The Death of my Heroin Addict Niece — an Uncle’s Perspective

B&W legs of man praying alone in church

For 13 years, Ximena was an incredibly bright, athletic, motivated second child and second daughter. She lived in an intact, supportive family under normal stresses and strains. The extended family was cohesive and supportive with several involved aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. The extended circle of friends was also supportive with few exceptions. The future looked bright. Her father spoke to me about getting her ready for Ivy League schools and scholarships, both athletic and academic. At 13 she was a 4.0 student, a voracious reader, and a gifted writer.

Then something happened. The family does not talk about it in any detail, but there was some form of sexual abuse by someone close to her age whom she knew. She learned a brutal lesson at a vulnerable time—that her body had become an object of exploitation, even for people who should be trusted. Her chosen response was to wear baggy clothing like sweatpants and hoodies, I suppose to make herself less attractive as an object. Her unchosen response was anxiety.

Though her grades did not suffer and her athletic pursuits did not slip, she was more guarded, angry and suspicious.

Flash forward a few years. Ximena had been in and out of trouble, nothing serious yet. Her faith in God had been damaged, in my opinion, due to the betrayal of someone who claimed to be a follower of Jesus. This deserves an aside.

When The Predator is a Self-Proclaimed Disciple

Many victims of sexual predation are uncomfortable with Elizabeth Smart. A poor interpretation of her experience and subsequent psychological health is a bit of a slap in the face. For some, It is as though her story is saying “I had it far worse than you by being raped by a disgusting madman almost every day for over a year and now I am a perfectly normal, well-adjusted adult with a husband and children who even served a mission for my church and maintain my faith completely intact. You went through less than I did; what’s your problem?” Ximena was one of those who hated Smart’s book.

I wonder how things might have been different had Elizabeth Smart been so severely sexually abused by someone she trusted who was supposed to be representing Jesus. Mormons believe that ecclesiastical leaders stand in Christ’s place for their specific area of responsibility and should do their best to act as he would act if he were present.

Paraphrasing Lynn Scoresby, any mistreatment by one who represents Jesus quickly leads to the suspicion that the Savior cannot be trusted either.  Vulnerable, betrayed people learn little hope, less faith and unless there is some spiritual intervention, will have much greater difficulty believing that there is a God capable of love and a Messiah capable of sacrifice.

This does not exculpate Ximena from those things that she did choose. Causality is a difficult thing to determine, yet we pursue a determination for a number of reasons including to assuage guilt, shift blame, and less perniciously, to learn how to avoid future, similar events. What is certain is that the events of her 14th year seemed to have been the turning point of a tragic shift away from God, hope, and peace.

A Common Story: Hooked on Prescription Drugs, Then Heroin, Then Death

assorted pills B&WThere was never a period of any long duration after this that Ximena was not troubled in some way. Her drug use started with prescription drugs to help with her anxiety. These were misused and not managed well by medical professionals. Klonopin made her feel “normal” she said. She was able to stand up in front of people for the first time in years and deliver. She received her first prescription at 18 years old as a college student who had to do an occasional oral presentation. By 19 she was abusing. I can only speculate on her reasoning. Perhaps she thought that one pill took her from minus ten to zero; maybe two could take her from zero to ten.

Less faith meant that there were fewer self-imposed prohibitions. Although there was a pinky toe-hold in religion, it had lost all of its transformative power. The behavioral prescriptions from her ecclesiastical leaders went mostly ignored. It was then that Ximena and I got into philosophical depth on religious topics. It was also then that her friend circle grew to include addicts.

“There is enormous danger in sending a child to drug rehab,” Her father explained. Humans are social beings and the child is now in close association with people who are trying to clean up but often fail later. Once friendships are cemented, associations continue. At some point, the child recovering from prescription drugs abuse will associate with active drug users. Social interaction in a peer group often pulls the non-user into use more for solidarity than for the high.

By 20, Ximena was using heroin. Cigarette smoking also started about this time, I believe more out of social solidarity than out of anxiety alleviation at first. Later, she would say, when questioned about her smoking, “Look, it is either this or heroin. You choose.”

For Her, Sexual Preference was Neither Fixed nor Binary

Sometime between 20 and 24, Ximena had become sexually active. She lived with us for a few of her clean months, felt comfortable in our home, and we loved having her there. Many friends would visit, mostly female and mostly non-drug users. One of Ximena’s particular sex partner’s parents found out about a relationship between Ximena and their daughter and banned their daughter from seeing Ximena.

Ximena was devastated. We had a long, deep talk about the implications and how to manage them. I told her that premarital sex was not allowed in the house for anyone. Those were house rules that we expected her to follow. During our talk she said that her sexual orientation, unlike for many others, was a choice—she was not hard-wired in her preference.

I believe that, for her, sex with a woman was less complicated than sex with a man as demonstrated by the few sexual interactions she had had with males. In Ximena’s case, sexual preference was not a binary proposition. As it is for many others, her sexual preference manifested more like a spectrum with significant malleability due to environmental realities.

The Nation’s Failed War on Drugs

At about 24, Ximena and I had a series of political/sociological discussions that I believe impacted both of us. While she was not using, our discussions were rich and meaningful. While she was using, I found it difficult to talk to her. Though physically present, it seemed to be in an entirely different dimension.

During one discussion while she was not using, Ximena laid out her contention that drug offenses should not result in incarceration. It was a long, well-thought-out argument that had a clear rational component bolstered by a strong compassion component. The thought of one of her user friends being incarcerated when they needed rehab was abhorrent. She was surprised to find out that I completely agreed.

We discussed the success of the Portugal solution: legalize drugs and shift money that would have been used on incarceration to rehab. We covered the failed war on drugs in the United States and what might be done about it. We covered the shift of drug production and supply away from Colombia and into Mexico where we have several relatives. This and other discussions had on long walks bonded us together until I drew a line in the sand.

Some Drew Lines and Some Didn’t: I Did

Some people in Ximena’s life drew lines and others did not. She was devastated that one of her closest friends had told her, that for the protection of her family, Ximena was not allowed to come back to their home until she had been one year clean. Ximena believed that even under the worst drug influence she would never do anything to hurt her friend’s family including an infant daughter. Her friend believed otherwise.

When she was using, Ximena defined people in terms of,  “Good,” anyone who enables me and “Evil,” anyone who prohibits me from my immediate will. Her friend became evil at that point and Ximena constantly trashed her. Another time occurred earlier when a cousin gave her a ride to work. As a side note, Ximena had to be driven everywhere and was constantly relying on people for money and transportation.

While the cousin stopped to get gas, Ximena got out to smoke. The cousin asked her to wait to smoke until she arrived at work only a few blocks away to avoid having the smell of cigarette smoke contaminate the new car. Ximena took issue with the denial and said some harsh words to her cousin who did not want to drive her to work again.

My own line came when Ximena asked to stay with us for a few days. Ximena’s parents made the request. I said no. Shortly after, Ximena called, betrayed. She asked me about grace, compassion, and loyalty. To her credit, I believe she truthfully answered all my questions. I asked, “Are you using now?” She admitted that she was. I asked how she paid for her last hit. She said that she had stolen some money from her dad’s drawer. I said that I could not trust her to not steal from me and that I was worried that a dealer might show up at my door looking for payment and ready to extract it from anyone in the home.

She was deeply offended. I questioned my own motives for a time and to this day am not sure that it was the best choice or what I would do if the same circumstances were placed before me again.

People Who Did Not Draw Lines

One of the most remarkable parts of this story involves the people who drew no lines. At the funeral, I had a chance to discuss my line drawing with a relative who had drawn no lines. She said, consolingly, that she believed it took both kinds of people to help an addict.

Of the many who drew no lines, like my wife, Ximena’s grandparents, her brothers, at least one of her aunts and many friends, her mother and father stand out as the most sacrificial. Ximena once said to her mother that her addiction and sexual preference were a blessing to the family because they had all become more tolerant and accepting. I found her statement self-serving, but she was right. Everyone that interacted with Ximena in a meaningful way had their boundaries stretched from cognitive and paradigm tension. Each of us is better.

I watched her mother move from being occasionally ashamed and embarrassed to being completely Ximena-focused. As every parent of an addict knows, the portion of total time, emotional effort and resources spent on the addict as a percentage of that spent on all the other children is enormous. I believe that if her mother and father had ten lives to live, that they would have laid all ten down for Ximena.

I watched a determined focus and peace enter her mother’s life. I watched self-concern melt away. Much of this had to do with a focused and frequent temple attendance. Ximena occasionally took cutting pot shots at her former religion. She would say things like, “I think it is so adorable how you guys believe is such wild fabrication.” She completely missed the change in her mother’s spiritual strength that had come from seeking God. Ximena was the vicarious beneficiary of immense faith in God through her mother.

Occupy Villalobos: When Addicts Congregate

One of my politicophile children quipped that Ximena’s parent’s house should be called, “Occupy Villalobos.” Ximena, through rehab and other areas of her life, had many friends. Her parents had an open-door policy, partly so that Ximena would not feel the need to go to other, less safe places. Many of these people became semi-permanent residents. Few had jobs that would allow them to live on their own and most had questionable futures. Many of them were marvelous people, like Conrad, who was one of the most grateful people I have known.

All totaled, her mother and father spent more than $100K on therapy and rehab. Add to that education and living subsidies for ages when children are normally self-sufficient, dropping everything to buy her favorite food, Disneyland trips, gas, driving her everywhere and on and on and you have a small fortune. It did not matter. There was no number that her parents would not have spent to the point of bankruptcy to help Ximena make it out of addiction and into happiness.

The Diseased Addict Brain

Sadly, even surrounded by very loving, self-sacrificing people and enormous resources brought to bear, her brain had been rewired to the point that selecting from among genuine alternatives was an illusion. On one of our long walks, Ximena argued that addiction is a disease.

I had heard that before but had not concluded that it was true. As with most of our discussions, I challenged her point, not because I was opposed to it, but to test its accuracy. I said, “That sounds pretty demeaning to cancer patients to lump them with addicts.” She agreed to that specific point but insisted that it was still a disease of a different kind. We ended with no specific conclusion.

I now believe that she was right. I believe that she had a brain disease that, like cancer, is quite difficult to eradicate completely and forever. So it was that on Friday, January 21st, a day away from going to her beloved Huntington Beach timeshare condominium to celebrate her birthday, with tickets in hand to visit her brother in Oregon, and having been clean for six months, Ximena used for the last time. She was set to move back into a halfway house she had lived in before and perhaps thought that she could get one last high in before being closely monitored. I do not believe she intended to die from the high.

The Way Out That Was Not Taken

My own faith tells me that there is a way out of the disease. I was told by an owner of a long-term, inpatient drug treatment facility that, unlike cancer, where a person may heal without invoking a higher power, the diseased addict brain needs to believe in a higher power.

Ximena lacked the faith and humility to believe in the God of her fathers so she chose what she fabricated and called Mr. Hogan. How he became a “higher power” for her will remain a mystery to me. I believe that had Ximena returned to full faith in the God of her fathers, she would be with us today, a happy, productive do-gooder going about lifting burdens and counseling in love and wisdom. She was a champion for the marginalized who was only limited in her effectiveness by her diseased brain. There was so much good that she could have done in a darkening world.

I do not miss addicted Ximena. She was different and could be a monster while under the influence. However, in totality, I would take her back a thousand times over. Her good far exceeded her bad. I am forever grateful for my association with her. Our interactions were mind and soul expanding. My faith also tells me that we will have association at a future day. I miss her hugs which were frequent and meaningful. I miss her wit. I miss our philosophical discussions. I miss more things about her than I am able to mention.

Mauricio Cabanillas grew up in Bakersfield, California, the son of immigrant parents from the Dominican Republic and Mexico. He served a mission in Chile and currently owns a small media company.