The timing was right…
My daughter had gotten to the point where she acknowledged (to herself, most importantly) that she had a problem with addiction and that she could not fix the problem on her own. She was ready and willing to get the help she needed. We had the resource to a residential treatment center for her to begin the recovery process immediately. The cards were falling into place and we had HOPE for the first time in what seemed like forever.
Alison was eager to get started on her road to recovery, and she was determined to take the program seriously and to make it work the first time around. She had heard the statistics but had no intention of becoming one. She knew better. She was smarter than that. She was stronger than that. The potential outcomes were clear if she were to keep using drugs: jail, institution, or death. For those seeking treatment, the success rate for long-term sobriety is discouragingly low; however, she was going to be the exception to the rule and beat her addiction first try. She was going to prove to us that she could do it. We were going to be proud!
A parent’s unconditional love
I was extremely proud of Alison, and I hope she knew that in her heart. There was nothing that she could have done to break the bond of unconditional love that we had. The road to recovery is not easy, and I commend anyone for attempting the journey. To many outsiders, it may seem easy – just follow the program, take advice, don’t use drugs, stay on track. After 30 days, she should have been CURED! We all know that is not how it works. Unfortunately, I must admit that is a fair assessment of what I believed when we first started the process.
What I discovered in my initial research about substance use disorder was that Alison’s recovery had nothing to do with her being better, smarter, or stronger than her addiction. Those are fallacies that lead to nothing but disappointment and discouragement. Alison could not “beat” her addiction nor could she harness the “willpower” necessary to resist her cravings to get high. We agreed that a residential treatment program would be best to provide her with a fresh start away from her current environment and a treatment plan to address her issues and stay focused on her recovery.
Off to treatment
She first left for treatment at a center in Florida in June of 2015. She had always wanted to go to Florida and had her heart set on living there someday. This was her chance! She was nervous about being so far away from home, yet excited about the prospect of getting the help she knew she needed. She had an amazing experience while there! The clinical staff shared with me that she was cooperative and eager to share in groups. She made several new female friends – some of the best she ever had – which was something she had always struggled doing. She told me that she finally felt like she “fit in” where she was and with the people there. We were so relieved and hopeful! She completed the 30-day PHP (partial-hospitalization program) and moved on to IOP (intensive outpatient program) and into a sober living home. She seemed to be on the right track. We were relieved and hopeful!
The “shuffle” & patient brokering
Then, it happened. She met a boy at an offsite NA meeting. Within a few weeks, she informed me that she was leaving her current program to go to another treatment center. At that time, I didn’t realize how many addiction treatment facilities there are in South Florida. I didn’t know that this was a red flag. I thought that she had made some connections and knew something more than what I knew. I spoke with her therapist, and she strongly recommended that Alison NOT leave to go to this other treatment center. She went on to say that was nothing she could physically do to stop her from leaving. Stubborn as she was, Alison decided to leave anyway.
It is important to note that as a legal adult, Alison was not obligated to inform me of her decisions to change providers nor was my permission required for her to utilize the health insurance benefits that were provided through my employer’s health plan. Additionally, due to HIPAA laws, treatment centers were not allowed to share information about my daughter’s treatment (or, for that matter, even whether or not she was a client at their facility) without her written consent. As a parent, it is extremely difficult to see your child making questionable decisions while having no way to stop them.
During the first week she was at the new treatment center, I knew that something wasn’t right. There was less communication between us and virtually no communication with the treatment center or her therapist. I asked her what was going on, but she assured me that she was “fine” and that she “knew what she was doing” and “not to worry.” What was I supposed to do? She was 23 years old and needed to take responsibility for herself and her actions. I had spent the past ten years investigating her every move in an effort to protect her from herself. I thought to myself, “When will it be time to just back off and let her figure things out for herself?”
That didn’t last long. The boy she was with broke up with her, and she left to go to another treatment center. She had a million reasons why THIS program would be better than the last one, none of which had any merit. Again, something didn’t seem right.
My instincts were correct – something wasn’t right. Although South Florida has some of the country’s best and more reputable treatment facilities, there are some untrustworthy players in the industry as well. Unfortunately, I discovered this the hard way. What I found out after the fact was that she was a victim of patient brokering and was lured to these other treatment centers with enticements, such as co-ed living, free room and board, free Netflix, free Wi-fi, free cigarettes, more beach time, and the list goes on and on. Another thing that I found out was that to be admitted to these other treatment centers, she needed to “test dirty” when she walked through the door. (This meant that she needed to intentionally relapse to qualify for admission.) The patient brokers (or “body brokers”) who worked for these treatment centers would also provide the drugs for the victims to relapse! In exchange for new client referrals (or “heads in beds”), these brokers would receive a kickback once insurance was billed for detox services. Sometimes, the broker would offer a monetary bribe to a person who was on the fence about switching treatment centers. This process of jumping from one center to another is referred to as the “shuffle.”
Since my daughter’s death, I have been directly involved with South Florida law enforcement in cleaning up the industry and making it a safer place to people seeking addiction treatment to come. Hundreds of arrests have been made for fraud and patient brokering, disreputable and unscrupulous centers have been shut down, and legislation has been passed to create better oversight and regulation of sober homes and treatment centers. More details on this will be provided in Part 3 of the story.
Hope that recovery was working
Despite the unethical and unlawful way that Alison was recruited to this new facility, it seemed as though she was doing well. She maintained communication, and her outlook on life appeared to be positive. We scheduled a family trip down to visit her in September of 2015, and everyone had an amazing time. It was her siblings’ first time to see the ocean, and she played on the beach with them all day. She looked healthy and happy and seemed to be doing better than she had been in years. We were so hopeful that she was truly on the right track this time! We were relieved and hopeful!
The cycle of setbacks and restarts
Then, it happened again. She met another boy at an offsite NA meeting. Within a few days after we left Florida, she informed me that she was leaving her current program to go to yet another treatment center. I gave her a million reasons why I didn’t think she should leave again. I told her these things (some of which I cringe at thinking about):
• Stay put for a while.
• Don’t burn bridges.
• Listen to the advice of your therapists.
• You can’t trust your own judgement.
• Just go through the motions while your brain heals.
• Trust the process.
• Hang in there until you see some results.
She left anyway.
Then, it happened again. Out of the clear blue, I found out that she was back in touch with a boy from Chicago that she had been involved with before going to treatment. He had driven down to Florida and insisted that she come back to Chicago with him because, he said, “Treatment is a joke.” She left with him. She drove back to Chicago with him the day before Thanksgiving but did not spend the holiday with family, which was extremely odd for her. However, she did spend Christmas with us. Meanwhile, her boyfriend was arrested and went back to jail. Then her Great Grandpa died, which upset her deeply. She promised him on his death bed that she would get her life in order and make him proud. I believe that she meant it with all her heart. She loved him more than any other man on earth.
In January, she decided to return to Florida for treatment. We researched treatment centers together, and she selected one that was a perfect fit. We had learned from our experience the first time around, and we knew what questions to ask and what type of facilities to avoid. She had another positive experience at this treatment center. I kept in regular contact with her therapist, and Alison seemed to be taking her recovery seriously this time. She made some more female friends and even a best friend, who I still love and care about today as if she were my own. The cards seemed to be falling into place again!
Then, it happened again. She met another boy and the cycle started all over again. She left to go to another treatment center. There was less communication. Something wasn’t right.
Scared for her life
This time, I stepped in and tried to contact someone from the treatment center, but nobody would return my call. I messaged them on Facebook and told them that I knew that something wasn’t right. I told them that I had seen some of their other clients post on Facebook that they were “marketers” for the treatment center and that I didn’t think it was ethical for them to pay people in active addiction to give advice and recruit their peers into treatment. (At this point, I had not yet heard of patient brokering.) This was on a Friday morning that I sent the messages. Later that day, Alison called me and said that she was told to pack her bags and leave. They kicked her out on the streets with nowhere to go on a Friday night. She was furious with me for interfering and told me that she had no choice that night but to get high because she couldn’t deal with the stress… and that it was all my fault. She was sobbing and hyperventilating and had nowhere to go. And I had no way of helping her. She asked me to send her money. I wouldn’t. I told her not to worry and that I promised that I would find somewhere for her to go. I couldn’t.
I didn’t know what to do or where to turn. I felt like I put my daughter’s life at risk by confronting the treatment center without having a safe place for Alison to go. I was only trying to protect her and to do what was right. What was right? I had no idea anymore.
I got in touch with someone from a treatment center who told me that they could schedule an assessment for my daughter first thing Monday morning. I took them up on their offer. I didn’t realize at the time that I could have pushed for an immediate intake assessment. I didn’t know that there were treatment centers open 24/7 for emergency situations. I didn’t have any contacts in the area to ask to do a well-being check on my daughter in the meantime. I kept Alison on the phone with me for as long as I could on Friday night and pleaded with her to stay safe. I couldn’t get in touch with her Saturday morning. I spent all weekend praying that she would stay alive until Monday. She did. I finally heard from her on Sunday night, and she told me that she had snuck in to stay with someone and relapsed AT THE FACILITY THAT KICKED HER OUT. (This facility has since been shut down by authorities, for the record.)
Relief & joy
On Monday morning, Alison went back to treatment at the center she initially went to in Florida. I knew that she would be safe, which was a huge relief. Her therapist kept in contact with me for the first few weeks while Alison got acclimated. As it turned out, this time Alison joined the Christian Program. This was something she decided on her own – I didn’t even know this center had a Christian Program. She said that she knew she needed to do something different for her recovery, take a leap of faith for once, and find deeper meaning in her life.
Her experience in this program was life-changing. We literally saw her transform into the person she was meant to be – from how she looked, to how she spoke, conveyed her feelings, shared her experiences, and in so many other ways. She made more female friends and another best friend, who I also still love and care about today as if she were my own. She was baptized in the ocean with her best friend and some of her other peers. This was a huge step for her. She described in her journal how she finally had a sense of peace in her heart that was never there before. She felt as if a huge burden had been lifted and that she was able to look forward to her future for the first time in her life. Her family and I could tell that a huge change in her had occurred. We were so happy that she was able to get to this place and experience pure joy!
I went to visit her in August of 2016 and we had some incredible bonding moments. We spent time at the beach, ate delicious food (eating was one of our favorite bonding activities), had enjoyable conversation. I felt like I had my daughter back. I cannot even describe the extent of my happiness. I was so proud of how far she had come!
Just days after I left Florida, it happened again. She left to go to another treatment center that she had previously gone to. To be honest, it was difficult for me to keep all these places straight. I had notes scribbled here and there, but I had made a promise to myself that I would not turn my research into a full-time investigation like I had for years of keeping tabs on Alison and her whereabouts. This time, I decided that I would let her figure it out on her own. I knew in my heart that she was in a good place mentally and spiritually. I believed that the best thing I could do for her now was to show her that I had confidence in her to make good choices and give her the freedom to live her life the best she knew how. She stayed in contact with either my mom, me or her siblings with a daily check-in via phone, Facetime, text, or Facebook. Everything seemed to be going well. We were relieved and hopeful!
Two months later, I received a phone call from her boyfriend saying that he had found her unresponsive that morning.
I didn’t understand what that meant. Was this a prank? Was she okay?