Let’s take a break for a second and talk about something happy! I mean, you’ve been reading these horrible stories and quite frankly my heart needs a reminder of the reason why I do this. There are endless stories with awful endings, but let’s take a second to talk about a story with a happy ending. One that doesn’t end in tear-filled eyes. Maybe one that’ll make you laugh and smile and see why even after all of the heartache and difficult cases, I still continue to strive to provide care for these kids who so desperately need to know they’re loved.
This boy was fifteen. I had only been working in residential for probably six months or so when I first met him. He was on the alcohol and drug dual diagnosis unit.
I know with the opioid epidemic we are currently experiencing, so many people are being impacted by drugs and alcohol and the tragedy of losing loved ones. If you’re one of those people who are judging others for even starting drugs or becoming addicted and ruining their lives and everyone around them, I get it. I already told you how I feel about working with adults in mental health. It’s so hard and I am so beyond grateful for the people who work with this population and make a difference because it is so mentally draining. Working with kids, like I’ve said before, I have seen the lifelong impact that drugs and alcohol have on families, especially children. Often left without parents, usually starting to use drugs themselves at young ages. It’s a vicious spiral but if we don’t talk about it, nothing will change.
It took me years, I mean literally years, working in mental health before I was able to comprehend and understand and sympathize for the drug addict. I will talk more later about how that came about, but for now we will move forward and talk about this boy. But the point I wanted to make here is that if you don’t have anything nice to say about this topic, then don’t say anything at all.
What a simple concept that no one understands.
There was something about this boy that always lit up a room. Every staff and kid on his unit and throughout the facility loved him. He was hilarious! He told crazy jokes and knew the right time to add in a “that’s what she said,” reference. When I first met him, I wondered what in the world he was actually doing in residential. He had a mom who cared about him and came to visit all of the time. He had a little sister who he loved and talked about and would write her notes and make her little presents. He loved animals and often talked about how much he missed his dog. He was a straight A student and even though he was only fifteen, he often told me about how he wanted to go to college and travel the world. He seemed like he had it all together. If you were just meeting him, you never would have known he was struggling at all.
But he was breaking and before anyone knew it, he broke.
When people use drugs and alcohol, it’s often to hide their pain, bury their feelings. There is often something that they don’t want to face or talk about and so they come up with their own solution to cover it up.
We’ve all been there. And if you say you haven’t then you’re lying. We’ve all done something that we regretted. We’ve all been in situations that we wish we could undo; said things we wished we could take back. We all have ways to cope that aren’t healthy. Lying. Keeping things bottled up. Sometimes the brain just cannot cope no matter what you try to do, and the easiest way to deal with the issue is to make the feelings disappear.
Drugs can do that, for a short time. Numb the pain and make you forget about the wrong you’ve done or the wrong that was done to you. You can make your mind be free of the worry and fear. But it only lasts so long and your brain eventually needs more of it to feel any effect. Hence the addiction.
No one asks to be addicted to drugs. No one starts their drug use by saying this is going to be so fun. I can’t wait to screw up my whole life. I can’t wait to be addicted to drugs.
It doesn’t work like that. When I get to some of my adult practice experience, I’ll talk about this more. For now, let’s jump back to this boy.
When I meet my patients, I always take my time getting to know them before talking about difficult stuff. I never pried into the information unless I knew it would be beneficial. The nursing office where I passed evening medication was right beside the door to this unit where the boy was staying and in the hallway by the office was a pool table. Boys from this unit would often came out of the unit around six in the evening and play pool for an hour or so. I would always leave the door to the nursing office open so the kids could come and talk to me if the needed to. They would often tell me hi and I would ask how they were doing and who was winning the game of pool.
I will never forget this boy. Sometimes it’s like the universe just knows when you need a hand; a kind word; a little pick-me-up. I was having a rough day that day and wasn’t in the best of moods. Instead of keeping the nursing office door open that day, I had it closed and was doing work on the computer. I could hear the boys outside playing pool. I would normally at least say hi, but I didn’t. I wasn’t in a good head space so when a few minutes later this was a knock at the door, I was instantly annoyed. But I loved my kids so I opened the door.
“Nurse Brandy! Why isn’t your door open? Are you taking a nap?” This sweet boy asked with a smile.
I laughed and told him that I was doing some work on the computer. I asked how his day was going and who was winning the pool game. “I can probably beat you,” he laughed. “Come play a game with us!” I was about to tell him no when a few seconds later their staff member told them in was time to go back to the unit. “But I haven’t even played a round yet,” he said to the staff member then looked at me, smiling.
“I’ll stay out here and play a round with him then I’ll take him back to the unit,” I told the staff as I walked out of the nursing office to the pool table. He was so excited and his smile melted my heart. Side note, I was awful at playing pool. He always laughed every time I missed the ball and would always win. This became an every night event and as the nights went on he opened up to me about his family and his life and one day decided to tell me something that he had never told anyone before.
His clinician was having a hard time getting him to open up. We couldn’t figure out the reason for his drug abuse aside from him admitting to being depressed. Over time, he opened up and told me that he was using heroin and taking pills which was why he was admitted to residential. He said he loved the way it made him feel and he could forget. I waited a few days before asking him what he wanted to forget. I wanted to give him the chance to tell me on his own.
That was one reason why I loved working in residential (most of the time). The patients were there for months and years at a time. You had the time to be patient and slow with developing a relationship and rapport which helped the healing process for whatever these kids were trying to deal with. Mental health healing is not an overnight fix. It takes years. And I loved having the time to be able to see the stages of this healing. This was the first big step in his healing process.
I’m not sure what made him want to tell me his reason why. I’m not sure if it was because I never pressured him to talk about anything or if he just finally felt comfortable enough with me. Whatever the reason, I’m so grateful that he chose me to talk about this with and that he felt safe enough with me to say what he had been holding in for years.
We were halfway through the game of pool when he sat the pool stick on the pool table and sat down in a chair beside it. I pulled up another chair and sat beside him. I didn’t say anything at first. I waited to see if he would start the conversation. When he looked down at the ground, going from smiling and laughing to tears fillings his eyes, I quietly reminded him that he was safe and asked him what he was thinking.
“I know you’re going to tell my clinician and have to report this and whatever. I don’t want anyone to know. But the reason I started using drugs was because something bad happened.”
“Something bad happened to you?” I repeated.
“It was my uncle. Worthless piece of shit. Since I was ten years old. And he wouldn’t stop. So when I turned thirteen I would just smoke weed with him and let it happen. When I was fourteen, he finally moved out of state and I haven’t seen him since. But now, I think about it all the time. I got with the wrong crowd and when stealing my grandma’s pain pills wasn’t doing it anymore, I shot up for the first time. It felt so good. I didn’t care about it anymore. And now here I am. A 15 year old drug addict.”
He was crying. I had never seen him like that before; so vulnerable. It took me a minute to realize that I was crying too.
I called his clinician to let her know.
“What a damn breakthrough!” She said with joy because she had been trying so hard for so long to get him to talk about his truth.
He had been able to openly talk about it for the first time. I remember when he wanted to tell his mom. After all these years, his mother was going to learn that her own brother was a pedophile.
“Will you come and sit with me when I tell her?” He asked me and of course I said yes. The clinician, him, and I along with his mother sat in a room as he spilled his heart out to his mother about the abuse he was enduring. I’ll never forget the look on her face. She was terrified and heartbroken. She instantly started to apologize to him and started to blame herself. It was going to be a long time before they were both able to move forward, but this was the biggest step he had taken thus far and I had never been more proud of a child.
I’m not sure how many months had passed as he continued to work on his treatment. He was actually engaging in therapy now that he was able to talk about what he had kept bottled up for so long. We continued to play pool every night that I was at work and I remember the night when he told me he hadn’t had a nightmare in two weeks. I also remember the night that he told me that he hadn’t craved heroin in three months; that was the second time I had seen him cry.
The third and last time I had seen him cry was the day he came up to me and asked me to play pool and told me that he was discharging home in two days. I was so damn proud of him. He was crying and asked if he could give me a hug. I didn’t cry, yet.
Another thing I loved about working in residential was that if kids discharged from their treatment successfully, we would have a bellringing ceremony. There was a big bell outside in the middle of the campus with a stone path and flowers around it. When there was a successful discharge, the kids would have their fellow unit members and staff come and line the sides of the stone path. Each kid and staff member would say something positive to the patient and afterwards, the patient would walk down the path and ring the bell three times: one for the past, one for the present, and one for the future.
His was the first bellringing I attended. It was so emotional yet so uplifting and my heart was so full of happiness for this sweet boy. After he rang the bell, I walked with him and his mother to the nursing office to complete his discharge.
“You’re the reason he’s discharging successfully, you know,” his mother said after I finished going over his discharge teaching.
And that was when I finally broke down.
She hugged me and thanked me again for “saving my son.”
“Nurse Brandy, I was going to not hug you goodbye because I didn’t want us to cry. But you’re crying already so…” He laughed and hugged me and I smiled through my tears as I walked them to the door. This boy had been through so much and had come so far. He was going to be okay. I had no doubt in my mind that this kid was going to make it.
I’m so grateful that I could be a part of that.