When Chris Maloney’s mother discovered her son had sold off his prized golf clubs, the ones he used to set records in high school and earn a scholarship to college, she knew heroin had a grip on him again.
It wasn’t the first time.
His parents wanted to believe the young man had kicked his addiction.
He had been through treatment and seemed determined to stick to a 12-step program. He also had enrolled in a prestigious PGA golf management program at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina.
But last Father’s Day, Deb Hicks had a sense that something was wrong when she tried to contact him and got no answer. Police later found his body in his off-campus apartment, dead of a heroin overdose.
Maloney’s death at age 23 illustrates that just because an addict completes a treatment program does not mean the battle against opioid and heroin addiction is successful.
Addicts frequently experience several relapses before achieving full recovery, treatment providers and researchers say. Sometimes the addict never does. That is because opioids and heroin are stronger addictions than other kinds.
Laboratory produced opioids are designed to go to the brain’s receptors that block out pain and create a pleasurable sensation. Street-purchased heroin, the cheaper and more easily accessible alternative, is often blended with opioids creating a deadly mix.
So unlike some other addictions, the chances of recovery are less likely. The relapse rate of 109 patients released from residential treatment in one study was 91 percent, according to a paper published on a website for the National Institutes of Health. Sixty-four of the relapses occurred within a week of leaving treatment.
Even on the front lines of recovery at 12-step group meetings, those hooked on drugs have their own fellowship, Narcotics Anonymous, and its members who seek more structure at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings find that they are not always accepted. Recovering alcoholics often say they have trouble finding common ground with individuals who have a highly compulsive substance abuse problem, although cross-addiction to drugs and alcohol has been breaking down resistance in recent years.
“We do not have a cure for addiction. We have treatment for this chronic illness that can keep it controlled, but our treatments are imperfect and the disease can recur,” said Dr. Richard D. Blondell, a professor of family medicine at the University at Buffalo and vice chair for addiction medicine. “There is a distinction between labeling someone as a drug addict who relapses as opposed to recognizing them as a person afflicted by a disease.”
Chris Maloney’s final months mirror what happens all too often in the opiate epidemic. A temporary success in getting clean, followed by relapse and ultimately death.
Eighteen months ago, Maloney shared his journey into recovery with The Buffalo News. He exuded confidence that drug abuse was in his past.
Now his parents are sharing the final chapter in their son’s life in the hopes of sparing other families the anguish and heartbreak that heroin wrought on theirs.
His story is as timely as ever. Buffalo police say that in recent days there has been yet another uptick in opioid and heroin overdoses with several fatalities. That has been the story of 2016. As of July, there were 224 confirmed or suspected fatal drug overdoses in Erie County. The number of deaths is on pace to hit 400 by year’s end, health officials say.
The outgoing and cheerful redhead had a winning personality that matched his ability at golf, which he had discovered at age 14.
As a high school freshman, he scored his first hole-in-one and set records on the golf team at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute. After graduation, he headed to St. John Fisher College in Rochester on a full golf scholarship. But his use of drugs, which began in high school, intensified, and he dropped out after the first year.
He tried to make a comeback and attended Monroe Community College, but left school as his addiction progressed from alcohol and marijuana to prescription painkillers and heroin.
He entered a treatment program.
In January 2015, a half year into recovery, Maloney described to The Buffalo News his addiction to opiates:
“It’s like you know when you’re dying. I needed to learn a new way of life. Before I got help, I would wake up in the morning needing something just to feel normal,” he said.
He shared those thoughts while sitting on the front porch of an “Oxford House” in Lockport, where he lived with eight other men dedicated to living drug- and alcohol-free lives. He arrived there after completing three months of inpatient treatment at Horizon Village in Sanborn and recalled how his family’s health insurance carrier was willing to pay for less-expensive outpatient care. He managed to convince the insurance company to provide inpatient care. He said he argued that he needed a controlled environment in order to learn a new way of living.
Hicks and her former husband, Tom Maloney, believed their only son would succeed in recovery. But she says there were troubling signs soon after he began at the university, a short drive from Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Maloney arrived at Coastal Carolina University last September, and soon excelled on the golf course, achieving back-to-back rounds under par.
But in the classroom, he performed poorly.
Hicks said she knew something was wrong not only because of his poor academic showing but because her son frequently texted her with requests for money.
“I tried at all costs to make sure that he didn’t have cash. I would get him preloaded grocery cards, $20 here or there. He was getting the large sums of money in other ways. He got in trouble with the law. He was dealing in drugs and pawning things to support his habit,” Hicks said.
Then she learned he had sold his golf clubs. That’s when she knew his addiction was spiraling out of control again.
Call it maternal intuition, but on June 19, this past Father’s Day, Hicks says she sensed something was wrong when she could not contact her son.
“I called the police in South Carolina to request a wellness check, and they went into his apartment. They went in and checked his room, but didn’t check the bathroom where he was,” she said.
The next day, she called police and filed a missing person report. This time detectives conducted a more-thorough search. Maloney was found dead in the bathroom. An autopsy determined he died the day before of a heroin overdose.
The call that her son was dead came as no surprise to Hicks.
“I had gone through all of the family support and counseling and knew how common it is for people to relapse and die,” Hicks said. “I had been expecting this call for the last two years.”
But one of Chris Maloney’s mentors at the university was shocked.
“You don’t realize this epidemic with opioids until it gets real close to you,” said William Mann, a former president of the PGA of America and director of the PGA Golf Management Program at Coastal Carolina. “You read about it, you hear about, but you don’t really understand how insidious it is. Bad things happen to really good kids, and Chris was a really good kid. I know firsthand that Chris fought this hard.”
Family members are often left to wonder why the disease exacts such a high price.
“As parents and step-parents, you keep asking what could you have done differently,” Tom Maloney said of his son. “We always told him what the right choices were, but for some reason he did not heed them.”
Family support groups can be helpful, but parents need to understand the distinction of helping and enabling, experts say. “Family members need to be there to support the person but at the same time, they need to not enable the person,” said Jodie Altman, who has worked nearly three decades providing services to young addicts and their families. “That’s the fine line. When does my support turn into enabling?”
To understand where the separation occurs between help and harm, she said, education is required.
“When you go to support groups like Nar-Anon and Al-Anon, you’ll find people who have been in the same situation you are in, and you can learn from their mistakes,” said Altman, director of Renaissance Addiction Services in West Seneca. “You find people who have walked the fine line and learned how to navigate it. They’ve learned how to help and care about somebody while at the same time not participating in their addiction.”
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Nearly two months have passed since her son died, and Hicks has found out how he managed to obtain large sums of money to pay for his heroin habit.
“The income came from credit cards even though he never held a job. He would get cash advances, and I’m getting all the bills now. The credit cards helped to kill him,” she said. “It’s ridiculous.”
Hicks and her ex-husband are now focusing their energies on planning a golf tournament in their son’s memory, to raise money to teach golf and good behaviors to young people. The goal is to keep other young people from ever beginning drug abuse. The tournament will be held June 19, 2017, at Lockport Town & Country Club.
“Hopefully this will be his legacy,” Tom Maloney said. “We want it to be an annual event.”
Other parents who have lost children to the epidemic also are working to battle the epidemic.
Avi and Julie Israel, who lost their only son, Michael, to opioid addiction, plan to open a local center in Buffalo this fall where family members can receive education and guidance in how to help addicts without becoming enablers.
“What we want to do is to try to educate families that this is a lifelong disease and try to educate them on how to be life coaches for the person suffering from substance use disorder,” Avi Israel said.
They say the center will be called the “Save the Michaels House of Hope and Education” and will be funded by the state and local foundations. Parents who have lost children to drugs will serve as volunteers along with a paid staff of drug treatment professionals.
“We’re going to teach families what tough love is, and we’re going to make sure they don’t forget the word ‘love,’ ” Avi Israel said. “Inside every person suffering from addiction, inside that monster, is your little child, and it is up to you to bring that child back to the surface. With the right training, family members can do it.”