Gregory died on March 13, 2013. He died from a horrible illness that is scorned and stigmatized by our society. He died from addiction.
Greg was an admitted alcoholic, which led to his eventual drug usage. He was also an extremely intelligent and gifted young man, having graduated from Plano Senior HS with honors, from UT Austin with a BS in organic chemistry, and having been awarded a fellowship to the University of Colorado at Boulder in their chemistry doctoral program.
His life began to unravel in Colorado. No one is certain what triggered his mental and emotional collapse. Whether it was the stresses of the doctoral program, the loneliness of being away from family and friends, or the devastating and increasing effects of the alcoholism on his judgment and behavior, we’ll probably never know. Maybe all factors, and possibly more that remain hidden.
My intent in writing this is to share with those of you who work in the criminal justice system of this country our personal journey with Greg’s disease and agony, with the hope that it will inspire a changed attitude and awareness of addiction. This disease mimics the symptoms of polio; it cripples the mind, the body, and the spirit.
We became aware that our son’s drinking was becoming a serious issue his last year in college. What we didn’t know was that he was an expert at hiding things—especially those things that he thought would diminish our opinion of him. Only recently have we come to realize that his drinking had started long before senior year. He always denied having a drinking problem, and even his longtime girlfriend supported his claim, reassuring us that his behavior was “typical” for most college seniors.
But we still had doubts. Leaving him in Colorado filled us with anxiety and fear, and as time went on, anxiety and fear became a part of our lives, increasing with each new day.
Greg’s first year of graduate school began with an earnest attempt to adjust to new stresses, new people and new expectations. He struggled with loneliness and depression, calling home frequently and planning trips to visit old friends. The drinking increased; it was the secret escape, kept hidden from family and friends.
His second year at CU signaled big changes: a new set of friends, a strained relationship between him and his longtime girlfriend, and visits to university mental health services for anxiety and depression. He was prescribed anti-depressants and scheduled for counseling. His grades reflected poor performance, and requests to us for money became more frequent.
He came home for the Fourth of July 2010. His appearance and demeanor alone spoke volumes. Again the denials—nothing was wrong; everything was okay. His two older brothers were also at our home for the weekend. It was his brother who discovered the alcohol and drugs, prompting an immediate family intervention. We spoke with the psychiatrist at the CU clinic and with Greg’s permission learned that he had been on several medications for severe anxiety and depression. She also informed us that he had admitted to heavy drinking, almost daily, and drug use.
We refused to allow him to return to Colorado. He applied for, and got, a one-year “Time Off’’ sabbatical from the university with guaranteed re-entry into the program. I found a daytime rehab program in Denton that he agreed to attend. He was evaluated and again prescribed medication and placed in the out-patient program. We supervised him in the home, and thought we saw progress . . .
Toward the end of July, he grew restless. One afternoon, he said he couldn’t stand it and needed to go for a walk. Despite my misgivings, he left the house. Later that afternoon, I received a phone call from the local police department. Greg had been arrested. He attempted to rob a pharmacy, at the drive-up window, with a note stating that he was going to do something bad to himself if he didn’t get amphetamines. He had no weapon, just the note.
He later told us he walked to the local supermarket, bought beer, got drunk, and decided to get drugs. What we didn’t realize was that this was the beginning of the end, his final chapter. Everything that came after that day in July revolved around his newly labeled criminal status. We hired an attorney, who advised an intensive in-patient rehab program at La Hacienda in Hunt, and continued after-care following discharge.
Greg did all that was recommended. Following discharge from “La Ha,” he lived in a sober living home in Austin, found a job as a chemist in Austin (which, we discovered later, was only because the internet sites had not yet picked up his arrest record to exploit, and also because it was not yet revealed on background checks). His self-worth began to rebuild. He liked his job, found an apartment, and managed to stay sober and clean. We didn’t realize relapse was always lurking around the corner.
During this time the legal issues were evolving, and in March of the following year, Greg was given deferred adjudication and placed on five years’ probation. He was told he could not drink or use drugs during his probationary period.
Things appeared to be working in Greg’s favor. That spring he began to plan for a return to graduate school in Boulder. He contacted the chemistry department and fulfilled all the endless steps to re-admittance into the program. He was again awarded a TA position, and told to be at the university by the end of August for TA orientation. However, the transfer of his probation to Colorado put an end to that possible future. The Colorado probation department informed him in August that it would not agree to the transfer unless the school was informed of his complete arrest history. His mood changed, pessimism replaced optimism, and hope faded. He told his department supervisor everything concerning his arrest, rehabilitation, and current probation status. The school put his re-entry on hold until it could evaluate everything with a student committee. The time frame was bad; he missed the TA orientation, classes started, and he was told it would take several weeks for a determination from the committee. His chance to start over was now gone because of his criminal status, despite not even having been convicted.
We saw a change in Greg after this disappointment, a change that continued to grow and eventually lead to relapse and further loss.
That autumn, his position with the chemical company in Austin lost its funding and he was laid off. Despite several successful job interviews, the background check always ended any job possibility, any chance to continue pursuing his dreams. He grew more depressed and negative. To compound the background check issue, the internet sites posted several mug shots of his arrest, a horror to this day, even after his death. To add insult to injury, we recently found out that due to Texas legislation, we will be unable to have Greg’s record expunged from the Denton County records, even though he is no longer alive. This means that we face an endless task of pleading with these exploitative sites to remove these images. Even if we are successful in having the images removed from one site, another pops up soon after, since the records and images are still available from Denton County.
Greg collected unemployment and continued to look for work, always rejected because of the background check.
He started drinking again. We exhausted every form of persuasion, admonishment, and pleading with him, but to no avail. He continued his community service, probation meetings, and payments, all the while sinking lower and lower. In February he was arrested in a parking lot in Austin, passed out behind the steering wheel of his parked car. He had been drinking heavily and using drugs.
This time, he was offered six months in the SAFPF program with an additional three years of probation in order to keep deferred adjudication status. In July 2012, he went to the county jail, where he spent a month before transfer to the SAFPF facility in Winnsboro, Texas. We visited him on weekends. We witnessed the conditions and treatment of all those poor souls with the same devastating disease. Greg was assigned a number, given his white prison garb, his black shoes, and a shaved head. He lost his identity, he lost his will, his self-esteem, and his belief in himself. He told us during our visits that the focus was completely punitive. There was little, if any, focus on true rehabilitation of the mind and spirit. He became normalized to prison life, seeing himself as just another drunk, another druggie, a loser with no future. In light of all his rejections from jobs and from schools due only to his “record,” it felt empty trying to reassure him that he would have a fine future if only he could get through this. Still we tried, with faith and hope.
His family attempted to bolster his faith in himself and God, but the sad, disappointed look in his eyes reflected a soul that had lost hope.
He finished his six months in January, right before his 27th birthday. He was transferred to a privately run, state-supported, treatment facility in Fort Worth called The Abode. His weeks spent at the Abode were a total nightmare. His money was stolen twice during his stay. He contracted bed bugs and was directed to John Peter Smith Clinic for treatment. He looked forward to his weekends at home and told of The Abode’s many residents who used drugs, hidden from staff and readily available in the local neighborhood. We were appalled. Everything we had learned from La Hacienda emphasized staying away from people who used. So, here he was, back right in the center of a world of drugs and alcohol.
He found a part-time job at a Fort Worth fast food restaurant. He relapsed during one of his visits home, drinking orange extract he had bought at the supermarket. It was easy to detect. He was ashamed, remorseful, but intent on trying again to stay sober.
The next two visits home went well, without incident. We felt reassured. He had also been given his discharge date from The Abode, and looked forward to another chance at graduate school after being notified that he was accepted into the UT Arlington chemistry graduate program.
On the last weekend he spent at home, he told us that he didn’t want us to worry about him . . . that he would be fine. He told us to proceed with our plans to go to finish work on a townhome we had originally bought for him to rent from us while in school at CU. Of course at this point, the plan was simply to finish repairs and sell it.
Greg’s older brother planned to pick him up and supervise him for the weekend we were away.
We drove to Colorado on a Tuesday. On Wednesday I received a phone call from Greg’s sponsor that I needed to call the ER at Harris Hospital immediately. When I called, they told me that Greg had died that afternoon. The autopsy report confirmed that he had died from an overdose of alcohol and drugs.
This is the tragedy and the heartache from the loss of a life with such wonderful potential to a horrible, insane disease. Those that knew and loved Greg all had a part of them die that Wednesday afternoon.
We will never be the same, having lost our son after watching an ultimately futile struggle with rejection and hurdle after hurdle.
The Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research, at UT in Austin, is attempting to explore this disease and research for a cure—or some path to allow those afflicted to live a productive life.
We hope that those in the criminal justice system of this state and of this country begin to focus on true rehabilitation efforts for those persons suffering from addiction disorders. The system needs to change; incarceration and punishment are not an effective cure for something that is a legitimate and progressive illness. Right now, there is no cure. For some there is hope, but for those with an advanced form of the disease, in which the brain is physically damaged, there is a far steeper path to recovery, made virtually hopeless by the social and legal stigmas heaped upon the sufferers.
We look back over the past several years and wonder if things had been different, if we had tried different treatment options, even if we had lived in a different country. But for us, these are and forever will be “ifs.”
I needed to explain, to request a changed attitude, an increased awareness of the tragic loss that can often result from the current function of our legal system. Frankly, our justice system could do more, could seek to evolve. In the United States of America, we have greater resources and greater knowledge than any other nation in this world, and yet we put less effort into exploring new options for rehabilitation than many countries with only a fraction of our know-how and ability. What excuse could there possibly be for that? Because it’s hard? Because it’s complicated? Even if the road to improvement is long and slow going, if we don’t each take steps in our own way, how will anything happen? This letter is addressed to anyone who is in a position to take even the smallest of steps. The power you wield can rebuild lives or destroy them.