Breaking the Silence and Erasing the Stigma



Michael was born the day after thanksgiving in 1991 on Nov. 29th.  The first contraction hit as I raised my fork with my first bite of thanksgiving dinner.  I stopped midstream and thought “oh, so this is how it’s going to be little one.”  He was born the next morning and he was perfect.  Michael was our beautiful boy.  He was cute as a button, sweet, loving, funny and so smart.  He loved building with Legos and model car kits. He loved hot wheels, race tracks and other games.  He played soccer, baseball and was in the boy scouts for many years.  There were camping trips, fishing, boating and swimming.  There were wonderful vacations at the beach.  As he got older, he loved skateboarding, hockey and video games.  He loved watching educational T.V., reading and having discussions about various topics.  He even loved school and did very well throughout grade school.  He loved it all.  He loved life.    

Now the hard part.  When he was 14 it was like someone flicked a switch.  Michael became extremely angry, rebellious and defiant.  We tried everything we could think of to get through to him to no avail.  He seemed to have lost his ability to reason. There had been no trauma.  We were sure it wasn’t drugs at this point because he had become somewhat of a recluse.  He didn’t really hang out with friends and became obsessed with the video games.  I said then and still think that he was actually addicted to the video games and that this was the beginning of his problems.  We limited the video games, but nothing changed.  He stopped doing his homework.  I had to communicate with his teachers everyday and get his assignments because he wasn’t doing it.  I would sit with him every night and make him do his homework and watched him put it in his book bag only to find out that he never turned it in and lost it.  I was always late for work because if I didn’t stay and force him to go to school he wouldn’t go.  We decided we needed help.  He needed help.  We took him to a counselor who then sent us to a psychiatrist where he was diagnosed with ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and Oppositional Defiant Disorder.  We were devastated.  We were lost, confused and so scared for our son.  The medications they wanted to try scared us but not knowing what else to do we tried them.  Still nothing was changing or helping him.  Needless to say, these years were very difficult.  When he was 16, he began smoking marijuana against our wishes.  He said it helped him with his anxiety.  When he was 18, we found out that he was abusing Xanax that he’d gotten from a friend because of severe anxiety and panic attacks.  We talked to him about the dangers of prescription drug abuse and he said he understood and wouldn’t do it again.  We sent him to the doctor and told him to see if there was something he could take for anxiety that wasn’t addictive.  He came home with more Xanax.  When he was 19, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and was given a prescription for nausea due to chemotherapy.  I took 1 or 2 pills then put them in the medicine cabinet and forgot about them.  Next thing we know, things turn up missing.  Money, jewelry, painkillers from his grandmothers’ house and that prescription of mine.  Turns out it was a powerful anti-anxiety med called Ativan.  I should have known to ask what it was when it was prescribed to me and I should have known to lock it up, but I didn’t. I was ignorant and naïve.  It wasn’t long before we got a call from the police.  They said Michael had totaled his car and was in the hospital.  He was lucky he wasn’t seriously injured and that he didn’t injure someone else.  To our complete shock and disbelief, they told us he’d been doing heroin that night.  We hadn’t heard the word heroin since the 70’s.  We had no clue that there was a heroin epidemic in our community or in the entire country for that matter.  There was so much we didn’t know.  Now we forced him into rehab.  After his second time in rehab he said he never wanted to do heroin again, but he began to drink alcohol and continued to smoke marijuana.  Over the next 2 years his drinking became heavier and heavier.  I was going to talk with him again about rehab when on August 25, 2014, I went home from work and found his lifeless body.  Michael was 22 years old when he died from an accidental heroin overdose.  The toxicology report said there was a mixture of Xanax and heroin in his system. 

The reason we tell this story is because we want people to understand how important it is to be informed and educated and proactive.  If we had known everything then that we know now we might still have Michael with us.  We would have locked up the painkillers and Ativan.  We would have intervened sooner with rehab, but we didn’t because we were blind, ignorant and naïve.  Also, it’s hard to think clearly when going through the trauma of desperately trying to save your child. 

This is a difficult story to tell but we feel it’s important.  In order to break the stigma towards substance use disorder and mental illness we must tell our stories and break the silence.

Patti & Ellis Fitzwalter