Editor's note: The following column is part of an occasional series by Melissa Perrell, patient advocacy officer and vice president of patient services at Novant Health. See links to all installments below.
One of the reasons why I am so passionate about mental health issues and addiction is because of the personal struggles that I have experienced and witnessed loving someone with bipolar disorder and drug addiction.
I would not have chosen this path for Jackson, for myself or for the other members of my family, as it has been a very painful journey. However, I could not possibly be more proud of the man he has become, and I wouldn't trade these experiences — we both are who we are today because of them. While this article includes snippets related to his bipolar disorder, the focus will be on his drug addiction.
I owe a special thank you to Jackson for giving me permission to share his story. I also want to thank my son Carl for allowing me to share the parts of this story that involve him. I am so proud of them both. They are my heroes.
On September 15, 1995, my world was forever changed with the arrival of my first child, Jackson Edward Phipps. He took me to a level of joy (and tiredness) that I had never before experienced. I absolutely adored him! As he grew, he excelled in almost everything. He was a high achiever at school, a great athlete and a talented musician. Everyone who knew him loved him. Because the focus of this article is on his struggles with drug addiction — and most of you do not know him — I don't want you to lose sight of the fact that he is an amazing person. All addicts at their core are amazing people. It is easy to forget that when you are on the receiving end of hurtful and illogical behavior as a result of their addiction.
Jackson's introduction to drugs occurred when he ruptured his spleen in February 2010 during his eighth grade year. He recalls feeling high from the Vicodin he was prescribed for his pain. A month later, he began smoking marijuana. By the time he started high school, he was smoking weed daily, as well as using cocaine and PCP several times a month. He and his friends also shared pills they were able to round up from their parents' medicine cabinets, snorting Vicodin, Percocet and anything else available.
Of course, his father and I were unaware that he was using drugs until we came home early from a weekend trip the summer of 2011 (this was the summer between his ninth and tenth grade years) and discovered him and three other friends smoking marijuana in his room. We naively believed that he only was using marijuana and had no clue the extent of his problem or that he also was selling weed. We grounded him, got him in to see a counselor and started him on medication for depression since the reason he gave for smoking weed was because he was so sad.
Things went from bad to worse when school started, with weekly emails and phone calls from teachers sharing that he wasn't attending class. His grades plummeted and his behavior became increasingly erratic. It took several months before he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in November 2011, in a state of full-blown mania with psychotic features.
He spent 15 days in the inpatient adolescent psychiatric unit at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center. At the time of discharge, he was still very hypomanic and insistent that his bipolar disorder be treated with medical marijuana. His pediatrician lovingly spoke truth to us and shared that we would not be able to provide Jackson with the care that he needed at home. With broken hearts, we told our 16-year-old son that he would not be discharged home. I signed the paperwork allowing off-duty police officers the legal right to transport him — by force if necessary — to Utah, where he would participate in a therapeutic wilderness program. For seven weeks, from late November until mid-January, he lived in the woods of Utah with no contact with us other than weekly letters. I cried every day. Christmas was particularly hard.
He went straight from wilderness to Montana Academy, a therapeutic boarding school located in rural northwest Montana. He lived and went to school there from mid-January 2012 until August 2013. Even in this highly structured environment, he was able to continue his drug-seeking behaviors and intermittently found ways to use drugs. He shared that for about a month, he and several other boys in the boys dorm would swap their prescription medications during the weekends because the weekend staff were easier to trick. He and others would snort Vyvanse and Adderall that belonged to boys who had attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and, in return, Jackson would share his Seroquel, his medication for bipolar disorder. Because he didn't have any access to marijuana or anything to smoke, the only way he could get high was by snorting pills. Although he never did this, he shared that others tried to get alcohol from hand sanitizers on campus. During a trip home, he shoplifted cough syrup from a store in the airport and drank it mixed in his soda.
In August 2013, Jackson returned home to Winston-Salem, North Carolina for his senior year of high school. He was a talented basketball player and had planned to play for the high school's varsity team. Within a few weeks, however, he ran into a drug dealer who offered him codeine. He bought prescription cough syrup with codeine, as well as marijuana. All day, he kept refilling his soda with codeine and by nighttime, was violently ill, vomiting, blacking out and going in and out of consciousness. This was a few days after his eighteenth birthday and happened on the very first night that we gave him permission to spend the night out with friends. He had overdosed on the codeine and was afraid that he was going to die. He asked his friend to call 911 and was taken to Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center by ambulance. As a legal adult, he was able to make his own decisions and instructed the healthcare team not to contact his parents. As a result, we didn't know anything about the overdose. A few weeks later, he shared this information (he knew we would eventually get a bill from the emergency department) but was only partially truthful, stating that he had bought some "bad weed" that included synthetic marijuana. Throughout his drug abuse, he routinely took advantage of our ignorance regarding drugs.
This "near-death" experience was soon forgotten. He decided that he would rather do drugs than play basketball and poured his efforts into selling drugs. He continued to smoke weed, snorted Vicodin a few times a week and used lots of codeine. During this time, he started meeting people who had "drugs from doctors" — medication that had been obtained through prescriptions.
In October 2013 I received a phone call that no parent wants to get. The mother of one of Carl's friends called to tell me that Carl and her son had been smoking weed. Carl is my third child and, at that time, was in the eighth grade. As shocking and horrifying as this news was, what she said next was even worse: Jackson was their dealer. He had been selling marijuana to Carl and his friends.
I cannot begin to express the pain that I felt at that time. I was heartbroken to hear that Carl, my sweet eighth grader, my child who had watched his brother's struggles with drugs, had been smoking weed. (*Note: Carl attended an interventional Outward Bound program the following summer and has been sober from drug use ever since. Unlike Jackson, Carl was a substance user, not an addict). I was devastated and angry that Jackson had provided drugs to his younger brother. I was embarrassed and felt shame that my son had influenced others to make bad choices. Fortunately, we were able to be seen that day by an addiction counselor who specializes in interventions. She was amazing and quickly worked with us over the next several days to design a "Love First Intervention." As a result of our intervention, Jackson went back into treatment — this time at Pavillon, an adult inpatient substance abuse facility in western North Carolina.
When I interviewed him for this article, he shared that initially at Pavillon he really wanted to get sober because while he was there he realized for the first time that he really was a drug addict. At this point, I had learned that addiction is a brain disease and those who are in active addiction are sick and in need of treatment. However, one of the challenges of inpatient treatment is that sick people are exposed to other sick people. While at Pavillon, one of the other patients had snuck in a bag of heroin and convinced Jackson to try it. Although it made him really high, thank goodness he never did it again. He also learned about Oxycontin and how this was "so much better than other drugs because it is prescribed by a doctor."
After 45 days of inpatient treatment, he returned home to Winston-Salem. Unlike his previous treatment centers, which were for teenagers, Pavillon did not provide options for continuing school work. As a result, Jackson was unable to stay current with his school assignments and ended up dropping out of high school. If someone had told me in his early years that Jackson would end up dropping out of high school, I never would have believed it. It was another really sad point in our journey and made it very difficult to deny the extent of his problems. Within a few weeks of coming home, he already was using and selling again.
In January 2014, he tried Oxycontin for the first time. It didn't make him sick and he loved it. He found a dealer who sold it in 40mg, 80mg and 160mg tablets. He would meet his dealer once a week and trade one ounce of weed for eight 40mg pills. He would cut them up and use half of a pill every 12 hours or so while also smoking weed. He quickly needed higher doses and soon was getting sixteen 80mg pills a week. It now took twice as many pills at double the dose to give him the high he needed. His dealer only would meet him once a week on Sundays. He eventually got to the point where his supply would be gone by Wednesday and he would be sick with withdrawal symptoms the later part of each week until he could get more pills. For him, Oxycontin was the most addictive drug. He only used it for about four months and it was the drug that really caused him to stand out from his substance using friends. It made his addiction noticeable to those in his circle and he began to lose friends who didn't want to hang out with an addict.
During this time, although we didn't have proof that he was using again, we were very concerned about Jackson. In February 2014, he had enrolled in the Winston-Salem Street School, and we had high hopes that he would be able to earn the few remaining credits that he needed to obtain his high school diploma. He was still seeing the addiction counselor who conducted the intervention. He passed all of the random drug tests using borrowed urine from sober friends.
On April 7, 2014, he was pulled over by police for speeding. When the officer approached his car, it reeked of marijuana. The officer found large quantities of marijuana in the back seat and arrested him. We refused to rescue him and allowed him to spend four days and three nights in the Forsyth County Jail. I could barely sleep and cried every day. When finally allowed to visit him on the fourth day, I was shocked by how awful he looked and his state of extreme desperation. He begged me to bail him out. I agreed on one condition: that we go directly to a sober living community far from Winston-Salem. He had finally hit his rock bottom. The pain of staying the same and remaining in jail was worse than the pain of leaving Winston-Salem and changing his life. Utterly broken, he agreed. He spent seven months living at Purple, a sober living program in Lawrenceville, Georgia.
On April 8, 2017, Jackson celebrated three years of sobriety. He is still in Georgia, living an active recovery lifestyle, sponsoring dozens of addicts and passionately sharing the 12-step recovery model with people who are hurting as a result of addiction. He has taken a few courses at a local community college, is pursuing a career in music writing and producing rap music videos and currently is working in a rehabilitation center helping other addicts. While his path has been non-traditional, I know that it is the path that he was supposed to take. I believe that God has great plans for his life and I could not possibly be more proud of him!