Heroin's siren song: Addiction batters a thriving family
Lucy Garrighan clasps her day planner on which she has taped a photograph of her elder son, John, who died in January at 27 of a heroin overdose.
As she does every Saturday, Lucy Garrighan visits the grave of her elder son, John, who died in January at 27 of a heroin overdose.
The Garrighans, from left Dan, 23; Jamie, 11; Lucy, 51; and Abbie, 24.
Daniel Garrighan laughs as his older brother, John, puts his arm around him in the family's Penn Township home in a photo from about 1992.
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The baptism completed, the minister slowly carried the baby around the church for the congregation to see. They cooed. What soft skin, what beautiful eyes, what cute cheeks.
Lucy Garrighan saw that, too, but couldn't keep from fixating on the veins in the baby boy's arms.
Years earlier, before he entered his 20s, her son John's veins were as pristine as this baby's, his future as hopeful as this newborn's. She cried as her mind filled with visions of heroin and syringes and withdrawals and relapses and how John's addiction agony ended in January with a fatal overdose at age 27.
"Oh, God," she prayed at a regular Sunday service where the baptism was held. "Wherever you are, don't let it happen to this innocent one."
Lucy, 51, of Penn Township, knows all too well that heroin is an equal opportunity destroyer. Race, gender, age, socio-economic status do not matter. And with heroin purity now in the unprecedented range of 80 to 90 percent, use of the drug in the region has skyrocketed to its highest level in history, with users risking careers, families and life itself in search of that next high.
John was among them. Eight years of shooting up, cravings, rehab stays, relapses, overdoses, withdrawals, rationalizations and self-loathing culminated with a deadly fix in a locked restroom of Starbucks at Forbes and Shady avenues in Squirrel Hill on Jan. 29. He overdosed on his way to a family gathering, dying the next day at UPMC Presbyterian.
For Lucy, the wound remains raw. At times, she speaks of John in the present tense, as if he'll come through the door any minute. Then she catches herself, and the tears well, her hands shake.
"If someone had told me 10 years ago that my John, who was an honor student, who had a curfew and was home on time and everything else, would be dead at 27 from a heroin overdose, I would have said 'You're out of your mind, you're crazy,' " she said.
"I thought that could never happen to a kid like him or a family like ours."
But heroin's siren song did lure a kid like him and battered a family like hers.
And not once but twice.
I had everything in the world in line for a successful, fulfilling life, yet somehow, choice by choice, I decided to get a disease. ... I've run, I've hidden but this demon kept finding me, anywhere and everywhere.
-- From John Garrighan's journal during a rehab stay
John was a precocious child. Smart, inquisitive and musical, he learned to play the guitar at 11 and performed in the church band.
At 14 he formed The Berlin Project, a pop-punk band named for a computer hacking program. He was still attending Penn-Trafford High School when the band debuted in 1998 with "Running for the Border," featuring a cover of Snoop Dogg's "Gin and Juice" that became a viral hit through Napster. By the time he was 22, the group had toured nationally and sold tens of thousands of albums.
The family was upper middle class, with a nice home on a cul-de-sac in Penn Township. Lucy and her husband, John, had four children, all seeming to thrive academically and socially. John was the oldest, followed by Abbie (three years younger) Daniel, (another year younger) and the baby of the family, Jamie (16 years younger than John). The couple owned a successful office machine and printing business.
Then Lucy and her husband split up in 2002, leaving her with three teens and a toddler to raise. Six months later, her life was shaken to the core when John, then 19, admitted he was a heroin addict and needed help.
"It was like a bomb went off; it was Hiroshima," Lucy said.
Within a year, a heroin overdose in the Garrighan household nearly claimed a life -- Daniel's. Only 17, he had been using for more than a year.
Now, she had two sons whose lives were in peril.
Help! Help! Help! Please cure or kill me! ... Please someone tell me I'm cured. I can't keep up this roller coaster. ... Why did I fall in love with a drug, let alone many drugs?
-- John Garrighan's journal
Unbeknownst to Lucy, John had been self-medicating his then-undiagnosed bipolar disorder since age 13, using his allowance to buy Tylenol PM so he could sleep. Years later, the self-medication became heroin.
It wasn't the rock 'n' roll life that got John into heroin but college partying, Lucy said. While attending Robert Morris University, where he studied business and psychology, he lived in Oakland with roommates and the drinking and drug-taking -- marijuana, cocaine -- began at age 18.
"One [of his roommates] said to me, 'Mrs. G. we were all partying last night. The thing is John just couldn't stop. He takes it to the extreme.' "
One night, John, while intoxicated, fell down a flight of steps, dislocating his shoulder and knocking out a tooth. A dentist prescribed him the painkiller Vicodin -- in Lucy's view, the beginning of John's end.
"From taking Vicodin he went to crushing and snorting it. And then Vicodin wasn't strong enough, and he goes on to Percocet, and OxyContin."
Like many others, John became addicted to OxyContin, which on the street can cost as much as $80 for a single 80-milligram pill.
Soon, like many OxyContin addicts, John realized it was much cheaper to buy heroin at $10 or less a stamp bag. High purity levels made it possible to snort the heroin for a high, removing the stigma of injecting it. But addiction kicked in so quickly -- and the withdrawal hurt so much -- that soon John was injecting it into a vein, the fastest, most potent drug delivery system.
"I was concerned about his drinking the first six months and then I became suspicious [about drugs]," Lucy said. "It was the look in his eye." She confronted him. John denied it for 15 minutes. And then revealed his painful secret.
Within 24 hours Lucy had him admitted to a 28-day inpatient treatment program. John got clean and remained so -- for two months. He relapsed, the first of so many backward slides.
Lucy was not deterred. She took John on cross-country treks, from one treatment facility to another, from Arizona to Georgia to upstate New York. In all, he was admitted to nine inpatient rehab treatment centers and many outpatient facilities.
"I thought it was an acute illness, that if I spent $35,000 and sent my kid there for 28 days he would be OK. But it's a chronic lifelong disease. You have to be actively involved in recovery your whole life to have a life."
The leaves are beautiful auburn, the breeze massages my head and the scent of the season is refreshing ... Not a bad outlook for a dying man. ... Could it be that I'm getting a chance to die all over again? But this time just maybe I'll have a chance to live first.
-- John Garrighan's journal
Lucy had invested more than a year's worth of time, money, emotion, prayers and love into John's recovery when she learned she was the mother of two addicted sons. It was the night of Abbie's graduation from Penn-Trafford and most of the family had headed to the ceremony. John, who that day had hooked up his withdrawal-sickened brother with a Hill District heroin dealer, decided to check on Daniel in the family home. He found his brother in his bedroom, blue and without a pulse, and performed CPR until paramedics arrived.
Lucy's life became a cycle of rehab stays for both sons, with alternating periods of hopeful sobriety and demoralizing relapses.
Because many health insurance policies didn't cover substance abuse treatment, Lucy cashed in her 401k and life insurance and refinanced her house to pay the estimated $400,000 needed for rehab stays, psychiatrists, counselors and doctors.
"There is no manual on how to be the mother of a heroin addict," she said. "A lot of times the things I did made it easier for them to use drugs by believing their lies.
"Lying is a symptom of the illness of addiction just like high blood sugar is a symptom of the illness of diabetes. They both could have won Academy Awards for the lies they told.
"If they have to steal from their mother, they will and they have. They will steal from their family. Do they feel guilty? Yes, but they do it because it's the only way they see they can survive."
The longest John was off heroin during those eight years was five months. He suffered about five nonfatal overdoses, including one during which he was rushed to a hospital without a pulse.
"I learned how to take a pulse and respiration so I would know whether he was going into an OD or was just using and sleeping. I had to assess the situation," Lucy said.
"It's exhausting beyond words to cope with this and deal with this and face it, but there is no comparison to the exhaustion of grief of losing a child. There's none."
My disease is dormant. ... I must keep it inside of me. God help me if it finds its way out.
-- John Garrighan's journal
Lucy wasn't the only one in the Garrighan household affected by John and Daniel's addiction. Abbie, at 18, took on the role as a surrogate parent, supporting Lucy, trying to help the brothers and assisting in the care of her young sister, Jamie.
While earning a degree in business and entrepreneurship at Duquesne University, Abbie, along with her mother, came up with the idea of opening an outpatient substance abuse center, using the brothers' experiences, good and bad, as guideposts. They began developing a business plan in September 2008, and after getting necessary state licensing, opened Jade Wellness Center in Monroeville in 2010, replete with a staff of professional counselors and contracted physicians.
At the time, Daniel had been clean following a lengthy in-patient rehab stint in York, Pa. Now married with a 1-year-old son and studying at the University of Pittsburgh's Greensburg campus to be a drug counselor, he works at Jade, mostly assessing addicts for the level of care they need. Abbie works there as director of operations and Lucy, the founder, serves as president.
"Peace, Harmony, Serenity" reads the sign in the center's waiting area -- the Garrighans' wish for all addicts and those affected by addiction like themselves. Lucy hopes that speaking out about her experiences and those of her sons might help change the public's perception of addiction.
"It's not a lack of moral character, it's not a lack of will power. It's a disease. You don't hate people with diabetes.
"You don't want to be in the club that I've now joined. You don't."
"I love life. I can't be of any use to this world dead. ... I want to live. I want to learn. I want to love and be loved. ... I want to be proud of me."
-- John Garrighan's journal
As Jade opened, John was spiraling downward. He was clean only a few weeks at a time during his last two years of life. His bipolar disorder cycled more rapidly the older he got. Sometimes he would go three days without sleeping.
When the end came, it was shocking.
Two nights before, he had played Trivial Pursuit with Jamie, who was delightfully astonished that her big brother had correctly answered all 51 questions he had been asked.
The next night, she and John sat at the piano and sang John Lennon's "Imagine."
That final day, he was locked in a bathroom alone, a needle in his arm, dreams spent.
"I'm the ghost that never died," John had written in his rehab journal. "I'm the truth that always lied. I'm the one you know you'll find alone."
First Published July 24, 2011 12:00 am