesty and manipulation, the lack of trust.”
Brewster says her son confided in his sister he was addicted to heroin. To protect her mother, she kept it to herself. Brewster’s voice shakes as she imagines the pressure her daughter was under.
“She had been left with having to carry that awful secret around,” she remembers. “When she would be home for Christmas, and things were crazy and we’d be arguing, I’d be trying to figure out what’s going on. She knew. But had sworn secrecy to him.”
Mike Martin, family therapist at UAB, says he sees partents reeling with shock and disbelief when they learn their child is addicted to heroin. Many don’t know where to turn to help them deal with the devastation the drug creates. As heroin use continues to rise, Martin says more resources are being created to help recovering users and their families find their way back from addiction.