Addiction at the forefront: A family’s story, part two

SHERBURNE – Approximately 100 community members attended a discussion about the opioid epidemic on Monday evening, May 23. Part two of this three part piece includes the story of a family who shared their experience: A mother and two of her children. In part three, which will publish Friday, May 27, information from Drug Court Coordinator Jim Everard, Probation Director Karen Osborn Gallager, and tips from Truth Pharm founder Alexis Pleus will be highlighted. 

Mother, Heidi Johnson, bravely took the podium at Magro’s Banquet Hall Monday night to share her portion of her family’s story of addiction. 

“A friend told me,” Heidi said, “’Don’t worry about what other people think, we’ve all got skeletons in our closets.’ I took that comment for the reality of people’s perceptions. This isn’t a photo on the news of the honor roll student with the bright future, It’s Caleb, my son. It’s easy and tempting to express concern, but she helped me to realize that this is not a skeleton in a closet. It’s my son.” 

Heidi wanted to stress a few points that she felt were instrumental in her family’s story. 

First, was ‘looking back.’ Heidi referenced what she considered two missed warnings during her son’s use. 

“A known friend of 35 years came to me and said that Caleb’s name was being mentioned in connection to drugs,” Heidi shared. “I was mad. He did have a variety of friends, but I’ve been of the belief that one’s friends do not define the person. I asked Caleb, he said there was nothing to worry about, and I believed him.” 

She said the second warning was when her husband heard that an area State Trooper had been using Caleb’s name as someone being watched. “I was furious over that,” Heidi said. “It was giving him a name that I thought wasn’t fair. A person in this [Trooper’s] position was acting unprofessionally.”

Second, Heidi explained Caleb’s move to Philadelphia. “It reminds me of how many TV shows that show two different character’s view of the same event,” she said. “Caleb said the unemployment rate was high – 11 percent – and that he was going to move to Philadelphia. He said he had a friend there and that he would be able to get a job. He’s always done what he said he was going to do, so within two days he had secured two job interviews in the culinary field. One turned into a position at one of the top restaurants in Philadelphia.” 

“I was so proud of him,” Heidi said. “He was successful. He worked his way up through hard work and incredibly long hours.”

Heidi then admitted, “That was always my version.”

She explained it painted such bright picture, a happy picture. She said, “Now, I know why he really moved to Philadelphia.”

Heidi went on to explain the first time Caleb’s addiction hit her. 

“We have sent three of our children (so far) out into the world,” said Heidi. “One to the Army, one to the Peace Corps, and one to rehab. With each, we had to wait a period of time before they could make contact. This left me with worry. When I got the first call from my daughter and one of my other sons, I felt instant relief.”

Heidi continued, “My first call from Caleb was different. He sounded so low. So defeated. He had been extremely successful in hiding this from us.”

Heidi then explained the day they found a treatment center in Florida for Caleb. “We had five different adults looking for options for him. He came home from Philadelphia. Some centers charged $60k, and knowing you can’t afford that for your child is heartbreaking. There were other places with no openings for two years. Finally, we found two, one in Tully and one in Florida.”

Caleb chose Florida. Heidi said his family wanted him to be close in case something went wrong, but the choice was ultimately his. 

“I read recently that when you can speak without tears, you have healed,” Heidi said. “Sometimes I’m not even sure what it is that I am healing from.”

In conclusion, Heidi said, “Caleb has grown so much. I am incredibly proud of him and Ben.”

Ben Johnson, Caleb’s brother, then took his turn to share his experiences with addiction and his brother Caleb. 

Ben explained that he and Caleb were close in the past, but hadn’t talked in a while when Caleb came to him in 2010. 

“He sounded really upset,” said Ben. “He said that in the last two days he had taken an entire month’s prescription of Xanax. I calmed him down, and we came to the conclusion that he had to get away from here; get away from the people and the connections.”

Ben said that Caleb moved away and in two years they never touched on that topic.

Admittedly, Ben said it was drugs that brought the brothers close. “So if I asked if he was using after he moved away, it would push us apart.”

Ben said only he and his sister knew of Caleb’s drug use at that time.

“I tried to visit more, and check in,” said Ben. “He had then met his now-wife. I knew things weren’t going well, though. And his fiancé knew what was going on.”

Ben explained that Caleb called him and was upset, and was home two days later.

“There was a lot of confusion from a lot of people,” Ben said. “Once my family realized I had known for a while, they thought I might have answers. I didn’t have the answers.” 

Ben admitted that even now he worries. “I still have to worry, it’s never over. You have to remind yourself every day that you want sobriety.”

“The entire time I talked to Caleb, I made sure I wasn’t putting judgement on him,” Ben said. “Everyone needs someone they feel open to. I wanted him to feel like he had someone to talk to.”

Ben added that Caleb isn’t the only person he has assisted with their addiction. He said he has helped another friend along their way to recovery. 

2007 S-E grad Caleb Johnson then took his opportunity to speak to those in attendance. 

“Ben and I were using together,” said Caleb. “Like he said, it was a social lubricant. I had friends in all realms, but I never felt like I fit in anywhere. My solution was to use. It made me feel ten feet tall and bulletproof.”

“When I used, I thought I could feel the way everyone else looked,” Caleb admitted. 

“Then, Ben found the girl that straightened him out,” said Caleb. “He stopped using.”

Caleb said his go-to is running. “I run. I see what I am doing to my family’s reputation and I just run.” 

He said he then detoxed on his high school best friend’s sofa in 2010. “But here it is, 2016, and I’m seven months sober. After detoxing, I would use a little, then a little more, then it would get heavy. 

“It progressed to lying, stealing, and cheating. Using was all I could think about. I had no power to stop it.”

Caleb said that while in Philadelphia he was jumping from sofa to sofa, and eventually began being late for work. 

“Then, I met the woman that was going to fix me,” Caleb said. “I sincerely wanted to get clean. I told her about what was going on: I was dead broke. I have this problem. You can leave if you want.” She stayed and helped Caleb to detox with Methadone and Suboxone programs. 

“I thought if I could just put it [drugs] down for long enough, I would be okay,” said Caleb. “But inevitably, something would come up and I wouldn’t know how to fix it.”

“Hook me up to a lie detector test and I’ll say, ‘I promise I’ll never use again,’ and I’d pass, because I meant it,” said Caleb. “It always killed me when people said I didn’t have willpower. I have plenty of willpower. I worked 70 hour weeks in a 110º kitchen while withdrawing from heroin.”

Then, Caleb said he became suicidal. “I thought, ‘I can’t live this life with drugs in it, and I don’t know how to live sober.’”

“Luckily, instead of doing that, I made a call to my brother Ben,” said Caleb. “I said, ‘Ben, I hate to tell you this, but I really think I have to kill myself. I’m seeking shrinks, I’m going to detox, and I just can’t do it.”

Caleb continued, “I came from a good home. I was raised right. So, I spent four months in Florida after my family worked hard to find a treatment center with an open spot. And I’ve now met some people who feel the way I feel [about addiction] and that helps, and can gladly say I am sober today.” 

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