I was a breech birth ― feet first, my head got stuck in the birth canal. My father brought me to Children’s Hospital in Boston. The doctors diagnosed me with Cerebral Palsy. They told him that the loss of oxygen to my brain had destroyed a portion of the frontal lobe.
But my father was a tough Irish Catholic, old-school warrior. He refused to listen to them. No son of his was going to be a cripple. He found a doctor that told him how he could take the place of my injured brain.
Every day, he laid me on the floor and exercised my legs. The muscles in my right leg were all shrunken and twisted. His job was to straighten them. Back and forth, up and down, he stretched them until the heels of my feet evenly matched.
My mother told me the sound of me screaming was so unbearable that the neighbors called the police. She said he couldn’t look at me. She told me how his tears made wet stains on my little T-shirt.
For my 13th birthday, he threw me a party and allowed me to open every present but a large box neatly trimmed in wrapping paper. When everybody left, he marched me into the basement to open the box.
A pair of boxing gloves.
We put them on, and he beat me unmercifully. Each time I tried to get up, he’d knock me down. I begged him to stop. Instead, he picked a target on my face, never once missing the bull’s eye. When I collapsed, he cradled me and said, “I’d cut off my right arm if that would make you whole.”
My father believed that beating me that day was all about getting me ready for the real world. He told me I was a man at 13 years old and how things for me, “a cripple,” would be extra tough.
But listen, he wasn’t a monster. That same year, I was not picked for Little League Baseball. At tryouts, everybody laughed. My right leg awkwardly slanted inward when I ran. My father heard their snickers. On the ride home, he held my hand, and we cried together.
Two weeks later, my father started the Shedd Park Minor League. He raised money, bought uniforms, enlisted coaches, acquired permits, and every kid played.
In high school, I became a football star. One Saturday afternoon, I intercepted a pass and headed for the end zone. At the five-yard line, I looked around to see if anybody was chasing me, nobody... well, except my father running full speed along the sidelines.
My father died in my arms. That night, I shot my first bag of heroin. I took heroin just once, and after that first shot, heroin took me any place it wanted to. I destroyed everything in my path. I robbed family, friends, anyone, no exceptions. Nothing I said was the truth.
Heroin was like the peak of an orgasm that lasted for hours. The euphoria allowed me to escape the movie playing inside my brain. My father dying inches from my face, reliving it over and over, his last tear cutting a line down his cheek. His blood-red eyes and a freakish blend of purple-blue over his gray-white skin.
I beat heroin addiction. I did it cold-turkey, no methadone, no suboxone. Pure hell. Just sheer will and determination, something my dad had beat into me. A fire in my soul that was a carefully blended concoction of hate and love.
In a strange twist or irony, it was my father’s sense of failure that saved me. He could never allow his son to be labeled “a cripple.” All those kids laughing at me as I ran to first base or ran with a football was my father’s guilt that he had somehow failed me.
I failed my children. I failed to provide them a safe childhood absent of drugs, alcohol, and madness. I am guilty for their lack of success as they became adults. That sense of failure empowers me as a national activist in the battle to end the current heroin epidemic.
Tragically, failure compels many fathers.
Tim Grover, a successful businessman with companies in 14 states, received word that his daughter Megan had died from an accidental overdose of heroin on December 30, 2014. She was just 26 and had been waiting for a bed in a treatment center.
Grover pulled his car over to the side of the road and wept uncontrollably. He had failed to protect Megan. On January 6, 2015, the day after Megan’s funeral, Tim Grover closed on a property with plans to open up an opioid treatment facility for women. Megan’s House opened its doors eight months later.
Tim Grover’s sense of failure has empowered him to become one of the top activists in Massachusetts. His mission is simple; he will not fail another young woman in desperate need of heroin recovery.
Ironically, at the age of 35, a neurosurgeon in San Jose, California, told me I didn’t have cerebral palsy. He explained how the doctor’s forceps at birth had damaged the frontal lobe of my brain.
My father never knew the truth. However, one thing is clear: my father gave me the power to overcome heroin addiction.
So this Father’s Day, just like every Father’s Day, I’ll open my eyes, look to the sky and whisper, “I love you, Daddy.”
Ritchie Farrell is the author of I AM A HEROIN ADDICT.
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Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.