“I’ll rise up,
In spite of the ache,
and I’ll rise up,
I’ll do it a thousand times again,
—from Rise Up by Andre Day
“We started grieving the loss of my son even before he was gone,” says Jenny Jordan, whose 19-year-old son Steven Anthony Roderick died of an overdose on November 4, 2019.
So very hard.
“He always struggled with mental health, and very early on… when he was around 15, he began dabbling with drugs,” explains Jenny. “He was self-medicating, and then it just started escalating more and more. Stevie needed so much help. The last year he overdosed multiple times.”
In 2019, 380 people in Maine died from drug overdoses (with the impact of COVID-19, the rate of overdose deaths in 2020 is even higher). When seen as only numbers, the immense impact of these deaths is easy to gloss over. Yet each loss leaves devastation in its wake.
“It’s affected my life in such a huge way it’s mind-boggling,” says Jenny. “It affects the whole family.”
Jenny lives in Alna, Maine, with her husband, David, and two teenage sons—Steven’s younger brothers, D.J. and Christian. A fourth son, Steven’s older brother, lives in Virginia. They are all coping as best they can.
“The boys are struggling,” Jenny notes. “We all fought so hard to not have this happen. But they’re getting support—the counselor at Boothbay Region High School has been fantastic. If there’s a silver lining, it’s made my other boys realize what they don’t want to fall into.”
Things weren’t always hard.
“The boys were just like any other siblings. Me and my husband both worked. We were a normal family,” says Jenny.
Her family had been healthy and happy—a multitude of photos testifies to that truth: four rambunctious boys in action; down-time on the beach; smiles and hugs aplenty.
“Even through everything, we all got along,” Jenny notes.
“Stevie was so smart,” she says. “At nine years old he was getting dirt bikes and quads [ATVs] and fixing them and turning around and selling them on Craigslist. He could take them apart and put them back together.”
Then things changed. Steven began acting out around age 13.
“I thought it was just a teenager thing until it really started to get out of control,” says Jenny. “The older he got, the more out of control he became—he would just blow up. We have holes in our walls we’re still fixing.”
It became clear to Jenny that Steven’s behaviors required professional help, but she could not find what he needed. Steven was physically resistant; he could not be forced to see mental health care providers, and calling the crisis hotline only got Jenny so far.
“I’d go to the police when we weren’t in crisis because it was getting scary. They’d tell me they thought Stevie needed a psychiatrist—but who was going to take him there?”
Steven attended Boothbay Region High School through 9th grade and then stopped attending. According to his mother, he’d “take off a lot” to spend time with his girlfriend at Boothbay Harbor. From age 16 to 18, Steven shuttled back and forth between Massachusetts and Maine; things had become so bad for the family, he often was not allowed home (“the police were at my house so often,” Jenny says).
Steven moved to Massachusetts where his biological father lived, and where he continued having run-ins with the criminal justice system.
“Assault, driving without a license, driving with an unregistered car, drinking and driving—most of his charges were about his license and the car.”
One time, Steven came home to his mother’s to detox.
“I stayed in bed with him, wouldn’t let him leave the room. He was sweating, getting sick. I was telling him about mental illness; helping him to be aware. I got him to go to the hospital. We went to the ER—they did nothing. Couldn’t find a bed for him so they sent him home. He had an appointment three months later. Months,” she says, exasperated at the inadequacies of the system.
“He had moments of clarity, when he was open to getting help. But we didn’t have access, or we couldn’t afford it. One place, even with a scholarship, still was going to be $1,000 a week. I could never afford that. There was nothing,” she laments.
“He just slipped through the cracks. The whole system failed him—all of it.”
Paradoxically, the memories Jenny most cherishes are the six months Steven spent in jail at age 18 in Massachusetts, shortly before he died. During that time, work and family made it impossible for her to visit (the jail was four hours away); instead, Jenny and her son spoke on the phone and exchanged letters.
“Even though they didn’t put him in treatment in jail, his head cleared. He was doing so well. It gave me six months with him we wouldn’t have had. Right now all I have are memories—I have letters to hold on to.”
Then he was released.
Shortly after, Jenny went down to Cape Cod for a visit.
“He had gotten into a fight and his hand was cut. I stitched him up,” says Jenny, who is a nursing assistant. “Despite that fight, he was doing so well. He had one job and was starting a second job at Target.”
Jenny recalls hugging her son good-bye, never imagining it would be for the last time.
She recounts what happened the next week:
“He was out with a monitoring bracelet and at his girlfriend’s house in Massachusetts—a beautiful house; beautiful neighborhood. They had an argument, and he ended up sleeping over at someone else’s house. He slept all Saturday and all Sunday. And Monday she found him when she went in there. He was there for like a day and half and nobody knows what happened. There was no time of death except when the police went there. Not knowing the time—it really bothers me a lot.”
November 4, 2019, however, is the date that stands as the bright line between a life before Steven’s passing, and a life after.
“At the very beginning, I didn’t want to breathe anymore. I didn’t want to be here anymore. I still have days like that. It’s learning to live with a hole in your heart. I spent a good part of the first six months in bed, not being able to be anything for anybody.”
Jenny becomes exasperated with well-intended people offering vapid advice, and tries to explain her loss in a way others might understand: “When people tell me I need to be strong or to get over it, I say, ‘Let me walk into your house right now and shoot one of your kids. Who do you want to give up?’”
That’s how it feels.
Since her loss, Jenny is beginning to find a new sense of purpose. Sharing her pain is part of it.
“If kids don’t see that we’re not always strong, how will they learn vulnerability is okay? We have to be okay with hurting. We have to get over the stigma not only of addiction, but of vulnerability. We have to stop judging people,” she says.
She speaks out against stigma and judgment however she can, and makes herself available to others who are hurting from substance use. She has a vision of creating a place called Stevie’s House—a community with resources located on a 100-acre campus; a place like she could never find for her own son.
“I’ve written the mission statement. It’s a start.”
For Steven, Jenny wants to make a difference.
“Stigma is awful. It has to stop. The stigma and shame stops people from getting the help they need.”
And Jenny knows how unwarranted stigma is.
“These drugs don’t discriminate. They cross every boundary. Every city. Suburbs. Every border. People are like, ‘It could never happen to me,’ and I say, ‘You’re an injury away from having addiction.’”
For Jenny, it’s all about healing now.
“When Stevie was alive, all I kept telling people is I don’t want to bury my kid. My kids are my world.”
But bury him she did. Yet somehow she carries on, finding meaning and hope where she can.
“We planted a tree for him for the six-month anniversary of his passing. A beautiful weeping cherry tree. We put his ashes in the hole we dug; they’re meshing with the roots now, creating a new life form.”
She’ll have another symbol, too.
“I’m getting a tattoo, and the weeping cherry tree will be the image; Stevie’s tree.”
A reminder her son is always with her.