“She was brilliant, and also unassuming in a lot of ways … she’s a very kind, compassionate and loving woman, but she’s also extremely naïve. I didn’t really see it that way as a child, though. I just saw her as my beautiful, caring, funny, humble, nurturing mom. She was lovely … really.”
Karl Lawrence, 36, speaks these words with softness in his voice.
He recalls his childhood with remarkable ease and an obvious sense of pride that can be traced back to his close-knit family roots.
“She was definitely a cool mom,” Karl says with a laugh. “When I was 6, she took me to see ‘Pet Sematary.’ She always loved horror movies, and now, as an adult, whenever I’m sad or down, horror movies cheer me up. My mother was unique, and we were close … really close.”
Unfortunately, that dynamic shifted throughout the years.
Karl looks back to April 7, 2018 - his wedding day.
But the softness in his voice is now gone.
“My mom came alone,” he recalls. “She was in a wheelchair. She told me she loved me, that she was proud of the man I had become … and we haven’t spoken since.”
For 25 years, Karl has been dealing with his mother’s bipolar disorder and drug addiction, while grieving the loss of her former existence.
But through the storm, he’s found strength – and has never lost respect for the brilliant, beautiful woman who somehow lost her way.
The day he’ll never forget
When Karl was 11, his parents got divorced. He and his sister, Katherine, lived with their mom in Lafayette, Louisiana, and despite the family shift, life was still great.
But everything changed in the blink of an eye.
“I remember the day when my mom totally lost it,” Karl recalls. “I walked into the house from basketball practice, and every mirror was broken. There was pancake mix all over the floor, and fans and windows were broken. She was screaming into one of the broken mirrors, and my sister was sitting on the side of the bed, crying.”
Karl then fled to a friend’s house.
“I remember it was the weekend of the Super Bowl,” he says. “On Sunday, his parents called me down to the kitchen to tell me that my mother had wrapped her car around a tree on the way to pick me up. My sister spent a month in the hospital – and mom was locked in a mental institution for 90 days.”
Upon release, Karl’s mother was under a doctor’s care for headaches. He prescribed her the opioid painkiller hydrocodone – and within the first year, she was taking 25 pills each day.
“It got really bad really fast,” Karl says. “She stole the prescription pad, started forging prescriptions and drove all over, even into Texas, getting them filled.”
In the midst of this chaos, she got pulled over and was busted with a large amount of opioid painkillers. She was arrested for forging prescriptions and spent six years in drug court.
“It was a really hard time,” Karl recalls. “I was a teenager, so it was rough. My mom stopped working in 1997, and between the drugs and mental illness, every day was different. When she was manic, mom would clip coupons for three days without sleeping, and when she was depressed, she was laying on the couch in her own urine.”
She relapsed more than once and spent time in rehabilitation centers.
“But when she was home,” Karl adds, “she was a former shell of herself. I didn’t know, as her son, how to handle it.”
‘There was nothing I could do’
Upon turning 18, he got on a plane, moved to San Diego and joined the Army – a decision that can be traced back largely to his grandfather.
“He was a World War II veteran,” Karl says. “Most of my adulthood has been an effort not to disappoint him. My grandfather had Lou Gehrig’s disease, and before he died, he wrote on a notepad, ‘Son, I love you … and I encourage you to serve your country. We need young men like you to defend our nation.’ He was my hero.”
In 2002, Karl’s grandfather put a pistol to his head and killed himself.
As this was happening, Karl’s mother was in the throes of depression and addiction, and Karl’s sister had just revealed that she was a lesbian.
“I was in basic training,” he recalls, “and I felt really bad that I wasn’t around. I was so proud of my sister because there isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for her – and I know she has my back to the end of this earth. But I felt helpless – for her and for my mom.”
As time went on, the addiction fueled itself. Karl and his mother had no relationship – but he recalls one moment when a glimmer of the women he adored came through.
“I was in San Antonio,” he says. “And mom came to visit. She cooked a seafood gumbo for us, and my friends were blown away. I was very proud of her … it reminded me of her in my early childhood, and it was the first time in a long time that I felt really connected to her.”
From Texas, Karl was then stationed in Hawaii before deploying to Afghanistan. At the time, he was married and had a young son, now 17.
“And I’ll never forget the experience that brought everything to a head,” Karl says. “My ex-wife was going somewhere with my sister, and she left our son with my mom, who left him with someone else so she could go out and do her thing, while her addiction was in full force. And there was nothing I could do about it from across the world. When I got home in 2005, I was very angry. I hated my mom for what she had let happen and what she had become … for the sum total of my experience. I was angry because the addiction didn’t allow her to appreciate the gravity of my situation, being in Afghanistan and feeling powerless.”
The final straw
After the war, Karl was re-stationed in Hawaii. One day, his grandmother called him in tears.
“She said to me, ‘Baby, they stole everything,’ ” Karl recalls, “and I said, ‘What do you mean?’ My mom took everything from her own mother. That’s when I flew back home and told her that whatever relationship we had was over.”
In 2008, Karl moved back to Lafayette, where he works as a multimedia representative for the Acadiana Advocate.
Since then, he’s only seen his mother twice.
“She wasn’t a part of anyone’s life at this point,” he says. “She hasn’t even met my 7-year-old daughter. The addiction killed everything that made me love her so much. And I don’t know if she’ll ever come back.”
Prescription for prevention
According to 2016 national data, Louisiana was one of the top six states in the nation for number of opioid prescriptions written.
The team at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana (Blue Cross), in conjunction with the Baton Rouge Health District, recognized the need for education and awareness and devised a plan to combat the crisis.
Part of their strategy includes Drug Take Back Day, an annual event during which several hospitals, clinics, agencies and law enforcement officials promote the safe disposal of prescription drugs.
From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 27, people are urged to turn in their unused medication at the Baton Rouge Police Department Headquarters.
Dr. Sarah Hamauei, board-certified addictionologist and consultant for Healthy Blue, stresses the important of events like this, as proper disposal of controlled substances can be a matter of life, death – or even jail.
"Most people do not realize that giving someone a controlled substance could be considered 'distribution of a controlled substance' and could result in criminal charges,” she explains. “Even well-meaning relatives may find themselves inadvertently doing damage to someone they are trying to help by giving someone medications not meant for him or her. What if the recipient has a substance use disorder or is in recovery? Perhaps they have kidney or liver damage, or they may even be taking medication that interacts with another prescription … Someone well-intended can inadvertently cause serious injury or even deadly consequences.”
For “drug drop” locations available year-round, visit bcbsla.com/safedrugdrop.
To learn more about the work that Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana is doing to fight the opioid epidemic and for information on safer pain care, visit www.bcbsla.com/saferpaincare.
The Baton Rouge Health District is a coalition of patient-focused, innovative healthcare organizations committed the vision of a world-class, high-performing health destination at the heart of a healthy and vibrant community. The district promotes collaboration among healthcare providers, government officials, payors, higher education institutions and others to implement a master plan that will enhance healthcare and economic development in Baton Rouge. For more information about the Baton Rouge Health District, visit www.brhealthdistrict.com.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana is an independent licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association and incorporated as Louisiana Health Service & Indemnity Company.