Guest Post By Susan Zilberman
I have a son, but he is no longer here with me. He died at age 26 of an unintentional drug overdose. The pain of losing him is so unbearable that is almost defies description in words. I cope with it because I have to and because I seem to be able to. The horror of losing him to drugs brings another dimension to the loss; feelings of guilt that I couldn’t protect him, feelings of anger that he couldn’t stop using, feelings of shame that I wasn’t a good enough mother. I couldn’t save Gregg, but every day since he told me he had a drug problem I have learned something new about addiction. If I can share what I am learning with anyone who might need it, then this unimaginable loss might bring about something positive.
Gregg was always a big presence: a ten-pound baby, a cheerful toddler always on the move, an easy going boy with tons of energy and enthusiasm for life. Gregg was an intelligent child and an excellent student. His father and I divorced when he was seven, but he appeared to have tolerated that change in his life. He has two sisters who love him. He worked very hard in school. He carried the flag for D.A.R.E. He was a fine tennis player who was on the Yorktown High School Tennis Team. After graduating from Syracuse, Gregg was eager to succeed in the business world. He worked for five years in the financial department of a real estate development company, learning avidly, and advancing steadily. The accolades he received about his work ethic and job performance were endless.
Gregg had many friends throughout his life. His senior class in high school voted him “most dependable.” A friend he knew at Syracuse University once said “everyone on campus knew ‘Grossman.’” He was incredibly funny, always putting a smile on the faces of his friends and family. Everyone appreciated his wonderful sense of humor. Gregg was also sensitive, compassionate, and a great listener. Friends regularly turned to him for help and advice, which he gave with great pleasure.
How did he begin to use drugs, become addicted, and die? What are the signs of drug use? The answer to the first question comes from what he told me, and what I put together after he died. He tried alcohol and marijuana in high school. He tried cocaine in college. He found that prescription painkillers and sedatives could calm his anxiety. Later they could also bring him down from the cocaine high.
In his last year of high school and in college, I saw him become irritable and eventually have trouble controlling his anger. He became secretive and fought with his friends. When he graduated college and started to work, I remember thinking he was partying too hard. When we asked if he was using drugs, he assured us that he was not. When his nose was running, he reminded me that he has always had allergies and sinus problems. In short, he functioned. In college he studied, after college he worked, and until six months before he died, he managed to hide his drug use.
The physical signs and symptoms of drug addiction can include:
• bloodshot eyes or pupils that are larger or smaller than usual
• changes in appetite or sleep patterns
• sudden weight loss or weight gain
• deterioration of physical appearance and personal grooming habits
• unusual smells on breath, body, or clothing
• tremors, slurred speech, or impaired coordination
• drop in attendance and performance at work or school
• unexplained need for money or financial problems, or borrowing or stealing to get it
• engaging in secretive or suspicious behaviors
• sudden change in friends, favorite hangouts, and hobbies
• frequently getting into trouble (fights, accidents, illegal activities)
• unexplained change in personality or attitude
• sudden mood swings, irritability, or angry outbursts
• periods of unusual hyperactivity, agitation, or giddiness and lack of motivation
• appearing lethargic or “spaced out”
• appearing fearful, anxious, or paranoid, with no reason
Gregg exhibited some, but not many of these signs. How did I miss them? This is a question I ask myself repeatedly, and I have an answer in two parts. I missed the signs because I couldn’t or didn’t believe that the goodness that was Gregg would put drugs into his body and be unable to stop using them. I missed the signs because Gregg hid them well and was what is known as a high functioning addict; he played, he studied, he worked, he had family and friends whom he enjoyed and who enjoyed him.
In April, 2008, Gregg called me in the middle of the night and told me he had a drug problem. We went to the emergency room and from there he went into several rehabilitation facilities that were in New England. In August he left rehab and rented an apartment in Westchester. He looked for a job and found one on October 2nd. On October 8th he died of an unintentional overdose of cocaine, oxycotin and xanax.
We can’t dismiss signs and symptoms or fall into the trap of thinking that this can’t happen to my child — even if they are as lovable, easygoing and high functioning as Gregg was.
In Gregg’s memory, his family and friends have created Gregg’s Gift. The mission of Gregg’s Gift is to positively impact the lives of addicted young adults, their families, and our community, through patient scholarships, education and advocacy. We are currently
raising money to create the Gregg R. Grossman Endowed Scholarship Fund at Caron Treatment Centers, a leading nonprofit provider of addiction treatment for adolescents, young adults and adults.
Although Gregg did not attend any Caron programs – we are inspired by the work they are doing with young adults and their families. We hope to give other families a second chance at life – the chance that Gregg did not get.