I lost both my sons to opioids. But here's what I remember about them on Mother's Day.

I believe I speak for many mothers when I say that we must not be silent. If our society is to begin to heal, we must dispel stigma by coming forward.

Dr. Bonnie Milas
Opinion contributor

Mother’s Day this year is both poignant and painful for me. Over the last two-and-a-half years, in the midst of the opioid epidemic, I have lost both my 27-year-old son and my 31-year-old son to accidental drug overdoses. I have no remaining children. 

This is acutely agonizing given that in my profession as an anesthesiologist, I routinely handle large doses of opioids and rescue patients every day.

As I look back at my motherhood, I have had a profound list of experiences. Experiences which may not be ones shared so openly by other mothers.

I have unknowingly driven my car in dangerous areas of surrounding cities so my son could get drugs; unwittingly given my son money which he used to pay off drug dealers; unknowingly paid Uber drivers shuttling a drug dealer to drop off drugs just steps away from our home.

Distress isn't how I remember my boys

I have had my credit card used to Venmo money to pay drug dealers, unbeknownst to me. I have chased my son down the street in my bathrobe in an effort to prevent him from trying to score drugs, and have wrestled with my son while he had a full syringe in his hand getting ready to inject heroin.

I have seen my son dipping out and stop breathing, and I have done mouth-to-nose resuscitation, because my son’s mouth could not be pried open, a handful of times. Twice I have done CPR on my son, which is by far the most terrifying thing I have ever done.

I have had a supply of Narcan in my house and administered it multiple times; have removed a bathroom door from its hinges to rescue my son; and have physically restrained my son’s limbs to prevent him from jumping out of a second story window when he was crazed after being Narcan-revived.

I have even been to court, have had the judge ask, “Is there a family member with this individual today?” and I have stood and answered, “Yes. I’m his mother.” I have had the entire courtroom turn to look at me with some degree of judgment.

Dr. Bonnie Milas demonstrating how to administer Narcan in a training video for the University of Pennsylvania on Sept. 14, 2019.

As distressing as these memories are to recall and share, that distress is not what resonates in my mind, nor is it how I remember my boys.

My younger son, the mechanical engineer, was playful and loving, with a child-like sense of humor. He could make me laugh like no one else. We could be in the middle of an argument and he would simply smirk or contort his face, and we would both lose our composure in laughter. He was quick-witted and good with a one-liner. He was always entertaining.

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My oldest was bright and determined. I loved watching him wrestle or play soccer, and I was always the loudest mom in the stands — a fact which embarrassed us both equally. I was so proud of my "student-athlete of the year" as he graduated high school, then college, then medical school. We liked to discuss surgical cases at the family dinner table, which usually didn’t digest well with the other diners, but his intelligence always challenged and impressed me.

I miss them both dearly and think of them every day. I still expect to see them bounding down the stairs or standing in front of the fridge pondering what to eat next. I would gladly relive all the tumultuous times over again, just to have them alive today.  Yet, I know this will never happen. 

Let's tell our stories and dispel stigma

I also know that this Mother’s Day there are so many other moms who have a similar list of experiences, and who are also grieving the loss of their son or daughter.

I believe I speak for many mothers when I say that we must not be silent. If we are to begin to heal as a society, we must dispel stigma by coming forward and sharing our stories. By doing so we can make substance use disorder part of everyday conversation without the fear of judgment or shame.

I ask, please be mindful of negative things that might be thought or said about “drug addicts.” If they aren’t empathetic and kind words, then perhaps just listen. I learned that lesson from my own mother: “If you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all.” 

Listen to the fact that we are all at risk for addiction, a brain chemistry disease that is not controlled by willpower.

After the passing of my sons, I have kept a loud ticking watch in my closet that my one son wore on his last day. I like to think of that tick as his heartbeat, his memory — an odd thing for a mom to find so comforting.

Dr. Bonnie Milas is a professor of Clinical Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. The opinions expressed here are solely her own.