No matter how much pain and anguish it caused, addiction couldn’t shatter a mother’s love for her son.
Ginny Kelp watched as opioid pain pills and then heroin seemed to swallow up her son, John Cunningham.
Addiction wasn’t just consuming Cunningham’s life. His family was sucked into its depths as well. Everything they did seemed to be focused on helping get him better, or doing what they could to at least make sure he didn’t die. They agonized over ways to lead him to sobriety.
But they couldn’t stop trying to help.
“It took his soul. It took all of our souls,” Kelp said. “But as his mother, you love him all the way through it. I never gave up on my son.”
As opioid addiction takes over the lives of more and more people, it also ensnares parents, siblings, spouses and children in a seemingly never-ending cycle. They watch as their loved one changes before their eyes and experience the angry outbursts, arrests and jail sentences, even overdoses and the looming threat of death.
For these families, there is no answer and little guidance on what to do as a nightmare unfolds in front of their eyes.
“I don’t know what you’re supposed to do. You can’t throw your kid out. You can’t turn your back on them,” said Ginger Moore, whose son Shea Walton died of an overdose in 2016.
Parents whose teenager or young adult are addicted can feel isolated by the stigma of opioids, said Dr. Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University.
“A lot of people’s view is ‘wow, you must really be a bad parent,’” said Humphreys, who was the senior policy adviser to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. “That is very isolating for the parents. If your teenager gets cancer, everyone bakes food and comes over. But this, everyone shuns you.”
Humphreys’s advice to families whose dependent child is addicted: Fighting the addiction has to be the family’s No. 1 priority at all times. Never laugh it off as typical teen behavior.
“At any moment, that child could die,” he said.
One night at a party, and one pill, could kill the teen. He likens it to the drug user playing Russian Roulette at the dinner table.
Families should put in place a huge increase in monitoring the teen, set up consistent consequences and increase positive reinforcement as well.
Loved ones of drug addicts who are adults and independent have far less control over what happens, and they have to accept that reality, Humphreys said.
Responsibility falls on the person using drugs to seek help, while their families experience a huge trauma and difficulty. Humphreys said loved ones should attend Al-Anon and any other fellowships available, and seek therapy, focusing on their own reaction and behaviors.
He often gets calls from stressed out parents who are falling apart.
He asks them this about their family member addicted to drugs: “Why aren’t they calling me? If they were interested, they would be.”
His point is that until a person addicted to drugs is interested in stopping the cycle, families can pull them in the right direction, create opportunities and make suggestions.
“But you can’t push them. You don’t have the power to do that,” he said.
“It’s a terrible fact to face up to.”
Help has been growing, however, in the form of the community that parents of addicted children are forming. Humphreys said the experience of bonding with other parents is intense. While Al-Anon is generally for people who love a person with a drinking problem, it has become a connection for families dealing with opioid addiction. Two hundred people attend meetings that used to draw 20, Humphreys said.
“That’s the fellowship where they connect.”
In 2016, more than 2.5 million people were reported to have an addiction to opioid pain pills or heroin, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.
But for each of those people are many more who are feeling the full brunt of the epidemic. They are angry and depressed at seeing their loved ones change so drastically at the hands of a drug. Most of all, they’re lost.
As a parent of a child struggling with addiction, no one tells you what to do, said Jeanette Evans-Mails, who lost her son Tyler Coffey to an overdose last year.
She admits to being an enabler, but she didn’t know what else to do.
“People said I should kick him out, take his car, not give him money, but I couldn’t do that,” she said. “There is no right or wrong way, and there really are not a lot of resources.”
When Moore first found out her son was using heroin, she looked everywhere for resources, but didn’t find anything that would tell her what she needed to do.
She had no idea her son was shooting up until they found him overdosing in their shower and a needle in the tub.
She ended up calling a 1-800 hotline about drug abuse because she didn’t know where else to turn.
They told her that her son would steal from her, that he would lie and he would become a person she hardly even knew.
Her response: my son would never do that.
In the end, he did.
“It’s almost like they are possessed,” she said.
Moore kicked her son out multiple times after he had stolen from her, she refused to give him money or rides, and there were periods where they didn’t speak for months.
But then she would get the call from Walton, saying he was cold and hungry and would do whatever she wanted, and she would let him come home.
After losing her son to an overdose in 2016, Moore has slowly learned more about addiction and connected with other families. But she still knows families struggle all the time, and she wishes there were more resources to help.
“There seriously needs to be a how-to book. It is a big enough problem,” she said.
Dealing with Cunningham’s addiction became nearly a full-time endeavor for Hailey Combest, his sister.
“It was constant worry, every second of every day. My phone was always right there, waiting for that terrible phone call,” she said.
As his addiction grew, she found herself enabling her brother more and more. When he needed a ride at night because he couldn’t drive, she took him. If he needed some money, she provided it. She tried to keep him fed and clean, even as his lifestyle focused on doing drugs more than anything else.
One of the most frightening episodes came when she was driving him through Indianapolis, and looked into the backseat only to see him shooting up right there.
“That was God-awful. I begged him not to do it, but he said he had to, the withdrawal was awful and he had to get rid of it,” she said. “He said, ‘You don’t understand, I’m sick.’”
At the most trying and exasperating moments, Combest wanted to give up.
“There was a point when I looked at my mom, and said, ‘I either want God to take him or make him better, because I can’t do this anymore,’” she said. “That was the absolute lowest-of-the-low for me.”
Kelp and Combest knew that their compassion was only furthering Cunningham’s addiction. They started cutting off support. If he needed food, they would cook him a meal. If he needed a ride, they would drive him. But they stopped giving him any money.
“That was very hard,” Kelp said.
Even after Cunningham repeatedly stole from their homes, his family protected him. They wouldn’t report him to the police, though they were sure he had been the one to take from them.
“When you’re in that situation, you know what you need to do. But doing it is hard to get to,” Combest said.
Cunningham was eventually sent to prison for burglary, and served more than two years. While in prison, he committed himself to recovery. Six years later, he is still sober.
His family knows that isn’t common or typical, particularly when dealing with opioid addiction. But their trust that he could recover is what motivated their behavior during the darkest years.
“I knew there was a John in there that wanted to come out,” Kelp said.
“It took his soul. It took all of our souls,” Ginny Kelp said. “But as his mother, you love him all the way through it. I never gave up on my son.”
“If your teenager gets cancer, everyone bakes food and comes over. But this, everyone shuns you,” said Dr. Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University.