After 21 months off heroin, life is still a fragile balance
Aaron Torrance thought heroin would kill him. It didn't. He's clean and has his sons back.
Sarah Weiser / The Herald
Aaron Torrance, 30, plays around with his two sons, Liam, 3, and Kaeden, 9, as they walk home from the park on June 6 in Everett. After 15 years of escalating drug use -- marijuana, meth, cocaine, OxyContin, and finally heroin -- Torrance has gotten clean and gained full custody of his sons.
Aaron Torrance is a single dad on a shoestring budget.
He's more than $10,000 in debt and dogged by collection agencies. His driver's license is suspended. He has hepatitis C.
He recently lost his housing subsidy and was forced to move from the Everett apartment he shared with his two sons, 9 and 3.
Yet Torrance, 30, is remarkably content.
Life is as good as it has been in a long, long time.
In the fall of 2010, the hard-core heroin addict began climbing out of the narcotics netherworld he was convinced would end his life.
He has regained custody of his boys and the trust of his mother. He's working again. He can afford cable.
More than 100 clean drug tests document his 21 months of sobriety.
Click here to see more photos of Aaron Torrance and read more about his story.
Sarah Weiser / The Herald
Aaron Torrance vacuums his empty room in the Everett apartment that he lived in for the past year on June 30 before he and his family moved down to Puyallup.
Yet his is a fragile balance. He has failed before. He senses the lingering fears of loved ones that he'll relapse, that his sobriety is like an egg shell that people constantly check for cracks. He has moments of doubt, too.
Torrance offers an unvarnished look into the life of a recovering addict. He sugarcoats nothing.
He admits he has been a liar and a thief who pawned his sons' Christmas gifts to buy heroin. He'd told them he needed rent money.
He has felony convictions for burglary and possessing a stolen debit card. He fed his drug habit through years of shoplifting.
His story is not unique. Heroin has seeped into suburbia and taken root. Snohomish County's jail register is rife with heroin-related arrests each day. The Snohomish Regional Drug Gang Task Force not long ago reported nabbing a heroin user who was just 12.
To get a sense of heroin's ubiquity is to watch Torrance scroll through the 501 contacts in his cell phone.
By his estimate, 90 percent are drug addicts and a substantial number of those are heroin users. They are people he has met through Narcotics Anonymous meetings and other support groups around Everett. Some have maintained their sobriety for years; others have tried and failed.
Torrance considers himself fortunate. He was part of a non-traditional court system where the judge called him by his first name, a supporting cast of social workers and court officials provided rigid structure and fellow junkies helped celebrate his progress -- with hugs and handshakes instead of heroin.
Aaron Torrance helps Kaeden with his homework as Kaeden's friend Ivan Westergard (left), 10, looks on. This is the first time that Aaron has been completely responsible for his sons, and it's a challenge. The best part though, Torrance says, is "waking up to them, you know, knowing they're safe, and warm, and have a house over their head. And knowing that I did it all for them."
In 2002, several drug task force officers took turns examining evidence seized in a bust. For many, it was their first glimpse of heroin.
Today, "it's probably the most prevalent drug in Snohomish County," task force Lt. Mark Richardson said.
Heroin accounts for up to a quarter of the arrests the task force makes these days.
Treatment centers also report an increase in heroin cases.
"Our detox remains full with our phones ringing all day," said Dr. John Patz of the Behavioral Health Unit at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett.
Heroin's growing prevalence can be attributed to a rise of prescription drug abuse that began in the 1990s. That's when many young people began using OxyContin, a powerful synthetic opiate, as a recreational drug. Many moved on to heroin, which was cheaper and more accessible.
Manufacturers of OxyContin changed the formula, making it more difficult to smoke for a quick high. That led to still more addicts turning to heroin.
"There was a hiccup in the supply and that gave heroin a toehold," Richardson said.
Many users started out smoking heroin but turned to the needle in their quest for a better high; Torrance was part of that fraternity.
Medical experts say the rising use of heroin can be tied to an increase in drug-related deaths in Snohomish County. In 2011, the Snohomish County Medical Examiner's Office attributed a record 149 deaths to accidental poisoning from drugs and alcohol. By contrast, 38 people died in traffic accidents.
There were times Torrance was sure he would join the county's drug dead. He describes becoming "a garbage disposal" for drugs: marijuana, meth, cocaine, OxyContin and finally heroin. He dropped out of high school his junior year but had checked out mentally long before.
Not even the births of his two sons could keep him sober for long.
Torrance holds onto Liam as he tries to explain to him how important it is for Liam to listen to him. "Why will you listen to other people but not to me?" Torrance said to Liam earlier that month.
Torrance wears long sideburns and a black stubble goatee. He is wiry and angular and has no trouble keeping up his end of a conversation.
Grim reaper tattoos stare from his shoulders. His boys' names are inked on each arm: Kaeden on the right; Liam, the left.
The body art seems an apt metaphor for his life. Torrance had a wild side, but he was always the most outwardly affectionate of Donna Myers' three sons.
The same teen who hid marijuana in his parents' car to sneak it past checkpoints on the California military base where they once lived often asked his mom to tuck him in at night.
He was the son who was most rattled by his parents' divorce.
He endured playground taunts of "Hunchback" and "Quasimodo" before a large bulge in his back was surgically corrected in his teens.
Torrance began smoking marijuana when he was 13; by 15, he used methamphetamine and felt like Superman.
Myers, an eloquent church-going woman, couldn't control him.
Hands on, hands off, tough love -- nothing seemed to work.
When her son became a young father with a job, Myers let him stay in a family-owned rental home. She evicted him when she realized he was using drugs and he lost his job and stopped paying rent.
Some of her best nights' sleep during the past 15 years were when her son was in jail. At least there he was warm, fed and locked away from temptation.
"Going through it as a parent, it is hell, it is living hell," she said. "It got to the point where I just couldn't have Aaron in my life anymore."
Sarah Weiser / The Herald
Aaron Torrance comforts Liam outside their Everett Apartment on June 27.
Torrance struck bottom in the fall of 2010. His girlfriend, the mother of his children, left him. His boys wound up in foster care. His best friend, whose body had been ravaged by years of drug abuse, died at 49. His mother, weary of broken promises, wasn't returning his phone calls. And he was homeless.
That October he was released after his fourth stint in jail.
He stopped by an Everett coffee shop and bummed a cell phone from a man sitting nearby. Torrance dialed a drug dealer but got no answer. The man handed Torrance a card with a schedule of Narcotics Anonymous meetings. They were helping him, he said.
It was a simple act at a receptive moment: Torrance had nowhere to go.
He began attending meetings. He stayed sober. One day. Then another.
He found an NA sponsor to guide him as he embarked on the 12 steps toward recovery. Chris Currier, an Everett Community College welding student, has been clean for more than three years. When he was 17, he was driving drunk near Silver Lake and crashed his car, killing his friend, Shawn Elliot, who was in the passenger seat. Currier, who also battled an OxyContin addiction, panicked and fled. He later pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide.
At Currier's 2004 sentencing, the dead boy's mom said he would need to live his life for two people.
"Don't make Shawn die for nothing," the mother urged. "... Learn how to be a better human being."
Currier took Torrance under his wing.
"He wasn't just acting," Currier said. "He just didn't know how to go about it."
Sarah Weiser / The Herald
Aaron Torrance helps Liam get his pajamas on on June 21 in their Everett home.
Torrance desperately wanted to get his boys back, to be the father they deserved, not a couch-surfing nomad who paid sporadic visits.
It pained him to hear his youngest son call his foster father "Dad," but that's the world Liam knew.
In January 2011, Torrance was accepted into the Snohomish County Family Drug Treatment Court where a team of lawyers, social workers, drug treatment experts and others could keep a close eye on him and 29 other addicts. His urine was screened for drugs several times a week. His attendance at support group meetings was monitored. There was in-patient and out-patient treatment to complete as well as other counseling.
Ultimately, he would have to convince Superior Court Judge Ellen Fair that he was clean and capable of caring for his children.
On Friday afternoons, he joined other addicts listed on a fifth-floor courtroom docket. They were part of a system of incentives and sanctions where privileges are earned over time.
At first, he felt pressure and feared failure.
"They threw so many hoops at me and I jumped through all of them," Torrance said. "If they lit those hoops on fire, I would have jumped even faster."
In time, Torrance understood the court was just trying to hold him accountable, to live life on life's terms.
Since its start in 2008, the Family Drug Treatment Court has produced 34 graduates. Just two are known to have relapsed and again face losing their children. Most of the addicts are fighting methamphetamine and heroin addictions.
"The majority are very bright and they just got sidetracked by this disease of addiction," said Edmund Smith, the court's coordinator.
Victories are savored with each graduate, each reunited family and each baby born drug-free.
On a sunny March day, 14 months after he entered the program, Torrance graduated and was given unfettered custody of his boys.
It was a time of speeches and cake. His mom drove up from Pierce County to thank the court for the transformation of her son. Kaeden stood by his dad's side, beaming. Narcotics Anonymous friends squeezed into the crowded courtroom. Recovering addicts cheered. Two judges shook his hand.
Torrance told them that he believes the court was his last chance to make his life matter.
"If it were not for the Family Drug Treatment Court, I probably would not be here," he said. "Here meaning alive and breathing."
Liam and Kaeden Torrance wrestle outside their apartment in Puyallup. The life Torrance wants for his sons is one that's "happy, joyous, and free"
These days, Torrance wakes up early with a sore back and achy muscles.
He moved into a Puyallup apartment two weeks ago. His stepfather found him a carpentry job. His mom watches the boys when he is at work and says she is proud of him. They have helped him financially, knowing his paychecks will be garnisheed as he chips away at a mountain of debt and fines.
It's a fresh start. He no longer worries about who's going to show up at his door or whom he might run into on the streets.
He's glad the boys now live on a cul de sac where there's a nice patch of grass for play.
Torrance knows he is early in his recovery and vulnerable to stress. He's joining a new Narcotics Anonymous group for support as he continues to keep heroin at bay.
"The obsession has been lifted, but, yeah, there's still thoughts about it," he admitted.
This time, he hopes it will be different, that there will be no backsliding. He tracks his progress in every way possible, including an app on his phone that chronicles the length of his sobriety down to the hour.
"I just want a steady job and to raise my kids and, hopefully, I pray to God, they don't go through everything I went through," he said.
Sarah Weiser / The Herald
Aaron Torrance and his son Liam, 3, fool around together one afternoon.
Torrance is learning what it means to be a dad -- drawing happy faces for Liam, attending parent-teacher conferences for the first time, sitting Kaeden down to do his homework, being sober on Christmas.
His boys' mother continues to struggle. In December, a judge signed a parenting plan saying the children would reside with Torrance. It restricted her contact, finding "neglect or substantial non-performance of parenting functions" on her part as well as "a long-term impairment resulting from drug, alcohol or other substance abuse."
Torrance often thinks about what he has put his family through.
"It's usually the people we are closest to we hurt the most," he said.
Kaeden is on that list.
"He knows a lot more than the average 9-year-old should," Torrance said.
In some ways, Kaeden is more than a son: He is a confidant and protector. He's tagged along to NA meetings and court hearings. He has soaked in stories. He has seen his father's failures up close. He forgives him and is thankful his dad fought to get him back.
One night in June, the boy said as much.
"I love you more than all the pieces of sand," he said. "And more than all the clouds."
Help for parents
The Snohomish County Family Drug Treatment Court is for parents with substance-abuse problems who have lost their children because of allegations of neglect. The program doesn't accept parents accused of physical or sexual abuse. It is intended for parents facing civil intervention because their addictions have gotten in the way of them providing adequate housing, food or supervision for their children. The voluntary program requires parents to give a judge the authority to preside over their dependency cases. They must meet all the requirements, such as attending classes and staying drug-free, or face sanctions, including jail time.