On August 17th, 2014, my only child, James Atticus John-Paul-George & Ringo Ralls, died alone in his bedroom of a heroin overdose while I was downstairs cooking dinner. On August 16th, he was alive and making an eighteen-year-old’s plans: to retake the driver’s permit test he had failed the week before, to get a job at the local tavern, to find an affordable music studio to record his rap demo, and, just maybe, to get back together with his ex-girlfriend.
Kids in town called him “Yung G”-- short for ‘Young Gun’ or ‘Young Ganja.’ I wasn’t thrilled. His reputation for extensive drug use was well-earned and paid for with numerous overdoses, drug-related injuries and repeated run-ins with the juvenile court system.
James’ problems began when his father, Geoffrey Ralls, an attorney like myself, was diagnosed with cancer and died just two months later in our home when James was only ten years old. Geoffrey’s death blew our family apart; James’ older stepbrothers scattered and I moved with James from New York back to my hometown of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, where my parents lived.
That same year, James began attending an outpatient drug and alcohol program and seeing a therapist as well as a psychiatrist who diagnosed him with PTSD, depression, bipolar disorder (triggered by his depression medication), anxiety and polysubstance dependence. He was repeatedly hospitalized overnight for overdoses on various substances. In the fall of 2011 when James was 15, a sympathetic probation officer helped me strong-arm him into a Caron Foundation treatment center with the threat of lock-up if he didn’t stay until his counselors felt he was ready to return home.
Caron turned out to be a miracle. Within four short months, James went from being immersed in drug culture to someone committed to recovery. He remained enthusiastically, happily sober until July 7, 2012 (his late father’s birthday), when he was struck in the foot by illegal fireworks that were being shot off at a pool party. The firework blew up in his sneaker and caused 2nd and 3rd degree burns. In the ER, James told the doctors that he was an addict and begged them not use fentanyl for fear of being triggered. Despite this warning, he was forced to take various pain medications and hypnotic agents while undergoing treatment.
Six weeks after finishing his prescribed round of pain medications, James began to relapse into the abuse of illicit substances, which triggered further arrests, hospitalizations, another week in rehab (he refused to stay), and in March of 2013, a synthetic acid overdose that landed him in the hospital with facial lacerations (from banging his head against a wall) and a broken collarbone (from a police officer wrestling him into an ambulance).
Miraculously, James did manage to get sober again, but his will to fight was depleted and he suffered repeated relapses until August 16th, when he and a fellow member of Narcotics Anonymous smoked heroin on my back porch while I was asleep. When I went to wake him up the next morning, he was gone--dead in his bed. Less than six months later the other young man died of a heroin overdose as well. His body was found on the bathroom floor of a local hotel.
James was my only child--my joy. To say that my heart is broken is an understatement. Today I raise money for the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Addiction Studies so that other mothers don’t have to lose their favorite person in the world.
Thank you for listening.
James aspired to become a rapper and like his hero, Eminem, James wrote about his battles with drug addiction and his desire to live a sober life. These two songs are in the library at the Caron Foundation in Wernersville, PA where they can be used by therapists working with people in recovery.