Last fall, a friend of mine came over to borrow a tiller that I keep in my garage. We started talking, and she asked me how I was doing. Before I could answer, she looked me in the eyes and said, "I can tell you are not OK, so don't even say you are." And I lost it, right then and there. I wasn't OK. My husband—a war hero, a veteran, a police officer, and a father—was addicted to heroin. I was scared to death.
It starts with a love story
I met my husband Rob while waiting in line for a concert in my hometown of Gallipolis, OH. He was behind me on the sidewalk, cracking jokes, and I couldn't help but turn around. This guy is hilarious, I thought. We started talking and laughing, and I soon learned he was a military police officer home for two weeks of R&R before heading back to his deployment in Cuba. We quickly became inseparable, and when he returned to Cuba we stayed in constant through emails and phone calls. He was the smartest man I'd ever met, with the wittiest personality to match.
Seven months later, when Rob's deployment ended, we got married. Rob enrolled in the sheriff's academy in 2006 and graduated at the top of his class. Over the next several years he would get deployed and then come back to work as a policeman, then get deployed again. I got used to him leaving for big chunks of time; that's just how our marriage has always been. It's worth it when you get to marry your best friend.
In 2008, Rob was deployed to Afghanistan and I was working in a physician's office and taking care of our four kids (we now have five). Then came the call that every military wife fears: Rob was involved in an improvised explosive device (IED) explosion. When I spoke to him on the phone, he assured me that everything was fine. Of course, he didn't make it out to be a big deal because that's just how he is—always trying to protect me. In reality, he had shrapnel lodged in his torso, arms, and legs; severe shoulder damage; and a traumatic brain injury.
When he came home, I could tell he was in excruciating pain. At 6'2" and 250 pounds, he's this big, tough guy, yet I knew he was doing his best to suck it up and go back to work as a civilian. He didn't want to worry us, so he dealt with it the best he could.
A path to painkillers
Rob's shoulder needed a complete reconstruction—an invasive surgery called shoulder labral (SLAP) tear and repair. His doctors looked at him with admiration, as a veteran—a hero—who served his country and then went right back to work in his community. Because of this, the doctors told me, "He deserves to be pain free." So they prescribed him opioid painkillers like Percocet and Lortab.
Rob's doctors told him to take one pill in the morning and one after work, and Rob listened. Then he started feeling better if he had two in the morning, one at lunch, and two in the evening to help him sleep. Soon it was six pills a day. Then it was eight. Then 10. He would let his doctors know, because he wanted to be upfront about everything, and they would say, "Well, I understand—you're hurt. If you run out, call me." And he would get another prescription for 30 days' worth.
At this point, I knew something was terribly wrong. Prior to painkillers, Rob was a fun-loving, family-oriented sports fanatic. He was an All-American boy. He loved freedom, the military, his kids, baseball, and football. He was so full of life when we first got together. He was always ready to help—he'd give someone the shirt off his back or our last $20 bill if they needed it.
But now, Rob was a completely different person. After a few years on pain pills, he was more agitated and had lost interest in most things. He would cry for no reason. He was physically present in our life, but that's it. He would take the medication and disappear into his own mind. I hated to see him suffer, but I was so alone doing everything around the house and with the kids—it was hard not to get frustrated with him. I just kept thinking, What am I going to do? How am I going to help fix this?
Then came another blow: Rob got injured while working a civilian job, which required back surgery and the insertion of rods put in his back. The doctors told him, "You're only 35, and you're having surgeries that people get in their 70s. You're going to be in pain and taking these pills for the rest of your life." That shook Rob, so he did as he was told, and kept taking the pills.
No more meds
In 2015, the opioid epidemic in our area hit primetime. All of a sudden, there was this awareness: Stories of drug busts and overdose deaths hit our nightly news in a big way. Local doctors started getting concerned about the number of painkillers they were prescribing, and soon enough, Rob got cut off. He'd go in for a doctor's appointment, and they would say, "We're only going to give you 10 pills. We'll see you in a month." Well, 10 pills? He could go through that in a day.
I didn't really think Rob was dependent on pain pills until I saw him stop taking them cold turkey. Rob was sick all the time. He had flu symptoms and fevers—he was going through withdrawals.
I would try to take off work or have one of our friends come and sit with him to make sure he was OK—but no one knew he was actually going through withdrawals. On certain days, I would get home from work and he would be happy-go-lucky, not sick anymore. I'd ask, "Are you OK?" And he would say, enthusiastically, "Yeah, I'm fine!" But I could tell something wasn't right. I started noticing that he took money out of our account with nothing to show for it. I figured he was using the money to buy pain pills, but never in a million years did I think it was for something illegal.
Hitting rock bottom
One day in September, Rob told me he was headed to a gas station that's one block away from our house, to pick up some cigarettes and an energy drink. It's a quick trip that only takes about 5 minutes—max—by car. When he left, I kept track of the time. After an hour passed, I texted and called him, but heard nothing. So I pulled up an app on my phone that tracks our spending; he had just withdrawn $200 at an ATM machine eight blocks in the wrong direction from our house. Over an hour later, he came home with candy bars and a couple of drinks for the kids, but said, "Oh crap, I forgot to get my cigarettes."
That's when I burst and said, "I know you're lying to me. You took $200 out of the account." He looked at me with one of those deer-in-headlights expressions. He tried every excuse in the book to avoid the truth, like "I was out putting money down for a necklace for you, on layaway." And, "I was buying the boys something, but they didn't have it at the store." Then, "I left money in the truck." So, I marched over to the truck, and said, "Where's the money?" It wasn't there. Of course when you're talking to somebody who is desperate and hurting emotionally and physically it's not a rational conversation.
I looked him in the face and said, "I deserve the truth. I'm your number one fan, your best friend. And if you're going to lie to me, you're going to lie to anybody. So I need to know." That's when he told me that he'd been buying and using heroin to supplement his pain pills for the past three weeks.
At first I was in shock. I didn't want anybody to know because he's a wonderful member of our community. I couldn't help but think: His reputation will be ruined. He'll be labeled for the rest of his life. We are going to be labeled for the rest of our lives—even the kids. Like, "Oh, look at the Wilsons—the druggies."
The rocky road to recovery
After Rob told me everything, I sat down, pulled out my phone and brought up Facebook—just to escape from the reality of our situation for a second. Out of nowhere, a picture of a business card for Warriors Heart popped up on my newsfeed. The card said that it was an addiction facility for veterans, law enforcement officers, and first responders, and there was a crisis phone number on the bottom. I said to Rob, "You need to call this number right now."
He dialed it, and a man answered him and asked, "How did you get this number?" Warriors Heart hadn't even opened yet and Rob was literally the first person to call the hotline—it was fate. Because they hadn't opened, Rob couldn't go to their ranch located outside of San Antonio, TX, so the man from Warriors Heart found Rob a place in Nevada that would take him for a 28-day in-patient treatment.
I called the facility, wired the money, and put my husband on a flight a few days later. Rob was hurt that I would send him away, and I don't think I've felt worse in my entire life. But I knew I needed to stay home with the kids, and continue to work to put food on the table. I had to fill the role of mom, dad, taxi driver, and cook as best I could.
The treatment in Nevada didn't go according to plan. Patients in the group therapy sessions talked about how they hated the police, so Rob felt like he had to keep his identity a secret. And because he couldn't talk freely, he didn't feel like anyone truly understood what he'd gone through. He did stay sober there, and for the first six weeks back home he remained clean. Rob seemed like the guy I knew before: Helpful around the house and all about the kids.
Christmas came and went and we kicked off 2016 in a good place. But right after the New Year, Rob had to get his gallbladder taken out. I tried to explain to the doctors that he was in recovery, and that it was important that they didn't prescribe him opioids. But Rob knew what to tell the doctors to get what he wanted. They felt sorry for him for the things that happened in the war, so they gave him the opioid medications. Within two weeks, he was spiraling. I knew we couldn't go down this road again, so I called Warriors Heart.
Help from the heart
This time Warriors Heart was able to take Rob for treatment in Texas. I packed his bags and said, "I love you, and I'm only doing this because I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I want to grow old with you. You need to go do this. I've got the kids, I've got everything—just go."
Rob doesn't always listen to me, but this time he did. He went to treatment, worked hard on his recovery, lived sober, went to AA meetings and met with a therapist who specializes in trauma. He was able to talk to some fellow battle buddies and law enforcement officers, and could open up about all that he went through, because they had suffered in the same way he suffered. The experience freed him of layers of buried pain, stuff that was beyond his control—the bombs in Afghanistan and the things he had had to do to save his friends and his life. Rob finally found his relief.
I often think that if I wasn't able to get him to Texas for treatment, he would be dead. Before Rob left for Warriors Heart, he told me that one day, prior to telling me about his addiction, he stayed home sick. My youngest daughter asked me if she could miss school that day to stay with her dad. During her nap, Rob sat at the edge of his bed, with a .45 in his hand, contemplating taking his life. But he couldn't do it because our daughter was there. To this day I think, What if she hadn't stayed home? Or what if our other kids came home from school and found him? I thank God that she asked to spend time with her dad that day.
As much as I wanted to give up on Rob, and throw my hands up in the air, I couldn't. And I am so glad I fought for him. I'm getting back the man I love, and I'm so proud of him. Rob now works for Warriors Heart—that's how much he believes in it—traveling back and forth to Texas. He's found his purpose, and lives completely free from pain medication, heroin, and alcohol. He's the one who answers the Warriors Heart helpline, taking calls from veterans, soldiers, and first responders like him who have lost their way. He helps them pull their shoulders back and hold their heads up high once again.
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