This is the short story of our only child, our son Jordan, his life and his death. It is also about hindsight. Hindsight can be a learning tool—for me and perhaps for you, too.
Jordan was a happy baby, inquisitive and active. As a newborn, he slept only about 10 hours in 24. On the day he was eight months old, he walked for the first time, to the delight of all. He didn’t stop challenging himself physically all his life.
He never required a lot of sleep, which was tiring for mom and dad, but his young life was full of travel, adventure, joy, friendships and family. We felt blessed to have such smooth sailing. The part-time daycare and preschool Jordan attended from age two until public school suited his high energy.
We made an informed decision to keep Jordan in the Montessori kindergarten an extra year as he was so rambunctious. His focus on tasks was not thought by his teachers to be at a Grade One level. But he was happy and sociable. He loved his teachers, and the varied structure suited him.
Jordan continued to be funny and popular and became a leader of his peers. This sounds lovely, but there was also a worrisome side. His antics disrupted the classroom, his reading skills were below average, and he was not a team player. By Grade 5, an older and wise teacher suggested we have him tested for ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) and dyslexia. He had low levels of both. We employed a tutor, and his teachers gave him the time to run around the school when he needed to release some energy. His report cards were just above average, so while we were concerned, we weren’t overly worried.
Other quirks seemed small at the time—Jordan couldn’t wear socks that had a seam in them, he couldn’t eat an apple that wasn’t quite the right texture, he would sit on the floor of the shower and let the warm water run over him until we intervened or the hot water ran out. There were smells that he couldn’t tolerate. He had episodes of rapid blinking that he couldn’t control. He had occasional brief rages at home that consisted of yelling in intense frustration over a seemingly insignificant thing. Again, while we were concerned, we didn’t think professional help was needed.
And then, high school! We all know the pitfalls and perils of these years. Kids from our small southern Gulf Island in BC take a water taxi to attend the Gulf Islands Secondary School on one of the larger islands. This meant that I could not be as involved with the school, and sometimes Jordan had to stay overnight with another family. Up until this point, Jordan, his dad Carl and I had been close and happy. But now we began to see changes. Jordan started to party with his friends—typical except for the copious amounts of pot and alcohol that he and his friends consumed. He was open about this with us, and occasionally took us up on our offer of the no-questions-asked ride home.
But you can’t keep a teenager locked up because you think he might get drunk or smoke pot. You can’t follow him around or text him every 15 minutes to find out what he is up to. I did what I could: I talked to him about how pot affects the developing brain, and about the dangers of alcohol addiction. I printed out articles and left them on his bed. We watched him closely, and we hoped that this was just a stage he was going through.
But it was not. By age 19, Jordan was an alcoholic and a cigarette smoker. He was also using cocaine. He soon asked us for help; we got him into a rehab facility for what was to be a three-month stay. He walked out after six weeks, declaring that six weeks was all he needed, that he was clean and sober and could stay that way.
He was wrong, as many of us are at the age when we think we know everything.
The next three years were torture for my husband and me. Jordan bounced around from our community to Vancouver to the Cayman Islands, to Ottawa, to Mexico and home again. He was on an adventure laced with drugs and alcohol. He was dealing drugs. He loved the fast lifestyle, the cool clothes and being the life of the party. Miraculously, he was never arrested.
Throughout this period, we know, from anecdotes told by his friends after his death and from what we already knew about our son, that Jordan remained kind and connected. He championed the underdog, he helped those less fortunate than himself, and he loved children and animals. And he stayed connected to us, by phoning, texting, even bursting through the back door unexpectedly. But we saw the effects of drugs and alcohol—in his eyes, in his thin body, in the lies he told us about money or his whereabouts. He was constantly texting, and we now know that he was “conducting business”—dealing drugs.
Jordan returned to our small community in his twenty-second year with a steady girlfriend, and he started his own small business. We were hopeful, although we knew substance abuse was still a problem. Then Jordan injured his back on a job, and our family doctor prescribed the highly addictive opioid oxycodone. A few weeks had passed before Jordan told me that the doctor had prescribed him a hundred pills. I was shocked; I made an appointment with the doctor and told him that Jordan was at risk of addiction. But because Jordan was over the age of consent, and because the doctor seemed not to consider my advice, I had no say in Jordan’s care. This was the beginning of the end—and the first failure of the medical system in Jordan’s case.
Over the next six months, the doctor prescribed oxycodone in higher and higher doses. Jordan became completely focused on obtaining and using this drug. We watched helplessly as his business declined, his girlfriend struggled, and he developed other health and sleep problems.
I spoke to the doctor again and told him that Jordan was now addicted to the drug. The doctor became angry and defensive. He decided to stop prescribing the drug, but he did not offer any support for withdrawal and recovery from addiction. Looking back, I believe he was simply ignorant in the matter. One cannot just “quit.” Withdrawal is so painful that some find it impossible to go through. The physician’s ignorance and oversight was the second failure of the medical system.
At this point, now firmly addicted to opioids, Jordan began buying “Oxy” on the street. He needed more and more money, and slid right back into the world of drug dealing.
Finally he realized that life had become untenable. He knew he needed to enter a detox facility, and we helped him get there. After 12 days, he emerged clean of opioids but still faced a very painful withdrawal. We could find no post-detox support, no physician willing to prescribe suboxone (a drug that Jordan had researched and which is now widely and successfully used in withdrawal and recovery), and no psychiatrist who could take on Jordan’s case. This lack of post-detox support was system failure number three.
Seven weeks after he left the detox facility, and in a bad state of withdrawal, Jordan relapsed. On February 4, 2014, at the age of 25, our only child died alone of an accidental overdose.
In hindsight, we can now see that all the little things—the high energy, the quirkiness, the sensitivities, the risk-taking, the problems with focus and dyslexia, Jordan’s overcompensation for hidden anxiety—led our son to self-medicate. But we couldn’t put it all together at the time. And now he is gone.
As I now advocate for drug policy changes in government, I understand that the medical system was not ready for the recent sudden increase in addiction and overdose. Doctors have historically received almost no training in addictions and recovery, and that is now changing. Opioid prescription and management is becoming an integral part of medical school.
Advice is a hard thing to hand out: every child is different. I can only say to other parents, Be aware, be non-judgemental, and give your children credit for being intelligent. Try to leave anger out of discussions. Your children need your wisdom, not your fear. And they need your love. They really need your love. They also need information on how to avoid dangerous drugs, and they need to know that if they do decide to use drugs and alcohol, they should never use them when they are on their own. Make sure your child’s school is including talks on drug safety in the curriculum.
Hindsight may be 20/20, but it can be a hard thing to live with. I hope that our hindsight can be your foresight.
Leslie McBain, May 2017