After 'Devastating' Loss of Children to Drugs, Parents Provide Support and Fight Stigma of A
David Huntley would have done anything to save his son.
He just didn’t know what to do.
Throughout his teen years, Henry Huntley struggled with drugs and depression — though it was undiagnosed for many years. When his parents realized the depth of his problem, they searched for answers: Detox.
Residential rehab. Counseling. Support groups. Medication. Outpatient therapy. More detox. More residential rehab.
At 18, Huntley said, his son realized he needed to “get clean and sober” — and did, for a while. Then he relapsed. He was days away from entering a residential program at a facility for people with both substance abuse and mental-health issues when he shot up cocaine. The drug gave him suicidal thoughts, Huntley said, and Henry killed himself.
He was 19 years old.
His death left his parents devastated. But in the aftermath, “I felt very strongly that there were a lot of other things that I had learned and observed in that process that I really wanted to share with other parents whose children were either at risk for or suffering from substance abuse,” Huntley said.
Like many parents, Huntley, a producer for Scripps Networks Interactive, dealt with his grief by looking for a way to help others avoid the same fate. He found solace in a peer counseling program through the family support nonprofit Partnership for Drug-Free Kids Tennessee.
Now, Huntley has joined a team of peer coaches who talk to parents whose children — including adult children — are addicted or in recovery, passing along skills he’s learned from both experience and a three-day intensive training session through the nonprofit.
For five weeks, he provides weekly telephone coaching sessions to one particular family. The nonprofit matches trained volunteer coaches with people who call its hotline — 1-855-378-4373 — or sign up at its website, https://drugfree.org.
“It’s the missing link my wife and I didn’t have when we went through our experience with Henry, to get him help, and I wish we had,” Huntley said. “There were a lot of people with opinions, with outdated, outmoded, ineffective, often confrontational and negative methods that just made the problem worse.”
Huntley likes the parent coaching program because it focuses on communicating with children, staying involved and positive actions. He also likes being able to connect parents with resources.
And, when appropriate, he can share his own experiences.
“Often, they’re so isolated, just to have somebody to listen to their story and know what they are talking about is incredibly powerful itself,” Huntley said. “When I do that, of course, it brings up our tragedy and my son’s loss in a very visceral way, so that’s exhausting and often draining. But on the other hand, when I hear people respond and actually change their behavior, then enact a new strategy or a new tool we’ve discussed with their child, and then something improves and changes positively with their relationship or their situation, that’s just like a salve to my heart. Because then it’s a story of hope, and not just of tragedy.”
Huntley acutely misses his bright, funny, talented, generous son, his only child, who began self-medicating with marijuana, experimented with opioids as a young adult, then switched to benzodiazepines, “downers,” as a way of offsetting his cocaine use. Henry realized that was problematic long before his parents were even aware he was using anything, Huntley said.
“We suddenly realized in every facet of his life, the drugs were just there for the taking,” Huntley said.
Cocaine was “plentiful” when Henry worked in restaurants, Huntley said. He ordered medicinal-grade benzos through the Internet from overseas, under the guise of using them for agricultural research, which “we didn’t know was something you could do,” Huntley said.
Time and again, Henry would enter treatment, get clean and then be “making it OK” until signs of relapse appeared: car accidents, erratic behavior.
“We were trying to walk the fine line between working with him and pressuring him to get help, even if he thought he had it under control,” Huntley said. “We didn’t really understand the sinister nature of the disease: Even though he was desperately wanting to get clean and sober and trying so hard and having success, the nature of the disease was that it would come back and grab him and he would use again.”
The stigma around addiction keeps addicts and their families alike from seeking help, he added.
“I tell them, this is a disease, it’s not a moral shortcoming; it doesn’t mean their kid’s bad,” Huntley said.
“This is information they might be hearing for the first time.”
Jan McCoy knows about that stigma. After losing her son, Dane, to addiction in 2014, McCoy read a newspaper article about True Purpose Ministries, which — among other programs — provides halfway housing for men who have completed a yearlong intensive recovery program.
The article mentioned that the faith-based nonprofit was encountering resistance from people who didn’t want such housing in their neighborhoods.
“It compelled me to learn more about this program,” McCoy said. “The men in this program deserve a second chance.”
Dane, who died in 2014 after overdosing.
Last month, McCoy spoke at ribbon-cutting for True Purpose Ministries’ Dane McCoy Graduation House, built in a Maryville subdivision with a $438,800 USDA Rural Development loan.
The house bears her son’s name and will have his picture in the foyer — but eight other mothers’ sons also are memorialized inside. Each of the bedrooms bears the name of a man lost to addiction, and their mothers furnished linens and chose Bible verses and other items to decorate the walls. Nearly all the house’s furnishings were donated.
Like Huntley, McCoy finds purpose in helping others who struggle as her son did.
“My quest is to stop the stigma of addiction and break the social barriers associated with addicts,” McCoy said at the ceremony. “I’m thankful I was given the opportunity to love an addict unconditionally. It taught me so much about Jesus’ love. … I needed to find hope.”