About ten years ago, Denise Williams found herself trying to navigate the intersection of mental illness and addiction with her twin sons, Ryan and Matt.
She wishes she had been better prepared.
+ Read Full Transcript
I have twin sons, Ryan and Matt, and a daughter, Katie. She's two years younger than the boys. And both of the boys, they’re twins, they died of a heroin overdose.
From the beginning, I thought I was a very lucky person. My kids flourished. They did well in school. They were active in all the community things. The boys played sports. My daughter did the cheerleading.
I thought that we were the white picket fence family, that there was nothing wrong.
And when Matt was in high school, just before graduating, I got a letter or a note sent home from his English teacher. She had given them an assignment to write a speech to their classmates what they would wish for them for the future.
And Matt's was totally morbid.
It talked about suicide. It talked about bullying. It talked about the injustices in the world.
He did not want to go on living if, if this is what life was. I thought it was a joke. I thought it was his senior prank -- that someone had put him up to it because of this wasn't Matt. Matt was my happy-go-lucky. He was the people-pleasing child. Out of the three that I had, he was the easiest to get along with, always looked for approval and wanted to please people. And he never had anything bad to say about anyone. And here he's talking about suicide? It wasn't a prank. It was his words. He wrote it. He started feeling like that in middle school.
And it's like, "Well, why didn't you tell me that this is how you felt?"
And he said, “Because I didn't want to be like grandma.”
My mother-in-law lived with us. She suffered from severe mental health issues. And not understanding what mental health was, I thought it was a weakness. And, um, if she would just get up, out of bed, take her medicine, take a shower, eat a good breakfast, she would be good. It was her choice to lay around and feel sorry for herself.
Often there were jokes around the household that,"There's grandma, she's up to her old tricks, you know, just trying to get attention."
Matt flat out said,"I didn't want to be like grandma. So I handled it."
"Well, what did you do to handle it?"
And he goes, "You know, I handled it. Today I'm feeling a lot better."
In my mind I was like, Okay, well, I was right. He got out of bed. He pushed himself forward. And it's just, like I said, mental health is a weak disease that, you know, he overcame it.
I did find out the first time he went into rehab, what he meant by that.
He meant I had a bottle of liquor hidden underneath my bed. And every night I would drink. Every day before I went to school, I would drink, and it would take away my anxiety, my depression, and it was my coping. You could have blown me over with a feather. I, I just -- what, where was I? Why didn't I notice all these signs? I mean, he just -- he hid it so incredibly well.
Nobody ever would have guessed that he was depressed, and suffered from anxiety disorder, and bipolar disorder.
He said he didn't want anybody to know because that was his problem. And he didn't want to be made fun of. And he didn't want to be like grandma.
It increased after high school. But after high school he did go to college in the evening. He worked full time. And he had a girlfriend that went to Towson. And he would spend most of his weekends out there with her.
And I thought everything's great.
When Matt was around 20 years old, he just had a big turnaround in his personality. He quit college. He broke up with the girlfriend. No one knew that he was unhappy. And he became this person that he was staying out all night. Coming in totally wasted, disrupting the household, dropping things, walking into walls.
It finally got to the point that, you know, "If you can't live under my roof, doing my rules, you're going to have to go.”
And Matt welcomed that conversation because he already had a place set up.
It was quite a bit of a party house. But I thought, Hey, now he's got to pay rent. He's going to have to grow up.
Well, that didn't happen. The partying increased.
January 17th of 2007, 4:15 in the morning, I get a phone call from University of Maryland Shock Trauma. Matt had been in a serious car accident and we needed to come quickly.
You know, he had some pretty serious injuries to his arm, but he would survive. And the state police were there. And they said they would be charging Matt with driving under the influence.
And when the doctor came out, he said, “The good news is, he's in recovery right now. The bad news is he's got a long road to recovery.” He was in the hospital for a week. He broke, chipped, dislocated, and crushed every bone in his left arm. He broke his right leg. He had lacerations all over his body, a couple broken ribs, a concussion. When I went to go pick him to bring them home, they had just taken them off of the morphine drip and they had started him on opiates.
And he was not doing well. He started vomiting.
The vomiting continued. He was supposed to take the opiates, the Percocets and the Oxy's, every four hours. And every four hours Matt would be vomiting.
I called back up to the hospital,and I was just told, “Matt's got to get used to it. He's got a long road to recovery. He's got to just keep taking the opiates. There is nothing else that we can give him. And eventually he'll get used to it.”
Well, he did. He said it was less than two months after starting the opiates he was waiting for that for 4-hour interim to come so he could take another pill.
He ultimately needed seven operations, four days a week of intense occupational and physical therapy.
They did wean him down from the Oxy's but he was given Percocets, ninety at a time.
I didn't think this was going to be a problem because this wasn't Matt's drug of choice. It was pot, cocaine and alcohol. Pills? He was vomiting, you know. He isn't going to get addicted to it. And he kept the fact that he was looking forward to that every four-hour timeframe to himself.
As he got more mobile, he started buying them on the street in between. But eventually he couldn't afford it. He wasn't working. He, you know, he had a girlfriend that was helping them buy things, and he was coming up with lame excuses to borrow money from us, and we never, ever dreamt it was to buy a pill.
He said by the one-year anniversary of his car accident, he had to switch to heroin because he could not afford to keep up his opiate habit on the street.
That happened when he was 21. It wasn't until he was 25 before we actually got him to commit to a rehab. And you know, it's just like anyone else suffering from the disease of addiction -- things were coming up missing. Electronics. My husband had a welding business so there was a lot of tools that were very valuable. They were always coming up missing.
We didn't call the police on him. We tried to handle this on her own, buy it back from the pawn shop, and threatened Matt, You got to stop it.
We finally got Matt to commit to a rehab right around his 25th birthday, which was 2012. But he was there for two days and I got a phone call from the psychiatrist and the caseworker. They needed a meeting with me.
Matt greeted us at the door, and he’s like, “Happy birthday to me!” because it was actually was there his 25th birthday.
“Happy Birthday to me! It's the first time since I was 14 that I've been sober on my birthday.”
And it's like, “What are you talking about? What about when you were 15, 16, 17?”
He said, “No. I wasn't.”
And then we went to meet with the psychiatrist and the caseworker. She said, “He has so much pain. Matt will never be sober unless he handles the demon beyond the addiction, which is his mental health.” For probably an hour, he just sat there and bled his heart. The things that bothered him -- I mean it went back to early childhood. The counselor would say, “Remember, this has been festering in, in him. It snowballed and got bigger and bigger, and he was never treated for any type of mental health.”
But then there were other things. His father is an alcoholic. And he said, “I don't think my father knew my name until I was old enough to sit on a barstool next to him. He didn't go to my concerts. And if he did, he came in at the last five minutes, and he was drunk. And that hurt.”
I get it. I get it.
They gave me a list of mental health treatments, and she says, “Matt's insurance only pays for 14 days, but I think because of the mental health, I can get an extended time. But you have to have him set up with a psychiatrist before we leave. That is the only way he will remain sober.”
Well, as it turned out, Matt's insurance, they would pay for if I paid out of pocket. We had just paid $1,500 for him to walk in the door, and then after that it was going to be $65 a day, excluding any expenses. And I, I just did the math. How can we afford this? You know, we're middle class. We struggle!
And so I had to bring Matt home, prior to getting a psychiatrist. And I hate to bring money up because his life is way more valuable than that, but these are the walls that people face for healthcare.
In 2014, Matt finally did get clean and he was seeing the psychiatrist and, and everything seemed to be going well.
Ryan thought he -- it's time for him to follow up because he had fallen into the same path from depression, from actually having adult issues, finances and relationship problems.
It was in December. Ryan wanted to wait until after Christmas because he had a young son and he didn't want to be away from home. So just like he promised, two days after Christmas he went and got his own Maryland state insurance, then went to a treatment center. Well, when he got to the treatment center, they said, "We don't take walk-ins.”
So he made an appointment, went back the following week.
They told him, "You don't have that insurance card in your hand," even though he was preapproved, and state --Maryland state insurance does work that way -- that you can be preapproved. And there is a website that any treatment center can go on and see who is preapproved. And we were not aware of this at that time.
They told him no. They told him to come back when he physically had the insurance card in hand.
Ryan died 25 days later. The insurance card came the day of his funeral.
But Matt held everything in. And he told me later he didn't deserve to cry because he was the one that introduced Ryan to the heroin after being turned down from treatment and Ryan needed something stronger than the pills he was getting on the street.
Matt pretended for two years, and right after the anniversary of Ryan's death, because it was in January, Matt started becoming more and more verbal that things weren't right. And he had a full blown-out relapse.
At the hospital, they looked into his past history, and they didn't call this the normal relapse. They said that he's never dealt with the grief. He's never dealt with the guilt. And that he was doing what Matt knows how to do -- self medicate in order to resolve his problems. And it was treated like that. He never went into a drug treatment program even though all the mental health facilities overlapped with that. The drugs was the secondary. The most important thing was the mental health -- getting Matt to cope with Ryan's death, and the grief and the guilt.
It was like everybody was pulling together to help Matt.
In February of this year, he wasn't doing good, and he did not want to go back into inpatient because every time he complained that the demons with Ryan were getting greater, and more vivid, and keeping him awake all night long, all's they did was increase his antidepressants. And he said he could actually exist in a world doing illegal drugs and still function normally. But the antidepressants were so -- at such a high volume, he slurred his words. He was falling over. He was Zombie-like.
And, and he was crying.
And he said, “Mom, I can't exist being a drug addict, and I can't exist being highly medicated. I am unfixable. Once Ryan died, that was it for me. I've always envied where he went because he's at peace. I hate that I'm doing this to you but you have to know it's time to let me go. I have to do what I have to do.”
And I begged him. And he said, “No! If they come here, I'm over 18. You know, if I'm not hurting anyone, all's I have to say is I'm not going into treatment. And I won't. And they have to leave.”
And -- which is true. So I said, "Well, will you go back to the hospital?"
He said, "Sure on Monday," but it wasn't a very convincing ‘sure on Monday.’
The next day he intentionally overdosed.
Matt went into the addiction with mental health issues. With Ryan, he did not have them and I do think Ryan could have recovered.
But I think Matt would have always lived a very troubled life. I saw my mother-in-law. She died with this disease.
It ruled Matt. It was Matt's demon beyond the addiction.
And, you don't want to lose your kids.
I'm 62 years old. I have four grandsons that are beautiful little boys-- and they, they put a smile on my face.
But then come like Christmas morning, it's obvious the ones who are missing.
I'm Denise Williams and this is my story.