By Morgan Elmslie
“I’m halfway down Broadway Street and then I woke up three days later in a hospital bed in New Orleans East with no phone and no wallet,” Kenny said.
How he got here was all too common.
“The doctor gave me some pain meds.” The rest is history.
According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, young adults aged 18 to 25 are the group who’s most highly abusing non-medically-related prescription pain pills. Kenny, now 22, could be their poster child.
An ambitious kid, Kenny landed an athletic scholarship to go play soccer at a small school in Massachusetts. Three breaks in his back later, he was bedridden with a prescription for OxyContin in his hands.
What was once doctor’s orders soon developed into a full-blown addiction, and the athletic boy became a drug-dependent man.
At his worst, he was taking seven pills each day. By the time he got to this point, he was well past pharmacy-grade pills. These were street drugs, they didn’t come in an orange bottle, and their list of side effects included total self-destruction. The addiction and the demand, were solidified, and the supply, unfortunately, was all too abundant.
“[In New Orleans], you can get anything,” he said.
At a loss, in a bind, and in the name of self-preservation, his exasperated parents kicked him out. They stopped taking his collect calls from jailhouse landlines. They stopped posting his bail. They did what no parents want to do: they cut him out and cut him off.
“It was tough love,” his mom, Sheila, said.
She recalls those nights well.
“You don’t sleep. You’re staring at the ceiling wondering ‘am I doing this right?’” She wondered as if there was a parent handbook on coping with a child’s addictions.
This wasn’t new for Sheila. Growing up for her meant watching her sister slide in and out of reality. Drugs, and their tireless grip, were commonplace in her life. With that, she knew there was no helping someone who doesn’t want to help themselves. It was a waiting game.
Unsure of what else to do, she hoped her communicative hiatus would set a new standard: she was done bailing him out. Her landline and cellphone rang with unknown but familiar numbers, and she let voicemail greet her stranded son on the other end of the line.
“I wish jail scared him as much as it scared me,” Sheila said, pain in her eyes as she remembered those heavy moments.
In the concrete block, Kenny held up relatively fine, at first. He was met bluntly by the new social structure of prison when he unknowingly claimed someone’s previously sought-after cell bunk bed.
“Get up,” an inmate said. Kenny stayed quiet until the man got closer. “I’m not asking you,” he continued. “I’m telling you.”
Kenny’s tough-boy exterior crumbled in the new unfamiliarity of jail.
“He started to get help when we weren’t there to bail him out,” Sheila said. “He was scared, he didn’t want to be alone.” She was at her wit’s end. Money had disappeared. Lies told to her face. Her own child shape-shifted into a boy she didn’t even like anymore.
Not every mother’s love is stronger than the unruly grasp of opioid addiction, but Sheila’s was.
“I never stopped loving him,” she said.
A parent’s love is unconditional, she said. But, understanding and empathy are not universally understood among all parties.
“His dad didn’t get it,” she said. “You can go into [drug use] thinking you’re in control and then you lose all of that. That’s what drugs are.”
“[His dad] wanted him to just stop. To just be done with it. To move on. I knew it didn’t work like that,” Sheila said.
Recovery is not part of the equation until the admission of addiction is on the table. The first step, Kenny said, is to admit to yourself that you have a problem. There was a long, tumultuous road ahead of that destination.
While unwelcome in his parents’ home, Kenny snuck into and slept in unoccupied dorm rooms on local college campuses. He traded weed for rent and became a “local plug.”
“It was college without going to class,” he said. “Man, that shit was fun.”
His occupancy came to an unexpected halt one night when campus emergency responders carried his limp body out of a room that wasn’t even his. The new friends had to tell authorities, “He’s not a student here.”
Meanwhile, Sheila and Kenny Sr., his dad, didn’t know. At the time, Kenny pretended to live in a house on Broadway Street. He seemingly had everything under control. He had an “address” and “roommates,” but the whole thing was a complex, orchestrated lie, riddled by the intricacies of addiction, and laced with illegality. He was actually bumming it with no more to his name than a backpack and a Canon camera. He had to make do.
One night in the dorm room, a new friend was telling all about a new girl he was seeing. Kenny was excited for him. The student showed everyone in the room a picture of the new girl. Things went silent. “That’s my fucking ex,” Kenny said.
Ill-equipped to process the news, he took the looming five extra bars of Xanax from his pocket and added them to his strong concoction of Sprite and already-dissolved bars.
“To forget that shit, I just took more Xanax. Popping them and popping them,” he said.
The drugged cocktail now had 10 Xanax bars mixing into it. Or so he thought.
“Then I popped a bad one,” Kenny said.
His pill was laced with a novel chemical that pushed him over the edge. Fentanyl is a new killer, as reported by the DEA. It’s taken the lives of the acclaimed and taken the livelihood of too many to be named. The potent pill caused Kenny to overdose. This was the first of three times he escaped death by a thin thread.
Not everyone was so lucky. At this time, Kenny’s brother got in a car accident and passed away. Kenny asked a friend to borrow a suit for the funeral.
“For about a month, I didn’t believe I was alive,” Kenny said.
He barely even was. He slept around 17 hours a day and sometimes only woke to use the restroom.
Kenny needed rehab, he needed something other than a dorm room futon to hibernate on while mourning the death of his brother.
A friend of his contacted Kenny Sr. for help.
When the friend was on the phone with Kenny’s dad (which was accomplished through guessing Kenny’s phone password, which is 6969), it was revealed that no one had actually died.
Deep in Kenny’s disoriented state of disarray, he hallucinated the death of his brother.
This changed everything.
It was then that a friend shook Kenny awake and cleared the air. His brother was alive, but Kenny wouldn’t be if he kept on like this. The two looked up a Narcotics Anonymous meeting and took an Uber to the closest one. It was there, surrounded by addicts in the same boat, that Kenny had a breakthrough. He was the youngest person in the room by 20 years and the toll that these drugs had taken on those around him frightened him.
He nodded off throughout the meeting, the muscles in his neck weakened by his latest dose. But something stuck with him.
“I just missed my family. I didn’t get to talk to my nieces buku. I only got to see my nephew once,” he said.
He had an eager team standing by to help. His mom, who never gave up on him, was waiting for a different call. Not a “bail me out” call. Not an “I’m in the hospital in New Orleans East and don’t know how I got here” call. But thecall. The “I’m ready to not be this way anymore” call.
The next morning, she got that call.
On the other end of the phone, Sheila smiled. These years of anguish were coming to a notable peak. He was ready to change.
“I needed support through that. I needed my community around me. There’s not enough in place to help the addict or their family,” Sheila said. Luckily, they made it regardless. But she stressed the need, demand, and urgency of having social structures in place to help families cope with things like this.
Oftentimes, the family is ill-equipped to handle such events. Sheila, both fortunately and unfortunately, had first-hand experience with drug use in her nuclear family while growing up, so she had some footing in how to handle this issue and cope with its impacts.
However, Kenny’s dad was different. He viewed addiction as more of a choice than a disease, and he equated continued substance use with lack of willpower rather than a side effect of a gripping mental illness.
Sheila couldn’t disagree more. “There are very few people who choose to be that self-destructive,” she said. “It’s a disease. But not everyone knows that.”
Community programs that aim to educate and support an addict’s loved ones would have been, in Sheila’s words, “paramount in his journey to sobriety.”
As for Kenny, “I just didn’t want to take drugs anymore. I didn’t like the way people looked at me. I definitely give a fuck what someone thinks about me,” he said.
It was time to change. The rough-to-touch exterior was ready to wipe away his past, his convictions, and his addictions.
“He used to think I was the enemy,” his mom said. “But I want him to just know I’m here.”
“Pills are a false reality. You think you’re okay but your body is physically beat,” he said.
It’s not easy. In fact, “It’s hard as fuck” to get clean. But for Kenny, it was his only option.
Kenny described the hole he dug himself into as “much deeper” when he was on his way out of it. So to mitigate the expansive contract of time, the impending endlessness of the future, he broke his days into 10-minute increments.
“I can focus for 10 minutes. It gives me less time to do stupid shit,” he said.
It may have worked.
Now over a year sober, Kenny channels his emotion through art. His long-loved Canon camera has captured the highs and lows of his young adult life. It’s through color and music that a once greyscale world blossomed into high definition.
“He’s always wanted to create,” Sheila said. “And now he can.”
He spent a while — “too long” — at odds with himself. His identity, passions, sexuality, and dreams were all clouded by the foggy haze of drug-induced reality. Now clear-headed, he’s all about music, photography, and turning his emotions into tangible creations. He’s also all about “just being human.”
“I now enjoy being around him. He’s so excited and I like seeing him excited,” Sheila said. “He realized he can do what he wants. And he’s happy with that.”
His mom has a restored sense of faith in her changed son, but she still hits the pillow at night with a pondering “what if?”
“What if he goes back?” Sheila asked.
“What if?” I asked back.
“You can only hope and pray. And FaceTime him to see what he’s actually doing. I trust my eyes only,” Sheila said.
She laughed, but through her smile, you could see a pain that would forever linger close to the surface. For now, she’s just happy to have it be “me and KJ again.”
Kenny, who distances himself from the childhood nickname “KJ” is also glad to be back.
He offers no pertinent advice other than this: “You can reach out to someone for help, but at the end of the day, you’re the only one who can do it. Have that confidence in yourself that you have a purpose on this Earth,” he said. “Because we all do.”