Since the moment I heard about Whitney Houston’s death last week, I can’t stop thinking about Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mama.
Oh, that first week is so unbearable….I just ache for her, knowing her pain right now.
And it never really gets better, exactly. Not so far, for me anyway. It’s different twenty months after my son died, but not better.
By all accounts, Whitney Houston was raised in a close, loving, traditional and church-going family. Her parents did everything “right,” and their child seems to have made it well into adulthood before the disease of addiction hit with full force.
But I know – because every mother of a child who struggles with addiction to dangerous, illegal drugs know this from painful experience – that for the last 20 years or so of Whitney Houson’s far too brief life, her mama lived with a daily, hourly, moment to moment terror of getting the phone call that she eventually did get, last week.
I only lived with that fear for a year or two. But even that brief period left me scarred forever. I went to bed every night with the phone clutched in my hand or tucked under my pillow, and I never let it out of my sight during the day. I needed to be sure to answer if Henry called and needed me.
And yet, somehow, I was NOT there when Henry called and needed me on the evening of April 26, 2010 – when he tried me twice just about the time he climbed in the van belonging to the drug dealers who had already dosed him with death earlier that day, and who would take him back to their house trailer and finish the job. He had a terrible head injury, and he was barely able to walk or talk by the time he tried me that evening. He needed his mama, and I know with great certainty that he was calling me to come get him and bring him home – to tell me he needed me. But I somehow missed his calls. And there is nothing in my life that has ever or will ever cause me more pain and regret than failing to hear the phone ring when Henry called out to me at his moment of imminent danger.
People who know me tease me quite a bit about my somewhat obsessive physical and emotional attachment to my mobile phone. What I don’t think most folks understand is that there’s a reason that it’s always in my hand – the same reason that I am so continuously connected to my surviving children by text, email, phone call when they are not in my line of sight… It’s because I missed the two calls from Henry that evening of April 26, 2010 – calls that if I had received them, unquestionably would have saved his life.
While I’m even more continuously connected to my phone since Henry’s death, I was never far from it or its possible ring before that terrible day when I DID get a call telling me that Henry was in the emergency room. Every mother of a child involved with drugs dreads that call, hopes she will never get it. But I did, and now Cissy Houston has gotten her own terrible call – the one I know that she feared and dreaded and expected and prayed not to come for so many years. She finally got that call, after twenty years of living with that non-stop, uniquely all consuming worry that only the parent of an addicted child understands. It might come in the form of an overdose, or murder during a drug deal gone bad. Or it might come – as it appears at this point to have come for Cissy Houston – in the form of a deadly accident to your child as the result of drug-impaired functioning and judgment.
But one way or another, that call will come for too many mothers of addicted children – today, tomorrow, next week….
I am ashamed to admit that before my own child became a victim, I paid little attention to the news of the exploding drug death epidemic. It seemed to have nothing whatsoever to do with my normal family and our normal life. We are not celebrities or criminals or drug addicts, I thought.
Of course, I was so very, very wrong.
At the moment, more than 100 Americans each day die of drug overdoses – a number made up almost entirely by overdose from one of the multiple brands of highly addictive and deadly Rx opiate pain pills, patches and liquids – expansively marketed medications with brand names like Opana, Oxycontin and Methadone. A smaller but still significant number of overdose deaths are due at least in part to another class of highly addictive Rx drugs called benzodiazepenes, and marketed with brand names like Xanax and Valium.
By the numbers, dangerously addictive prescription drugs – pumped into the marketplace in ever-increasing numbers by mainstream, corporate pharmaceutical companies like Purdue – now kill more Americans via overdose every day, month and year than cocaine, meth, heroin, and hallucinogens combined. It’s a raging, out of control, still-escalating public health and safety epidemic the likes of which we’ve never, ever, ever seen before. And unlike an epidemic like AIDS, where no one was actively profiting by every new infection, or marketing the means to acquire that infection, in this deadly epidemic, a very powerful and profitable American industry sector is making billions and billions of perfectly legal dollars every year via Americans’ growing addiction to pills. And for these companies, the deadly wake of addiction and death caused by their growing profitability is simply collateral damage.
Crack dealers would be arrested if they tried to gain access to doctor’s offices to convince them to recommend their product to patients, but pharmaceutical company reps peddling what amounts to heroin in a pill are welcomed in with open arms by physicians and their office staffs.
It’s important to note that the 100 per day number only accounts for actual drug overdose deaths; it doesn’t include all the other, mostly uncounted and unnoticed drug overdose-induced injuries that leave our children, siblings, friends, neighbors and co-workers permanently maimed and disabled. This is the piece of the drug epidemic that currently flies almost entirely under the radar. You just never hear about the fact that for every one young person who dies, there are several others left to live their lives unable to speak, confined to a wheelchair, a nursing home or a permanent vegetative state.
Since my teenager died as the victim of a still unsolved drug-induced homicide on May 31, 2010, nothing has actually changed in Knoxville and Knox County, Tennessee – where we live. I’ve raised hell, and I will continue to raise hell to try to get authorities and the citizens who elect and pay them to care that overdose cases are simply being willfully ignored byour local law enforcement and the Knox County District Attorney, in direct contradiction to the newest best practices/protocols recommended by the experts in these agencies’ own professions, and more importantly, in direct violation to state and federal criminal codes which unequivocally call for every overdose by illegally distributed drugs (prescription or illicit) to be fully investigated as the potential crime against the victim that the law inarguably deems it to be.
Statistics tell us that in the past 20 months since Henry’s death, approximately 30-50 local citizens right here in my own community have also died of drug overdoses. THIRTY TO FIFTY PEOPLE who simply disappeared from our homes, schools, churches, workplaces, generally with their cause of death never revealed even by their own embarrassed, heartbroken families.
More than who died in car wrecks.
More than who died as the result of physical assault or gunshot.
More than who died of AIDS.
These dozens of people in one small southern city just….vanished in less than 24 months.
The local newspaper still doesn’t usually report individual overdose deaths when they happen, or show any interest in whether any criminal investigation takes place, or whether a dealer is ever identified or charged.
In fact, since Henry died, there is no evidence whatsoever that there IS any meaningful criminal investigation taking place in local drug overdose cases. There still hasn’t been ONE SINGLE arrest or prosecution for drug induced homicide or even for manslaughter in the past 20 months, even as THIRTY TO FIFTY MORE LOCAL CITIZENS HAVE DIED AS THE RESULT OF WHAT THE LAW CLEARLY DEEMS TO BE A POTENTIAL CRIME AGAINST THE VICTIM.
That’s where things are here in Knoxville/Knox County, TN, circa February 2012.
As terrible as Cissy Houston’s pain is right now, she can at least take solace in the fact that there is certainly a rigorous and highly professional criminal investigation underway in the death of her daughter – an investigation that very well may result in criminal charges against any doctor or other drug dealer who may have illegally provided drugs to Cissy Houston’s child. That’s what is starting to happen in drug-related cases involving celebrities, and it’s also quietly happening in a rapidly increasing number of cases involving “regular” overdose deaths all over the country, as local police agencies and districts attorney have begun using the tools already available to them within existing criminal codes to bring dealers to justice when they kill other people.
But here in my own hometown, instead of the community being galvanized by the huge and growing number of drug overdose deaths right here in our own homes and neighborhoods, we are too ashamed to speak publicly of them when they happen in our own families, and we are allowing the powers that be to continue to effectively ignore them.
The stark and disturbing reality is that even with THIRTY TO FIFTY LOCAL CITIZENS KILLED IN THE LAST 20 MONTHS ALONE, nobody in town with any ability to take meaningful action seems to really care about the issue that much – certainly not enough to speak out or act with the urgency that this public health and safety emergency cry out for. I mean, local law enforcement authorities and the DA say the right things about their level of concern when they’re interviewed by local media, but the reality is that our Sheriff’s Office is provably ignoring drug crime in general, and unlike professional peers across Tennessee, the local DA’s Office doesn’t even bother to participate in the state’s network of judicial drug task forces.
And the local newspaper lets these taxpayer-salaried public officials and authorities get away with it, by either ignoring overdose death victims in its regular reporting, or when any reporting does take place, by blaming and shaming the victims and their families.
So unfortunately, with the way things continue to go along without change here in my own community, many more mothers right here in Knoxville and Knox County will be getting some version of the call Cissy Houston got last week, and that I got on April 27, 2010. Some will get the call today or tonight, some will get it next week, and others will hear that ominous, terrifying ring a month from now.
Of course, every time an active drug dealer is arrested and prosecuted by those with the ability to make that happen, the odds of some mother out there getting the terrible call are reduced, because reduced access to drugs in a particular community means fewer new addicts, as well as fewer opportunities for any individual who is already struggling with addiction to get his or her hands on the drugs that might lead to overdose on any given day.
Addressing drug supply and access certainly isn’t the whole solution to the overdose epidemic, but it’s a major, major part of it, and it’s the part which families and private citizens have the least ability to impact themselves. Unless law enforcement leaders and prosecutors in a specific community do their jobs, the firehose of prescription pills will continue to spew death into our schools and neighborhoods, which is what’s happening in the community where my teenager lived his whole life, and where he died the week in which all his friends graduated from high school.
I weep for Cissy Houston every time I see or read a new story about Whitney Houston’s long descent into addiction, or describing the suspicious circumstances of her tragic death. And since Henry’s death, I carry around a constant ache for all the other mothers out there who will be getting their own calls – or perhaps an equally horrific knock on the door….
How many is it going to take? How many mothers will suffer this unbearable loss before we all stand up TOGETHER and say enough? How long before we stop allowing local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to cast the deaths of our children due to illegal drug trafficking as nothing more than individual, shameful accidents rather than as the escalating epidemic of crime against vulnerable victims that so many of these deaths are?
I still don’t know the answer to that question, but you better believe I am going to keep asking it until I do.
PLEASE LEARN MORE ABOUT HENRY’S FUND, THE ADDICTION TREATMENT ACCESS PROGRAM THAT HELPS YOUNG DRUG ADDICTS GET THE HELP THEY NEED, WHEN THEY NEED IT.
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