D.J. had a heart of gold
We all struggle wondering why they don’t choose us, but that’s not it. The demons of addiction are so overwhelming and so strong, sometimes our loved ones just stop fighting, I think.
My brother, Dale “D.J.” Stafford, was a kind, loving soul. When he died, he was alone with his dog Toby in a house where he had rented a room. No one reported his death for hours.
D.J.’s death spiral started long before any of us knew. He started drinking, smoking cigarettes, and smoking marijuana as early as 6th or 7th grade, but my parents had no idea.
Two car accidents, one in his teens and one in his 20s, left him injured and in pain. He had dealt with chronic pain most of his life, having been diagnosed with arthritis as a child. After the accidents, he was prescribed pain medicine.
Sometime after that, he began seeing multiple doctors to get prescriptions for opiates. I think my brother always wanted to check out a little bit. It star ted with the pot. He learned early how to keep himself from dealing with things, and he needed a bigger high as he got older.
When he married his first wife, Emily, I saw some great changes in him. He had a lot of good in him, and she brought it out. The day they wed was the happiest day of his life, but he didn’t want to give up marijuana. She tried to stick by him,
and we will always love her and count her as family.
After their marriage ended, he had some bad relationships.
D.J. and my mother were always close. When she got sick with cancer, he continued to use marijuana to avoid emotional pain, and after she died, I don’t think he wanted to live.
He got married again, but it was a bad relationship that also ended badly.
In 2009, he was in a major accident at the light at state Route 404 and River Road. A tractor-trailer hit him from behind. His car was on fire, and a nurse on her way home from the beach with her children crawled through the flames and glass to get him. His condition was grave. We didn’t know if he would live, walk, or remember anything. He turned a corner, but he remained on a ventilator. His lungs were in poor condition from smoking cigarettes and marijuana.
When he was prescribed opiates for pain, I told him I didn’t want him to overdo it. I didn’t want him to be in pain but he had to learn to live with a certain level of discomfort. He went to rehabilitation after the accident for pain management. When someone has been abusing pain medication for physical and emotional pain management, you can’t just let them go back to using opiates. He wasn’t always happy with me about the regimented rehabilitation for his injuries, but that’s what big sisters are for.
His body physically healed but he couldn’t breathe without an oxygen bottle and he still needed therapy. I had to fight to keep him in the rehabilitation center.
When he came home, he tried to have his life together. He had adopted his second wife’s son. She was incarcerated at the time, and he faced legal battles with her family about whether he was fit to raise his son. The settlement from the accident had not come through, and his house — our childhood home — was in foreclosure. If he worked, he couldn’t get disability, and he needed to keep food on the table for his son.
Sometime during that time, he started to slip away from us. He didn’t want just a patch anymore. He wanted pills again. He stopped asking doctors in Maryland and instead found someone in Seaford who would write him prescriptions again.
Finally, there came a point where he had to appear in court for custody and he had failed several drug tests. One of the hardest parts of being a family member of an addict is giving tough love. I wouldn’t testify that he was fit to raise the child if he failed drug tests. I said, “I love you more than you know but you can’t take care of yourself right now. You need to let him go with his grandparents.” I told him he was on drugs; the house was in foreclosure; and he didn’t have a car. He signed over his rights to his son.
When the accident settlement came in, he went from having no friends, no food, no money for bills to having friends back in full force. They partied for a few months, and then the bank foreclosed on the house because he didn’t make the payments.
He was homeless.
This is the first part of a two-part story. Please read tomorrow’s edition of The Star Democrat for the next part.
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DALE “D.J.” STAFFORD
Dale with first wife Emily