What the worst year of my life has taught me about gratitude

img_4787By Patti Fish Stephens

A few months ago I wrote a post about what my daughter’s addiction has taught me about unconditional love. At the time I wrote it I thought the worst of this year was over, and I hoped for nothing more fervently than to have an uneventful last few months to 2016 (this is the fondest wish of families of addicts: to live peaceful, even boring lives). It seems the universe had a few more lessons in store for me this year, because within days of posting that blog piece, tragedy struck near us and a series of events unfolded for my son, my daughter, and our friends that would change all of our lives.

The year started off with great hope: my daughter had accumulated four months of clean time and was moving home after living in a sober house for three months, my son was living with a girl he loved and working at a well-paying job he was good at. My husband and I even worked up the courage to plan a trip to Florida to visit my parents and extended family that live there. We rang in the new year with my Florida cousin and her husband, and my daughter found a sober club where she could celebrate. Life was looking up. 2016 was going to be our year.

Our trip to Florida went so well, in fact, that my husband and I decided to return to go someplace I had always wanted to go: Captiva. We had never made the time to venture over there when we were in the Tampa area, so we decided to plan a dedicated trip which would make up for the anniversary weekend we had to cut short a few months earlier when our daughter had relapsed in early September of 2015. The Captiva trip was scheduled for spring break in March of 2016.

A few weeks before we were scheduled to go to Captiva, our daughter celebrated six months of sobriety. We thought this was a good sign that her addiction was “cured” and that she had finally “gotten” how to do sobriety. As anyone who has read my post on unconditional love knows, our daughter relapsed and overdosed while we were on that trip in Captiva. She spent a week in the hospital, developed complications, spent a week in a mental health facility, then came home to outpatient treatment only to relapse again within a few weeks. She then went back to inpatient rehab, and has now been clean for almost eight months.

The emotional agony my husband and I went through while our daughter was in the hospital was overwhelming. It was during that time that we found our Nar-Anon Family Group. We had faithfully attended family education and therapy programs at our daughter’s rehab facility and attended Al-Anon meetings, but it was at our area Nar-Anon meeting that we finally found the support we needed. At our very first meeting, one of the long-time group members told me, after hearing our story, “We’re your family now.” I had no idea how true that statement would end up being as the year progressed. I was just so grateful my daughter was alive and we had found new friends who understood what our new normal was like as the parents of an addict.

As spring turned into summer, our daughter moved from the inpatient rehab facility to a very strict sober house. During this time we spent our weekends driving back and forth to visit her, and after three months at the sober house she moved back home with us. Cleveland had just celebrated the Cavs’ history-making championship win. The Indians were on a winning streak and the city dared to hope that maybe, just maybe, we had another championship win in our future. Just a few weeks before our daughter was to move back home, our son proposed to his girlfriend and we had another happy event to celebrate and be thankful for.

Summer turned into fall and we felt such gratitude that our daughter was alive, clean, and working a good program. Our son was happy and our family had a wedding to look forward to. It was a great time to be a Clevelander. I finally felt I had processed a lot of what had happened in the spring and was able to write about it in the post about unconditional love. My husband and I both got a wonderful response to that post of overwhelming support from friends, family and strangers. I was, once again, filled with gratitude that our daughter had survived her overdose, or I would have been writing a very different kind of blog post.

And then, in a matter of just a few weeks, our dear friends’ son overdosed and died, our son’s engagement was called off and he moved back home with us temporarily, and our daughter discovered she was pregnant. Our hearts broke for our friends who lost their son, and their loss was a reminder to all of us with addicts in our lives that there is no guarantee that our loved ones will stay clean even after extended periods of sobriety. Our son was broken-hearted. And our daughter was overwhelmed by the news of an unexpected pregnancy. There was nothing we could do but love all of these hurting people in our lives. Pretty much the only good thing to happen in October was that our rescue dog, Milton, turned (at least) 15; we celebrated having him in our lives for the last 14 years.

As Thanksgiving approached, my husband and I reflected on our gratitude that both of our children were, despite their present difficulties, alive and in our lives. For the month that our son stayed with us after his break-up, I was reminded how wonderful (and sometimes crowded) it was to have the whole family together, just the four of us, like when the kids were growing up. My son began to heal and it was reassuring to have him physically near to see that he was doing better during that time. We slowly began to absorb the news that our daughter was going to have a baby. Due to her history of addiction as well as the genetic clotting disorder that was found in follow-up testing after her overdose, her pregnancy is solidly in the high-risk category. Within 10 days of finding out she was pregnant, she had quit smoking altogether. She had been trying to quit ever since receiving the diagnosis of the clotting disorder, but it was a difficult battle. The pregnancy gave her the incentive she needed and we were grateful that she was finally able to quit.

So November turned into December, and my husband and I–as well as many of our Nar-Anon friends–commented that we would be so glad to see this awful year end. So much hardship had occurred for members of our group and our family, and we were all looking forward to a brighter 2017. And then last Saturday night, I got a call that my son had been in a car accident and that his car had flipped upside down. It was during a freezing rain storm that blanketed the area in ice. We had just been to lunch with him earlier that day, and I had texted with him hours before; during our texting conversation he had said, “I’m indestructible” as a lighthearted way to tell me he was okay after getting some bad news that afternoon. Apparently the universe agreed, because despite the fact that his car flipped over, the windshield shattered, both windows exploded and both doors were crushed, he crawled out over the glass and walked away from the wreck. His car was totaled, but no one else was hurt and no other cars were involved.

Once again, I had found myself unable to breathe after the phone call from my son’s friend, who had been following my son in his own car. Although he had told me my son was “okay,” I had to see him for myself. He was soaking wet, covered in sleet and blood, and still had glass chips stuck to his clothing, but I never wanted to let him go once we got him back to our house. He kept telling me, “I’m okay, Mom; I’m okay. Mom, I’m okay!” Amazingly, his only injuries appeared to be several long cuts on his left hand. He didn’t show any signs of concussion, and had no broken bones. The cuts didn’t even need stitches, much to our surprise; but we had all suffered a bad scare, and it has taken us days to come down off the accompanying adrenaline rush. We found out the next day that our daughter had also been in the ER early Sunday morning due to possible symptoms of a miscarriage. Thankfully, the baby’s heartbeat was strong and my daughter was sent home.

At our Nar-Anon meeting this week, I shared a bit about our weekend with our group, commenting how grateful I was that both of my children were alive and mostly well. I knew that had things gone just slightly differently in March and December, we could have lost both of our children in the same year. Not twenty-four hours after making this statement, I got the horrible news that another friend’s son had overdosed and died. My heart breaks for her and their whole family. This has served as yet another humble reminder of how fortunate I am to have both of my children not only alive, but in close physical proximity to me as well as in a healthy, loving relationship with me and their dad.

So many of my friends don’t have the luxury of even talking regularly to their addicted loved ones, let alone knowing they are sober or even physically safe. I can never allow myself to forget this and I can never cease to be grateful for the current day in which both of my children are alive. We all know there are no guarantees in life, and with the previous losses our family has suffered (my brother, my nephew), we have been reminded of this again and again. But living with heroin addiction brings this realization home in an even more urgent and terrifying way; life can end in an instant due to this cunning, baffling, and deadly disease of addiction.

We are losing people at an unprecedented rate to overdose; in 2015 alone, more than 52,000 Americans died of overdose, the most ever. That’s over 1000 Americans dying of overdose EACH WEEK of 2015. (For comparison, 37,000 people died in car crashes.) Heroin overdose deaths alone increased 23% to nearly 13,000, making death from heroin overdose now more common than death by gun homicide. And deaths from synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl (which nearly killed my daughter when it was spiked into her heroin) are up a whopping 73%. (Source: CDC death statistics report via CBS news.) What these statistics can’t show is the emotional toll these deaths are taking on our communities. It seems every week my daughter hears of the death of someone with whom she was in treatment, or lived in a sober house, or went to AA meetings. How do you quantify the effects of losing friend after friend from the same disease you have?

We talk about the “opioid epidemic” and we quote statistics, but when people are dying from overdose at such an unprecedented rate, how does it affect the psyche of those left behind? In my case, it creates an atmosphere of constant terror; I can no longer live in a bubble where I haven’t been affected by this epidemic. I nearly lost my daughter to overdose; my husband has attended funerals of former students who died from overdose; my daughter has attended countless funerals of former classmates and friends; and now our support group has lost several loved ones. All of this loss reminds me to be profoundly grateful for every day I have with my daughter, my son, my husband, my parents, my friends, and my extended family. This is a lesson I wish I could have learned some other way, but life didn’t give me that choice. This is my reality, as it is the reality of an unprecedented number of Americans. Please reach out to someone you know who has been affected by addiction and remind them that you are grateful for their life and sorry for their struggles. And hug your loved ones tightly this holiday season.