Christine & Jacob: How a mother and son found hope where they least expected it
Christine knew something about her son had changed. Once popular, outgoing, and active in sports, Jacob now slept all the time, stayed in his room, and seemed withdrawn. “He wasn’t that happy-go-lucky kid anymore,” says Christine of her son following his senior year of high school. “But I didn’t know. I didn’t know that he was getting that many pain pills. I didn’t know he was taking them. I should have known, but I didn’t.”
Jacob started experiencing back pain in middle school, and at 13 years old he received his first prescription to Vicodin, a synthetic opioid used to treat pain. Nearly a decade later, Jacob had undergone two major back surgeries and completed four different stints at drug and alcohol treatment centers—two inpatient, two outpatient—and one stay in a psychiatric ward. Addicted to heroin, Jacob needed help. Christine had no idea that the day her mother, Jacob’s grandmother, found a video online about heroin addiction, everyone’s life was about to radically change.
“An immediate love affair”
Joe, now 35 and a guide at Discovery Place, grew up in a two-parent, upper middle class home in an idyllic town just outside Portland, Maine. Like most of his friends then, he loved playing hockey far more than he loved going to school. When he had his first drink at age 12, followed shortly by his first experience with marijuana, Joe called it the start of “an immediate love affair.” The feeling alcohol and marijuana gave him—that was the way he wanted to feel for the rest of his life.
At 15, Joe entered his first treatment center. In just a few years, he’d gone from drinking with his buddies and smoking weed to racking up run-ins with the law and abusing cocaine. Active in 12-step recovery following treatment, he stayed sober for a year. Then, he relapsed. “I think I told myself I just really like to party, and then I told myself that for the next twenty years,” says Joe. By 17, he was an IV heroin addict.
His first real experience with opiate withdrawal landed him in the hospital, and shortly thereafter, a one-way ticket to Nashville to live with his older (and sober) brother. And like before, he stayed sober for about a year, but this time with no sponsor, no recovery, just running on the fumes of youth. Young, ambitious, and determined, Joe, a high school dropout armed with his GED, landed a sales job at a large, multi-national tech company. “A drink sounded like a good idea. I was a heroin addict, and alcohol wasn’t my problem,” recalls Joe. “So, I drank. Immediately, I was drinking as much as I could whenever I could but still telling myself this story that I just really like to party.”
Worse than it appears
Born and raised in Orange County, California, Jacob, now 26, was the kid you wanted your kids to grow up like, says Christine. “He was a great, great kid. Everybody loved Jacob.” And like a lot of children in Orange County, where sports reign supreme, Jacob got involved at an early age in basketball and football. Injuries from weightlifting were exacerbated by sports, and the summer after his junior year of high school, Jacob had his first back surgery, a microdiscectomy. By that time, however, he had already been taking prescription painkillers for several years. “I wasn’t physically dependent on one drug in particular [at this time], but five out of the seven days [of the week] I was either drinking, smoking weed, or doing pills,” he says.
Following surgery, Jacob didn’t return to the football team, or any other sport. With a local physician providing him prescriptions to painkillers like Roxicodone and Opana, Jacob had constant access to the drugs he needed. After graduating from high school, he would undergo a second back surgery, a spinal fusion.
It was at the hospital, following the second surgery, when Christine realized things were more serious than Jacob just seeming withdrawn or spending too much time in his room. The physicians at the hospital couldn’t get his pain under control because his tolerance to prescription painkillers was so high. “That’s when it all started—when we realized he was taking more than he should,” recalls Christine. While Jacob was still in the hospital, Christine and her husband, Jacob’s stepfather, went home and found empty pill bottle after empty pill bottle in his room.
“Deny, deny, deny”
Over the next several years, Christine bounced back and forth between mother and enforcer. She tried confronting the physician who had been prescribing her son painkillers. Because he was no longer a minor, there was nothing she could do to stop the physician or Jacob. She would send Jacob to treatment centers only to see him relapse a few months later. She monitored his movements by tracking his cell phone. She drug tested him. She hid his relapses from her parents and her husband.
Christine remembers a period of time when Jacob was back at home after another treatment center and she would administer his Suboxone, a prescription medication used to treat opioid dependence. “Before I went to work every morning, I’d wake him up, put the Suboxone in his mouth, watch him swallow it. And that didn’t work. There’s ways to cheat everything if you don’t want to quit,” says Christine.
“I would swallow it. I wouldn’t keep it under my tongue,” recalls Jacob. For Suboxone to work effectively, it needs to be placed under the tongue or inside the cheek. Swallowing it prevents the drug from properly activating. “I would hold it in [my mouth] and try not to get any saliva on it. This was at 4:30 in the morning and that went on for three or four months. That’s how bad my mom really wanted [sobriety] for me.”
By this time, like many individuals who start out using prescription painkillers, Jacob had moved on to freebasing heroin. “I didn’t know it was heroin for awhile,” says Christine. “When we found out, it was devastating.”
Jacob ended up at a treatment center in upstate New York and then landed in Greenwich, Connecticut. Soon after, he was using again. When Christine came for a visit, it was clear that Jacob was not doing well. “She took one look at me—the first time she’d seen me in a year—and she knew what was going on,” he says. She rented a car and drove him back to Southern California. He used the whole way home.
“We came home and the first thing we did was go to the Suboxone doctor,” says Christine. “We got him on Suboxone again. I tried to monitor him again, put GPS on his car. It was the whole story over again. I knew something wasn’t right, but didn’t know what. Well, I knew what, but I denied. Deny, deny, deny.”
On his way
The day before Jacob got sober he was robbed during a drug deal. Now with no drugs and no money, he remembers driving home and crying. Crying not because he’d been robbed or because he didn’t have his next fix, but because his life was a mess. He describes it now as “a moment of clarity” where for the first time he reached out for help.
His grandparents had stumbled upon a video about heroin addiction online and not realizing it was connected to Discovery Place reached out to the individual in the video for help. It was a shot in the dark. They had little hope that some person from some video they’d found on the Internet was going to actually call them back.
Then, the phone rang.
It was the man from the video, an employee at Discovery Place, and he was ready to help. Christine knew they needed to get Jacob out of California as soon as possible. Within just a few days, Jacob was on a plane from Orange County to Discovery Place in Burns, Tennessee. “And that’s where life began,” says Christine.
She noticed a change in Jacob right away. At previous treatment centers, he would complain to her about how unhappy he was or what they were doing wrong. But at Discovery Place, he was different, says Christine. He was happy. “The first week he went was hard because they don’t allow phone calls that week. But even talking to Jacob those five, ten minutes, I probably got the best sleep I’ve gotten in five years,” she says. “You know when someone is on their way. Not that he’d gotten there yet, but he was in the right place. That first thirty days was pure joy for me.”
Recovery is not 30 days
And as much as she wanted things to be different for Jacob, she wanted to do things differently, too. “For me, getting him out of the current environment, sending him some place, and not letting him come back for awhile, it’s the only thing that makes sense to me [now],” says Christine. Prior to Discovery Place, the family had gotten in a routine of sending Jacob to treatment and then immediately allowing him to come home. He’d do well for a couple of months, then relapse. Then the cycle would start all over again.
“You can’t expect a disease like that to go away in thirty days and then come home to the same environment,” she says, as her voice trails off. “Recovery is not thirty days, by no means. The more aftercare you can give somebody, the better chance they have.”
Jacob stayed at Discovery Place for thirty days, then completed another thirty days in the Long Term Recovery Program. Following LTR, he moved into a sober living house in nearby Dickson and took advantage of Discovery Place’s volunteer program, which allows alumni to come back as often they’d like, free of charge, to continue to participate in the DP recovery community.
“I wanted [sobriety] for years and that never changed anything,” says Jacob. “[This time] I just bought in and started doing the things people suggested. All the continuing care we do at Discovery Place was a perfect fit for me to succeed in sobriety.”
Today, Jacob, now two years sober, works at Discovery Place in admissions. Now he gets to be the voice on the other end of the line offering hope to families and a way out to those suffering from addiction.
“We’re a great facility for any man who wants to give this thing a try, but we’re especially great for men who have been to multiple treatment centers. There’s something to it—the man taking you through the Big Book, or doing the Step groups, or leading the meeting, whatever it is, he literally sat in your chair.
I always explain to the families why we don’t call our guides counselors. It’s like going on a fishing trip. You want to pay a fishing guide to show you how to fish a lake. You don’t want the guy who just read a book about it or went to school for it. You want someone who is qualified but who has also fished that lake.”
Guides, staff members, volunteers—nearly everyone on Discovery Place’s campus is also an alumnus. They’ve fished the lake.
Getting to the door
Since Jacob got sober, Christine and Jacob’s stepfather have moved to the east coast from California. The whole family—mom, dad, aunt, grandparents—all came to Discovery Place to watch Jacob pick up his one year sobriety chip. “I cried the whole time. I could see what he loved about that place,” says Christine. “It saved Jacob.”
Though Christine and Jacob experienced the fallout from Jacob’s addiction in different ways, they share a similar message in his recovery. As the mother of an addict, Christine knows sometimes hope can be the only thing you’re left holding onto. “You never give up hope,” she says. “You never give up hope.” And for Jacob, who is now engaged, has a baby on the way, and just closed on his first home, he adds, “In my wildest dreams, my life wouldn’t be how it is today. It’s all in the results of Discovery Place. As long as we can get [your loved one] to the door, even if they’re kicking and screaming, there’s hope.”
About Kate Parrish
Kate Parrish helps individuals and organizations uncover and tell their stories. Her work can be found in Teen Vogue, SELF, GOOD, Parade, and more. She’s worked with brands like AXE, Goldfish Crackers, and Hilton Worldwide. She is an MFA candidate at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN and lives in Nashville. Even though they’re all her favorite, her favorite-favorite dog at Discovery Place is Maddie. kateparrish.com