Crystal Hayden’s descent started with a new job at a restaurant earlier that year. Then 20, Crystal started hanging out with new friends who, her father said, liked to drink. They were older. She wanted to fit in.
Hayden remembers she started coming home late. One day, she came home at 4 a.m.
“Wherever you were until 4 o’clock, go back there,” he remembers telling her before shutting the door.
From that night on, she stayed with her grandmother just downstairs from her dad. In the months to come, she experimented more with drugs and eventually began using heroin. Crystal Hayden overdosed in May 2008.
She was 21.
Hayden is among countless parents and family members who have struggled with how to deal with loved ones who have turned to heroin, a drug that has accounted for hundreds of deaths in Connecticut since Crystal’s.
That struggle is amplified by the complexities of heroin addiction and the medical system in which patients and their families find themselves, said Dr. J. Craig Allen, the medical director of Rushford Center.
“This isn’t something you cure; this is a chronic and recurring disease and that’s not well understood by laypeople and by medical providers,” Allen said. “Is it confusing to parents? Yes.”
Hayden raised Crystal on his own since she was 5 months old, when he and her mother split up. He had help from his mother and his grandparents, who also developed a strong bond with Crystal.
Crystal grew up in Shelton and graduated from Shelton High School in 2004. She was never a standout student, but she had an affinity for making those around her happy, Hayden said.
“She went through high school and got good grades — she was no A student. She was always interested in making people laugh and having people who are around her be happy,” Hayden said.
Crystal never gave him any trouble growing up. While some parents worry about the high school temptations of marijuana and alcohol, Hayden said that never crossed his mind.
“She was never into drugs her whole life (until the end). As a kid, she was just good,” Hayden said. “She was the one I always said I would never have a problem with.”
But Hayden said his daughter’s new group of friends stayed out late after their restaurant closed and drank. At the time, father and daughter were living in a two-family home with his parents — he and Crystal were in the top unit.
On the night she returned home at 4 a.m., he said he recalls telling her, “You’re not doing this.”
After Crystal moved downstairs to live with her grandmother, she met and fell in love with a man who used heroin with her, said Hayden.
“… She had moved downstairs, and I knew she was doing something bad. I could see it in her face. She was breaking out,” Hayden said.
Eventually, Hayden organized an intervention with their family. It led her to agree to go to Yale-New Haven Hospital. But once there, the pair stayed briefly before they were given some treatment information, and then they left. Hayden recalls not knowing how to proceed.
“The whole system often is quite confusing,” Allen said. Sometimes people seeking help are just given some information in an emergency room; often it’s hard to find out what programs are available, what’s covered by insurance, how to get a loved one admitted and how to pay for what can be an expensive rehabilitation.
Hayden found a treatment facility for Crystal in Middletown, but that also did not work out.
“She called me and said, ‘Daddy I can’t be here. These people will get me in more trouble,’” Hayden said. She spent a few weeks there, but was discharged early. Hayden said employees found heroin in her room.
Not more than a month before Crystal died, the family went on a vacation to Disney World, a typical trip for them, Hayden said. Much of the family was there, even Crystal’s mother, with whom Crystal had reconnected after many years.
Her dad had moved to Beacon Falls while Crystal remained with her grandmother in Shelton. But they were talking often and he felt good about that.
On May 29, Hayden said, Crystal told him she was going to call at 7 the next morning to let him know she was off to work. He woke up about 6:55 a.m. expecting the call.
“I was waiting for the phone to ring. And it wasn’t ringing. It was quarter after, ‘I am going to call over there. I’ll call in a few minutes.’ And then at, like, 20 after 7, my phone rang and it wasn’t my daughter. No, it was my mother calling me to tell me she had passed away,” Hayden said.
On that day they first went to Yale-New Haven Hospital to face her addiction, Hayden remembers the conversation he had with his daughter. She told him about how much she used.
“It was so painful, and kind of like she was saying it to me to get that pain from me — because of that night that I broke my promise that I’d never shut the door on her.”
He struggles with what happened toward the end. They weren’t living together, but he said they had repaired their relationship. Crystal had left the man with whom she used heroin, he said.
“She was all excited about her life. It’s not like she wanted this to happen,” Hayden said. “She was totally excited that she was going back to work. She was totally excited that her life was back.”
He said he now realizes that despite Crystal’s progress, she was an addict.
“It’s a disease that told her it’s OK. That I’ll be all right,” said Hayden.
What draws someone recovering from addiction to use again is hard to pinpoint and difficult to grasp for people who love an addict. Allen said people use because they feel happy or sad, angry or accomplished — or any number of other triggers that can lead to relapse.
“(The recovering addict’s) brain says, ‘I can do a little bit this time. I can use enough to get through the night.’ You say to yourself … ‘I can use this once just tonight. I’m not going to go on a run. I’m not going to lose my job or my family. I am going to shoot up or snort two bags,’ and you do it,” Allen said. The brain, he said, tells the recovering addict to use as much as they used before stopping, and sometimes long after the physical tolerance they built up is gone, posing dangerous consequences.
Amid the frustration surrounding why she used heroin that last night, Hayden still questions if he could have done more to help her combat her addiction.
“Part of it, I take blame. I should’ve gotten her into a real rehab somewhere. Maybe there’s something else I could’ve done. There was something I could’ve done,” he said.
Crystal’s story — her struggle — is one Hayden has told more than 100 times in support groups and other settings.
“My hope any time I talk about my daughter and tell her story is that there is some parent out there who maybe, you know, is ashamed of why their kid passed away or that this drug addict was their kid. Don’t remember that, remember what they were,” Hayden said.
That said, it was difficult for Hayden to come to terms with his grief. He went through his own personal problems. He moved himself back to Shelton from Beacon Falls and shut himself off from the world in his red house on a quiet street, the same house where Crystal died. Family functions and the holidays were awful, he said. He still asks himself why he gets another birthday and she doesn’t.
“You know, people think … that when you lose a kid you are going to get over it somehow, that it’s not going to change who you are as a person,” Hayden said.
He got help; and the birth of his grandson several years after Crystal’s death gave him purpose.
However, as he was working through his grief, it was hard for him to share his story with other parents who had lost children — to cancer, car accidents or other causes. But since then, drug overdoses have increasingly become the source of their loss.
“Everybody is touched in some way” by heroin, he said.
Though parents and families are more aware of the problem, he wonders whether enough young people understand the consequences of heroin use.
“These kids who are doing this stuff have no idea. What it will cause their family? They have no idea what could really happen,” he said. “They think they are invincible.”
Despite the heartache, Hayden said he won’t let Crystal’s addiction be what he remembers about his daughter.
He recounted how Crystal convinced him to visit his dying father in the hospital. The two men had never had much of a relationship, he said.
And he recalled how after they cleaned out his house one day, Crystal was left with a bunch of coats in her car. She was driving home one night and saw a homeless man, Hayden recalled. She got out and gave him the coats. “She had a huge heart,” Hayden said.
“(Heroin) doesn’t define my daughter as a person,” Hayden said. “It doesn’t define who she was and it doesn’t take away the great things she did. And all the things and all the people she touched in her life.”
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