Addiction tale: Battles, a life lost, grief
Drugs, more serious drugs, addiction, rehab, hope, relapse, rehab again — it’s a long, heartbreaking tale.
For David Anderson, a member of Ridgefield High School’s Class of 2005, it ended Jan. 5. He died, at age 29, of a heroin overdose at a halfway house in Torrington.
For his parents, Ridgefielders Eleanor and James Anderson, it’s something they’ll struggle with the rest of their lives.
“There came a time where he sort of crossed the point of no return, into full-blown addiction, and that’s when he really wanted to stop, and he could not,” his mother said.
The Western Connecticut Council of Governments says Ridgefield had six fatal overdoses between 2009 and 2014, but First Selectman Rudy Marconi said he thought the number of Ridgefielders, and children of Ridgefield, lost to addiction, was greater.
“I bet we’ve lost 10,” Marconi said.
“The police, when they came to the house, said, ‘We’re doing this way too much.’” Eleanor Anderson said.
Although she did not pretend to have answers, she gave The Press an interview in the hope it might help others facing similar circumstances.
“He got involved with drugs in high school and, you know, he told me in high school mostly he just stuck to pot,” she said.
“It was the summer after he graduated from high school where his drug use really took off. I know he started using coke — and God knows what else,” his mother said. “There didn’t seem to be a drug that he was afraid of, with the possible exception of methamphetamine.
“He was working, mostly as a carpenter in those early years. And he was good at it. I don’t think he liked it all that much, but he was good at it,” she said.
He was living at home.
“He was more interested in drugs than anything, at that point,” Anderson said.
“We were out of our minds. My father had a serious alcohol problem and, you know, since the day Dave was born, I was always very afraid that whatever it was — whether it’s a gene — I was always afraid that Dave would fall prey to that. And he did — in spades.
“The long and short of that was, we were out of our minds trying to stop him.”
‘Standing on a ledge’
The 13-year battle involved stints in rehab and halfway houses, and frequent fighting with their son.
“I’ve likened it to him standing on a ledge threatening to jump while his father and I run around down on the street, trying to figure out where he’s going to land so we can be there to catch him,” she said.
“We figure he started getting high his junior year in high school. His grades really started falling off. He wasn’t a great student, he was never all that interested, but it was Bs and Cs, you know? But his junior year, things really started falling off.
“He had since told me that, really, mostly all he used in school was pot, and yet his grades fell off drastically. I know it’s very easy to say, ‘It’s just a little pot’ — but it became his whole life, to the exclusion of everything else. So it’s not ‘just a little pot’ sometimes.”
What did they do to fight the problem?
“All the wrong things, I’m sure,” Anderson said. “He was arrested as a senior in high school. That was our first real taste of the court system, which is not a fun place to be. They actually sent him — because he continued to use, even after he had been arrested and was in the hands of the court system. ….
“I think for Dave — probably for a lot of kids — there was period there where drugs were fun,” she said. “And he would get sober, maybe by force from the court system, and he’d enjoy his sobriety, but he wasn’t ultimately ready to be sober at that point. He liked doing drugs, and that was his social life.
“He told me once, after he got out of rehab: ‘Mom, I don’t think I’m ready to be sober.’ So right back to it he went, because this was his social life.”
Dave hid what he was doing.
What’s more, “his friends were very secretive, and they all seemed to stick together, and protect each other — right to the grave.”
After his arrest and conviction, “he was literally chained to the house. He’d leave to work and he had to be back in the house right after work. I think he was doing a lot of coke in those days. He was running with a crew of guys that, obviously, we did not approve of.
“It was like he was actively trying to kill himself — in the way teenage boys are reckless and completely incapable of recognizing consequences. He had a bracelet on (from the courts) and he did come home. But somehow he managed to still get the stuff.”
Probation officials were regularly testing him for drugs. “His probation officer decided to send him to this halfway house in New Haven. And me, like a fool, still trying to protect him, I called his probation officer. Maybe he’d started a new a job, and I called his probation officer, trying to plead his case, and she said, ‘Mrs. Anderson, he’s testing positive for opiates.’ And that stopped me in my tracks.”
He was 19.
She doesn’t think he followed the path from prescription pain pills to heroin.
“Dave told me himself that he went right to sticking a needle in his arm. No pills,” she said.
He want to the halfway house in New Haven for four months, and “did very well. For four months, I got to see a glimpse of what my son was really like — which was nice because, I can tell you, he was a nightmare before that, when he started using drugs. …
“At 17, 18, 19 years old, he didn’t give a damn about anything — certainly didn’t seem to give a damn about his parents,” his mother said. “He was angry all the time. He just wanted to be left alone to use drugs.
“In terms of giving up our lives, this was the start of us completely focusing on him, trying to save him. Every thought we had, everything we did, revolved around trying to get him to stop the drugs.
“That went on for almost 10 more years — with me, especially, just completely losing my life in the interest of trying to save my child, to the point where I literally ran myself into exhaustion.”
He had eight stints of outpatient and inpatient rehab.
“We forced him into rehab a couple of times. They say you can’t force them, they have to want to,” she said.
“He hated rehab, but as time went by, he went to more of them, and started to buy in, and participate, because I think he really wanted to be sober,” she said.
“I think he recognized that he had a serious problem and he really wanted to be sober.” However, he also believed “he could get out and then do it by himself,” she said. “And, of course, he could not. And we used to fight about this: ‘I can do this, Mom. I can do this. I’m sober now, I can do this.’
“The last six months he was in a sober house in Danbury. He was going to daily, sometimes twice-daily, meetings. He was on a drug called Vivitrol, which was very effective for him.”
Vivitrol (naltrexone) fights relapses by people who’ve been through detox programs for both alcohol and opiates. It reduces their cravings for heroin. Also, “apparently you can’t get high when you’re on Vivitrol,” she said.
“He was doing all the things he needed to do. He was going regularly to his therapist,” she said.
“For the first time I started to think, ‘Maybe he’s got a shot here,’ because the Vivitrol was very helpful for him.”
“One of things I always struggled with, with Dave, was trying to figure out where the addiction started and where the depression— what’s the addiction, and what’s the depression?” she said.
“Any time he got sober, we could start to see there were mental health issues. It’s impossible to know if the drugs were causing the depression, or the depression was there all along and he was medicating himself. I tend to think that’s the case, but I don’t know.”
So the hope engendered by periods of relative success — staying sober, making appointments, going to rehab — would give way to a return of bad habits.
“He couldn’t maintain. He started to slide back into old bad habits,” his mother said. “He missed his Vivitrol appointment. He started missing meetings. He just couldn’t maintain. And this is what happened to him every time he got sober. …
“Over the past, really, five or six years, he really wanted to stop. He really wanted his life to be different. He had realized that he had given up everything to drugs. You know, he lost a girl that he really loved. And he started to realize he was losing everything,” Anderson said. “He recognized this was no longer fun, he’d tipped into full-blown addiction and his life was going nowhere, and he desperately wanted to change that. He was ashamed of himself.”
At the time of his overdose, Dave had been through a relapse that got him thrown out of a transitional housing program run by the MCCA in Danbury, then he appeared to right himself.
“He wanted to go back to Danbury, because he’d had a good experience with MCCA, and was building a network of friends. But there was no room at the sober house there, so he found a place in Torrington, because he has a couple of sober friends there. And the plan was he’d go there and wait for a room to open up in the Danbury sober house that he’d been in, prior,” she said.
But biding one’s time is dangerous for someone trying to beat a drug habit.
Over and over
As the mother of a young man lost to addiction, Anderson has a lot of water under the bridge.
“It’s a very long, sad story. It really is,” she said. “Here is just the beginning and the end. The middle is just doing the same thing over and over and over for 13 years. In and out of rehab. He’d get clean. The fighting — the fights, the wrecked cars. He stole from me. In the later years, he started stealing from me. When the heroin really got its claws into him the last few years, things really got ugly. We locked up our valuables.
“A heroin addict has a mind that is not like yours and mine. They are focused on one thing, and one thing only, from the moment they wake up, and that is where they’ll get their next fix. And in the interest of getting that they will stop at nothing. So his mind would devise plans that I’d never think of. He was always four steps ahead of me. He’d find a way to get my debit card. He wrote checks that I didn’t even know I had — I thought I’d gotten rid of them all.
“It erodes the trust between you and your child. This is difficult to put into words. It erodes the trust so badly that you can’t even treat them as your child anymore, you start treating them as a threat, you know?
“Where mental health issues are concerned, you’re killing yourself trying to help them, but you can’t force them, because they’re over 18,” she said. “There was a point where he definitely belonged in a psychiatric hospital. But he would have no part of that. And I begged him.”
While she doesn’t have any answers, she does have a piece of advice.
“Don’t do it by yourself,” she said. “For many years, I was toiling in front of my computer, googling this, googling that, trying to learn, trying to find resources — all by myself.” That was a mistake.
“I think a lot of people make that mistake,” she said. “We have Al-Anon here in Ridgefield. There’s the CARES Group, which is fairly new in town. I started going to Al-Anon — that was a great help. Seek out groups like this, where not only do you get the emotional support you need, but they’re a resource.”
A helpful start is town Social Services Director Tony Phillips, at 203-431-2777.
“I found out just to be among people who’re going through the same thing, who understood what I was going through, somehow lifted some of the burden off. Sometimes that’s the best you get.
“You don’t have to do it by yourself,” Anderson said. “It won’t necessarily give you the end result you’re looking for — clearly, in my case, it did not — but it was like a breath of fresh air when I finally started allowing other people to help me.”