More than 1.7 million people in the U.S. struggle with opioid addictions, according to the most recent statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. As the opioid addiction epidemic continues to grow, so does the pain of the families left in its wake.
The Streeters are one of those families.
Tommy and Jeni Streeter look like your typical middle-class mother and son. She’s a wife, a grandmother, and a friend to many. Her son Tommy is a boyfriend, a brother, and a loving uncle.
“We’re normal people. You know, we’re your subdivision neighbor. We buy cookies from your children,” Jeni said.
But like so many others, their story isn’t as simple as it may seem.
Tommy is a recovering addict.
“The first time that I smoked weed, it was like something just clicked in my brain, and it was like, that was all that I wanted to do,” Tommy explained.
In his early teenage years, that feeling grew with each high.
“What it was doing for me was kind of just numbing everything,” he said. “Whatever it was that I was so uncomfortable with about myself, I didn’t worry about it when I would get high.”
His need for that numbing sensation quickly escalated after a doctor prescribed him pain killers for a football injury.
By the time he was 16, Tommy was hooked.
“I told myself a million times that I wanted to stop, I was gonna stop,” Tommy said. “I kept failing drug tests at school, telling myself like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna stop now,’ and I couldn’t.”
Tommy continued to pop pills throughout high school, getting them anywhere he could find them. When that became too difficult after finishing school, he graduated to heroin.
“I was going to do whatever I had to in order to get it,” he said. “You know, things that I would not ever have even considered doing if it wasn’t for that.”
All the while, his family was left in the dark.
“It absolutely makes me feel terrible that we didn’t know,” Tommy’s mom Jeni said with a tear in her eye.
She explained that they noticed Tommy acting strange, but she thought maybe he was just depressed. She never imagined it was as bad as it was.
After noticing several warning signs and odd behavior, Tommy’s dad finally confronted him when he was 20 years old. After initially denying the problem, Tommy came clean. His first trip to rehab quickly followed.
“I thought, ‘This is, you know, we’ve got it.’ And we didn’t have it. Not even close,” Jeni said.
A few days later, her worst nightmare came true while visiting Tommy at rehab.
“All of a sudden, I hear someone scream from downstairs, ‘They’re in the bathroom, and the door’s locked!’ And he and another patient were overdosed on the floor.”
Nurses responded and worked to revive him, but Jeni says she believes it was the love of his family and the actions of her husband that finally brought Tommy back to life.
“[His dad] just grabbed him and smacked him in the face and said, ‘You’re going to do this to your mother?’ And [his dad] said he opened his eyes immediately,” Jeni recalled.
Tommy recovered from the overdose, but that near brush with death wasn’t enough to keep him clean.
He spent the next several years in and out of rehab and jail, overdosing multiple times along the way. The pain he caused his mom is something Tommy still feels guilty about to this day.
“While I’m doing all the stuff that I’m doing, she’s the one that has to deal with it,” Tommy said. “I’m not dealing with it, because I’m getting high and ignoring it, because I don’t know how to deal with it.”
For Jeni, it was a living hell and something every mother fears.
“I was prepared to bury him,” Jeni said as tears swelled up in her eyes.
After years of trying to prevent that tragedy, she finally made the most difficult decision she would ever make – cutting off her son.
“I knew that if I helped him anymore, what I was going to do was help him kill himself, and I couldn’t live with that,” Jeni said.
After being kicked out, Tommy struggled for the next several months, going through stages of homelessness and sleeping in his car.
He eventually came back home looking for another chance.
“I said, ‘The only place you can go is rehab and I’ll take you right now.’ And he said, ‘okay.’ And there was just this look in his eyes that wasn’t there before,” Jeni remembered
This time – Tommy’s seventh time in rehab – it finally worked.
Tommy attributes the success of his final try at rehab to two major factors: accepting that he needed the help of a higher power, and finding a renewed sense of purpose.
“I kind of had this mindset of, ‘I got myself into this. I should be able to get myself out of it,’ and a lot of people die with that mindset, because it doesn’t work that way,” Tommy said. “If it worked that way, the first time I went to rehab, that would have been it.”
During his last time in rehab, Tommy began leading discussion groups and eventually got certified as a recovery coach once he got out.
“That switch in my brain that used to go off when I got high, it went off again right there, and it was like, ‘Okay, this is what I want to do. I want to help people,'” Tommy explained.
After working part-time at a rehab facility in Indianapolis for a few months, Tommy realized he wanted to do more. Soon, he got a job as a full-time outreach coordinator at a rehab facility in Bloomington, where he still works today.
Tommy is now 15 months sober and he continues to use his experience to help others struggling with the grip of addiction.
“Life is better now than I ever imagined it could be,” Tommy said with pride in his eyes. “The reason I do what I do now, is to hopefully get to people before they get to the point that I was at, before they have to go through everything that I went through.”
Tommy’s successful recovery and sobriety isn’t something Jeni takes lightly, but she knows there’s still more work to be done.
“I’m thankful that we’re on this side of it, but many people aren’t,” she said.
Donna Wray is one of those people.
Her daughter Emily struggled with an opioid addiction for more than 10 years. Late last year, the addiction took over and Emily’s life began to spiral.
“We got a phone call from the hospital that she had been taken in, and she had coded,” Donna said as she held back tears.
On January 21, 2019, Donna lost her daughter Emily to a heroin overdose. She was 32 years old.
The aspiring dancer who Donna described as fun, happy, and headstrong, was gone.
The months since then have been challenging, but Donna says they’ve also been good because of the positive things coming out of her tragic situation.
One of those things is a new support group in the works for parents who are going through similar experiences. It’s called “the Mom of an Addict.”
Donna is one of the founding members.
“It sounded just like something that I could really get excited about and help, and I thought it would be a very good thing for our community,” Donna said.
Jeni has also been a part of the group since it began. It’s something she’s passionate about and wants to shed light on.
“People aren’t getting the help they need,” Jeni said. “People aren’t telling people they need help because they’re embarrassed or because they don’t want to cause problems.”
Although the end result of their children’s addictions differed, she and Donna discovered common feelings of helplessness, isolation, and shame.
“I didn’t have anyone to talk to. I didn’t have any resources. I didn’t have anyone who could understand,” Jeni said.
That’s something they hope to change with “the Mom of an Addict” support group.
“When you start to hear somebody else talk about their situation, and then you say, ‘I know. I did that,’ you know, there is a comfort in that,” Donna said.
“They’re all going to be at different stages, and every person is going to be able to help every other person,” Jeni added.
In addition to an understanding and compassionate ear, the group will also provide parents with tips and resources on how to deal with a child struggling with addiction – something Donna says could have changed her approach with her own daughter.
“If I would have had a better education, I would have been, hopefully I would have enabled less, and I would have been more proactive,” she said.
Donna now hopes the new support group can help prevent other parents from going through the tragic loss she’s experienced.
The first open meeting of “The Mom of an Addict” support group is set for June 18 at 6:30 p.m. at The Chapel, 2505 W Hamilton Road, Fort Wayne.
In the meantime, Donna, Jeni, and Tommy all hope to learn from their experiences, use them to help others, and find healing in their own way.
“I feel like Emily is kind of looking and saying, ‘Yeah, this is great mom. This is what we need to be doing,’” Donna said with a smile.
“If I can just talk to one mom, and say, ‘You know what, I understand. I get it. I can’t help you. I can’t fix it for you. I couldn’t fix it for my own son, but I understand and let’s talk.’ That’s what I can do,” Jeni added.
If you’re a parent who has a child struggling with addiction, Jeni also said she wants to offer her assistance. You can contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (574) 265-9562.
Likewise, Tommy encourages anyone fighting addiction themselves to reach out to him for help. You can contact him one of three ways:
Office: (812) 822-2510
Mobile: (574) 253-3189
As Tommy said, “There is help. There is hope.”