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Why I Refuse to Let Heroin Addiction Define My Mother’s Legacy

Editor's Note

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction, the following post could be triggering. You can contact SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

What I wish people knew about my mom before the grip hold of addiction took over:

 

What if I told you my mom was a beautiful, kind and caring soul who worked as an auxiliary nurse and helped nurse the elderly?

What if I told you she cared so deeply and selflessly for my little sister, and looked after her around the clock because she was ill more often than not?

What if I told you she was a model citizen who helped everyone in her presence, and had the heart of an angel?

What if I told you her 5-year-old little girl died unexpectedly during a holiday to an asthma attack?

What if I told you her heart died with her little girl that day?

What if I told you she faced a mental breakdown where she was given little support with her mental health to help bring her back from the darkness that now overshadowed her life?

What if I told you addiction offered her a new happiness; a way to cope with the loss of a child?

What if I told you my mom was consumed by heroin addiction that led to her death?

 

My mom was stunningly pretty. She had a Princess Diana hairstyle that she would prune every morning with her gas curling tong and Elnett hairspray. I would admire her from the bedroom door as she sat in front of her dresser mirror to apply her perfectly placed lipstick — dressed to perfection. Then, before heading off to take all three of us children to school, she would make sure my sister was given her asthma medication through a nebulizer. She would also ensure she was bandaged up so she couldn’t scratch her eczema.

When we arrived at the school gates, she would know and speak to everyone. Always smiling. She petitioned for a number of events to help the community, always fighting for what she believed in and never backing down for the greater good with the strength of a warrior. She was my hero. The woman I wanted to become. That woman was my mom.

 

It was 1997 and we were on our annual family holiday in Cornwall. During a game of hide-and-seek at the campsite, it was my turn to seek. I was walking through an unused field at the back of our tent and I heard uncontrollable coughing and wheezing. I followed the sound and waded through the overgrown grass to find my sister. She was sitting with her legs tucked into her chest, rolling her head back and forth struggling to breathe. I panicked.

I ran back to the tent and screamed for my mom. Without question, she rushed over, scooped her into her arms with a look of sheer terror and called for an ambulance. My brother and I stood watching and waiting in shock. My sister was lying lifeless in my mom’s arms while she tried to help her breathe using her nebulizer. Once the ambulance arrived and my sister was taken away, life changed forever.

 

We were back from Cornwall. Life felt empty. Mom wouldn’t eat or sleep. She just rocked in the corner of the room and cried. Weeks passed and things were still the same. My dad tried everything to support her, but he was also battling grief for the loss of his daughter. He was also trying to provide for the family with no one to turn to. Day by day, her mental health deteriorated, sinking deeper and deeper into a pit of depression. Social services support was minimal at this point. The options were either medication or to fight this alone. So as a last resort, she chose to try medication. The cocktail of pills she was prescribed by the doctor saw her admitted to a psychiatric ward, which would later put her into the arms of the wrong people who would lead her down the wrong path.

That inevitable day came in 2002 — that fateful day I had thought about for so long. The day addiction finally won the battle. By this point, my mom was no longer my mom. That beautiful woman I once called mom hadn’t been around for some time now. She was buried inside a body addiction had unapologetically claimed as its own. I had been grieving her loss without even realizing it. Watching heroin addiction slowly engulf someone to the point of no return is one of the most helpless situations anyone can ever wish to face. It tears you up inside seeing someone so close to you slipping away, day by day. Knowing there is nothing you can do that will ever defeat the grip over its victim seems like an endless battle.

That sensational smile and cheery disposition is replaced with a nervous grimace and a demonic presence. You want to believe the person you once knew still exists deep within their shell, but addiction is a force to be reckoned with. It doesn’t leave without a fight and it takes no prisoners.

Society’s Misconception of Addiction

Society often has this misconception that “addicts” are less worthy of care and respect. This misconception suggests that they choose to put themselves through the malevolence addiction brings, and giving funds that would help them would be better spent on someone who “deserves” it. I want to ask you this: Why did my mom not deserve that opportunity?

Everybody goes through difficult times. Life throws us unforeseen curve balls that can change our whole dynamic and perception of reality within seconds. It can happen to anyone, at any point. I know from my own experience that I never thought any of the events in my life would ever happen to me. You only hear or read about those things on the internet and then right before my eyes, the unthinkable is now my reality.

No one is ever prepared for the loss of a child or a close loved one. It can cause us to shatter into a million pieces and to some, this is incomprehensible. How a person handles this life-altering situation is not just a matter of choice. It is about available support that can help them understand and process such tragic circumstances, and give them the tools they need to find the courage to continue with life again. Circumstances led my mom to heroin and not the other way around.

The Relationship Between Trauma and Addiction

Let me explain the relationship between trauma and addiction. Many people who experience addiction have also endured some form of emotional or physical trauma from either childhood or adulthood. When the human brain witnesses a traumatic event or frequent and continuous trauma, it causes extremely high levels of stress that can alter or impede normal brain function and development. Physical stress responses that are not addressed with specialist treatment can cause disruptions in the brain. These disruptions can play a part in making someone more vulnerable to substance abuse disorders and can also contribute to the development of mental health conditions, such as PTSD, Complex PTSD, anxiety and depression.

A large percentage of addiction is often caused by traumatic events that are out of a victim’s control. So is it unfair to say that, more often than not, severe trauma makes someone more susceptible to substance misuse? Could it perhaps be that it’s not necessarily a conscious decision made by someone to start taking drugs or using alcohol, but more about them being in a mentally vulnerable place that makes them more likely to experiment with the idea of self-medicating to numb the pain of trauma?

When support services have failed to play their part and prescription medication is not closely monitored to ensure it is having the right effect, what other options are people left with? If you asked anyone who knew my mom, they would tell you she was the least likely person to turn to heroin. So if that probability was proved wrong, I can safely say there are many other individuals who have been through similar circumstances. If it can happen to my mom, it can happen to anyone.

So I am asking everyone to consider this next time they learn of someone with an addiction. Try taking the time to understand every part of that person’s life, and consider the circumstances that led them to that point before making a quick, uneducated judgement. Be kind. Everyone deserves their story to be heard. They should also be given the same support and opportunities to survive, and they should have the chance to lead a happy life.

I for one know that if my mom had been given specialist trauma treatment and was supported through the death of her daughter as soon as it happened, she would never have been led to heroin at that vulnerable point in her life. I refuse to let her, or anyone else who has lost their battle to addiction, be remembered as an “addict.” Because that was not my mom. My mom was all the things I have written about and so much more.

Addiction is not permanent and should not define someone for the rest of their life. To anyone who has battled and survived addiction, you are my inspiration! To have the strength and the power to overcome such a powerful struggle is nothing short of amazing — and you deserve the upmost respect.

When I was a little girl, I remember walking round the house, wearing my mom’s heels saying, “I can’t wait to grow up to be like you, Mommy.” I still live by those words. I still believe that if I am lucky enough to become half the woman my mom was, it would be my greatest achievement.

In Loving Memory of my Beautiful Mother and Sister,

Gillian Nanette Anns and Jaclyn Emily Anns.