EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was originally published in November 2016 as part of Generation Heroin.
It was the day after Christmas when a police cruiser pulled up to Teresa Aldridge’s house in Lenoir, N.C., a small town just east of the Great Smoky Mountains. She was working in the yard.
“Do you have a son in Florida?’’ the officers asked. “I’m sorry to have to inform you, but they found him dead this morning.’’
Chandler Aldridge, known for giving the best bear hugs and lighting up a room with his blue eyes, died of a heroin overdose in an apartment near Lake Worth Road in Palm Springs. He was 20.
“When they said it, I said, ‘I knew this was coming. I knew this was coming. I didn’t know when but I knew it was coming,’’’ Teresa recalled.
“It was a tidal wave I saw coming early on that I could not stop.’’
Nearly a year later, Teresa attends support groups. But she still struggles to accept her son’s death, especially when people tell her they’re sorry for her loss.
“You don’t lose your child. You lose your keys. You lose your shoes. You lose the TV remote. But you don’t lose your child,” Teresa said, through tears.
“When a child dies, it’s catastrophic. It’s like you’ve lost a part of you that you love more than yourself. You are going to grieve as much as you’ve loved, and if you’ve loved that much, you’re going to grieve that deeply. It hits you to the very core of the soul when you lose your child.’’
Chandler tried marijuana in high school before graduating to pain pills. They suspect his drug use intensified when he went away to college at East Carolina University.
“We tried to prevent it,’’ Teresa said.
Not long after he turned 16 and got his driver’s license, Teresa said she found him “at a party where he wasn’t supposed to be. The next day I mailed his license back to the (North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles) with a note, ‘This is a disciplinary action.’’’
One night last summer he came home and told his parents he needed to talk to them. “He said, ‘I’ve done something I’ve never done before. I swore I would never shoot up heroin and I did today.’’’
Teresa said she was shocked. “When I heard the word ‘heroin,’ I thought of the 1970s and Vietnam. I never even knew heroin was still around.’’
She said she was up all night searching for treatment places and looking for insurance plans. “We did not waste one minute,’’ she said.
The family decided to send him to a treatment facility in West Palm Beach called A New Start. Teresa told him he had to stay at least three months. In August 2015, he moved his sister to college at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte and the next day got on a plane for West Palm Beach.
In November, he was expecting to come home. But he relapsed and in early November was put in a 30-day lockdown program.
He made progress in the first few weeks in December, Teresa said, but on Christmas Day she received a call from a counselor at A New Start, telling her that Chandler was being evicted from the program. He had violated rules by skipping curfew the night before, staying out until 3 a.m. and testing positive for drugs.
A friend picked him up and took him to an apartment on Miller Road around 11 p.m. He was found dead on the living room floor just after 7:30 a.m., according to a police report.
At Chandler’s memorial service on New Year’s Day, his sister, Mary, delivered a eulogy that also served as a warning about drug addiction and, in particular, the dangers of heroin.
Speaking to more than 500 people at First Baptist Church in Granite Falls, N.C., she explained that her brother’s “drug use was gradual. He started with marijuana and moved to pills, cocaine and molly. He tried every drug in the book and became heavily addicted to pain pills after continuously taking them.
“Chandler had never admitted to doing heroin, but I knew it was coming because it’s cheaper, easier to get, and gives the same high as painkillers. However you don’t know what’s in it or how strong it is, therefore, it is extremely lethal.’’
Mary described the last time she saw her brother, in August that year when he moved her to college. “When he left I had found a note in my purse from him telling me how much he loved me and that even if he was in Florida in rehab, if I needed him he would find some way to get back to me,’’ she said.
“The day after I moved in, he flew to Florida to start what I thought was going to be a new life for him. What I have recently realized is that Chandler has been battling something so much bigger than himself …
“These last three years with Chandler have been a complete roller coaster, but they taught me that people and our relationships with them are gifts. Loss can remind us that life itself is a gift. I want everyone in this room to know how hard addiction really is. So everyone can understand that it can and will affect anyone. No one is immune. If you don’t know someone personally who suffers from addiction, they probably haven’t told you yet.
“There are addicts everywhere and that is why it is so scary. It’s an epidemic, but it’s an epidemic where the only person who can control it is the person who decides not to sell drugs or not to snort that pill. I hope the loss of my brother shows at least one person that they are fortunate enough to still be here on this earth and to make a change in their life.’’
The family decided to have his body cremated. “I want to remember him like he was,’’ his father said.
Just before he was cremated, Teresa called the coroner’s office. “I said I need to know if he had a tattoo and what did it say.’’ The person on the phone described a tattoo on his right bicep: The words “Family” and “Everything” with a line between the two words.
Family over everything.
“I said, ‘OK, you can send it on.’’’