A nightmare scared me awake, Tuesday night. I dreamt that I couldn’t read a single note that I took while visiting with Cindy and Shawna for our second meeting. It took me several minutes to calm down and realize, it was just a dream. This project is haunting my dreams.
I arrived at the house to find Cindy hurrying to finish her nightly duties. She asked me to jump in the truck. I reviewed with her the preparation questions I’d sent her previously that day and we excitedly discussed the positive response to our first installment – over 1,000 views and several people we didn’t know reaching out to tell their stories and ask for help. Cindy said Shawna was home and that she might be able to join us. This would be the first time I’d been given the opportunity to speak with her directly. As much as this is Shawna’s life and her story, this is Cindy’s nightmare too. We were preparing to talk about one of the worst nights of Cindy’s life – the night she found Shawna dead.
Cindy and I drove around a bit trying to get baby Jayde to sleep – to no avail. Too much excitement for an affectionate two year old. But that’s okay. I have a soft spot for sweet little dark haired girls and this gave Cindy and I a few moments to chat, casually. At one moment Cindy said of enabling Shawna, “The more I tried to help her, the more I was killing her.” We are our own worst critics and hindsight is always 20/20.
When we finally sat down to chronicle Cindy’s perspective of this nightmare, I reminded her of a story she told me about finding Shawna, dead, down at the barn. Dead. No pulse, not breathing. Dead. I asked her if that was the worst night they had while Shauna was addicted. She agreed but followed up with the thought that they were all terrible. Cindy remembers it as a night before they went to court. She had fallen asleep in a the chair in their living room. She recalls startling herself awake and nearly falling to the floor thinking she needed to get to bed. When Shawna was going through rough times, Cindy and Sean would pull the keys out of their vehicles at night to help prevent Shawna escaping the ranch – this was one of those nights. Cindy noticed her truck was gone and immediately went to search for Shawna, fearing the worst.
Down the hill and in front of the farrowing barn, Cindy’s truck was parked but running. She opened the door to find Shawna, passed out with a needle still stuck in her arm, the truck heater on full blast. Cindy said that Shawna always hated needles. Cindy started screaming her name and “Don’t leave me!” amongst other things. Shawna didn’t respond. She had no pulse, she wasn’t breathing. Shawna was dead.
Cindy stepped up on the running board of the truck to pull Shawna out. She tripped on her house shoe with one arm around Shawna. They fell to the ground together and that was enough to force a breath into Shawna. Cindy did every bit of CPR that she knew – probably for five minutes. Shawna started showing signs of life so Cindy wrestled her into the truck to take her to the house where Sean could help. By the time they reached the house, Shawna was regaining consciousness, angry and yelling for Sean.
Cindy and Sean helped Shawna reorient herself. It was apparent that she was going to be okay and another trip to the hospital wasn’t necessary. Once Shawna was coherent enough to gather her thoughts, she asked her Mom, “Why did you wake me up? I wanted to die. I can’t get off this stuff. This is too hard. I want to die.” Cindy slept in the bed with her daughter that night.
I asked Cindy if Shawna remembers that night. She laughed when she said, “Oh yes. I remind her of it constantly.” I asked Shawna the same question. “I remember most of it. It was really hot that day and the strangest thing was that I had the heater on full blast in the truck. I was that high.” I asked Shawna what she injected. She said it was heroin. Really strong heroin. She recalls knowing that this particular dose was so potent that she knew it was dangerous and it would probably kill her. That didn’t matter, she shot up anyway.
Shawna remembers taking the truck, heading down to the barn, shooting up and the next thing she remembers is her mom screaming for her to wake up. She remembers being angry at Cindy because she wanted to die. And the truck. That heater running in the truck on that hot summer night.
Cindy told me of other nights where she wouldn’t sleep at all. She’d hear the dogs barking and would pray it was Shawna coming home. But after checking her bed and checking the house, no Shawna. This happened often.
Frequent trips to the hospital became normal too. Once a week for months on end. Dehydration, stomach flu, food poisoning. Many trips were the result of trying to detox on her own. The trip when Shawna had food poisoning, the hospital gave her Morphine. Shawna said that she was excited at the thought of getting good drugs without having to find them. She now had a new avenue to pacify the cravings and to get high. Some trips were fake, but most were for legitimate reasons. Shawna remembers on one particular occasion being so weak and dehydrated that she fainted as she walked through the hospital door.
We talked about when Cindy knew that she was going to have trouble with Shawna. It was in high school, when Shawna started drinking. She’d sneak out down their long dirt road to get picked up at the gate so she could attend the parties all the cool people were going to. At the time of our meeting, Shawna still seemed frustrated that she had to sneak out and that she was so sheltered that she wasn’t allowed to go to these parties. Cindy would catch Shawna time and time again. Discipline included taking things away, even not allowing her to show her pigs – something Shawna loved very much. Nothing worked. In fact, the discipline drove Shawna to misbehave more. Ditching school, later nights, more parties, drinking whenever she wanted to. Nothing was going to stop her. Shawna acknowledged that until years later when she began losing the things she worked hard for on her own – the race quad, the nice truck, the good job – that the consequences of her actions began to hit home.
Talk of discipline and consequences started an interesting conversation. Cindy pointed out, “We teach our children to fear us by our reaction to what they tell us.” Shawna said she clearly remembers the time she told her mom that she’d had sex for the first time. Even though Shawna was 18 and legal to make her own decisions, Cindy lost it. She was incredibly upset thinking of all the things she had been through and not wishing the same for Shawna. But Shawna took it as her mom was mad at her. That she’d, once again, gotten herself in trouble. Looking back, Cindy says she wishes she would have been able to talk to Shawna about the consequences of sex and let Shawna come to her own conclusions about the gravity of her decisions. Cindy also recalled how upset she was when Shawna started smoking cigarettes. We all joked about how she’d probably trade everything for Shawna’s worst decisions to be sex and cigarettes.
Part of Cindy’s mission in telling this story is to help other parents to recognize early signs of drug use and to show them where to get help. I asked Cindy and Shawna what parents can look for. They both commented that paraphernalia is an easy one but drug users are often paranoid and crafty so they won’t leave it out where they’ll get caught. Nonetheless, look for folded up foil in trash cans and around their living space. And count your spoons in your silverware drawer.
I asked how fast the weight loss happened. Shawna became bashful and said that her weight is a big trigger for wanting to use drugs. She was as thin as 92 pounds at one point. But she used for over 8 years. She was skinny for a long time. Weight loss is an indicator but not always a good one.
Cindy and Shawna agreed on a few reliable tells. Look for alliances with strange people. Shawna said she didn’t even like the people she was hanging out with and getting drugs from but she’d defend the friendships to Cindy so that she could keep getting high. They said to pay attention to excessive time in the bathroom, locked doors, covered windows, any type of isolation from family and usual or close friends. Shawna said she’d lock herself in her room because she was high and she didn’t want to share her drugs with anyone.
Cindy recalls those days as odd; Shawna would be crashing around in the bedroom cleaning, rearranging, organizing. Shawna barely remembers how she’d pass the hours but it was seldom something productive. Shawna’s youngest sister, Stephanie, used to comment when the house was extra clean, “Oh look, Shawna must be high.” What mother wouldn’t want to come home to a clean house? Under these circumstances, Cindy would have traded anything for a messy house and to not go through what was about to happen. Cindy knew that this meant another week or longer of sleepless nights, praying that Shawna would survive her addiction.
Cindy mentioned that in her battles trying to save Shawna, she learned a lot, and some profound things about herself, in particular. She didn’t realize how judgmental she was. She used to see kids on drugs and think, “What kind of parent lets their kid get addicted to drugs? My kids are never going to do drugs.” She finished by saying, “Boy did God open my eyes!” She learned to never judge again. She learned that no matter how hard you try and how many things you do right, sometimes bad things happen to good people. She hopes that parents with children in the darkest of times, look at Shawna and know that recovery is possible and that sometimes we win this battle. And then, sometimes, we don’t.