When our children were born, they became the focal point of our lives. Their mom quit work and became a stay-at-home mom. To me, being their dad has been the most important and rewarding part of my life - then, now, always. Our “baby” Mark is almost two years younger than his brother Brian and they were best friends growing up. They were constant companions and Mark would follow Brian everywhere. We did everything as a family. As years passed and they developed different interests, my wife and I developed our own special relationships with each of our sons.
Throughout his life, Mark was quiet and an introvert. He didn’t let many people into his life; you had to bring him into yours. However, when people took the time to get to know him, they found a wonderful, caring person. Never much for words, he had a terrific sense of humor and could make you laugh just by his expressions and mannerisms. Mark and I shared the same competitive spirit, and sports were a natural way for us to spend time together.
Mark’s early school years were happy ones. He did well in school and had many friends. He participated in karate, basketball, and hiking and enjoyed video games, the ocean, and animals. In addition to shopping with his mom and fishing with his brother and dad Mark was also active in the youth group at church. Everything in Mark’s life appeared to be going well.
I never associated “addiction” or “substance abuse” with my son. In my mind, those were linked to other people from other neighborhoods. I thought of us as the stereotypical middle class family. Substance abuse was just something that I heard about on the news or read about in the newspaper. Unfortunately, I know now that it was also in our own house.
How could that be? Mark had a family who loved and cared about him. He was a caring, sensitive person and had just earned the credits he needed to graduate from high school. He was a day away from his one-year anniversary at work. He lifted weights five nights a week. Life seemed good!
Sure, there were a few occasions when we found weed in his room or discovered that he drank beer. We dealt with each occurrence by talking with him and assigning some form of punishment, and then we moved on. I never saw it as an addiction problem.
In the spring of 2004, Mark seemed to have turned things around. He seemed happy, talked about the future, and looked forward to his upcoming graduation from high school. The faculty and staff at his school also noticed that his self-confidence was on the rise. His eyes were clear and his speech was sharp. Issues with weed and beer seemed to be a thing of the past -just teen experimentation that Mark had outgrown. Things were looking up.
On May 27, 2004, Mark’s day went something like this. He woke up, went to school and played in the student-staff basketball game. When he came home from school, he lifted weights and ate dinner. He then went to work and got home at about 9:30 that night. When he arrived, Mark talked to us about the game, and we knew what a special day it had been for him.
That was the last conversation we ever had with Mark. He never woke up the next day. On Friday May 28, 2004, Mark died from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. We found a bag of loose pills in his room. None of the drugs had been prescribed for him, or for anyone else in the family for that matter. The autopsy and toxicology report indicated levels of oxycodone, morphine, acetaminophen, and amphetamines in his body. There was no trace of any street drugs or alcohol.
How could I have let this happen? After all, I had always considered myself a good dad (a great dad, actually). I have always loved my children. We spent time together, went places together, read stories, played, etc. Since the time they were born, my children have always been the most important part of my life. My wife shares that feeling and has been a super mom. Our kids seemingly “had it made.”
As with most parents, I worried about so many things while we were raising our kids. Are they happy and healthy? What about school, values, peer pressure, street drugs? Will they be safe when they begin to drive? Will they go to college? What will they be when they grow up?
There were so many challenges to worry about, yet prescription drugs were not on that list. After all, prescription drugs are designed and intended for something good. They can relieve pain, cure or manage illness, reduce fever, provide comfort, regulate functions of the body, etc. They can be used to gain weight, lose weight, grow hair, and slow the aging process. There is no doubt that they have often helped to cure illness, prolong life or enhance the quality of life for many.
Unfortunately, another use has been found for some of these same drugs. Prescription and over-the-counter drugs are being abused to get the same effects as with illicit drugs. Easy to obtain and relatively cheap, they are being taken in high doses, mixed with alcohol or other drugs or altered in some way to increase the effects. They are perceived to give a safe “high”, one without the stigma of being a drug user. They are also used at times by some who are trying to wean themselves off of illicit drugs. Kids are getting drugs from their own home, from friends or from illegal internet pharmacies. They are now among the most prevalent “drugs of abuse” in the U.S.
Having read recent surveys among parents and teens, it seems as though many still have the perception that abusing prescription drugs is safer than using illicit street drugs. I need to assure people that this is untrue. Abuse of prescription drugs can be just as addictive and can cause just as much harm as “street” drugs. I am reminded of the dangers each day as I think back to holding Mark’s lifeless body after he died It is such a vivid memory.
I wish that I could tell Mark what I’ve learned about the dangers of abusing prescription drugs, but I can’t It’s too late. At a time when most of life’s experiences should lie just ahead, his life ended, and I will always wonder if I could have saved him.
I miss my son more than words can express, and life is not the same anymore. I want other parents to learn from me.
Since Mark's death in 2004, I have been dedicated to helping others avoid the same fate. Along with my wife Cookie and our oldest son Brian, we have shared Mark's story through local radio and TV media on numerous occasions. We have also been interviewed by local and national print media, and Mark's story was published in a book about addiction in the fall of 2006. We have often been guest speakers to groups of at-risk teens and their parents.
Watch a tribute video to Mark: “Prescription drug peril - living a parent's worst nightmare