Genevieve Przybylo walked into her Arlington Heights home one day last year to find her 19-year-old son, Chris, lying on the couch. His head was buried in his hands. He was sweating and sick.
She thought he might have the flu or, even worse, meningitis.
Mom now focused on helping other familiesNot long after her son got sober, Genevieve Przybylo found Live 4 Lali, an awareness organization that is seeking to change the conversation and legal climate around drug use and mental illness in Illinois.
She's close with the group's founder Chelsea Laliberte, whose brother Alex, a Stevenson High School graduate, died of a heroin overdose in 2008.
Soon Przybylo will be working full time with Live 4 Lali, speaking at local high schools about her experience and training police departments around the state on how to use Naloxone. The organization also has opened a walk-in clinic in Arlington Heights, at 3275 N. Arlington Heights Road, Suite 403B.
"This is a chronic disease. This is (Chris's) forever and that makes it my forever because I'm his mom," she said. "If there are other families going through what I went through, I might as well get involved. They don't have to go through it alone."
For more information on the organization, visit live4lali.org/.
Her eyes drifted to a small box sitting in front of him on the coffee table. It overflowed with plastic bags, needles, spoons.
Suddenly, it all added up. The unexplained sick days from school. The lethargy and mood swings. The all-nighters. The stealing.
"Oh, my God. He's a heroin addict," she thought. "He's going to die."
Chris thought so, too. At that moment he fully expected to be a statistic -- one of hundreds of young people who die each year in the heroin crisis sweeping the suburbs and the country.
Chris didn't die. He went through detox -- twice -- and rehab once, but this weekend the Przybylo family is marking his one-year anniversary of sobriety.
Chris says he is alive today because of the love and support from his family and friends. While he's ready to put his addiction behind him and plan for the future, it's different for Genevieve and his younger brother and sister. The whole family is in recovery, each of them still dealing with the trauma of his addiction, and realizing that the fear of relapse is never far from the surface.
'I was enabling him'
By everybody's account, Chris was a normal, happy kid. He had friends, he did well in school and he was close to his younger siblings, Genna, who goes by Bella, and Sebastian.
But by middle school things were changing. His parents had divorced. He became less interested in school. He started smoking marijuana and drinking a little. Genevieve chalked it up to normal rebellious teen behavior.
Chris got three underage drinking tickets in a few months. Genevieve would pay the fines and organize his community service hours just to make it go away.
"I was enabling him," she says. "I was always just cleaning up the mess. When his car broke down, I gave him money. When he wouldn't go to school, I'd call and say he was sick."
Chris took his first opiate during gym class his sophomore year, a Vicodin pill from a friend. Not long after he was addicted to painkillers.
The first time he used heroin was at a skate park in Arlington Heights. A friend asked him if he'd ever tried it.
"Half of me thought it was nuts, but the other half ..." Chris's voice trails off retelling the story.
He snorted heroin for the first time that day. Thanksgiving morning was the first time he shot up.
Soon, the drug consumed his entire life.
"The farther you go down that road and the more barriers you break, you push your boundaries and you keep making your boundaries farther and farther so something like that doesn't seem that out of play anymore," he says.
Each day he would wake up around 1 p.m., instantly plotting his next high. Maybe that meant stealing or selling things to get money. Maybe it meant borrowing a friend's car and driving it to a shady neighborhood to buy drugs.
"Every day revolved around it," he said. "I felt scummy, like a fiend, like a terrible person. It makes you extremely sad."
By the time he got home he would stay up all night doing heroin before falling into a deep sleep.
A sleep so deep that his friend, Ray, who lives with the Przybylos, would sleep with his hand on Chris's chest, just to make sure he was still breathing.
The next day the cycle would start over again.
Deep down he felt it was wrong. But the drugs were controlling his decisions.
"Do you think we'll ever be happy again?" Chris once asked another friend while they were using.
Heroin provided him only artificial happiness. "You're only happy when you have it, and when you don't have it, you're thinking about it," he said. "It's like you're stuck in this relationship you can't get out of."
Sometimes after injecting, Chris thought he could feel himself starting to overdose, but he never felt afraid.
"While you're doing it, you feel like you're a superhero," Chris says.
"You hear it happening to people, even a close friend, but you still think it won't happen to you. That's just how the drug works. It takes control of everything."
Today, his sober assessment is that he wouldn't have survived another year injecting the amount of heroin he was doing.
"I don't think I would have even made it another four months," he said.
Genevieve's fear was all-consuming as she tried to prepare herself for the inevitable.
"I almost got to a point where I came to peace with the fact that he was going to die," Genevieve said. "I'd sleep with a phone on my chest and just pray to God this isn't the night I'd get the call."
Bones made of glass
When Genevieve found Chris on the couch in distress that March day in 2014, he was actually in the early stages of withdrawal, which would kick in just a few hours after his last fix.
She rushed him to Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge. They admitted him into the detox program, which Genevieve likens to an exorcism.
Watching the agony of the drugs being removed from his system, as he uncontrollably shook and vomited and soiled himself, she thought he would die right there.
Without the drug influencing his brain, Chris couldn't control his emotions, alternately sobbing with remorse and lashing out at others.
Chris describes detox like this: "Your bones feel like they are made of glass and they're hollow. You have goose bumps, but you're so hot. You're sweating but the sweat is cold."
He calls it the worst flu you could ever have.
But five days later, he was still alive and his system was heroin-free. Genevieve and Chris went home to Arlington Heights with high hopes and a prescription for Naltrexone, an opiate blocker in pill form, that would prevent the "high" feeling if Chris used heroin again.
"I thought, OK, we fixed it," Genevieve said.
For the next two months, Chris would take his pill in front of his mom. In reality, he was cheeking the pills and shooting up heroin even more than before. He thought he could then wean himself off the drug on his own, but addiction, as his mom said, "hijacked his brain."
One day in May, Genevieve found Chris on the same couch, sweating profusely and shaking.
"We've got a big problem. We can't beat this," she thought. "This is bigger than me."
This time the doctors at Lutheran General put him on the stroke floor to observe him while he detoxed. They were worried his body couldn't stand the strain.
Bella, who was only 12, didn't understand what was happening.
"Mom just said Chris was sick and he needed help, so I thought, 'OK, Chris is sick; he'll get better,'" she said.
When she saw him at the hospital, though, she realized something was really wrong with her big brother. "It was just scary in there," Bella said.
At one point a doctor asked Chris what Bella's favorite color was.
"Pink. Why?" he answered.
Because that's the color she'll be wearing to your funeral if you don't get clean, the doctor replied.
Genevieve lay in the hospital bed with her son, wiping sweat and tears off him as he apologized for what he had done to their family.
He asked her to take over, because he couldn't do it on his own.
"I'll never leave you. I'm not mad at you. We're going to get through this together," she told him. "We can look past the lying and everything else, as long you stay alive."
Chris came home for five days while he waited for a bed to open at Rosecrance Treatment Center in Rockford.
People cannot be involuntarily committed to rehab in Illinois, so going to Rosecrance had to be Chris's choice. Genevieve told him that if he didn't get help he couldn't come home. She would call the cops if he did.
"That was a moment of clarity," she said. "He wasn't willing to lose his family."
The night before Chris left for rehab, Bella made him a scrapbook to take, with pictures of her, Sebastian and Chris growing up.
For the first time in years, Genevieve could take a deep breath. Her son had a roof over his head, and he wasn't going to die today.
She asked each of Chris's friends to write him a letter telling him to fight for his life. Chris wrote his mom, telling her his addiction was not her fault.
But she admits she'll always carry some guilt.
"I failed him. A mom is supposed to protect him," she says.
When the family picked him up 39 days later, Chris had cut his hair and put on 40 pounds, restoring his good looks. The bags under his eyes were gone, and he was fully sober with his family for the first time in years.
"I'm back," he said simply, giving Genevieve a big hug. She burst into tears of joy.
When they got back to Arlington Heights, the yard was filled with family and friends, party food and balloons. One read, "It's a boy."
"I felt like my son was reborn. This was his clean slate. He was given back to me," Genevieve says.
The fear of relapse
Today, as Chris puts his young life back together, he and his family are also rebuilding.
"We're all developing a new relationship with him sober," Genevieve says.
Finding trust after years of lies takes time. The fear of relapse has replaced the fear of getting the dreaded phone call.
Now, Genevieve goes through a mental checklist. Are there too many Q-tips or Dixie cups in the bathroom garbage can? Those used to be tools that filtered his heroin. Are all the shoelaces in the shoes where they belong, or is he hoarding them to use as tourniquets?
She memorizes how many hair ties are in the bathroom and where they are. She double counts the spoons in the silverware drawer. Has Chris been in the bathroom too long without turning on the shower water? Do his pupils look normal or are they dilated?
Last fall, Genevieve was unloading pumpkins from the car and took off her rings. When she came back a few minutes later, her wedding ring was gone -- the same ring Chris had stolen twice while in the throes of addiction. Both times, he planned to sell it for heroin money, but he never could bring himself to do it -- a sign to Genevieve that the real Chris was still in there somewhere.
This time though, Chris was supposed to be clean.
"I grilled him about it. I threatened him," Genevieve said.
A week later she found her ring had fallen off the table into a Halloween decoration.
"I felt like such a jerk," she said.
Chris's brother, Sebastian, now 18, declined to be interviewed, but family members said they have spent the year rebuilding their relationship.
Genevieve understands. "Trust comes back bit by bit," she says.
Bella monitors her older brother, too. "We watch him closely," she says. "It's a family effort."
Although she's technically too young to be officially trained to administer Naloxone, an opiate overdose reversal drug, Bella knows how. She's prepared to save her brother from a heroin overdose if she has to.
"There's always going to be a part of me that's scared," she says.
Chris is patient with the monitoring. He gladly gives his mom a direct look to show her his eyes are clear. He says he doesn't even remember what it felt like to be high.
Chris will begin classes at Harper College this fall, determined that heroin is no longer part of his life. To him, falling off the wagon is unthinkable.
"I would lose everything so fast. That would be so terrible," he said. "Just being able to wake up and live a whole life again is enough. Life is not that bad."
Celebrating each milestone of sobriety isn't as important to Chris -- who wants to put the past behind him -- as it is to his family.
Genevieve tells Chris every day how proud she is of him, and more importantly, how she hopes he is proud of himself.
"I'm extremely lucky," Chris said one day recently just before his one-year mark. He adds, in a much quieter voice, "I'm proud of myself."