‘The second victims’

In Features, Non-fiction on April 28, 2015 at 5:29 pm
Three generations: In the foreground, Sharlotte Cooper contemplates the gravity of her kids' drug addiction.  In the background, her daughter and grandson play in the yard.

Three generations: In the foreground, Sharlotte Cooper contemplates the gravity of her kids’ drug addiction. In the background, her daughter and grandson play in the yard.  |  Photo by Alex Ashley

By Alex Ashley
Second of four parts


For the parent of a heroin addict, there are moments that can confirm the worst: that drugs have finally taken over their child’s life.

For Sharlotte Cooper, of Stanwood, it’s hard to say when that moment was.

It could have been going downstairs to tell her daughter that dinner was ready, and finding her — months pregnant — holding a lighter to some foil, preparing to smoke heroin.

It could have been getting a call from an addict and fugitive asking for $1,000 in exchange for her grandson, who he had been taking care of while the child’s parents were out getting high.

Or, if not then, when a complete stranger — an addict friend of her kids’ — held her baby grandson out of a sixth-story window and told her to leave.

Pat Slack, Commander of the Snohomish Regional Drug and Gang Task Force, said one of the hardest parts of his job — even with 47 years of experience in law enforcement — is facing the families of those who have been lost to, or who have gotten lost in drug abuse.

“When I meet parents or loved ones of an addict, and I have to tell them their kids are going to die — either through an overdose or just the lifestyle they picked — to me, that’s harder than walking up to their door and saying ‘Johnny’s not coming home anymore.’”

He calls them “the second victims.”

You can measure drug deaths, and you can count heroin addicts: there were more than 140 opioid-related deaths in Snohomish County between 2011 and 2013,

But statistics don’t account for the families behind each of those numbers — families that has been dragged kicking and screaming into the dark underworld of drug abuse and addiction.

As Cooper tries to put her story into words, her daughter Cynthia stands in the background.

As Cooper tries to put her story into words, her daughter Cynthia stands in the background.  |  Photo by Alex Ashley

Slack, 69, knows about family: he has a two sons, 44 and 18, two daughters, 45 and 20, and he just celebrated his 29-year anniversary to his wife Carmen.

“But when you have an addict in the family,” he said, “it can tear whole worlds apart.”

When Sharlotte Cooper sat down to talk about her experience, it was a sunny afternoon, the spring air outside was fresh and crisp and her granddaughter, just a few months old, wouldn’t stop crying.

“Its like an addiction,” Cooper said.  “It is an addiction.  I’m addicted.  From the time I wake up until the time I go to bed, it consumes me.  How am I going to help them?”

Her son, 22, is addicted to heroin, and so is her 26-year-old daughter.

Cooper said there are nights she tosses and turns, and days where she peruses the Internet for affordable burial sites as she waits for the proverbial shoe to drop.

“When one dies,” she said, “as I know that they will…”

She paused.  A pause that become like a performer’s eon — the vast chasm of of time between the finale and an audience’s impending applause — and she cried.

“Am I going to be strong enough to bury them?”

Cooper is a strong woman.  She is a registered nurse by trade, but retired early due to a workplace injury.  Now, all her time is spent raising her grandkids, because who else is going to?

She has dirty blonde hair, which she brushes out of her eyes with her hand every so often as she speaks — long enough to see the intense look of tension and strain on her face.

The baby was still screaming, and her daughter, Lanaia, was trying to get her to stop.

It was the supervised visitation day for Cooper’s daughter to see her kids.

“The baby can tell she’s using,” Cooper said.  “They can just tell.”

Cooper's grandson Sebastian toddles to her from across the yard.

Cooper’s grandson, Sebastian, toddles to her from across the yard.  |  Photo by Alex Ashley

She said the stress of her kids’ drug addiction has come close to pushing her to her breaking point more than once, that there are nights at her house when she feels like the whole neighborhood can hear what’s going on.

“The baby will be screaming because she’s detoxing, and then I’ll start crying and then I’ll start praying real loud,” she said.

She sat down in a chair by a window in her house, and let out a long sigh.

“There are a lot of Bible people around here,” she said.  “A lot of people say they’re going to pray for us.  I believe in God too, but I’m starting to give up.”

The worst, she said, was when her son lit himself on fire in what could have been a gruesome suicide attempt.

“He goes through psychosis when he goes through withdraw,” she said.  “He gets crazy.”

In a desperate attempt to get away from the stress of it all, she loaded up her SUV — her, her kids and grandkids — and started driving.

Halfway over a mountain pass —  the grandkids are screaming, her kids are arguing — Cooper found foil and drug paraphernalia in the car, and she lost it.

“I put my foot on the gas and floored it,” she said.  “And I told them ‘I’m taking us over the cliff, and we’re all going to die together and end this.’ I snapped.  And drugs did that to my family.”

Pat Slack, who has devoted his time and efforts wholly to the war on drugs for the past 16 years, isn’t surprised by anyone’s story.  They are all different, and yet all the same, but all so very, very sad.

“I know people, professionals in the world,” he said, “who go on vacation and use heroin, and then they come back to their lives and act like nothing changed.  But some people get addicted, and thats it.  Thats all they think about is ‘where can I get my next fix?’ They don’t care who they hurt.  They don’t care who they lie to.  They don’t care.  Mentally and emotionally, they will hurt them.  Physically, they will hurt them.  It doesn’t matter who ‘they’ is if they’re standing between them and their next fix.”

A version of this story appeared as part of a four-part series in the Stanwood Camano News, April 28, 2015:

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