Jenna and her son Jackson in October 2015, one month before she died of a heroin overdose.
Nobody knows how long he had lain next to her. Nobody knows what time her then 3-year-old son padded into her room, snuggled up to her and fell back asleep. The only certainty is that by 7 o’clock the next morning she was dead, found with a needle still stuck in her arm, her son’s pillow and blanket still next to her and the drugs scattered about her.
It was Nov. 21 and she was dead.
When Trisha Strathearn first got the call that her grandson’s mother was in the hospital, she called her son (Jackson’s father) and told him to “go get Jackson, Jenna overdosed.” When Michael got there, the little boy asked his dad why he was there, nana was coming to get him. Michael had told him that nana was in the hospital with mommy.
When Strathearn returned from the hospital little Jackson asked where his mommy was.
“I told him ‘mommy died baby’ and he had said ‘no, you were at the hospital with mommy.’ I told him that mommy was in heaven. He had left it at that for a couple of weeks.”
Then one day the child told his grandma that he missed his mommy and wanted to see her. But this time when Strathearn told him that his mommy was in heaven and she could see him, the little boy said “no nana, you lied to me. Mommy is not in the heavens in the clouds. She’s with the cops and the ambulance because I seen them take mommy out.” And on and off he would have his meltdowns.
When Jenna had gotten to the emergency room, her body temperature was 93 degrees. When Jackson woke up and couldn’t wake his mother up, he went to Jenna’s roommate Justin and told him "mommy won’t wake up. I can’t wake mommy up."
“He would talk about her occasionally, saying things like ‘I snuggled with mommy on her bed.’ or ‘I miss mommy.’ And that was the part we did not know. We didn’t know what he saw and what he had heard until one day, out of the blue he said ‘Justin was hitting mommy and then he would kiss her.’ And that’s when the lightbulb came on,” Strathearn said.
Jackson had seen his mom’s roommate performing CPR on her. It wasn’t until the hospital had performed a CAT scan that they found out she had been brain dead for several hours – while the little boy was snuggled up next to her soundly asleep – before Jackson woke up at 7 a.m..
The road to addiction
Strathearn’s son Michael starting using drugs at a very young age, smoking pot at around 14 years old. He then dabbled in cocaine, then pills, then hallucinogens, until finally, heroin.
“He was always trying another drug to get a different high before he found heroin. He started out snorting it. Once you snort it, once you do heroin for the very first time, that’s it, you get hooked, because with heroin, once you do it it gives you the most essential high that you will ever get. You will never get that high ever again. And it’s cheap.”
A baggie of heroin costs around $10. However, while the initial effect is “the best feeling,” once you come down, you want that high again. So, you spend another 10 dollars and snort it again. But it doesn’t give you that same feeling, so you buy more and snort more until you are no longer satisfied with just the buzz.
It’s called “chasing the dragon,” when you keep chasing that very first high. So, you keep buying more to experience that same feeling, until one day, you start smoking it and it’s ahhhh, there it is, almost like that first high and you’ve caught the dragon, but you haven’t matched it. So you’re still trying to catch it and trying to beat it and then you go to shooting it. Once you shoot it, you’ve caught that dragon and you’ve got that high and there’s nothing left. But it’s still not the same as the first time so you keep buying more.
“It’s very difficult to grasp. Heroin hardwires your brain differently than cocaine or pills or other drugs, for that matter. It’s the worst addiction ever. You can be clean for 25 years and you can relapse. You can start again. It’s something that you struggle with every day.”
It took just a few months for heroin to take a hold of Michael – from the time he first snorted it, to the first time he “shot up.” He has been using heroin for about four years. At least that’s what Strathearn thinks, she isn’t really sure, there were too many lies to be certain.
“I don’t know how long he was actually using (drugs) before I found out. I first found out he was smoking pot (marijuana) when he was 14. He’s 26 now. It’s been a very long road of drugs, probation, jail for sales (of drugs), shock camp, parole...it’s been a very long, very hard road of addiction. He’s been in recovery since October of last year and now has custody of his son.”
Shock Incarceration Program (shock camp) is a six-month program that prepares young, nonviolent inmates for early parole release consideration. The program provides a schedule of rigorous physical activity, intensive regimentation, discipline, and drug rehabilitation.
The road to recovery
Although Michael is clean now, he struggles every day to fight the demon of that addiction. It was a tumultuous road of addiction, recovery, relapse, recovery, death, and discovery.
Strathearn had taken Michael and Jenna’s child away from them when Jackson was just a month old. They had moved in with her and her husband just after the baby was born. It was then when she saw them actively using. It was then when she had no choice but to kick them out.
“It was then that I had seen it right smack in my face that they had lied to me. As a mom, you want to believe your kids. You know they are using, but they’re so good at lying and deceiving, too. I’d seen the ‘mom, will you watch the baby?’ And they’d be gone at all hours and people were telling me that my grandchild is being left with Joe Schmo and they would take him to the city...and I would confront them and it would be a constant fight.”
It wasn’t until one day she had seen the use with her own eyes, how big their addiction really was.
“I had walked into their room and Jenna was shooting up and I lost my mind. Jackson was sitting on the bed. She had a piece of my grandson’s clothing around her arm and she was shooting up. We had some words and the needle went flying on the floor and she came at me and it had gotten a little physical. I told her to get out and don’t come back. She told me she wasn’t going to leave without her child and I told her she wasn’t going to take him out of the house.”
The police got involved and Strathearn filed paperwork with the court and got immediate custody of Jackson. Michael and Jenna had supervised visits. On one of those visits, Strathearn caught them both shooting up and again called the police. This time, she had them both arrested and they were charged with endangering the welfare of a child. An order of protection was put in place and all visitation with their son ended. It was time for Strathearn to shut the door.
“I had to tell them that if they couldn’t put their child first ahead of the drugs then I was done. It killed me as a mother. I felt like a piece of shit. I took my child’s child away and turned my back on my child. But, I had to close that door, because I was their biggest enabler.
“When they had their own place I would loan them money or get them groceries, because when your child is saying they need help, you help. I was paying my bills and I was paying their bills, all the while knowing they had a drug problem. But as a mom you don’t see it that way. You see it as you helping your child.”
At one point she had stopped giving them cash and paid their bills directly. She would go to Tops and pay the electric bill. She would send a check to their landlord for rent. Then they got evicted.
“That was a wake up call. It was like ‘hello, you’re working full-time, that’s money in your pocket because mom is paying your bills, so why are you getting evicted?’ So they had moved in with me, but I was still an enabler until I had no choice but to kick them out.”
Strathearn fought anxiety every day.
“Even though I knew my grandson was safe and not being taken to drug houses and left alone, I was going to bed every night wondering if my child was okay. Was my child eating and have a fully belly. I’d lay there and cry and cry and cry and my husband would say ‘stop it. Stop it.’ And I would say to him ‘you don’t understand, this isn’t your child.’ And it was so hard and my son was so mad and angry.”
Michael would show up at her house and call her “every name in the book” and tell her he hated her and couldn’t wait till she died so he could “piss on your grave” and “how dare” she take his child away from him. It had finally gotten to the point where Strathearn’s husband stepped in and told Michael “you had done enough, you had said enough. Get off my property. If you come back, you are going to be arrested.”
“My husband had said to me ‘let me be your rock, you’re not going to get through this unless you let me be your rock.' ”
Even when Strathearn took a leave of absence from work, it was a long time where she would just cry all day and all night. She got herself into counseling and took herself to AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meetings. She also reached out to a group on Facebook called I Hate Heroin.
“I reached out to them and they really helped me understand that it was nothing I did as a mother – because I did blame myself. I felt like a piece-of-shit mother, asking myself what I could have done differently. I felt like I failed my son.
“At first I did blame myself, then the people he hung out with. I blamed everyone else for his addiction but him. I didn’t want to hold him accountable. I wanted to blame everyone else. I was making excuses for him on why he was an addict. Once I opened my mind and stopped blaming myself and everyone else, I was able to begin to heal.”
Michael had blamed her, too. He blamed her for his father walking out on them and the choices he made. Every time he got mad, he had blamed her.
“The guilt that I carried around all these years...and he let me feel guilty. So, once I stopped doing that, once I stopped enabling him, I was able to get stronger. I had to realize he made the choices he made. He chose to do drugs. I didn’t force him to get high. I didn’t force him to use cocaine. I didn’t force him to take those pills. I didn’t force him to do acid or snort or shoot heroin; he made those choices.”
When Michael and Jenna broke up, it wasn’t a nasty breakup, they were just on different paths to recovery. They went into rehab at different times – he had gotten a bed at a facility and she had stayed with some friends. Jenna eventually got a bed, but then she had gotten her hands on some heroin and got kicked out of the program. That’s when Michael said “that’s it.”
After their breakup, Jenna landed herself in Treatment Court and was successful. She was on her way to recovery.
“She was like a daughter to me. On Oct. 26 (2015) I turned custody over to the two of them and it was against my better judgement. By that time, she had graduated from drug court (Treatment Court), and had been clean for two years. Her biggest fear after she got off drug court was that she didn’t really have anything to keep her accountable.”
Formerly called Drug Court in Wyoming County, Treatment Court not only handles those who have a drug problem, but also those with an alcohol or mental health problem. Other assistance involves aiding with health insurance issues – oftentimes a hurdle to gaining access to treatment – for outpatient or inpatient services.
One month later, she overdosed and her son found her body.
Life goes on
From Strathearn’s standpoint, it was very difficult for her to hear her child say that he was okay. When Michael went to the hospital to see Jenna, he leaned over her body and said to her still form “You broke our promise. You lied. For that, I will never forgive you. But I will always love you.”
“Heroin has such a hold on them that they don’t want to hurt their loved ones. When Jenna died, I had asked Michael...I needed to understand that why, when the door of communication was wide open, why, when you wanted to use and you are that desperate, when you were on the verge of relapse, why wouldn’t you pick up the phone and call somebody that you know loves you and is concerned. Why wouldn’t you just pick of the phone and call?”
And when she and her son Michael were sitting in the truck and she was sobbing and he was crying, he said to her:
“Mom, look in the mirror. Take a good, long hard look. It’s that look. It’s that look of disappointment that we don’t want to see when we are on the verge of wanting to shoot up. It’s that hurt in your voice that we don’t want to hear. You put on that front, even though we know you’ll come instantly, but it’s that hurt in your voice, the disappointment on your face that we don’t want to see. That is why.”
“And I just sobbed. And that’s why she didn’t call me.”
Jenna also fought addiction from a very young age, traveling down a path similar to Michael’s, but was on her way to recovery. However, for whatever reason, she couldn’t reach out to anyone last November and she overdosed. At this point, the family is still waiting for a toxicology report from Monroe County to determine the exact cause of death.
“It’s been a very tough road and now my son has my grandson full-time and while I worried before, my brain is constantly racing now. Is my son okay? Is he truly okay, because now when I look back on things, he was very good at being deceitful and lying. I see my son every day and I’m drilling him, until one day he says to me ‘back off. Let me live my life. Let me be a father.’ And I said to him, ‘I have raised this boy for three-and-one-half years and if you think I’m going to back off now you’re sadly mistaken. And until this boy can take care of himself, get used to it because I’m not going anywhere. I will always be worried about you and worried about you relapsing.
"His mother is dead and he found her. And I will worry about you every day and every night because you are my child. But you know what. You can tell me you’re okay, but the day before Jenna died, she stood in my doorway and hugged me and told me she loved me and told me she was okay. And you know what, she died. So you can sit there and tell me you’re okay, and I’m not going to believe you because she did the same thing and she wasn’t okay.”
While Strathearn is a constant presence in her son and grandson’s life, she is learning to allow her son to be a father, to be the man she knows he can be.
For more information on rehab and recovery visit Spectrum Human Services or the Wyoming County Mental Health Department.