Now I know it’s not my fault
My Dad, Eddie Harkins died from an overdose when he was 54, on August 26, 2017.
Dad struggled with alcohol and drugs from the age of 9. He was abused by his Dad, who was an alcoholic and a Philadelphia cop. We never really talked about it, but he had depression after being abused his whole life. In the back of my mind, I’d always known there was a chance Dad might overdose one day, but when it actually happened, it was awful.
I wasn’t talking to him at the time as we’d had an argument about him using again. He got kicked out of self-help and I knew he was in full relapse. He was living with his Mom in Kensington, which is where everyone uses in Philadelphia. It was around that time fentanyl was being introduced to the streets. Now it’s everywhere and there’s open drug use, it’s so sad. His Mom found him in the bathroom around midnight on 25 August. I wasn’t contacted until the next day. I was at work and the next thing I knew I was on my way to hospital to say goodbye.
The hospital staff brought us into a room before they took us in to see Dad. When we were in there, I just shut down and let my sister do the listening. I literally couldn’t believe this was my life. It was a total out of body experience, like I was looking down on myself.
There was too much brain damage to keep Dad alive. He was a hundred percent brain dead and would have been hooked up to machines for the rest of his life. There was no life there, it was just crazy. They had a tube down his throat. I had to give permission for them to turn off the life support machine.
We watched at the end of the bed as they were literally turning everything off and unplugging the machines. We watched his chest and there was nothing moving. He was already dead. I stayed in the room because I needed to see it with my own eyes. My Dad was 6 feet tall – it’s crazy how such a little amount of fentanyl can kill you.
What was it like growing up with addicted parents?
I did a lot of dissociating as a child. When I was between 5 and 10 years old, my Dad was a hundred percent sober. I grew up with him in NA meetings – it was really good to go to the meetings and see people supporting each other. I just think that’s amazing.
When I was 10, I went to live with my Mom, but she ended up relapsing so I moved in with my (half) sister – we share the same Mom, but have different Dads. My Dad told me I was just going there for the summer, but I ended up living there.
While I was living with my Dad we had constant Dad and daughter dates until his girlfriend and him got together. When I lived with my sister, he would talk to me on and off because of his addiction and anger issues. He wasn’t always the nicest person to me, he had this weird way of controlling me. I think he had a lot of demons and his fear of letting me down played into it.
My sister and my Mom were in a custody battle for me that Dad kept from me. I moved in full time with my sister when I was 11 years old, and my sister was 25 at the time. My adoption was finalized when I was 14. I’m 27 now, even 2 years ago I could not imagine raising a younger sister. I had real abandonment issues. I think when he lost the custody battle, it was the perfect excuse to use again.
He lived in a halfway house between 2015 and 2017 and we had a normal father and daughter relationship. We celebrated his 6 months and 1 year clean. It was just like a normal Dad visiting me and coming around for lunch. But then I noticed he’d relapsed because he got kicked out of the halfway house in June, just weeks before he died.
What impact has your Dad’s overdose had on you?
It’s very strange. When someone’s so inconsistent in your life because they’re a drug addict, sometimes you forget they’re not still alive, because there were times I didn’t hear from him for a year or two. The grief process is so different for someone who had a good relationship with their Dad, because you just think they’re down in Kensington getting high. He was really consistent in my life when I was 18-22, so he got to meet my now fiancé Brendon. We moved in together when I was 20. It’s heartbreaking to know he can’t be there at our wedding, and he can’t be a Pop-Pop.
But the worst thing is the guilt. I’ve said a lot of things I regret. The last time I saw him we had an argument and I believed for a long time that if I hadn’t said those things, he wouldn’t have relapsed. You play it over in your mind, asking yourself ‘if only I did this…’, or ‘what if I’d been nicer to him’. It’s taken a lot of therapy and even though I still feel guilty to this day I now recognize that it’s not my fault he took the decision to use.
In some ways, Dad’s overdose has helped shape the person I’ve grown into. There was a time when I thought I saw my Dad every time a 50 year old man walked into a building. At that time, I was working as a Medical Assistant in addiction and mental health, but it was all too close to home, so I switched to obstetrics and gynecology (OBGYN). I really enjoy seeing the pregnant women and girls throughout their pregnancies, bringing new lives into the world.
What advice would you give to someone living with addicted parents or carers?
The biggest piece of advice I can give is to watch your words. There’s so much anger there when someone’s struggling with addictions as they might be lying, stealing, cheating… but no one wants to be a piece of rubbish drug addict. No one wakes up one day and decides that’s what they want. Life’s too short to be angry with someone, so if you think you’re going to say hurtful things, just walk away.
There’s a horrible stigma that goes hand in hand with substance misuse. My generation talks about things much more openly, but a drug addict’s mind is an awful, awful place for them and there just aren’t enough resources to treat everyone fairly. You have to be patient. It’s like gaining weight – you didn’t gain it in two minutes so you can’t lose it quickly. You can’t rush that treatment process.
Life is just hard, you have to choose your hard and work with it every day.
Geri Lynn Utter, PsyD Perspective Piece: Relapse, Mental Health, and the State of the World As I sat down to write this article, I thought