GARDENDALE, Alabama – Traci Spain has been lied to, stolen from, embarrassed by, and afraid for her first born son Gary for years.
All that comes with the territory of being the mother of a heroin addict.
This also comes: love. Hard-earned understanding. And hope.
Gary, 28, is currently working at a restaurant in South Carolina, a place his mom took him to a few years ago to enter a long-term rehab program, one of many over the years.
"He's supposedly in recovery now, but sometimes I wonder," Traci told me over a cup of coffee at a Starbucks. (For someone like me who is addicted to caffeine the meet-up at a place that dispenses black liquid addicting caffeine by the millions of gallons was not lost on me. Most of us have our addictions.)
But most of us are not addicted to heroin like Gary Spain. And, probably a lot of us have an attitude that it must be bad, but he made that choice.
His mom isn't so sure how much of a choice Gary had.
"I know a lot of people will say I'm trying to defend Gary or make excuses but I believe addiction is a disease. I know that is how the medical community sees it," said Traci, who is a nurse. "I use to think it was his choice. Now I think it's how his brain works. It's a disease that causes behavioral problems, in Gary's case stealing to get money to buy Oxycodone and then heroin. If we can end or control the addiction we end the bad behavior."
For years Traci and moms like her have mostly struggled alone feeling so many conflicting emotions about the addiction of a child.
"You do feel alone and you can feel stigmatized," Traci told me. "Some can turn to church, some to really good friends but even those outlets have only so much understanding, if any, of what addiction is like for the addict and the family."
One relatively new group that has that hard-earned understanding is The Addict's Mom. Traci joined not long ago and now holds the title of Alabama state coordinator.
"We have members from not only the Birmingham area, but Huntsville, Tuscaloosa, Demopolis," said Traci. "I can't tell you how good it is to have others to talk with who have faced these problems, who really understand what you have gone through."
What Gary and Traci Spain, and their family, has gone through really started when Gary was just 5.
"Usually with addiction there is a history of a trauma, of problems when the person is young. Certainly Gary has had trauma in his life and issues," his mom said. She went on to explain that when her son was 5 he was molested by the father of a playmate of Gary's. She said the man was convicted and sent to prison.
Home life has also been an issue, Traci said.
"My husband is a good man but he has battled depression all his life. Our son Bobby, Gary's younger brother, is autistic. We all love each other but we have had our issues and pressures as a family, but I know so many do..."
Traci said the initial years following her son's molestation seemed normal. It was beginning in middle school that issues began to surface with her son's behavior.
"I guess the first time anything out of the normal happened was when Gary started smoking marijuana. I flipped out. I had no idea he was smoking," Traci said.
The next few years saw Gary's grades begin to slip and by high school he was still using pot but also using pain killers, like Lortab. Again, it came as a shock to his mom.
"I had no idea. I thought the pot had stopped but not only had it not stopped, he had started using Lortab," Traci said. "Again, I think I was just in denial. I kept thinking, 'well, he's young. He's experimenting and will get over this.' I could not have been more naive."
Gary's high school years saw him go from pot to pain killers to Oxycodone to eventually heroin. And, with the need to feed his addiction, Gary began stealing – from friends, shoplifting from stores, breaking into cars and steeling from his mom and dad.
"I know your readers will think I'm just an idiot, but each time Gary did something I would get upset but I would give him a clean slate. I would think that this time would be the last time. Looking back, I don't know how I could be that way but I was and it didn't help my son at all."
For the longest time Traci did not tell her husband how serious Gary's problems were. "I knew he had his own problems to deal with," Traci said of her husband.
But, soon the problems grew so great that husband John had to be told. By then the law was in Gary's life in a big way.
"It was a cycle of jail, rehab, relapse followed by jail, rehab, relapse over and over," said Traci.
Eventually Gary was sentenced to state prison for theft. He has spent another year since that time in a state prison in South Carolina for burglary.
But now Gary is out and working at a pizza restaurant in Columbia, South Carolina.
"He's in recovery and I can only hope that this time it will work," said Traci.
As for The Addict's Mom, Traci said membership in the north central Alabama group is up to 36 moms.
In addition to supporting each other, The Addict's Mom will push for efforts to improve the care and treatment of addicts.
"First, we just want to begin to try to speak openly about these issues in an effort to build understanding that as bad as their behavior can be, addicts suffer from an illness," said Traci. "We don't want to hide what they did but we want to stop their addiction and one way to do that is through better care and understanding."
Traci said more detox centers are needed for addicts to dry out. She said a big issue currently is the need for police to understand the need to carry Narcan. It's a medication that when used without too much delay can reverse the effects of overdose and save lives.
Most of all, Traci hopes that the stigma so long attached to addicts, and most often their families, will begin to fade with understanding of addiction.
"My son has made so many mistakes, so many poor decisions but I also know that he's a good person and he wants to fight this and finally win," Traci said. "I want people to know he's not a bad guy and we are not a bad family. We have had so many failures but each time we've tried to get back up and try again. We'll keep trying."
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on March 06, 2014 at 6:00 AM, updated March 12, 2014 at 8:41 AM