William Head Williams
New York City, New York
Almost two years before his death in 2012, my wife and I became aware that our 22-year-old son, William, was using heroin. At the time he was already seeing a psychotherapist. Over the next two years we added an addiction psychiatrist, out-patient treatment, treatment with Suboxone, in-patient detox, in-patient treatment, out-patient treatment, out-patient detox, treatment with Vivitrol, more out-patient treatment, another in-patient treatment, more out-patient treatment, a revolving door of well over a dozen trips to and from the emergency rooms of at least four different hospitals, an attempt to work with another addiction psychiatrist, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and a home life fraught with tension, despair, sometimes hopeful during intermittent periods of sobriety, and always filled with the apprehension of misfortune.
That apprehension became fact when William accidentally overdosed shortly before his 24th birthday. Six weeks of comatose and/or heavily medicated hospitalization followed before the ultimate realization that William was consigned to a persistent vegetative state.
As family members, we struggled from the beginning to find both our own support system and ways to engage and encourage William in recovery. In the beginning we kept William’s and our battle to ourselves, in the interest of protecting his privacy and ours. He still had career goals and ambitions that could be thwarted with heroin use on his “résumé.” While it’s harder to admit, we also kept quiet out of some sense of embarrassment or shame. How could we possibly explain the corrosion in the midst of our well-reared, respectable family?
Over the course of time, with the help of addiction counselors, and sharing our circumstance at Al-Anon in particular, we came to understand that we were not alone. There were, in fact, many families like us, negotiating their response to addiction: discovering what they were powerless over, battling for the courage to confront what they could control. And, at least in our case, fighting desperately to distinguish between the two. There was and is relief in knowing that others suffer the same struggle, zigzagging along a tortuous path, enduring dead ends in hope of a solution, bravely putting in the work to realize a more promising and serene future. And yet, their stories and ours remained anonymous, pit stops at an emotional leper colony, quite separate from a world racing on.
Bit by bit, perhaps because we had to explain to neighbors why EMS was arriving at our door with some regularity, or why we suddenly had to cancel plans, or as we sought solace in narrating our sad situation to trusted friends, we began to experience a recurring phenomenon. People would recount their own harrowing tales of a family member, a dear friend, or even their personal contest with addiction.
Out of choice and necessity, as we surrendered to his lot and ours, when we chose to remove William from life support, we offered his story to virtually everyone we knew in the days just prior to his death and in the interim before his memorial service. In return, more and more people surrendered their personal horrors to us. From even the most reserved and private came narratives of heroin overdoses, cocaine abuse, weeks and months in rehab, alcohol relapse, addiction to pills.
Addiction is, as we have learned, a family disease. The number of stories we’ve heard of wives, daughters, fathers, sons, nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters – not in counseling or therapy scenarios, but from people who recognize our pain and somehow want to comfort us, or to comfort themselves through us, is staggering.
We were heartened at William’s memorial service by an overwhelming turnout to honor a beautiful young man and to console his family. I knew when I gave a eulogy for William that there were addicts in varying stages of recovery among us. Fellow sufferers there to pay tribute. Perhaps hearing about William’s struggle and our ordeal was useful to them. I hope so. What I do not know, and can only wonder about, is how many more stories remain untold. They need to be told. Secrecy and anonymity are part of the disease, for addict and family alike.