A mother reveals what it’s like to live with a son addicted to heroin

Debby Thrasher Smith, 66, steps into her Ravenna home on Sunday. Her son, Joe, died here Oct. 29, 2014, of a heroin overdose — his third. He battled with substance abuse in the several years before his death.

Valerie Royzman

I’m standing on Debby Thrasher Smith’s front porch in Ravenna, tightening my trench coat around my waist. The four wind chimes behind me are knocking delicately against each other, and their tinkling eases my nerves.

I’m about to interview her about her son, and I know it’s not a happy ending.

Debby’s living room smells overwhelmingly of cigarettes, and the lights are dim. Her walls are covered in family photos, and I can tell she’s a loving mother by the way she dotes over her children.

The one I’m here to talk to her about is Joe, her youngest, who died in October 2014.

He turned into someone “unrecognizable in body and soul,” she tells me. “He’d do anything to get that next fix. That’s the sad thing about it; the disease takes hold.”

Heroin addiction, you know?

Three overdoses in this little house, all in one year.

The wind chimes sound in the breeze again. Debby, 66, laughs, and she tells me she hung those up again after Joe died. He hated the sweet music and would tear them down, especially in the end, when he turned angry at the world.

Playing the Tough Guy

When Joe was about 2 years old, he was run over by a car. It happened in Debby’s driveway.

Little “Joey” was sitting on the kitchen counter, sipping his water, swinging his legs. Debby was washing dishes and turned her back for a second, and her zippy boy was gone, probably off to play with his two siblings, she thought.

“And then the next thing I heard was this blood-curdling scream,” Debby tells me, leaning in closer.

Joe had gotten a hold of the car keys, started the ignition and, somehow, was bouncing on the trunk of the car. He fell backward once the vehicle began moving, and like any kid who had watched superhero shows would think, thrust his arms in front of him to stop it.

A woman sitting in her car witnessed the whole thing happen, which is how Debby pieced together the details. Joe got a cut on the back of his head and broke his leg and collarbone.

“Doctors did every test under the sun when he was in the hospital,” Debby says. “They assured me this was not the cause of his disability.”

She’s talking about the ADD he fought for years, his struggles in school and the drugs he later turned to for an escape.

Four months before he died, Joe blamed his mother for his addiction.

“He felt that I wasn’t watching him careful enough, and he blamed me for that because in his hopes to try to be normal, he wanted to find a reason why he was like he was,” she says.

School Wasn’t His Thing

Like a lot of kids, Joe just didn’t like school. But it wasn’t getting up early in the morning or gross lunches. Joe always felt dumb, and reading was the hardest thing in the world.

Debby would sit down at his side, and the two of them began sounding out letters. But very quickly, and far too often, her efforts would turn sour. Joe would stomp off, slamming the door behind him. He was pissed off, and Debby was crying.

She says Joe was smart about using his disabilities as an excuse, though, and he never really cared to learn. Maybe, she thinks, that’s why he never could excel through the years.

“He had such a problem with his academics that he said it was easier to be arrested than to read in front of the class,” Debby tells me.

He attended Brown Middle School, and that’s when she suspects he got into marijuana. Of course, alcohol, too. Debby tells me he never took any medication for his ADD because “he did not want to take a pill every day.”

That’s kind of ironic, I think. I know how Joe’s story ends.

Joe was expelled, so Debby enrolled him in another school in Rootstown, but that was the end of his schooling experience. Joe couldn’t stand his frustration with school, constantly skipping, and Debby was beaten down. As soon as he turned 16, Debby signed him out. He got a job soon after that.

She tells me he mostly worked in landscaping, with some factory jobs. If there was reading or schematics involved, though, he couldn’t do it.

Debby thinks he dabbled with drugs through the years, probably pills.

The First Addict Wasn’t Joe

Debby packed up her belongings and her kids and moved to Ravenna about 18 years ago. She was newly married to Ronnie, her third husband.

This was after two failed marriages, one of them abusive, and a house fire while she was single and living at her brother’s place. Debby always held a steady job as an investment supervisor at the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, and being a mother fulfilled her. Life wasn’t perfect, though. Ronnie worked as a concrete finisher, and he was on painkillers often for a back injury.

Joe claimed his stepfather, who Debby tells me was more of a buddy than a stepfather, let him try a pain pill when he was about 14.

In 2009, Ronnie’s love for alcohol started to dominate his love for Debby and her kids. He was always drinking, and after his reinjured back led him to over-prescribed Oxycodone, a strong pain medication that contains opiates, he was popping pills, too. When those ran out, he was buying off the street.

“He didn’t hold down a job very long and during all that time, I just think I was like in a daze,” Debby says. “I was working non-stop, trying to take care of the home, trying to work, and the guys were at home watching TV.”

“How did that make you feel?” I ask Debby. She tells me she’s kind of a pushover, and I can be, too.

She pauses. “I feel like I gave up a big part of my life,” she tells me. “I try to make everything right. I try to fix everybody. I tried, and I couldn’t. So then when it doesn’t happen, then you feel a failure because you can’t. You know, you can’t.”

I just nod my head and take that down in my notebook.

Father and Heroin Man

By the time Joe turned 19, life punched him in the face, then patched it up with pink Band-Aids nine months later — he was a father. Little girl, blonde and blue-eyed.

Two years later, his girlfriend was pregnant with the next one, a boy. She found Joe passed out at their place — needle in his arm. She called Debby, crying hysterically.

Debby never saw it with her own eyes, but she asked him about it. He denied ever using heroin. She doesn’t believe his addiction was serious at that point.

When Joe was about 24, he broke his arm and got ahold of pain medication. Debby doesn’t know what kind, but she tells me she imagines it wasn’t strong. He had a new girl by then, and fatherhood struck for the third time.

Debby shows me a picture of Joe’s youngest son.

“Don’t they look alike?” she asks me.

His youngest mirrors Joe closely, from the dark eyes and husky build right down to the swing of the baseball bat.

“Does that make it hard to look at him?” I ask her.

She’s in love with her grandkids, but she nods her head.

Joe wasn’t living at home anymore, so Debby tells me it’s hard to know what exactly was going on. What she does know is he was getting Social Security checks in the mail for his disability, which was his ticket out of work.

He, along with Ronnie, soon started buying pills from Debby’s adopted niece, who was a cancer patient. Debby considers 2011 the year her son’s struggle with heroin began taking control of him.

Detour from Addiction

Debby says Joe sought treatment about three years before his death. He told his mother he wanted to spend time with his kids and start to live a normal life.

He was going to the Akron-area Oriana House, an addiction recovery center, and “seemed to be doing a little bit better,” but whether he was really OK or not, she isn’t sure now.

He was periodically attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings, too.

About a year later, Debby gained hope when Joe enrolled in a suboxone program in Kent, where he was taking a narcotic to block the effects of opioids he was abusing.

“He was doing well — until he met this girl,” Debby tells me.

Toxic Love

Joe met Catharine at a bar. He was into heroin, and so was she. It was love at first high.

Joe’s other girlfriend had kicked him out by then, and he was rarely allowed to see his kids because he was high too often. Neither Joe or Catharine had any money, so they moved into Debby’s house. That’s when the heroin use escalated, and Joe couldn’t hide it any longer; it got him kicked out of the suboxone program.

Debby hesitates to actually blame Catharine for Joe’s downfall, but she says he was doing “noticeably better” before he met her.

After all, Catharine was just as sick as Joe.

“What was their relationship like?” I ask.

The pair loved like crazy, Debby says, and fought like crazy. Catharine would throw things at Joe and break belongings in the house, like dishes.

She shows me the dent in the stove where Catharine had thrown a bottle.

“She had a terrible, terrible temper, but in all those times where I saw her get right in Joe’s face, Joe never hit her,” Debby says. “I give him credit for that.”

“Did Joe love her?” I ask.

She sighs. “He wanted somebody to love him,” she tells me, “but they’d always have a fight, she’d leave and he didn’t think he could live without her, you know?”

He’d ask her to come back, and of course, she would.

A Son Becomes a Thief

The last year and a half of Joe’s life, Debby lived in hell. Her son became a total stranger.

Debby remembers when she came home after a long day of work to find her TV missing. She’s sure he sold it. Joe later swiped her pots and pans, and even stole her freezer and stereo. He once hid her laptop in the backyard bushes and only gave it back after Debby gave him the $80 he had been demanding.

I noticed at least three pawn shops on my drive to Debby’s house that day, and I ask if it’s possible Joe sold her things there.

She nods. Joe sold her sapphires and gold at Cashland, less than a mile away from her house. He sold some of her DVDs, too. He only got 50 cents apiece, but that was still money. The employees of these places, Debby says, can spot the junkies.

“My stupidity is I always trust people,” she tells me. “I had my credit cards in my dresser; he got into the credit cards and took money out of my savings and ran up some bills.”

Wow, I thought. “What did you do?”

“Of course, being his mother, I forgave him and became a little bit more cautious,” she replies.

Debby began hiding her valuables from Joe, keeping them at work or in the trunk of her car.

With the turmoil came sleep-deprivation for Debby. It was common for Joe to wake her at late hours, usually pressing her for money or asking she drive him to buy drugs.

Joe had lost his driver’s license by then. He got into a car accident, Debby tells me, and Joe failed to pay his fines. When he did receive a letter in the mail detailing he had the chance to get it back, Debby handed him the money to cover the cost — where that money went, nobody knows.

Debby craved sleep so badly when her son woke her in the night that sometimes it was easier to just drive him to pick up his next fix.

I ask her where you can buy heroin around here.

She mentioned a motel, and there was a house somewhere in Silver Meadows. A couple of times, she drove him to a convenience store in Stow.

“It all sounds so dismal now,” Debby says. “What I did was my sickness — being co-dependent was my sickness. Anybody I talked to said, ‘Man, I would just throw him out,’ or ‘Why would you do that?”

I guess I could understand. That was just Debby’s way of loving her son.

Absent Father

I ask Debby what kind of a father Joe was as his addiction got worse.

“Joe loved his kids,” Debby says, “but there were times when he would totally ignore them.”

She has fond memories of when he would take them out to play at the park. But her voice gets shaky as she talks of one time.

Debby had bought the kids birthday presents. Joe had even bought some himself. His mother wrapped them and drove off to work. When she returned home, Joe had torn off the paper and returned them to Kohl’s. He needed the money, and he needed it right away.

“He wanted to be a good father,” Debby says. “His need to get high, I guess. …” she trails off.

I think she means to say Joe had the potential to be a good father. But, heroin.

Three Strikes

Debby’s heart shattered three times — once for each of Joe’s overdoses.

Early 2014

Debby had moved out of her own house for a little over two months because she couldn’t stand the worry and the arguing and fighting between Joe and Catharine.

Joe’s brother had found him overdosed, and police revived him with naloxone, a medication used to reverse the life-threatening effects of opiates. (It’s also known by the brand name Narcan.)

Debby rushed home to see him. The first thing he said was, “Did you bring me cigarettes?”

He left the hospital that same day. That night, Joe was off to get his next fix.

June 2014

The second time, Debby found Joe in the kitchen.

I work up my courage and ask her if she can show me where.

A minute later, I’m standing in front of her stove, where he was passed out on the cold tile floor.

She called the police, who again revived him and he went back to the hospital. He was discharged the same day, and the second he stepped outside, officers took him to jail — he had broken the restraining order Debby had against him. She tells me she was “trying tough love.”

“I could sleep that night because I knew that he was safe,” Debby said about the arrest. “I knew he wasn’t out there buying drugs, doing drugs. I knew how dangerous it was, and I couldn’t reach him.”

Debby could tell heroin was the only thing keeping Joe afloat most days, at least long enough until the next overdose.

“Joe, don’t you realize you could have died?” she asked him.

“How do you know I didn’t want to?” he answered.

October 2014

The third time, Joe didn’t wake to the realization that treatment and recovery were possible — he just died instead.

Joe’s brother, Chet, called Debby while she was at work.

“You’ve gotta come home, mom,” he told her. “It’s bad.”

When she entered his first-floor bedroom, there he was, lying at the doorway, lifeless. His toes were curled, and Debby recalls it looked like Catharine might have tried to drag him into the room. He was wearing only jeans and was wrapped in the bed comforter.

The overdose, the coroner said later, happened about 9 or 10 a.m. Joe’s phone was charging, his beer — Bud Ice, his favorite — cooling in the freezer. The bedroom, with clothes typically thrown in all directions and the bed unmade, was all cleaned up.

Debby is sure the cleanup was by Catharine, who probably panicked when Joe passed out. So she hid any evidence of drugs, then walked out. Catharine was afraid to get busted for her own drug use at the time, Debby tells me.

Debby is in tears as we talk. The questions are hard for both of us. I was asking Debby to relive the day her son died.

The night before Joe died, Debby goes on, he woke her at 2:30 a.m., badgering her for money. This was routine by then.

She gave her son $40 — the money that killed him.

The toxicology report identified heroin and cocaine in his system.

“You hold the guilt of handing him the money that he used to buy the dope that killed him,” she tells me. “Could I have been stricter? I just wanted to go back to sleep; I just was so tired.

“It’s sad,” she says.

So horribly sad, I’m thinking. I take a deep breath and tell myself to keep it together.

“Did he look peaceful when he died?” I ask Debby.

She paused. “Yeah, he did,” she responded, her eyes misty.

The Struggle to Let Go

Joe’s family held a private viewing after he died. It was mostly family members who attended. Debby says Joe had “burned most of the bridges” with his friends by then.

Even his family doesn’t like to remember.

“I can go to a family event, and nobody mentions my son’s name,” Debby says, “and that hurts. Anyone who’s lost a child doesn’t want them to be forgotten, but they also don’t want them remembered how they were in the midst of the disease.”

After he was cremated, Debby bought necklaces for her grandchildren with a place that held some of his ashes. She keeps his urn in her bedroom.

“We have a family mausoleum,” she tells me, “but I can’t let him go yet. It’s still a little too soon, I think.”

A Million Photographs

When Debby remembers Joe now, she loves to pore over old photographs — they remind her of a time when heroin wasn’t in the picture.

We sit on her floral sofa, close for strangers who only met twice before.

She pulls out albums and boxes.

In one photo, Joe is sitting in his high chair, wearing a light-blue T-shirt with “USA” written across the middle. A gap-toothed grin covers his face. It’s his first birthday, and he’s posing with his white cake, covered in balloons made of frosting.

In another, two of his kids are sitting on his lap. They’re too young and innocent to realize their father is high. Really high, Debby says. His eyes are half shut, his shoulders a little too relaxed.

The next photo is Joe right before he died, age 28. He’s crouching on the pavement, cigarette in hand, middle finger up. His shirt is off, and he’s thinner than in other pictures, when he looked pretty bulky, his arms especially sculpted. His kids’ names are tattooed across his arms. Debby gives me this one to keep.

Cigarettes and Beer

As the interview winds down, Debby plays me her last voicemail from Joe.

You leave me without cigarettes, and I’m calling you all fucking day to get a fucking pack of cigarettes and a couple tall boys. And you won’t even answer my fucking phone call, so I hope you’re fucking happy with whatever the fuck you’re doing.

Then he hung up, and, she’s almost sure, got high.

She winces when she re-hears the anger.

But she keeps the audio on her laptop anyway. How couldn’t she? Joe was her son. That is all she had left of him.

A Mother’s Healing

Not long after Joe died, Debby began a grief program through her job at the United Church of Christ.

“OK, I’m going to attempt to read this,” she tells me, like she has to prepare herself.

Debby reads a letter she wrote her son as part of her experience there. Her voice quivers as she tells me that writing the letter was one of the hardest things she’s ever had to do.

Dear Joey,

I address this to Joey instead of Joe, as you will forever be my angel in your formative years. You were such a cute baby, and you made me so very happy. You completed the family, and you added your quirks and gestures that made raising you fun. …

My heart went out to you, but your stubbornness and overall defiance only fed into your problems. … I apologize for divorcing your father. … I tried to be both mom and dad and spoiled you, your brother and sister because of that. I never shared with you all the times I had to go to court to keep you kids, but I loved you and would not let go. …

During the last two years of your life…, I used to worry about where your life was leading. You seemed to enjoy doing nothing but drinking and drugs,

But you went back into rehab, and I was so elated and grateful. But with each relapse, your behavior got worse.

Each night when I went upstairs, you always wanted to hear ‘I love you’ from me; it was like you gave validity when all else in your life must have been chaos.

I apologize for losing my temper when your partying and demands deprived me of sleep. I became afraid of you and was terrified each time I heard an ambulance or a police car. I imagine you would spend your remaining years in jail or worse — well, the worse came true.

I forgive you for this behavior as I knew it was because of your disease. You did not deserve to die. …

I pray that your death was quick. I will never know what actually happened, and I have to forgive (Catharine) for leaving you laying there unresponsive and walking out. You died later that day alone. My heart hurts to think that you were alone and probably scared.

I forgive you for leaving me, your sister, your brother, your children and others that loved you; I know that was not your intent. I have prayed for you now. I grieve for all that you will miss out in this life. You would be happy to know that I am building a relationship with all your children. I promise to watch over them until I die. I will not let them forget you. They love and miss you.

I would not want to go through that torment, abuse and confusion you put me through the last two years of your life, but I forgive you. …

I have peace in my home once again. Please forgive me for even thinking that I deserve this, but I actually do.

May you rest in peace.

Debby is crying, and so am I. Man, this life just isn’t fair, I’m thinking. I can’t find the words. I want to say “I’m sorry,” but that doesn’t seem like nearly enough when someone shares something that deep with you.

The Journey Without Joe

In the first month after Joe died, Debby would drive to work early just to get online and read comments from GRASP, a grief recovery group centered around compassion for those who have lost someone to substance abuse.

“And I would sit there and cry for an hour,” she tells me. “When my alarm went off at 8:30 (a.m.), it was time to put on my new face.”

She goes on.

“I went to counseling and I said, ‘There’s something wrong with me; why can I do this?” she says. “Why can I act normal? Why am I not falling apart like some ladies who can’t get out of bed for two months? And I think it’s because he put me through so much hell.”

Part of how she survived, Debby tells me, is helping people get through the same things she did.

She is a member of OhioCAN, a statewide organization for family members affected by addiction. Debby lives a five-minute walk away from Ravenna City Park, where the group gathers annually to commemorate loved ones, planting flowers by the plaque dedicated to their efforts.

Debby also packs blessing bags, full of toiletries and other essentials, for people in recovery houses or coming out of jail.

She is also involved with GRASP — Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing — both online and in person, where members meet in Brooklyn. It’s one of those “bear your soul” groups, she says, and she’s trying to start her own in Portage County.

“If you’re having a bad day, all you have to do is write a comment on there, and you’ll get people to give you some ‘Atta girls’ or give you some virtual hugs,” she says.

Debby also works with Start Talking Portage, whose members work to educate young people on addiction.

Debby says that without the support groups, she would be “in a dark place.”

If Joe saw her now, she thinks, he’d say a phrase she often heard from him when he was younger.

“He’d say, ‘Mom, you’re like the nicest person.’”

One Final Goodbye

“Does it ever get easier?” I ask.

“Does it get any easier?” she repeats my question back to me. “You get number. And yeah, it does get easier because you found different outlets and you didn’t dwell on it. It might sound selfish, but I wanted to live, and I wanted to live a normal life again.”

I ask if she misses him, though I know the answer.

“Yes, I miss him,” she says. “Do I miss the chaos? No.

“He had a big heart. He just got lost.”

At the end of one interview, I stand up to leave Debby’s house.

I ask if I can give her a hug. She smiles through tears, and does, of course. She’s a mom, you know?

I realize I’ll never feel what Debby feels. But I listen.

And I think, maybe, I am starting to understand what it means to love an addict.

Valerie Royzman is an administration reporter. Contact her at [email protected].