In retrospect, my husband and I have expressed doubt that we would have even risked having children had we known. Two daughters, seemingly perfect at birth, had both developed painful symptoms as they grew into teenagers. A “genetic anomaly” they said, had caused pancreatic defects in both daughters. “The pain is unimaginable” we were told by doctors. “It’s right up there with giving birth or passing kidney stones.” My husband and I were horrified, and couldn’t imagine how our daughters could ever forgive us for loading them up with anti-acids instead of taking their sickness more seriously. But how could we have known?
And if that wasn’t enough, one pediatric gastroenterologist had warned us, “Long term, the pancreatic pain won’t be the worst thing you’ll have to deal with. It will be the addiction to the narcotics.” I must admit that I thought he was just giving us a worst-case scenario, and that the likelihood of our beautiful young daughters becoming drug-dependent seemed far-fetched. Both girls endured major surgeries to address the problem, but unfortunately, the surgeries addressed only the symptoms. Their pain would always return. Until pancreatic transplants are perfected, pain will be a part of their lives.
As a parent, you tell yourself that love and smart doctors will conquer even the greatest of problems. To assuage the constant guilt we felt for causing this congenital deformity through our union, each daughter was given the benefit of the doubt when she said she was in pain. They both knew this and each would manipulate us well over the years. Doctors and prescriptions became a common part of our lives. The first time they were hospitalized, they were given flowers, books, stuffed animals, and cards with loving lyrics. But the thirtieth or fortieth time, you simply dropped them off at the emergency room and told them to call you when they got assigned a bed.
The eldest daughter suffered from pancreatic divisim, a condition that effects one out of every hundred people. She could go months without pain and then suffer an attack that had her doubled up on the floor and throwing up green bile that always brought to mind a scene from “The Exorcist”. The youngest daughter suffered from chronic pancreatitis which resulted in living with constant, almost debilitating pain. It was my youngest lying at my feet on the hotel floor.
She was twenty-nine years old and had spent more than half her life using prescription opiates. She had been through three detox programs, Narcotics Anonymous twelve-step programs, rehab housing, and a host of personal events that would make even the most stalwart person ready to drug up. After a host of doctors, pain management programs, and psychiatrists, her bedside table looked like a mobile pharmacy. And it wasn’t just narcotics. Doctors became more than relievers of pain; they became accomplices. Over time she was diagnosed with depression, bi-polar disorder, borderline schizophrenia, and a host of other maladies I can’t pronounce. She was deemed to be “unemployable” and spent her days either sleeping, eating, or smoking on the back patio. The life-loving daughter we’d known at fourteen was now nowhere to be found. Instead, in her place was a young miserable woman; full of drugs and self-loathing. To family, I’m sorry to say she became an emotional vampire, sucking the happiness out of everyone she encountered with her woe-is-me life.
She became caustic, deceitful, and bitter. Every phone call I received at work from her became a request for money to keep her in cigarettes and sodas. Instead of feigning small talk, she would just cut to the chase and create some lie about doctor appointment co-pays to get the cash. If we turned her down, she turned on the guilt and wore us down. Her misery was palpable and neither my husband nor I wanted to even be around her. She had ceased to care about anything in life except making sure her prescriptions were refilled promptly. Personal hygiene was no longer a part of her routine, something which mystified and totally disgusted me. I would later come to understand that this was an outward manifestation of an inward self-loathing. More recently she had been asked to move out of our home because our wallets were no longer safe. The lying and stealing had eaten away at our trust and we were at a complete loss over what to do to get our daughter back. She was currently staying with a boyfriend, for however long that would last. To make matters so much worse for her, we couldn’t manage to summon any more sympathy. We felt we’d been sucked into her misery and instead of valiantly working to save our child, we turned away in disgust and disappointment at her time of greatest need. I know what you’re thinking. As parents, we’ve made enough mistakes to fill several seasons of Dr. Phil.
About this time, I left my job and took an early retirement payout. My husband and I made the decision to move to Asheville, North Carolina to retire. Although we knew it would be hard to leave our daughters, we also knew that their constant dependence on us was unhealthy for all parties. Our life savings would be drained in short order and they would both remain parental leaches. So we left, and told both daughters it was time they grew up and learned how to cope with life.
The eldest daughter was a single parent to our three grandchildren. Although she was going through a tough divorce and the resulting depression, at least she hadn’t had a pancreatic attack in quite some time. And as a fellow parent, she often sucked it up for the sake of the children.
The youngest daughter, meanwhile, had wrecked her third car and after a trip to the emergency room, some night shift doctor had loaded her up with more narcotics. She spent her days and nights in drugged stupor, stumbling into walls and slurring her words. Although deeply worried, we deliberately tried not to do anything. I know that sounds wrong, but we had spent most of the past fifteen years trying to make up for her illness by being too generous, too permissive, too understanding, and too forgiving. In the end, we had not raised a child into an adult. We had raised something else altogether, and I felt a parent’s failure so acutely that my heart ached deep inside. When business colleagues would ask about my daughter, I would fabricate a job and “newfound hope” because I was too embarrassed to admit the sorry state of our family. When friends were around, I would pray that my daughter would not appear because her unkept appearance and lack of hygiene embarrassed me so. Now I ask you, what kind of parent is so concerned about what friends will think that they fail to recognize such a blatant cry for help?
I wanted her back. I didn’t know this monster she’d become and I didn’t want to. I was tired of her blaming us, tired of her playing the victim, tired of the lies, the stealing, the drugs, and the total lack of hygiene. Late at night as sleep eluded me, I would think of the young girl I once knew and pray for a miracle. One afternoon I decided to research long-term rehabilitation programs. Not the thirty-day Lindsay Lohan dry-out type, but something that could change a life. One such program I researched used a dual diagnosis approach; meaning they not only treat the physical drug addiction, but also delve into the individual’s past to determine what triggered the abuse. It was an in-depth long-term program with an educational curriculum that brought the addict face to face with their own demons.
The cost was roughly the equivalent of a year’s living expenses for my husband and me. Although it was high, we felt it would be a small price to pay if it returned our daughter to us. What good would it do to leave behind an inheritance to a daughter whose life is in shambles when instead, we could invest in her life now and give her another chance at happiness. So once again we ignored the warnings in our heads that we were throwing our money away and “enabling” her.
Fortunately, my daughter jumped at the chance to enter the program. I was somewhat surprised at this but also relieved. I decided to fly back to the West Coast to deliver her myself to the rehab center since she no longer had a car to get to LA.
So there I was, looking down at the floor in the hotel room at my lost child.
It’s a funny thing about your children. Even at their most unlovable moments, parents don’t let go. As I learned that evening, just because I felt no love at that moment for her did not mean that love did not exist. Love’s emotion ebbs and flows sometimes, but the deep unbreakable connection between parent and child survives through all manner of pain. I took her to LA to enter the program, this last ditch effort. She made small talk with the staff about her prior experiences with detox and laughed with smug familiarity about the routines of yet another lifeline being thrown her way. I was hurting and wondered if this would turn out to be my most colossal and costly parental failure yet. We hugged and I walked out to my car with the staff member, who told me not to worry and that they would take good care of her. I pulled away from the curb and the tears I began to shed turned to sobs as I entered the crowded freeway heading back down the coast.
Over the next few weeks we received frequent calls from staff at the center providing us updates on her progress. Her treatment included a period of physician assisted detox as well as intensive exercise, classroom work, group therapy, and sauna treatments. Direct contact with her was prohibited during detox, but once we were able to speak with her, the difference was shocking. No slurring for one thing. And a voice filled with appreciation and contrition, something we had not heard from her in years. Each time we spoke to her it was like watching a wilted flower regain strength and open its petals to the sun as nourishment runs through the stem, slowly but with purpose.
That was ten months ago. We now have our daughter back. For the first time in fifteen years, her body is free of mind-numbing drugs. Once the narcotics were gone, her spirits improved and the need for anti-depressants and psych meds also disappeared. We had been naive and she had been so hopelessly lost in drugs that none of us had bothered to question all the mental illness labels she’d been given. Doctors had become her lifeline through the years. A needy and frequent patient always seems to leave the doctor’s office with yet another diagnosis and prescription. As I look back on it now, how can a proper diagnosis be given to an opiate-dependent patient?
Her sense of humor is back and her deep unabashed laughter is like a balm to my soul. She smiles all the time and remarks, “My brain seems to have returned.” She makes conversation now that is no longer just about her. Through a combination of sweating out toxins from the body through the sauna program, an exercise regimen, as well as putting up with mediocre food, she also dropped forty pounds, which boosted her self-confidence as well. And without the cloud of drugs, she embraced her studies and worked her way through painful self-discovery and a deeply buried past that had contributed to her drug abuse. Her mind is still young—fourteen years of age to be exact. She has a lot of catching up to do to enter adulthood. But she is well on her way. She has moved from being a student, to an intern, and now has become full time staff at the facility that saved her life. Turns out she has gifts of empathy and the ability to listen without judgment. And she truly wants to help others the way she was helped. Our conversations are now between two adults; her emotional growth and maturity amaze me.
As for the chronic pancreatitis, she still has occasional pain, but it is now managed with simple ibuprofen. The funny thing about pain and pain management programs is that long term usage of strong narcotics affects your pain tolerance so much that even the slightest pain will require major narcotics to relieve it. In other words, the more drugs you take, the more you’ll need the next time you hurt, in order to achieve the same relief. It is a vicious cycle that leads to long term addiction and ruins lives.
We know there are still risks and that we have no guarantees that a relapse will not be in her future. The life of an addict is forever as an addict. But love is alive and well in this household. We know that now. And this painful journey she bravely took has returned to us the daughter we love and have always loved.