It is said that the chains of addiction are too light to feel until they are too strong to break. Perhaps no story better illustrates this than Creighton Shipman’s, who died of an opioid overdose at 19 on July 17, 2016.
Creighton’s addiction began five years earlier as a star lacrosse player for Wando High School. A deep wound from another player’s cleats didn’t heal right and over time his pain worsened. Amputation was not far off when a specialist finally properly diagnosed a bone infection. After an operation Creighton was given a wheelchair and prescribed opioids. The physical wounds healed but something deep in Creighton’s psyche shifted. Years later, while in a drug rehab facility he would tell his mother Nanci that a light came on in him when he first experienced those drugs and that he never forgot it.
Good grades and stellar lacrosse play at Wando netted Creighton a college scholarship to Mars Hill. Inexplicably, his scholastic performance plummeted late the first semester. “Strangely, he got an A in Macro-Economics, the toughest class, and failed all his other classes,” Nanci shared. “Everyone loved Creighton, so they made arrangements for him to return to school that spring and retake his classes but he wouldn’t be allowed to play competitive lacrosse until his grades improved.”
With the spring semester came further deterioration of Creighton’s attitude. By Mother’s Day, Nanci realized that he was using drugs and told him he would not be allowed to return home with his younger siblings until he was willing to get help.
“Years earlier I had to deal with a family member in active addiction” Nanci says. “During that time I read a lot of books and attended Al-Anon meetings to learn about this disease. I cannot cause another’s addiction, nor control or cure it. I learned the importance of detaching with love so the afflicted one has an opportunity to feel the consequences of their actions and hopefully seek a better path. I see in hindsight that this learning prepared me for Creighton’s situation.”
Creighton entered a drug rehab facility in June 2016 during which there was a “family week” where siblings and parents attended joint counseling sessions. During one of these he shared that after returning to college from Thanksgiving break he had smoked pot with others that he didn’t realize was laced with heroin. For four years the demon within had patiently awaited its inevitable reawakening, and once obliged, he desired nothing else.
There were no transitional sober houses in Mount Pleasant. Creighton checked himself out of rehab early without a plan. Nanci endured two nights of visions of Creighton being lost before the inevitable knock on the door led her to a hospital where he lay in a coma. Soon the decision was made to cease life support. The damage done by the overdose was too extensive.
Two months later, Nanci faced yet another crisis. This time it was her son Hollice playing football for Moultrie against Christ Our King. There was a big pile-up and everyone but Hollice got up. Nanci found him writhing in pain from what she would later learn was a broken femur. A paramedic stood by asking her “Morphine or Fentanyl ma’am? He is starting to go into shock ma’am – Morphine or Fentanyl?” Through the haze of pain Hollice cried out “No mom! I don’t want my light to come on!” Referring to his older brother’s introduction to opioids five years earlier. She told him that it was OK because this is what the drugs are meant for. After surgery, Hollice went through physical rehabilitation with Advil and aspirin, refusing opioids. “He healed six weeks sooner than they said he would” Nanci says. “We are supposed to feel pain. I don’t know what is right for anyone else’s situation, but we knew at the time it was right for us.”
“Grief is the price we pay for love,” Queen Elizabeth once said. And so it is. Now, a single mother, Nanci had three other children who needed to learn how to navigate in an increasingly uncertain world. “I knew this wasn’t my fault because of the things I had learned before,” Nanci says. “I wanted to just pull the covers over my head and early on there indeed were some times that I did. My daughter said, ‘No one should struggle with this alone. We need to help others who are dealing with this.’ Soon the calls started coming from others reaching out who had been through or were going through similar situations, and through helping these people we began to regain our sense of self-worth and purpose.”
Over time these interactions led to a story in the Moultrie News and invitations to speak publicly. Nanci and her children founded “Creighton’s House,” a safe environment for at-risk teens seeking help. Regular meetings allow them to safely discuss their problems away from the peer pressure of others who don’t comprehend the issue. Also available to them is mentoring and the opportunity to take a new direction in life. This effort has further grown into the founding of “Wake Up Carolina,” an effort to expand awareness, education and recovery in this community that we will take a closer look at in future articles.
“I now understand that one’s grief is their’s alone” Nanci says. “Ultimately no one but you can fully understand it and only you can do the work necessary to get through it. Together, my children and I have used the pain of loss as fuel for our efforts to help others. And at the end of the day, there is no greater honor we can give Creighton. Through this service we assure that he did not die in vain.”
As I leave Nanci, a hundred questions swirl through my mind. Have I reached out to others when I should have? Have I walked through the grief I have faced in life or have I sought distractions from the pain? A younger friend died last week – a well-known and successful businessman whose death was the direct result of alcohol abuse. “Natural causes” is the party line and while this may be socially palatable, does it really honor him? After a short but productive life, does he not die in vain because the stigma of addiction kept us from learning from his premature passing? Maybe a fresh batch of chocolate-chip cookies will bring the answers.
Next week we are meeting a 27 year old who just achieved a year sober while burying his first cousin who died of an overdose. Why do some make it while so many others don’t?