OxyContin Activists: Brad DeHaven

Brad DeHaven of Granite Bay, Calif. considered himself a typical suburban father: he coached his two boys’ soccer, baseball and football teams, helped with their homework, and did everything he could to instill a good work ethic and be a positive influence in their lives. But all that came crashing down when his older son, Brandon, became addicted to OxyContin in high school. DeHaven’s first book, “Defining Moments: A Suburban Father’s Journey Into His Son’s Oxy Addiction,” tells of the great lengths DeHaven went to in an attempt to help his son – including going undercover in a dangerous drug bust – and of how Brandon’s addiction affected the whole family. Oxy Watchdog spoke to DeHaven about how OxyContin led his family down an unimaginable path, and the book that lays it all bare.

Watchdog: Why did you decide to write a book and go public with your story?

Brad DeHaven: It started out as cathartic writing. I was doing a lot of traveling and had a lot of downtime in airports. It felt like when you’re writing a letter to someone but not really intending to send it out; I was just getting it off my chest. Before I knew it I had 10,000 words, then 20,000, then 30,000. It was like I kept scratching off these scabs I didn’t know were there, and the more I reached inward, the more I discovered about myself and learned what defined me as a person and a father.

W: You had witnessed addiction in your life, notably through your brother Thomas, before your son became an addict. Why do you think addiction happens to some and not to others – i.e., why Brandon, and not your other son, Bryce?

BD: Addiction is an illness, not a voluntary action. No addict picks up a pill thinking they want to die at 22. My father-in-law smoked his whole life and now he has an illness, lung cancer, and he’ll die because he couldn’t stop. The same goes for obesity, no one sets out wanting to be 500 pounds and ending up dying of diabetes. So many people have attached this stigma to addiction. For Brandon, it started when he was prescribed Vicodin for a broken arm as a teenager, and it flared up that addictive trait, leading him to a $1,000-a-day Oxy habit.

W: You describe your family as leading a very typical suburban life. Do you consider OxyContin a suburban problem, and do you think people are in denial about how pervasive it is?

BD: [Prescription drug addiction] is a lot more pervasive in suburbia than you think. In fact, the working title of my book was “Beyond the Picket Fence.” I’m getting calls from people all over the U.S. who’ve had the same experience as my family. It’s their dirty little secret, but once they come forward with it, they’re dying to know they’re not alone. We act like it’s not there; we’re afraid to tell anyone. And then all of a sudden it leads to heroin, which is where Brandon went when he relapsed, just as we were getting ready to go to print.

Part of the problem with prescription drugs is that in higher income neighborhoods, pills are just sitting around because they’re given at will to anyone who wants them. But these legal drugs are heroin; opiates are heroin. I don’t care what you’ve been through as a parent, I was ill-prepared to handle prescription drug abuse. I didn’t know the signs of it, how serious it was, or how to treat it. I knew that when I was a kid, I was sitting at the dinner table giggling because I was stoned. Now our kids are sitting next to us with a belly full of Vicodin or an armful of Oxy. The medicine cabinet is a place that we as kids would never have thought to look for drugs.

W: Did you struggle with feelings of failure as a parent because one of your sons became a drug addict?

BD: Absolutely. I always thank my younger son for helping me realize I wasn’t a complete failure as a father. If I had one son, either one or the other, I would have thought I was the worst or the best father in the world. But in truth I was neither; I was just a father. I got two different results. At some point, Brandon went down this road and couldn’t turn back, no matter what it did to his family.

W: You took some pretty extreme measures to help your son. What were you thinking?

BD: Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but at the time, it was like jumping in front of a bus for someone. You don’t really think about it when you’re doing it. I had a lot of time to think in the parking lot [waiting for the drug bust to go down], and that’s when my life flashed before my eyes. You don’t think of the jagged cliffs when you dive off into the water. I grew up rough and tough, but I was 50 years old, and when you find out some guy who has thumped a few people is coming to your car to buy drugs, you think of your past, your future, all the what-ifs of your family relationships.

W: What was Brandon’s reaction to the book?

BD: At first, he wanted it all behind him. He didn’t want to be known as Brandon the Drug Addict. But after he read the book, he realized it wasn’t just about him; it’s about addiction and what happens to families because of addiction.

W: The video of your son withdrawing from OxyContin is heart-wrenching. What was going through your mind as you were filming it?

BD: It was like watching a sick animal. I have had to play that video for high school audiences, and for a lot of people, it’s like they’re looking at a car wreck. I still can’t look at it. I tear up thinking about it right now. It was a horrible moment; I filmed it in an ignorant attempt to document something that I thought would be a deterrent for him later. It’s not that simple, but to me, it was. But it’s been pretty powerful in helping people realize that kicking pills is no joke. I call it the end of the rainbow. Sure, drugs will make you feel great all night, you’ll party like a rock star, but let me show you what your body does when you don’t have any more pills to feed it.

W: Brandon relapsed on black tar heroin after the book was published. How is he doing now?

BD: I was crushed when I found out he had relapsed; it was a very helpless feeling. But he’s much better now. But it’s one day at a time. I consider him to be in remission. He looks fantastic, he’s 6’2” and has gone from 130 pounds to 185 pounds, but I know addiction is still lurking. He’s 26 and I still drug test him, but now he doesn’t have a thousand excuses. He knows the program, and he’s proud to pee clean.

Brandon tells me being active keeps him sober. We call him Chippendale now; he looks like a model. It’s a remarkable transformation, because before he looked like a skeleton. His hip bones protruded, his knees were like softballs on top of pencils, every rib and backbone showed, his shoulders were sunken. Now he’s the total opposite.

W: How has addiction changed your attitude as a parent?

DH: It’s such a pleasure to walk into a room and hear Brandon talking to his friends about being sober and never wanting to go back to the life of using. And it’s good to see him checking himself out in the mirror, to see that he loves himself. But I’ve lowered the bar for my expectations of him. I’m just happy that he’s alive. He works as a waiter, and sometimes I’ll go and have a drink and an appetizer just to watch him be back. When you have a child who’s an addict, you lower the bar you set a long time ago that your child will become a doctor or the president of the United States. So when you’ve lowered your expectations down to, “I just want him to be alive for tomorrow,” that’s a pretty drastic movement. All of those old dreams are gone, you just want to know your child will put one foot in front of the other.

Brandon still has a long way to go to rebuild his life, but he grows up more every day. Because of his addiction, we never really knew who he was. I felt like I was meeting him for the first time when he came out of rehab. He’d been addicted for so long, we thought that’s who he was, and it isn’t.

W: What were some of the effects of Brandon’s addiction on his sibling Bryce? You describe a very touching moment near the end of the book in which the two brothers seem to reconcile all the hurt Brandon’s addiction has caused. That must have felt very redemptive.

BD: It was incredible to watch as a parent. One of the hardest things about Brandon’s addiction was that I felt like history was repeating itself, and I had gone into fatherhood thinking no way would this happen on my watch. I was going to be the father I never had to my boys. Brandon’s addiction forced Bryce to not let him in as much, he built a wall. Their relationship was toast, and rightfully so, because Bryce didn’t want to be hurt again. So when they held each other it was amazing. At the same time, when Brandon later relapsed, the things that spewed out of Bryce’s mouth were absolute hatred. Now, Brandon’s been clean again for a year, and their relationship is good. You can see that relationship rebuilding, and you can only pray that Brandon won’t give Bryce another reason to step back.

W: What are your thoughts on the role of the pharmaceutical industry and the rising rates of prescription drug addiction?

BD: The makers of OxyContin have to know that well over 50 percent of their drug is hitting the streets. The pill is selling great, and they want to act like everything’s fine. Purdue’s pamphlet on OxyContin is four pages long and actually says that the proper way to dispose of unused Oxy is to flush it down the toilet. If they write it down that way, they don’t have to come up with a plan to recapture the unused drugs. They’ve literally flushed their problem down the toilet. It’s really comical that they would have the guts to do this. They’ll just change the formula, introduce a drug with a different name, and continue making money.

W: What advice do you have for parents whose children are currently struggling with OxyContin addiction?

BD: From the time our kids are born and we slap them on the butt and cut the umbilical cord, we think what we’re doing is parenting. So it’s very difficult to convince parents that they are enabling their children when they’re paying the rent or buying the groceries for their addicted children. They see it as helping. Enabling is a big part of this, and I can throw no stones. What I was doing in that parking lot [during the drug bust] was enabling my son to do what he wanted to do, because the next morning, I found out he had used Oxy in my absence. I just couldn’t believe it, but that’s how ignorant I was.

Once you can admit that addiction is an illness, then you need to get professional help for your child. If your child had a baseball-sized tumor on his neck, would you lock him in the bedroom to fix it? That’s exactly what I tried to do, and it was stupid to try to fix it on my own. You are ill-prepared for Oxy addiction, because it’s heroin.

With rehab, it can be a turnoff for parents because when you call, it kind of feels like you’re buying a used car. “Give us 20 grand, and we’ll pick up your kid tomorrow.” And no addict ever really wants to go to rehab, so you have to get someone who is bullshit proof. The hardest kid to coach is your own, and the same goes for drugs. They know all your buttons, they know how to work you, how to pit mom against dad, they know every angle. So you have to get them in an environment with bullshi proof people. Give your addict to these professionals and allow them to do what they do.

But don’t stop reaching for your child. Your child has the hard shell of a drug addict around him, and that shell will bite you and deceive you. All you can do is hope that they will start loving themselves, start checking themselves out in the mirror.

DeHaven is currently working on a follow-up book to “Defining Moments.” Visit his website here.

About Erin Marie Daly

I’m a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. My book on prescription drug and heroin addiction was published in August 2014 by Counterpoint Press.
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