When a loved one is addicted to drugs, it causes pain for the entire family. Whether the addiction is to illegal drugs or prescription drugs, addiction is addiction. However, the pain is far different for those who pray and hope their loved one is freed from the nasty addictive claws that prevent the addict from ever enjoying life. My mother was one who never escaped and fell victim to opioid painkillers.
The last year of my mother’s life, we seldom visited her. This distance wasn’t because I didn’t love her. I did. But I stopped visiting with my kids because they didn’t need to see their grandmother inebriated by painkillers. She spoke slurred words to the point anyone would think that she was drunk. This wasn’t the type of memories I wanted my kids to remember about their grandmother.
The last few years of her life, she became vile and bitter. She’d lie, manipulate, and steal; never realizing her behavior. If she didn’t lie, she twisted the truth, and played mental games with all of her children, myself included. She seemed to find enjoyment in her attempts to turn us against one another.
My mother was addicted to painkillers for fifteen years. Three times she was taken to a hospital for detoxification. The last time she had a great counselor, who finally had the courage to probe into finding the heart of her real problem. Her real pain wasn’t physical. Her true pain festered deep inside her mind but that wasn’t a mystery to me.
After our little brother, Bubba, died at eight years of age, the day after her birthday, and she found him taking his last breaths, she sought refuge to bury her heartache and turmoil with painkillers. At first, in 1991, she got a prescription from her family doctor in Rainsville, Alabama, fairly easily.
She took more pills than was prescribed and one day, I came by to visit her only to find her seated on the couch. She held a piece of pizza in her hand and had taken a bite. The pizza in her mouth was hanging out. She wasn’t moving. In fact, she didn’t seem to be breathing.
I called her name a half dozen times, getting louder each time. She didn’t respond. I touched her arm and her skin was ice cold. I thought she was dead. I patted her cheek several times, still frantically saying, “Mom!” over and over. Finally she aroused in such slow motion, it seemed like the world had almost stopped spinning. Her eyes opened and her tongue pushed the pizza out of her mouth. Several minutes passed before she registered her surroundings and responded to me.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
She blinked several times. Her mouth moved oddly as she tried to speak. And when she finally did speak, she sounded drunk. “I’m okay.”
“Are you sure? I thought you were dead.”
She pushed herself up from the couch and staggered across the living room. “It’s the medicine. My body’s not used to it.”
I breathed with some relief in that she was alive, but I was worried. I offered to take her to the doctor or hospital, but she refused, insisting that she’d be okay.
About two weeks later, my brother-in-law, Rick, found her in the shed in the backyard. She was seated on a bucket, leaned against the wall, and like in the living room, she held a half eaten piece of pizza in her hand with the other part hanging out of her mouth. Thinking she was dead, he freaked out and ran to find my sister. They managed to awaken her and helped her back to the house. We knew she had a problem, but she refused our offer to get her help.
After her second prescription was filled, she used two weeks worth of pills in less than one week. I was there when she called her doctor and asked him directly to have a new prescription filled. He refused and told her that she had addiction problems and she needed to get help. Furious, she slammed the phone down into its cradle and cursed him. I was shocked. Partly, because of her anger, but I was more shocked that the doctor the entire county called a ‘quack’ had stood up to her and refused to give her more drugs. I held some admiration for the man that day.
She sought other doctors, but none would simply give her a prescription like he had done. Instead, she had to actually prove she suffered legitimate pain. A feat that didn’t come easily, but she managed to do so shortly after being hired where I had worked. Once that ended, she discovered a ‘Pill Clinic.’ By this time, I had moved to Berea to finish my college education, so unfortunately, I didn’t know the depths of her problems until moving back a year later.
In 1998, after I graduated from Morehead State University, I stayed at her house for a few weeks while she was in the detox center in Birmingham, Alabama. That was when she met the counselor who did everything he possibly could to administer a way to get off the painkillers. When she talked to him, she seemed to change, and by the time she had gotten home a few weeks later, she acted and sounded like a different person. I truly thought she was going to be okay, and that finally she had gotten through the hellish valley of drug addiction. She glimmered with hope in her voice and her actions but only for a short time.
Talking to the counselor had seemed to make a difference, as he and some of the women she befriended at the center encouraged her to write a self-help book for others who had lost children at an early age. They told her that her story was one to share with the world, and that by doing so, she could give them hope as well.
My mother came home excited and told me she wanted to write the book about Bubba’s death. I told her that I’d be happy to proofread the first chapter when she finished writing it. A few weeks later she handed me her handwritten pages for the opening of the first chapter. My wife and I read this in sheer horror. Instead of a book that could encourage others to find peace with their losses, I discovered just how broken my mother was on the inside. She had not healed. She was still unable to cope, even years later, with the loss. Her words were heartbreaking, as they were a lament that rambled from page to page. I ached inside for her and didn’t know what I could say. I encouraged her to keep writing because she was unleashing her pain onto the pages, and I hoped this would be a means of therapy. If she got out all the pain, she could find the courage to finally overcome the weight of the mental anguish bottled inside her mind. But she never wrote another word.
An addict rarely escapes the demon seeking to claim the soul and mind. Within a month or so, she returned to the pill clinic and paid a $300.00 fee. Like a child takes a wish list to Santa, she handed a list of what she wanted. They wrote out prescriptions and filled them in the same building. No lie. Pay for pills. All in one building.
My sister, Gina, and I were furious that she had gotten the pills so easily. We called her counselor and told him what was going on. Her called and talked to her. She convinced him all was well, and then she turned her fury on us for ‘daring to call him.’
How dare you tell him I’m addicted to these pills?
We didn’t need to tell him that. He had confided in us that he feared she’d go back to the addiction. Some people never break free.
Due to our mother’s bitter anger, months passed before Gina and I visited our mother. Mom received an insurance settlement from Winn Dixie, where she had conveniently ‘injured’ herself as to have a permanent legitimate means for painkillers. She sold the house my siblings and I had grown up in and bought a trailer near Sylvania. For a while, she appeared happier. Perhaps leaving the house where all the memories of our little brother lingered had helped somewhat, but she didn’t stop taking the pills. Eventually, she was back to taking far more than what her prescription listed.
Her behavior worsened to the point my twin sisters threatened to send her back to the clinic. Our mother began acting out and pitching fits like a three-year-old. I was called one day by my sisters because our mother had locked herself in the bathroom and refused to open the door. By the time I got there, an ambulance had arrived. One of my sisters had managed to get the door open and found our mother unconscious. The paramedics came and carried her to the ambulance. She was partly conscious then but slurred her words so badly that she made no sense.
At the hospital, the doctors wanted to keep her because they knew her problems were too severe to trust her to return home. They feared she’d overdose and die. She refused to stay at the hospital, and they were close to sending her to a detox center. One of my sisters said that she’d keep the pills at her house and bring our mother the proper dosage each day. As long as our mother agreed to that, the doctors said that they’d allow her to go home. She agreed, but begrudgingly.
For about a month this worked well. She regained her cognition and talked rationally with us, but her addiction gnawed at her. She berated my sister each day when she brought our mother her daily pills. Her verbal abuse hurt my sister, making her cry a lot. But my sister held her ground, refusing to give our mother extra pills. My other sister had lost her home and moved in with our mother. Mom sent her to demand the pills back and insisted she’d make certain Mom only got the right number. Reluctantly, she handed the pills over.
I’m not exactly sure what happened after this, except that somehow our mother got the pills back and my sister moved out, unable to put up with Mom’s bitter tirades.
Several weeks passed when the phone rang at our house. I glanced at the caller I.D. and read, “Fort Payne Police Department.” I found that confusing since I lived well outside the city limits. Curiosity overcame me, and I answered.
“Are you Leonard Hilley?” the female dispatch asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Is your mother Karen Allen?”
(A slight pause) “Well, sir, an officer has pulled your mother over and … he thinks she’s been drinking. He doesn’t want to ticket her but needs you to come pick her up.”
“She doesn’t drink,” I replied, “but she’s probably taken her meds.”
“Oh, I see. The officer said that she nearly hit someone as she went through the intersection, but if you can pick her up, I will let him know.”
“I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
My brother-in-law, Kelly, was at the house with my sister, Christy, so I asked if he’d ride with me to get her. That way he could drive her back in her car. He agreed.
When we reached her, she was standing beside her car, smoking a cigarette. Angrily, she said, “Can you believe he had the nerve to turn his car around and pull me over? I had just passed him, and he turned around with his lights on.”
She sounded drunk. I simply shook my head, trying to look sympathetic, but I understood exactly why any officer would have prevented her from driving away after speaking to her. She was lucky he had not wanted to ticket her. He was more forgiving than other officers might have been.
Kelly got out and walked to her car to drive her home.
I told my mother goodbye, and that was the last time I saw her alive.
Less than two weeks later, Christy called the house. My wife answered and Christy was in tears. Our mother had overdosed on her meds and died in her sleep. The Sheriff’s Department sent deputies to the house. They found our mother’s box of prescription meds and said, “She has a small pharmacy. We cannot leave these here.” They bagged them up and took them.
The coroner and the deputies believed she had accidentally overdosed. Some evidence indicates that might have been the case. Several pills in her daily pill tray were half dissolved, which looked like she had placed them in her mouth and then set them back into the tray. Christy suggested that maybe Mom had taken one dose, fallen asleep, and awakened. Not remembering if she had taken them, she might have taken the next day’s. A deliberate overdose would have been taking a handful of pills.
The next day, as we were going through her stuff, we found a bag filled with empty prescription bottles. One was a bottle about the size of a large vitamin bottle. I had never seen a prescription bottle that size. Methadone: “Take 8-12 per day.” Another empty bottle was for Oxycontin. When I had seen the different types of meds they had her on and the number of pills she had been taking, I was surprised she hadn’t died years earlier.
Mom died in 2007, a couple of days before my first book signing, and even after all these years, I don’t know what more we could have done to help her break the addiction. She had been detoxed three times and each time, she ran back, demanding more. Opioid drugs are killing thousands of Americans. To say there is an epidemic is an understatement. These are drugs that should have never been allowed by the FDA. And while the pill clinics are getting closed down and doctors are being charged for criminal acts, how many people like my mother had to die before action was taken?
It pains me to recall that the last time I saw my mother alive was when the police had called me to take her home for driving under the influence of these drugs. Folks, do everything you can to help those you love if they are snared by opioid addiction before it’s too late.