Finding Hope When Addiction Takes Your Son

Let's Talk Addiction & Recovery Podcast
ID 758 Upset and tired boy teenager sitting on the floor keeps hand to cheek looking thoughtfully and hopeless. Stressed student guy feels emotional discomfort, anxiety and mental health problems.
I have been where you are. I know your pain. Your sorrow, your losses. I stand beside you not knowing how or when the tide may turn in your favor or of your loved one.

Linda Morrison

00:00:13 William Moyers
Hello everyone! Welcome to Let's Talk, our podcast series produced and delivered to you by Hazelden Betty Ford. I'm your host, William C. Moyers, thanks for joining us today for an intimate conversation. With a mother who lost her son to addiction. Her name is Linda Morrison. Her son's name is Mike. She's written a memoir about her journey from addiction to hope to recovery, to addiction, to hope, to recovery, to addiction, to fear, and loss, and grief—and standing up and speaking out and sharing her story to help others. Thank you, Linda, for joining us today from St. Paul, Minnesota.

0:00:59 Linda Morrison
Thank you, William! It's nice to be here. I appreciate you having me on and sharing Mike and my story. 

0:01:06 William Moyers
Tell us a little bit about Mike and your story. 

0:01:11 Linda Morrison
Well, Mike was our youngest son of three. And he was—he had the whole package. He was smart, he was good-looking, he had a killer smile and baby blue eyes that he used to his advantage. [Both chuckle] But he struggled internally with anxiety, depression, never feeling he was ever good enough. Always worried. And never feeling like he was normal. That's what he said, 'I don't feel normal.' And I didn't really know what that meant. And he ended up doing, you know, kids drink, they try some marijuana, but he ended up having some heroin and it took his anxiety away. And he said he felt normal. And that was the beginning of a four-year journey. In and out of treatment centers—three times at Hazelden, several around the country. He did have a couple years of sobriety when he was in Colorado he relocated to Carbondale. Had really a good time of sobriety there. And the town loved him. And when he left and came back for his last treatment, and then passed away, it was really devastating for them. As it was for our family. Yeah, Mike was [INAUDIBLE] and would just play tricks on us, but we just loved him so much. And he just could not see all the good that was in him. 

0:02:54 William Moyers
He died in 2012, what happened?

0:02:57 Linda Morrison
He went to Hazelden. And I mean he had a fantastic time. Every time he went to treatment, he did well. I think because his peers understood him, the counselors got him. But I think inside there was just still the fear. And I think he was worried that we were disappointed in him. So he got out, we picked him up, we brought him back here. We dropped him off at a sober house where he was gonna live and give him a couple days to acclimate. And he was supposed to call me and then the next morning, my doorbell rang and there were two police officers at my door. And they told me that Mike had died by suicide. At a local motel. And that he had left a note. And then the first of many 'I'm sorry for your loss.' So that's where the journey of after Mike died begins.

0:04:02 William Moyers
In your mind, as his mother, did he die from his addiction, or did he die from a mental health condition?

0:04:11 Linda Morrison
I would say the latter. I think he just felt hopeless. I think he felt like he was a big disappointment, which he wasn't—we never ever said that to him at all. And I think being 23, he just did not want to spend the rest of his life in recovery. And having this burden on him. So I really think he maybe had a little combination of both. But I think the mental health, and the guilt and the shame, because each relapse it was, you know, bigger and larger and he just felt he couldn't do it anymore.

0:04:49 William Moyers
That guilt and shame are toxic, as you pointed out there. Did you as a mom also struggle with guilt and shame?

0:04:59 Linda Morrison
I think at the beginning I did. You know, what could we have done differently? Was there anything that I did that pushed him this direction? But I really understood after his first treatment center and the family programs, I really understood more about addiction. His addiction and the impact it has on him and his family. 

0:05:26 William Moyers
Yes. Yes.

0:05:28 Linda Morrison
So, that was really paramount for me and our family to really understand and not put that on us.

0:05:37 William Moyers
On that point, did Mike's struggles affect you and his father more, or affect his brothers more? Or is that a ridiculous question?

0:05:51 Linda Morrison
Well, in different ways. His brothers were angry with him. They didn't understand a substance abuse. They just wanted their brother back. And then when he had the continued relapses and the moving, I think it was just really hard on them because we just weren't together as a family. We are really a strong family. Now, his dad loved him, his dad supported him, but his dad was the one that would ask Mike the hard questions. And kind of push him a little bit. But no, we supported Mike. We didn't like his addiction but we were supportive of him, we always were there for him. And he could call us anytime day or night and, you know, I never said, 'No don't call us, don't come home.' I mean, we really tried to keep the doors of communication open with Mike.

0:06:45 William Moyers
I wanna talk about your book, Dear Heroin: A Memoir of Goodbyes in just a moment. But before we get there, I was struck in reading the book and in your website, how you specifically call out the number of treatments that Mike was in. I think it was eight. And the number of months of sobriety that he experienced which I think you said was 23 months. It causes me to think about this—and I've worked for Hazelden Betty Ford for many decades, and I'm an alum from Hazelden in 1989. Although I did not stay sober out of my experience there. And so I've known a lot of people like your son and I've known a lot of families like yours. And I wanna ask you a hard question. It's a hard question for me and it may be a hard question for you based on these numbers. But, eight treatment centers—what is your belief about the effectiveness of treatment?

0:07:43 Linda Morrison
Going to treatment is helpful. I believe that. It gets them sober, it gets them community, it gets them peers. Families are able to, through the family programs, get together, talk about issues like with Mike and his dad and I. And it's not—I guess I know others who've had lots of treatments also and I just think that his drug of choice, heroin, is hard. It's hard to kick. Hard to beat. And then you add on the mental health issues. And where all those bad feelings go away when he uses is a really big draw. You know, to feel what he would call 'normal.'

0:08:33 William Moyers
You also call out those 23 months of sobriety. Why is it important for you to identify the actual number of months that he had as a sober young man?

0:08:44 Linda Morrison
Because he did so well. During those months. It was nine months, and then I believe 14 months. He had a short, maybe three-week, in-between time. But he was in Colorado, he was in Carbondale. And when he was not using and he was in recovery, he was just a man on fire! He was going to meetings and he was sponsoring others and he was sharing his story and he was working. And he was living the life he wanted to live. And so, you know, then he fell, but then he got back up and then he had again the 14 months. And I don't know why at that January of 2012 what happened. Something happened and he used. And he just couldn't recover from that. I don't know what that was or why, but it was then it was just that downhill slide from there. The last few months of his life were really very difficult on our family and very difficult on him and his friends. 

0:09:49 William Moyers
I often say that when people don't know why the illness comes back, I explain it as saying, 'The illness just comes back.' In the same way that cancer comes back for some cancer patients. Or diabetes comes back. For your son, based on what I've read, had a particularly heinous and virulent strain of the illness of addiction. With mental health issues challenging that too. So, you know, it is what it is in that regard—we don't know why these things happen. But it happened to your son, and it happened to your family. I find it really enlightening though that you did identify those 23 months as a gift of sobriety. 'Cause he did have some good times in there as you pointed out. 

0:10:33 Linda Morrison
Yeah, he did. He really did and like I said, he really—he lived those sober days and months well. 

0:10:40 William Moyers

0:10:42 Linda Morrison
And he impacted so many people in that community! They told me, and I say it in the book, if he had run for Mayor, he would have won. Just because of the impact that he had there! Not just being sober, but, you know, where he worked, he just did everything with gusto. 

0:10:59 William Moyers
Mmm-hmm. Linda, how in those twelve, now thirteen years since your son died, how have you recovered?

0:11:10 Linda Morrison
Well, I would say the first year, I was pretty numb. And you're just kinda going through the motions of, you know, burying him and doing all that. Paperwork and all the things you have to. The second year was when I really grieved. That was my hardest year was the second year. Just going through I think my emotions were thawing out and that I was starting to deal with those emotions. And so that was the hardest year. And each year after that, it got a little better. And now, going on eleven years later, I feel like I have a full life. Yes, I miss Mike, I wish he were here, I mean our family has expanded and he would be an uncle, and he would be fabulous. But, I think that we understand why he couldn't stay. And that we just miss him but I know he's in a better place, I know he's at peace, and he's not struggling. And in his note, he told us, 'Live your lives, I had a great childhood. I had a great life. You guys lived your lives. Don't continue and mourn for me—live.' And that's what we choose to do, is to honor that.

0:12:34 William Moyers
Mmm. And part of living your life has been writing this memoir. Dear Heroin: A Memoir of Goodbyes. What motivated you to write the book?

0:12:44 Linda Morrison
Well, I never really intended to write a book. Mike had told me when he was sober, and in Carbondale, he said, 'Mom, if anything ever happens to me, I want you to tell my story.' And I said, 'Yeah, okay,' he goes, 'No, Mom, really—I mean that.' And I said, 'Okay, I will.' And about a year after Mike died, a friend of his who works in a treatment center invited me to speak. And I went and shared his story. And so, that's how I thought I was going to honor his wishes to share his story. But the more I shared, the more people would say, 'You need to write about this, you need to write about this.' And I'd say, 'No, no, no, I'm not really a writer, no.' And I don't know, one thing led to another and I thought well maybe, and I started taking classes. There's a literary center here in Minnesota called The Loft. I started classes there. And ended up with a couple fabulous instructors who just really helped me with my manuscript and got me as far as I could until I found a publisher. So, but, it was healing for me as well to write this. 'Cause I could write it down—and I mean I would sit here sometimes and be typing on my computer crying. And, you know, especially the hard stories. You know, the hard times. And I would just get up, save it, and walk away. Come back and keep plugging away at it. Until I was to a place where I felt I was strong enough and it wasn't as hard to write. 

0:14:17 William Moyers
As you said, you wrote it to tell Mike's story, you wrote it as part of your process. But you wrote it for other people as well and I'm wondering if you would please read—I don't wanna put you on the spot but I am I guess [chuckles]—read the dedication to the book. Because I had actually read it and was struck by it and I have it here printed out but I know that hearing it from you will mean a lot to our viewers and our listeners. So if you would read the dedication?

0:14:45 Linda Morrison
I will. [looks down] 'This book is dedicated to my son, Michael Thomas. A great warrior who lost his battle with addiction. To the thousands of warriors who have lost their battles. And those who are still in the heat of this conflict. To all the loving families who have fought valiantly beside their sons and daughters, their siblings, their spouses, parents, grandparents, or friends. And all the families currently on the frontline of this devastating disease. I have been where you are. I know your pain. Your sorrow, your losses. I stand beside you not knowing how or when the tide may turn in your favor or of your loved one. I want you to know you are not alone.'

0:15:36 William Moyers
I want you to know that you are not alone. Why is that so important for families and for your readers?

0:15:45 Linda Morrison
Because when you're walking through this, you feel like you're alone. You feel like nobody understands, nobody gets it. You get all sorts of goodbyes from family and friends who don't know. They don't understand. And it's lonely. I mean even, you know, that's why the treatment centers were good, the Family Program was so good for us, because we bonded. We worked together. And we knew we were not alone. They got your story. If I shared something about a sleepless night or money being taken, you could hear and see, 'Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!' [whispers] So there's a bond there, there's a camaraderie there. 

0:16:28 William Moyers

0:16:29 Linda Morrison
And you need that when you're walking through this. You need people to understand, to get it with you, to come alongside of you, put their arms around you, and say, 'I'm walking with you.'

0:16:40 William Moyers
What's been the response, Linda, to you sharing your story so openly as you have in the book? And in the way that you have out in the public arena where you carry the message? What kind of response do you get?

0:16:52 Linda Morrison
You know, it's been very moving for me. People are very touched. They're touched by the openness and honesty that I've shared the book with. I didn't sugarcoat it. I didn't wanna say things that really weren't true. But it resonates with people. They get it. And, you know, part of it is families. You know, they're so happy to hear that yeah, maybe I had the worst-case scenario, but yet, I can still move forward. But for them, they're still walking this—and they have hope. They can garner hope from this. And maybe for them, they will have a different outcome. They will have the recovery and the beautiful family togetherness. [smiles] And that's what I would hope for everybody. But, it doesn't always happen. And so, I wanna be there for those who aren't—who have that other scenario like me. But that you can—your life does continue and you can live as they say, 'happy, joyous, and free.' So, yeah. [smiles]

0:17:59 William Moyers
Linda, what would be your message today to other parents who are struggling with the same things that you've experienced?

0:18:05 Linda Morrison
I would say, as a family, to hold onto each other. To get help. To surround yourself with others who've been there. You know, I didn't talk about it, but my faith and my Higher Power has been helpful for me. And that you need something greater than yourself, however you identify that, to walk this journey. But I think being open and honest, sharing your story, not being shamed. There's many avenues to share. And just support people. People call me—I have some neighbors who've lost children and I'm supporting them. Just talking—hearing their stories, just listening. So, yeah, talk to somebody, get yourself into some sort of a program that can help you to understand what your loved one's going through.

0:19:10 William Moyers
We've only got a couple of minutes left, I've got two questions: one is about the red dragonfly. [smiles] Can you explain that?

0:19:19 Linda Morrison
Yeah! [grins] I was just we have a little pond by our house and I was out there one day and I was just thinking about Mike. And just kind of our journey. This was probably a summer or two after Mike had died. And it was beautiful, it was a summer day. And I just was sitting there and I saw out of the corner of my eye some movement and I looked and there was a red dragonfly. And it just sat there. And it was literally facing me, looking at me, and I looked at it, and we just sat there for a few seconds. And then it kind of fluttered away. [smiles] But, I did a little research and I found in the Native American community, when dragonflies appear, that's your loved one. And sometimes it's been a tragic death is when they show up. But since then, I've had a lot of dragonflies just show up. You know, one on my thumb or one following me. So, I kinda think maybe it's Mike just kinda keeping tabs on his mom. [smiles]

0:20:22 William Moyers
[smiles] And red dragonflies are rare anyway, even though we have a lot of them in the Upper Midwest or in other places, a red one—dragonflies in general are around, but red ones are unusual. 

0:20:32 Linda Morrison
Yes. And that was the one and only time I've ever seen a red one here. So. [Both smile]

0:20:38 William Moyers
Last question before we go: I was struck in your book by the juxtaposition between sorrow and grief, and gratitude and hope. And I can't help but wonder do you go back and forth all these years after Mike's death? Do you go back between sorrow and grief and gratitude and hope? Or are you more in the gratitude and hope side of this journey?

0:21:04 Linda Morrison
You know, it kinda goes in cycles. You know, around his birthday, death day, I feel the sadness. I feel the loss. I miss him. But, other times, I am hopeful, I am joyful. With that. Because again, like I said, Mike wouldn't want me to continue to grieve for him. But I feel like I have worked hard enough and long enough in this journey that I can have a good, happy life. And my oldest son has gone on to get married and have kids and I'm happy for them. And we just enjoy our family times with them and his other brother's married. So, life can move forward and it's a process, and I think it's something that you do have to work at. But, you know, there'll always be a heart-shaped hole where Mike would be. And, you know, we think about him at Christmas or all the holidays or birthdays, and we just honor his memory and share stories and, you know, that's how our family kinda heals. Is healed.

0:22:13 William Moyers
And we honor you today, Linda Morrison, for bringing your story of loss and grief and gratitude and hope to our viewers and our listeners. The book is called Dear Heroin: A Memoir of Goodbyes by Linda Morrison. We thank you for sharing yourself and your family's journey with us today, Linda.

0:22:36 Linda Morrison
Thank you for having me and it's a pleasure. And again, I love talking about Mike [smiles] and sharing our story. So thank you! I appreciate it a lot.

0:22:46 William Moyers
You're welcome. Thank you. [turns to camera] And thanks to all of you for tuning in as Linda so eloquently and obviously spoke about, the tragedy of addiction is a tragedy. But from adversity can come the opportunity to heal and to carry the message that she has so effectively done. We hope that you will find inspiration in today. And if you or a loved one is struggling, know that there is hope. There is opportunity out there. It starts with asking for it. Thanks for joining us today, we hope to see you again soon on this edition of Let's Talk.

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