This is the second story in a series examining the opioid crisis in Fayette County
Patricia Brown, 53, kept a watchful eye on her 4-year-old grandson as he laughed at a video he was watching on a smartphone. The boy is the youngest child of her son, Chris Clark, 34. Clark has three older daughters. All four children are being raised by their grandparents or great-grandparents.
They are among nearly 3 million children in the United States who are being raised by grandparents, according to data from PEW research. Increasingly, the reason that grandparents are raising their grandchildren is that the children’s parents are addicts. It is her son’s addiction to heroin that has forced Brown to become a surrogate parent to his son, whose mother is also struggling with addiction, according to Brown.
“I hear a lot of grandparents are raising their grandbabies these days,” she said.
Clark began smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol as a teenager, according to Brown. Later, he began abusing pills. As often happens, his abuse of pills led him to heroin, which satisfies opioid cravings at a fraction of the price of pills. On Monday, July 2, Clark overdosed for the third time, Brown said. He is now at a treatment facility in Portsmouth. It’s not the first time he’s been to rehab, but Brown believes he is finally ready to commit to the hard work of recovery.
Clark called Brown after a week in treatment, and she said, “He sounded so much better.” The hoarse voice and one word answers Brown had become accustomed to during his addiction were gone. In their place was the voice of a man who was beginning to sound like the son she remembered. He told her, “Even though it’s tough, I got this, mom. I don’t want you to worry about me.”
Brown does worry about Clark, constantly. When he was using, she worried about where he was staying, what he was eating, who we was spending time with, and that he would overdose. Now, she worries about what will happen when he leaves treatment. She is afraid that, if he comes back to Washington Court House, he will fall back into addiction. It has happened before, she said. The last time Clark went to rehab, he got clean and decided, after just two months, that he was ready to come home. He came back, started hanging around with his old friends again, and “one thing led to another, and he was back down the active addiction alley again.”
As Brown spoke, her eyes filled with tears, but she blinked them back and smiled across the room at her grandson. “That’s my happy place,” she said, gesturing to the boy. “I can’t wait for his dad to share in this, I really can’t.”
The boy smiles a lot, which makes the dimples on his cheeks stand out. His favorite things seem to be the film “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and the song “Gangnam Style,” which he plays on repeat. He’s careful, though, to always be near his grandmother. When she steps outside, he immediately follows.
“He has, I believe, separation anxiety,” said Brown. She said that every time she leaves for work he asks, “Nana, you’re coming back, right? He’s been left by the people that he loves the most and he’s just scared to death that grandma’s gonna leave him too,” said Brown.
Brown is not going to leave her grandson, ever, she said. That means she’s committed to another 13 or 14 years as a guardian, just as she thought that phase of her life would soon end — her youngest is 17 and plans to join the military after graduation. It’s not the role she wanted to play in her grandchildren’s lives.
“I want to be able to spoil my grandchildren, then send them home,” she said. She knows, however, that her grandson needs her. He spent 10 months in foster care in Alabama after his mother took him there and then lost custody, according to Brown. Clark had to go to court to bring him back to Washington Court House. Brown said she will do whatever it takes to keep him from going back into the system.
“There’s nothin’ I wouldn’t do for my grandbabies,” she said.
At times, protecting her grandchildren has meant keeping her son at a distance. “We were finding drugs and paraphernalia in the house,” she explained. “I decided that grandbabies have to come first. I never once, ever, stopped loving Chris. I had to learn to love him at a distance sometimes.”
For Brown, that meant anxious days spent waiting for a message from Clark and, when days went by with no response, messaging everyone she could think of to ensure that he was okay. It also meant that she was always waiting for a phone call to tell her that he had overdosed.
She recalled one occasion in which Clark had overdosed, and the woman he was with had been too scared to call 911 because she was on probation, Brown said. So, she drove him to Brown’s house. “That’s something I don’t wish on any parent,” she said. “It’s a horrible, horrible thing to see your child, your loved one, take his last breath.”
During this time, addiction had taken over Clark’s life, according to Brown. It kept him from caring for his children. According to Brown, “He has pretty much neglected his children in his addiction.”
This behavior is completely contradictory to his behavior when he’s clean, Brown said, adding, “When he’s in recovery he’s pretty much the best father you could ask for. His children adore him.”
His addiction also caused him to quit working on his art, Brown said.
“He’s really good with his hands, and its’s a shame to see that in his active addiction he was letting that go,” said Brown. Clark excelled at art in high school and has created everything from hand-carved walking sticks to beautiful, intricate tattoos.
In the place of her loving, talented son, Brown saw a man who could only focus on his next fix, but she never gave up on him. She said it’s important for the parents of addicts to show that “you’re gonna be there for them through the worst. Just love your kids.”
When Brown learned that Clark had overdosed again, she said she “wasn’t surprised. I knew that that was coming just because of the lifestyle that he was living.”
She is hopeful, however, that he will finally put drug use behind him. To do so, she said he’ll have to complete rehab and decide “that he truly wants to live.” Brown knows that completing treatment is just the first choice in a lifetime of choosing sobriety.
“I’ve learned that it’s a lifelong journey,” she said.
She hopes Clark will have the strength to continue to choose sobriety every day. She also knows that if he fails to do so, it could be fatal. She has seen families devastated by fatal overdoses, and she prays her family will not join these sad ranks. “No one wants to bury their children and it’s happening way too much,” she said.
Brown began to cry as she spoke of the “horrible comments” she has heard people make about addicts, including saying “just let them die.” She said she wants the people who believe overdose victims should be allowed to die to understand that “even though that person is an addict, they’re still somebody’s child, somebody’s son or daughter or mother or father. They still have feelings. They still breathe the same air that everybody else breathes. They don’t deserve to be hated like that.”
In contrast to those who make those types of comments, other members of the community have been supportive of Clark and his family. For example, Cody Bowen, who is organizing the CommUNITY event to raise awareness of the opioid epidemic, visited Clark in the hospital after his last overdose and helped to get him into treatment.
Clark said he’s “very lucky to be [in treatment], and I’m lucky to have positive people in my corner.” He said he’s “grasping at everything positive” his treatment center has to offer and working hard to avoid repeating past mistakes. He said he’s committed to doing whatever it takes to be able to lead a sober life after leaving treatment. His message for other individuals who are struggling with addiction is to “never give up.” Clark is looking forward to reuniting with his children and “being the father I wanna be again.”
Brown shares her son’s hope for the future.
“I can’t wait ‘til the day that [Clark’s] able to be out of treatment and have a job, and be on his feet enough that his kids can come and visit,” she said. “I can’t wait ‘til he gets back to his old self. I have a lot of flowerbeds that I need some more art to set in.”
Most importantly, she said, “I just wanna see my son happy again.”
Clark’s son said he is looking forward to going fishing and hunting for snakes when his daddy comes home. In the meantime, he’s content to watch Charlie in the Chocolate Factory with his grandmother sitting beside him in the little front room where a homemade sign — crafted by Clark and his son — reads, “World’s best grandma.”
Reach Megan Neary at 614-440-9124 or @MeganNeary2