One of the most difficult aspects of loving an addict is all the insane decisions that need to be made. An innocent request of $5 for an Arby's sandwich becomes a life and death decision, because the $5 will likely be used to purchase drugs or a bus ticket to the drug house. Painful, never ending discussions ensue with anyone and everyone you trust, sometimes seeking a different outlook or perspective, other times hoping for insight on what to do. Regardless, once all the advice has been sought, the input has been gained and the data analyzed, the agonizing decisions are still yours and yours alone to make.
It becomes easier to say no to requests to borrow the car but deep down you agonize over the pain you are suffering and you want desperately to believe in your loved one. But life now includes the insanity of hiding your keys, wallet and jewelry under your mattress and disconnecting the car's electronics so that you might get some sleep rather than worry about him taking the car. To changing the locks on your door and calling to warn your family that my son, their grandson, cousin and nephew has a problem that's bigger than we knew – that Ryan is a heroin addict and they need to know because he might try to use them. From the “My Child Is an Honor Roll Student” sticker to hushed calls from my office phone to his lawyer. Life as we know it is gone. Loving an addict gives new meaning to living for the moment…wishing and hoping for an “uneventful" day, one where your phone won't ring with news of another crisis.
The following stories about Ryan hopefully demonstrate that like anyone else, he had hopes and dreams but drugs changed the texture of his life.
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The frog – Ryan and I shared a love of fishing I inherited from my grandfather. Around age 5, during one of many trips to our cottage, Ryan caught a frog and wanted me to show him how to use it as bait. Having unsuccessfully used live frogs myself, I told him the best thing to do was just let the frog go. Unfazed, about 20 minutes later Ryan was screaming “Dad…dad…help me…I hooked a big one! I know you said not to use the frog – but I caught a big one.” Determined to use the frog, Ryan had gone into the cottage and followed the instructions on his “How to Fish for Bass” video, hooked the frog and caught a 17-inch small mouth bass – probably the largest ever caught at the cottage.
The river place – In the early 1990s I decided to purchase my parents’ cottage. The next task was to name the cottage. Ryan’s mom, his brother and I threw out suggestions: “What about Rudolph’s Retreat?” or “Weekend Get Away” or “Rudy’s Roost" (its former name). From his car seat Ryan asked, “When are we going back to the river place?” Talk about out of the mouth of babes...the cottage has been known ever since as “Rudolph’s River Place.”
Watching him slip away – For years we'd talked about taking our dream vacation – a Canadian fly-in fishing trip after Ryan’s high school graduation, an opportunity for the two of us to spend time together with the only connection to civilization a satellite phone. But his attendance at school and grades plummeted; he barely graduated and I was torn by the decision whether or not to go. The dream had become tainted by fear – of Ryan hiding drugs in the vehicle and being detected at the Canadian Border, or that his use could result in a need for medical help that wouldn't be available in the wilderness. In the end we went, but I spent most of the first day fishing solo while Ryan stayed back at the cabin going through what I now know was the gut-wrenching process of withdrawal. During this precious time together I tried to discuss my hopes and fears with Ryan but somehow I knew he was losing his battle and I was losing him.
The artist – Although Ryan never was particularly good at freehand drawing, he never missed the details, even at an early age. When he drew this picture my mother asked Ryan, “Who is this?” to which Ryan replied, "It’s you, Grandma.” When my mom then asked, “If that's a picture of me, what are all the squiggly lines?” Ryan innocently answered, "Those are your wrinkles, Grandma”.
My mom treasures this picture like a Monet.
Always wanted to fly – My earliest recollection of what Ryan wanted to be when he grew up was “a pilot…a jet fighter pilot.” He spent hours playing flight computer games, often engaging in dogfight missions with others on the Internet. We once rewarded Ryan for good grades and behavior with actual flight time with an instructor pilot in a Cessna. After his first flight he said something like, “Yeah, the pilot was reading the paper as I was flying the plane.” I blew that off as teenage exaggeration – no way would an experienced pilot put his life in the hands of an inexperienced teenager. But on a subsequent trip I flew along. While still in the process of taking off, the pilot told Ryan to “take the plane up to 1500 feet and level it off” and I realized with terror that Ryan was flying the plane.
Ryan's mom hopes that he's flying now – with a different set of wings.
County blues – Like many males blue is…err, was…my favorite color. But after visiting Ryan in the Macomb County Jail, dressed in his county blues, I prefer yellow or black or pink or green. For some…actually for too many…the experience of "visiting" someone in jail is business as usual. But for me the experience of seeing Ryan in jail was surreal. From standing in line for what seemed like hours – pretty much avoiding eye contact or small talk with others in line, waiting for the deputy to decide he'd check you in, to the procession of visitors, paraded past “lined against the wall” inmates – everyone goose-necking to get a glimpse of your loved one. From the “touch” of their hand (with one inch of Plexiglas separating you), to the phone handset and its two foot cord that allows for no movement whatsoever. And then there’s the attempt at small talk, about something other than jail, court, bond, lawyers, the food, the idiots, the deputies. Before you know it your time is up and the phone is shutoff. You shoot them a glance, a whispered “I love you, I miss you" until next week – same place, same time, same people.
The northern pike – During one Canadian drive-in fishing trip Ryan and I spent an entire day – some 10 to 12 hours – fishing in the rain. We didn’t care about the rain because we were fishing. But as the day drew to a close and with our feet long since soaked to the bone, we decided it was time to call it quits. As we got closer to the cabin, the day’s steady rain slowed to a drizzle. This change in weather conditions could signal great fishing ahead (somehow we never think the weather is going to make things worse). So we tossed out a couple of lures and trolled around the bay of Brennan Harbour. Within 15 minutes I had hooked the fish of my life…a 46-inch, 15-pound northern pike. As I fought the fish I also completed my 10 years of instructions to Ryan on how to captain the boat so I could net my prize. He conducted himself just as his professional fishing genes would suggest. We landed the monster to the cheers of fellow fishermen who were watching the Three Stooges – or in this case, the Two Stooges – demonstration. My heart still pumping with excitement and victory, the discussion shortly changed to, “Dad, do you think I’ll ever catch a fish like that?” I wanted to say, “sure, Son…it takes a lot of dedication and some luck but someday you just might catch one this big.” But, I didn't. The following morning, fishing the area where my monster was caught, Ryan hooked into another "big one." I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I saw the Rapala floating on the surface, dragging tons of seaweed behind it because it was fun to see the excitement on his face as be battled the phantom fish…until he got the clump of vegetation near the boat and we saw, for the first time, he had hooked a huge northern pike! Now Ryan was now barking orders at me, and in my excitement I did absolutely everything wrong – from turning the boat the wrong way to scooping up a net full of nothing. Despite my ineptness, Ryan landed a northern pike that was exactly one inch longer and one ounce heavier than mine. Both were caught in the bay over Ryan’s left shoulder in the picture below. Congrats, Bud – you beat me.
His grandma's Rx – After a day of fishing at one of our favorite lakes in Atlanta, Michigan, we headed over to my mom and dad’s house for some dinner, socializing and general goofing around. Shortly after we got there, my mom came to me with an agonized look on her face and almost apologetically said, "I don’t know how to say this, but I think Ryan has been in my pills.” His addiction had now smacked my mom and dad right in the face. Devastated, we confronted Ryan. And is so normal for addicts, he responded with denial, excuses and pleas. We stood our ground, telling him we knew what had happened, he couldn't deny it, we loved and wanted to help him. Tearfully, he admitted taking “a few pills.” In addition to whatever he had probably consumed, we found a number of pills in his jeans pocket and a couple of pain patches on his stomach. He had violated his grandparents – something I (and probably he) never imagined could happen.
Christmas cookies – I recently called my mom only to find out she was “having a bad day – maybe the worst” since Ryan’s death. And all because she had begun her tradition of baking dozens and dozens of Christmas cookies. How could something so simple cause so much pain? My mom keeps records of who likes which types of cookies (except my dad, who only gets the leftovers and burnt ones). In the process she discovered her notes about “pink” cookies, one kind that no one except Ryan really cared for. They were his absolute favorite. Back in 2007 when my mom began her annual cookie baking campaign she had asked me to find out if she could send pink cookies to Ryan at the treatment facility he was going to. Unfortunately, we never found out. But nearly a year after his death my mom was tortured by her notes. My mom decided she could never make those cookies for anyone else so the pink cookies, like Ryan, are gone.
Under 30 seconds – Ryan wasn’t particularly gifted athletically except for roller hockey, where one season he finished second in the league in scoring and lead the league in penalty minutes (imagine what he could have done if he’d stayed out of the penalty box!). In high school he joined the swim team. Ryan’s event was the 50 meter free-style – something a “good” swimmer can finish in 27 to 28 seconds. But for Ryan – his proud, toned muscled body thrashing for all it’s worth – 31 to 32 seconds was as good as it got. So Ryan set a goal, pretty meaningless to most but for him a challenge, to break the 30-second mark before his first season ended. He went to practice early and stayed late, and I vividly remember the night be broke the barrier. I think we celebrated with a Buddy’s Pizza, one of his favorites. Congrats, Bud – you did it!
No collect calls – After Ryan’s last arrest and incarceration on August 13, 2007 – my 53rd birthday – I called my family to give them the sad but not-so-shocking news and promised to keep them informed about whatever I learned might happen. During this discussion with my mom I asked her not to feel like she had to accept Ryan’s collect calls from jail because he would likely be looking for sympathy for his continued lack of judgment and disrespect for the law. He made several attempts to call her, shouting over the prerecorded messages, “I love you grandma, I love you grandpa” and “pray for me.” My mom reluctantly did not accept the calls. And now I live with the thought that I denied my parents their final chance to speak to Ryan, at least on this earth and in this lifetime. But Ryan, beware: your grandma is going to bend your ear the next chance she gets…and I would suggest you just sit there and be quiet.
The ring – On Ryan’s 16th birthday I gave him my pinkie diamond ring, something I seldom wore but that he had asked about on many occasions. As I gave him the ring I told him that for me, it was much more than just a ring. Its value had nothing to do with diamonds or gold; rather the ring was my way of being with him as he grew more independent and would be required to make potentially life altering decisions. As Ryan’s addiction worsened, he pawned anything of value and stole items from both his mom and I – but the ring was still on his hand. Then I remember the first time I noticed it was missing. He said he had left it at his mom’s house. I pressed the issue and he reluctantly admitted he had pawned it, but assured me he would get it out in a day or two, as soon as someone paid him owed money. Not wanting to take a chance, we drove to the pawn shop, went inside and I repurchased the ring. I promised him that I would save the ring for him until he earned it back. I now wear the ring.
The call – After 68 days of incarceration, Ryan was released from Macomb County Jail on October 19, 2007 – one day early due to overcrowding and the day before the beginning of his court ordered 14-month drug rehabilitation program. When his mom frantically called to let me know of his release, I waited for him to call and when he didn't, drove streets he may have used to walk home in a desperate attempt to find him. Somehow, though, I knew it was a futile effort. For whatever reason, Ryan didn’t want to be found that night. The next day his mom landed at Metro Airport, turned on her cell phone, and our lives changed forever. There was a voicemail message on her phone that basically said, “This is not a joke – we’re sorry – there was nothing we could do – your boy is dead and you can find his body at…” Ryan’s brother went to the location and found his lifeless body, wrapped in a blanket and dumped in a vacant lot like a piece of garbage. I am both infuriated with and thankful to the caller. You're so sorry? What do you mean, “there was nothing we could do!” Why didn't someone call 911? But I am also thankful – Ryan never became a “Caucasian male, late teens, approximately 5’ 8”, 175 lbs” article in the newspaper. At least we had him and were allowed to grieve his death, unlike many families who never know the fate of their loved one.
The three hells – The addict, the person in recovery and their families live in three separate but connected “hells.”
The addict is no longer our son or daughter. You don’t recognize them because they’ve morphed into a different being who will do just about anything – lie, cheat, steal – to support their use. There’s no logic or common sense anymore – drugs have become a 24/7 job and drive all their decisions.
The recovering addict tries to stay clean for another day or hour or the next ten minutes. A young recovering person once said, “I can get clean, I just can’t stay clean.” Recovery is incredibly difficult. It starts with the admission of their powerlessness over the disease and a genuine commitment to “work the program” of recovery. To stay clean and sober is anything but simple or easy – recovery takes dedication that non-addicts can’t begin to imagine.
The families discover our lives become unmanageable and we’re obsessed with finding a solution. We need to “let go” and accept the things we can and cannot control, trying to find some level of comfort as we continue to hope and pray that things will change.
The fourth hell – Since Ryan’s passing I've discovered a fourth hell…trying to find a place in my life and heart for Ryan’s life and his death. Emotional triggers come from out of the blue – a red Grand Am, a song, a familiar place…always ending with “why?” The nights are the hardest. My mind wanders and I realize another day has passed, just like yesterday and like tomorrow, knowing I won’t see him or talk to him. And now, incredibly, a year has passed and all I can think of is how much I miss and love him.
Never again – His smile, his hugs, his voice, his fuzzy little beard, his friendship, his touch, "Hey Pops," golfing with grandpa, fishing at Twin Lakes, our secret handshake, "I got one – get the net," double-tailed Jamamotos, Canada, playing cribbage – just the tip of the never again iceberg.
A final thought – There are two messages I’d like to leave you with – it can happen to you, to your son or daughter, to your family…but there is hope, and I encourage you to get involved – help makes a difference.
Recovery, prison or death – Ryan spent the 2005 Christmas holiday selling, trading, returning or using his gifts to get high – on cocaine, he later told us. This was the first indisputable sign of his drug use and he attended his first rehabilitation program in January 2006. Ryan struggled through drug addiction and rehabilitation programs that year, was fired from his job of two years, totaled his car, lost his girlfriend, and spent Christmas 2006 in jail. At that point we at least knew he was safe. In a letter to Ryan in jail in December 2006 I said, “Bud…I can’t live with the drug using Ryan anymore. He lies, he steals and he doesn’t care about himself or others. What I promise to do is provide you with the best opportunity to get and stay sober. Your drug use/addiction is ruining your life and the lives of those who love and care for you. You’ve already paid a steep price for your use. Continued use will ultimately cost you your family, your home and eventually you will end up back in jail or the morgue. It’s so scary to even consider those as real possibilities – but they are. Dad." Ryan's reply – "Don't worry Dad, everything will be okay."
It began with gateway drugs – When Ryan appeared in court after his August 2007 arrest, the judge asked him when and where his drug use began. Ryan said, ”It all started shortly after I turned sixteen. One night I was with a few friends and one of them had a joint. I tried it and liked it – I liked the way it made me feel. Things moved pretty fast. Within a couple months I tried different pills – prescription drugs mostly. And then I tried cocaine but after a month of using cocaine I knew I couldn’t handle it...it was all I thought about. Then one of my friends had some Oxycontin and Percodin and before I knew it I was injecting heroin. I don’t even remember how it happened…it was all so fast. But I thought I had things under control. I would only use it once in a while and thought I could stop anytime. A friend died of an overdose. I felt sorry for him – he lost control and his drug use ended his life. Even with his death I still believed I was in control. Now, after spending the last five weeks in jail – after I lost my job, totaled my car, lost my beautiful girlfriend, put my family through so much and a couple attempts at rehab – I realize I've been just fooling myself. I need help…more than I can provide for myself.”
A promise – With the generous contributions made to Brighton Hospital in memory of Ryan, I was able to fulfill a promise I made to him during a rehabilitation stay. On Friday, April 7, 2008, I installed an engraved memorial leaf on their “Tree of Hope.” The tree, located in the lobby of Brighton ’s admissions area, proudly displays our leaf with the inscription, “Ryan ‘Bud’ Rudolph – Always In My Heart – Love ya, Dad.” I imagined the tree was a topographic map of a lake and picked out the best “fishing spot” to place the leaf – at a point where two “rivers” meet.
For me, the Tree of Hope represents the heartfelt wishes, hopes and prayers for all the lives affected by drugs. Unfortunately, we don’t always succeed. But we try…and we continue the battle because the reward of recovery is worth it.
I can’t begin to tell you what it means to me to have this memorial in Ryan’s honor. When I think of the leaf and others who will read it, I hope they will feel the love everyone had for Ryan.