There are times a family is shattered beyond its ability to reframe and recover from the tragedy that delivers that darkest night of the soul. My nephew’s suicide earlier this month opened a wound that will not heal easily, if at all.
On Wednesday, December 7, 2016, my nephew placed his gun to his head and pulled the trigger rather than surrender to law enforcement with an arrest warrant who appeared at his apartment door in downtown Dallas. He had just flooded his veins with heroin, the ultimate painkiller for self-hate because, per his personal narrative, he could not love himself the way others loved him.
He was thirty-seven, an addict since he was thirteen when another kid introduced him to marijuana and his drug dealer. The drug dealer introduced him to heroin soon thereafter. Was he still thirteen? Had he turned fourteen? Does it really matter? The point is, he was in too much pain to think it through, and too young anyway to know what he was doing.
He was a sweet soul, a sensitive child, who was confused and devastated by his parents’ divorce. Both had remarried within a year of their divorce to other people with children, and, understandably, had personal issues to work through as well as the enormous task of blending their families.
Divorce is hard on everyone, and it was especially hard on my nephew. The youngest in his family until the divorce, my nephew was not only displaced in birth order, but he also had to share his bedroom, his personal sanctuary, with a younger step-brother. The adjustment was not easy.
It was a common occurrence to find my young nephew in the kitchen pantry surrounded by empty candy wrappers. Today, aided with the perfect vision of hindsight, we see he was stuffing his emotions with sugar, trying to make his life sweet again. But the fact is, the whole family was in pain—everyone was in therapy and unable to help each other. The former youngest in his family became the lost child.
Beginning in his earliest teens and for the next twenty-four years, my nephew battled his demons with marijuana, ecstasy, vodka, vicodin, heroin, and any other drug he could obtain. Flannery O’Connor writes, “Anyone who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” But my nephew did not survive childhood; he carried his brokenness in his backpack along with his drug paraphernalia.
Were his parents blind to his predicament? No, they were not. They did what they could, paying for therapy and outpatient rehab, even committing him to residential detox and rehab programs around the Dallas area. Once his father sent him to the Hazelden Treatment Center outside Minneapolis, Minnesota. Renowned and respected for its inpatient rehab program, it was his father’s last hope. He hired two bodyguards to make sure my nephew made it to the center, but my nephew walked away from the facility within days and hitchhiked to Chicago where he sold his leather jacket for heroin. He was still a teenager.
My nephew kept putting a needle in his arm, eventually bankrolling his habit by selling drugs to others. At twenty, he was arrested by FBI agents. A former Dallas Cowboy player died after purchasing heroin from my nephew, and he was sent to federal prison for ten years. He turned twenty-one in prison. And twenty-two. And twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine and thirty. Locked up for a decade when other young men were earning college degrees, getting married, and having children.
He swore to his father that he would never go back. We were all hopeful. Until he killed himself rather than surrendering to the officers with his arrest warrant. Now, we understand what he meant by never going back to prison. He chose death over being denied ever again the euphoric escape from his pain. Law enforcement on the scene said my nephew’s rig was nearby, and evidence suggested he had just shot up. Heroin takes twenty seconds to deliver its reward, so no doubt, he was feeling the sweet high.
Heroin is a national epidemic that is killing the sons and daughters from every social class in America. Its siren song promises a sweet salve that eases the painful suffering from being a tortured soul. Damn the consequences—to the young addicts , the peak relief is worth the risk.
My nephew’s family will never understand why we couldn’t save him. Because of that, we will never know peace, nor shall we ever completely recover from the loss.
Rest easy, Keelan.
The war is over and you are home.
We love you.