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Losing an adult child to Dextromethorphan addiction is a nightmare no parent should ever have to experience.

This is Ethan’s story:

Yesterday, the phone rang with the call some part of me has been expecting for a year or two now. It was the Galax Police Department calling to notify me they had found my 23-year-old son dead in his apartment after they were asked to do a welfare check.

It’s the call no mother wants to get, but after living with his addiction for so long, it was one I expected at the back of my mind. I thought I was prepared, but really, until the phone rang I clung to hope that he would turn his life around. I’m still struggling to wrap my head and heart around the idea that he really is gone. Our communication has been spotty for years, so full of anger at times, I’m used to not hearing from him for days or weeks. Just a week ago, he called wanting a PlayStation 4 for Christmas.

I told him no.

He’d skipped Thanksgiving, I think at least partly because he was angry with me over a Facebook post in which I was thankful for him, despite the fact that he hadn’t always been the son I imagined. I was uncertain over what Christmas would bring. Maybe that was the cloud that’s been hanging over my holiday. I hadn’t even bought him any gifts.

Now I won’t have the chance. Ever again.

There’s a picture of him on the living room wall, holding my dog last Christmas, sporting a goofy toboggan and a grin. When he was straight, he had a lethal sense of humor and was always worried about me.

In my memories, he is the golden haired little boy who trooped behind his older sister and worried her to death as she played; the elementary schooler who liked being smart and didn’t care for basketball or karate; the middle schooler who put on weight and had braces and didn’t like himself as much as he should have. I still loved his smile. He’s also the sullen teen who stretched out, became tall and lean, who gave up band and skateboarding, who put his fist through the wall and refused chores. Yet on good days, he still gave awesome hugs and when he managed a smile, the room lit up.

The good days, however, seemed fewer and farther between the older he got. Instead of correcting his path, he intentionally chose it, repeatedly. We argued, by text, at great length last month about all the wonderful things he thought his drug of choice did for him and whether or not he was happy. When he was high, he thought he was Death incarnate, or maybe god. He was immortal, capable of anything he set his mind to. He hated everything around him except the video games in which he could further escape from reality.

I know he had dreams – of being a video game designer, of having a family, of being a dad. He told me he wanted to be a good dad, which was so sad because his dad was such a deadbeat. My son was great with children. His nieces adored him. But he poisoned his chances at that when he started using drugs, when he chose to keep using them. In many ways, I lost my son when he and his best friend started getting high. He was never the same after that; moody, angry, scary and demanding.

He always thought that since it wasn’t an illegal drug, or even one he had to obtain illegally, that it was safe. Dextromethorphan is a cough suppressant and central nervous system depressant. It’s sold over-the-counter and safe in recommended dosages. Taken a whole pack or more at a time, however, it mimics the effects of PCP. It causes psychosis, seizures, organ damage, and potentially death.

He left home for nearly a year when he was 16, loading his belongings in a rage on the day my grandfather died. Even when he didn’t live with me, I gave him a phone to keep in touch, came to his rescue when he needed me, took afternoons off work to deal with a broken heart. He came home the next summer because they didn’t have room for him any more and I wanted him to finish school, which he did. But frankly, I was afraid of him and his angry outbursts. He turned 18 and graduated, still with no purpose or desire to have one, and I made him move out.

He had a few jobs, wrecked a few cars, and was living in his car when one last accident ended its usefulness. By then he was having seizures. He was unable to work, so I rented him an apartment and took him regularly to Winston-Salem to see a doctor and psychologist. We didn’t know that, even then, he continued to use. Then he found a roommate and they got high together, he went into a psychosis and pulled a Japanese sword on the roommate, and we found out the truth. He was in jail when we cleaned out his apartment and found bag after bag of empty blister packs of drugs he stole, by the way.

I should have known by the illogical rages, I guess. But even though I knew the drugs had caused the neurological damage that brought on the seizures, I didn’t know their effects as well as I would have some widely-discussed street drug.

(ed note: Will be creating a dextromethorphan abuse resource page in memory of Ethan. Love, love, love to you – Aunt Becky)

When he got out of jail, I refused to enable him any more. He moved to Virginia with my parents. He never worked again, except odd jobs at the church and for my family. When my dad’s illness meant mom couldn’t take care of him too, he first rented a house, then lost his job at the church, and wound up in the homeless shelter. During that time he been in a horrific wreck in which he should have been killed. He was high, in a blackout, hit a parked car and went over an embankment. He was ejected and broke multiple bones, including his back, but was not paralyzed.

We were all convinced he’d hit bottom.

For months, back at the shelter, he stayed on the straight and narrow due to random drug testing. He was a house monitor, had friends and was fun to be around again. When he moved into an apartment, the first thing he did was get high. This summer police called me and asked if I was his mom. I expected the next words to be a death notification. No, he was on the streets acting strange.

He spent two nights in jail for public intoxication.

I hate to admit how seldom I’ve seen him since his birthday in April. He was in a downward spiral that I knew I was powerless to stop. I talked to him on the phone fairly regularly and tried to make sure he knew I loved him. Often, his voice was unintelligible and I would strain to have a conversation, never knowing if he was high or if was an aftereffect of the drugs. Sometimes he called in tears from emotional pain. Lately there had been physical pain as well, but he would not see a doctor.

For years I’ve prayed for God to heal him, to help him choose sobriety, and more recently to take away the pain that seemed to drive him.

At last, Ethan hurts no more.

At one level, my prayers have been answered.

There’s a hole in my heart and an ache in my stomach. I’m not sure if writing about it makes it more real, or less. I know now I’ve had almost a day to process and I’m still not sure I’m ready to do anything else. I hate that, right now, so many of my memories are not good, but maybe that’s what I need to get through the next few days. I refuse to take a photo album down and bring happier ones to the surface.

I’ve been touched by how many people have reached out to me; wept again when I realized how many of my friends have already, in some form, walked this path. I don’t know what to tell people I need beyond time. I’m trying to go on with life, to do the things I enjoy instead of trembling in a corner in sackcloth and ashes. I know that may raise a few eyebrows, but my grief won’t change his death, just as it never changed the way he chose to live.

I know I’m fragile right now and I’m trying to take care of myself. I wish I could hug him one more time and remind him again that I love him – no matter what. That not being possible, I want to hold my daughter and granddaughters and feel the breath in their lungs and the beat of their hearts.

I want to somehow know that he’s finally at peace and that I won’t ever have to feel this way again.