A dying mother urges her teenage son: Kick OxyContin
GOULDSBORO - It was a mother's dying wish.
Kathy Dyer knew she didn't have much time left. She had one last chance to help her son, Adam.
One last chance to make things right for her only child.
Dyer had lung cancer and she knew her teenage son had grown addicted to the pills she took for pain. She knew he was stealing her OxyContin and she knew it would ruin his life, maybe even kill him.
The drugs were a powerful lure Down East, an area plagued by job and population loss and families losing hope.
Dyer herself had abused painkillers in the last few years and she wanted something better for her son.
As she lay dying in her hospital bed, she dictated a letter to him. "I would like you to get help . . .," her letter said. "I want you to have a better life than me. I know . . . what drugs can do to you. . . . I want you to be happy and live a long happy and healthy life. I love you so very much and mean that from the bottom of my heart."
She signed the letter: "I love you, Mom."
Dyer died 24 hours after she gave the letter to her son. "It was the only thing she wanted," Adam Dyer says. "She just wanted me to get better."
Some 2 1/2 years have passed since his mother's death. The letter is worn now. The white sheet of paper folded and unfolded. Dyer keeps it in a fireproof safe in his room. He takes it out and reads it when he misses his mother. Or when he needs a reminder of his mother's last words, her final wish.
"I don't want to disappoint her," he says. "She'd want me to remember her words."
Keeping his mother's wish has been a long and agonizing journey for Adam and his family. He is 19 and says he has been clean for 21 months.
"A lot of the past couple years of my life is a blur," he says. "I've done a lot of things I'm not proud about."
He is a young man with red hair and blue eyes that often drop to the floor when he speaks. He talks in a soft and uncertain voice about his addiction and losing his mom.
"I wanted to stop so bad for her and for me," Dyer says, "but after she died, I got even worse. I took even more OxyContin. It helped me forget my mother was gone."
After her death, he snorted OxyContin and cocaine several times a day. He lived with his grandparents and stole money and checks from them and other family members.
"He went to hell after his mother died," says Valencia Reed, Adam's aunt.
Reed is Kathy Dyer's older sister. She also lives in Gouldsboro, where the per capita income is $18,000 and many families earn their living fishing or digging clams and worms.
Desperate times in small towns in Hancock and neighboring Washington County have led to unprecedented social ills. Drug addiction in some of those rural communities is rising faster than in cities, according to the Office of Substance Abuse. In 2000, Maine led the country for drug treatment of prescription opiates, addictive painkillers such as OxyContin.
Reed works as an EMT for County Ambulance in Ellsworth and she witnesses how addiction has destroyed more and more lives. Almost twice a week, on her part-time job, she transports adults and kids abusing drugs to the hospital.
Many of those in treatment are young people like Adam Dyer, a high school dropout, who lives in a county where a lagging number of kids pursue an education. Some 56 percent of the high school graduates in Hancock County plan to attend college, 10 percent less than their peers statewide.
With no future, no education, Reed worried about her nephew's new pastime - his drug addiction. She also felt an obligation to her dead sister.
"Before she died, she'd say, 'You need to take care of Adam. Make him better. Help him to not be like me.' "
Reed knew her younger sister had grown addicted to OxyContin and other painkillers in the years before she died.
"She had pain in her shoulders, so she started taking painkillers for it," Reed says. "She was abusing drugs before they diagnosed her with cancer."
Adam Dyer also knew his mother took painkillers. He had his own addiction. He first tried OxyContin when he was 16.
"Most of my friends were doing it," Dyer says. "It made me feel like I was on top of the world. It's a way for you to get away from your problems. It's like nothing else matters when you're doing it."
Not long after he tried the drug, his mother was diagnosed with cancer. She was 39. Her doctor prescribed OxyContin for her pain and Dyer began stealing the pills from her bottles.
"I knew she only had a couple years left and I didn't take it too well," he says. "My mother was like my friend. The drugs helped me forget about her cancer."
His mother knew he had tried other painkillers such as Percocet and she was afraid he'd take her OxyContin. She kept the drugs locked in a safe beneath her bed. That didn't stop him.
"I used a butter knife to pry it open," he says. He stole a few a day. A few months passed before his mother noticed.
"She knew I had a drug problem and she confronted me about it."
Kathy Dyer told her son she was angry, disappointed and scared.
"She was scared of dying and she was worried about me," he says. "She knew I was going through a tough time too."
As his mother grew sicker, so did Dyer. "I just couldn't stop," he says. "It was this wonderful feeling that warmed your whole body up. If I didn't have it, I was sweating, cold. Like I had the flu."
Forty-eight hours before his mother died, Dyer attempted to detox. "I tried to do it for her but when I found out she had a few hours left, I started doing the Oxy again," Dyer says.
As his mother lay dying at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, he stood in her room, feverish and shaking.
"I was going through withdrawals," he said. "I tried not to let her know. But I think she knew."
The night before she died, she gave the letter to Adam. "She was crying. I was crying."
Dyer whispered to her son: "I love you. Try and get better."
"I love you," Adam told his mother. "I'll see you again someday."
His mother died March 15, 2001. She was 42. Adam was 17. Despite his mother's dying wish, Adam couldn't quit.
"I was mad at the world. Mad at God." His family reminded him of his mother's hope that he'd get clean.
At times, he talked to his mother, asking for help: "Help me get through this, Mom."
It took two trips to the emergency room after overdoses for him to stop. "I nearly went into a coma and my heart was beating so hard it felt like it was going to jump out of my chest," Dyer said.
That night he felt his mother with him, watching over him. He promised himself and her he'd stop taking the drugs.
"I told myself enough. I can't do this anymore." He's says he stopped taking drugs 21 months ago. He shrugs his shoulders when asked about his future.
His goals are fuzzy. He works part time with a family member doing landscaping. He'd like to earn his high school diploma, another of his mother's wishes. "She wanted me to finish school too," he says. "Get a good job somewhere." But Dyer knows there are few jobs in this Hancock County town and his reputation as a drug addict lingers.
"It's tough," he says. "Some of my friends are still using Oxy. It's a struggle to stay away from it."
There are some people who refuse to believe he's clean. A few weeks ago, the Bar Harbor police pulled him and a friend over for a driving citation. Rumors spread that he was back on OxyContin.
"Adam did so many bad things in the six months after Kathy died that's all people in town can remember," Reed says. "He's got a bad reputation now and it may always be with him. But he's trying. He's trying really hard and I'd swear on my kids' lives that he is clean."
Dyer doesn't talk much about what other folks in town say. He talks more about his mother and her last wish.
"I know she's looking down at me, watching," he says. "I know she hears me. I tell her I'm doing all right and I know she's proud."