On the evening of Sept. 1, 28-year-old Caleb Joy bought dinner for his younger brother and sat at the table for the last time with the teenager he had so proudly carried around as an infant.

His mother, Michelle, had driven him to Morgantown to pick up food, since his license had been suspended. When they returned home, he repaid his mother the $90 he had borrowed while he was awaiting his paycheck from his new job.

Like the many nights before, Caleb was picked up by a friend and wasn’t expected to return until later in the evening. His parents had asked him to always return before midnight so they could make sure the doors were locked, and he respected that.

Michelle would lay in bed and listen for the sound of that car’s engine, so she would know he was safe.

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That night, when Caleb returned home, his father, Cory, was still awake. He asked if there was any food left and took some to his room.

That was the last time either of his parents saw him alive.

In his room that night, Caleb overdosed on heroin.

‘I froze up’

The morning of Sept. 2, Michelle was sitting in the living room, thinking it was odd that Caleb had not gotten up to go to work yet. Cory was home, too, working at the kitchen table.

Caleb had been living with them for two years. Prior to that, he had lived with friends or relatives in the county. Though he was under their roof now, his parents tried to give him his privacy.

“I started texting him, and usually he would text back, and nothing. So I get on Facebook and messaged him, because then you can see if they’ve seen it, and nothing,” Michelle said.

“I called his phone, nothing. I started getting nervous, because that just wasn’t like him.”

Her husband of almost 30 years tried to calm her nerves. Caleb was a heavy sleeper, he told her. He was sure he was fine.

Michelle was still nervous. It was a Saturday, Labor Day weekend, but she decided she had to do something, so she got in the shower and began getting ready for work.

Michelle has been a teacher at Helmsburg Elementary School for almost 16 years. Cory is the associate pastor at New Life Community Church.

As she was getting ready, she knocked on Caleb’s door. There was no answer.

Before she left, she went back and pounded again. There still was no answer, but she realized she could see through a crack in the door.

“I could see him laying on the bed and his phone was on him. I would call it and he wouldn’t move. I kept looking to see if he was breathing. Sometimes I would think he was and I wasn’t sure. His hands were kind of like this (clenched) and they looked a little blue,” she said.

“I was like, ‘No, I’m sure he’s fine.’

“I got out of there as fast as I could. I left and I, like, prayed the whole way to Helmsburg. I prayed and prayed and prayed that he’d be fine and that everything was OK. I was trying to believe (Cory) that everything would be fine.”

Not long after she arrived at school, Cory texted Michelle that was he was worried because Caleb wasn’t responding to his attempts to wake him up.

“I kind of had this sinking feeling in my stomach. … I couldn’t go into the room,” he said.

“As a pastor, you console people, you counsel, you deal, you communicate and work with people through a lot of things. Honestly, at that moment I froze up and I called my senior pastor, (Tim Conboy).”

“‘I think he’s gone,’” Cory told Conboy.

“He was like, ‘I’ll be right there.’”

“He went in and came back out. He just kind of shook his head,” Cory said.

Cory texted his wife the news.

“I didn’t go back home,” Michelle said.

She stayed at the school where friends came to comfort her, including another woman who had recently lost her own son to an overdose.

The family would never spend another night in that home. A friend packed bags for them and they left town for three days.

They have moved temporarily into another home in Nashville until they can purchase a new one. A family from church packed and moved all their belongings for them.

“We tried to go home after that, and our younger son couldn’t do it,” Michelle said.

Michelle had been worried for a while that Caleb wouldn’t outlive her. She was scared that September morning that he might take his own life.

“There was just so many obstacles. It seemed like every time he turned around, there was an obstacle. I was more concerned he might do something like that than drugs,” she said.

“I wanted to know if it was suicide, and it wasn’t,” she said about his overdose.

“It was an accident. It was not on purpose. It was an accident.”

‘Signs weren’t there’

Cory and Michelle knew their son had struggled with drugs. He had told them he smoked marijuana daily, and he had admitted that he’d used heroin before.

But he had never been arrested on any drug charges as an adult, and his parents were not aware that he was doing heroin again before his death.

“I want it to be known that we knew in the past that there were times that he struggled with addiction,” Michelle said.

But this time, “the signs weren’t there,” Cory said.

“I was really excited about his future. We were excited that he had a job he loved. He was working with two men he respected. He was praying and talking about God,” Michelle said.

Caleb was working for Randy LaVere in commercial construction. Caleb had told LaVere and another coworker that he was struggling with a heroin addiction.

Caleb would talk badly about heroin users who used needles. “He would throw you off,” Michelle said.

“I would be like, ‘You’re good, right?’ He’d be like, ‘Mom, you do not see any needle marks on me? I would think you would know.’

“I think he just thought I was naive. I know there are other ways to use heroin. He always tried to assure us, ‘I’m good, I’m good.’”

His parents now believe he may have started using again over the summer.

Caleb had gone through withdrawal symptoms a few years ago, trying to get clean. At the time, his parents thought it was the flu. Not long after, he had told them what was really happening after he struggled a second time.

“The second time is when he came clean about everything. At that point in time, that particular run, he didn’t have money. He would work, but he was going through money so fast,” Cory said.

Any changes they might have seen in Caleb this time, they could attribute to something else. He had money and wasn’t asking his parents to help him out all the time. The 30 pounds he had lost recently was from working so much, he said.

“We felt like we would know what to look for, and we were always aware,” Cory said.

Caleb was never willing to go to rehab. “He thought rehab was ridiculous because he saw so many of his friends go in and then immediately come out and be using. He would say even some of his friends were using in rehab,” Michelle said.

He told his family and co-workers he was going to get clean on his own.

Still co-workers offered help; they treated Caleb like he mattered and had worth.

“They really took him under their wing. They picked him up every morning for work,” Michelle said. “They prayed three times a day. They really walked the talk of what they believe.”

“We would talk, have conversations. I would look at him and I thought ‘OK, he’s doing OK.’ I knew he was stressed just about life issues and things,” Michelle said.

Stopping a crisis

Caleb Joy’s parents are not sure how long their son used heroin off and on in his adult life.

“He would give you very little information. He didn’t want to talk about things,” Michelle said.

“I think he didn’t want to disappoint us. I think he didn’t want to hurt us, to let us down. He wanted to make us proud.”

Caleb didn’t drink much, and addiction to alcohol or drugs is not an issue on either side of their family, his parents said.

After work, he and one particular friend would often go play video games and work on cars. If other people would pick him up, there was always a plan, and Caleb would end up back with the friend his parents trusted, who would then bring him home.

“It wasn’t like he was out with friends we didn’t trust,” Michelle said.

The family later learned that other acquaintances were taking him to pick up heroin or helping him find it.

One of them, Daniel M. Alton, 25, was charged in October with aiding, inducing or causing dealing in a narcotic drug, a Level 5 felony.

Police were able to match Alton’s phone number with one that had been texting Caleb about drug deals, according to court paperwork.

“We had never even met Daniel, hadn’t even heard his name, so that was a surprise to us. We didn’t know that connection at all,” Michelle said.

Cory gave Caleb’s phone to the police to search.

“For me, at that moment, it was like, you know, I recognize that we can’t stop what Indianapolis is doing or surrounding counties, but we can certainly do something here. We surely can help with the process.”

It helped a bit to know that the person arrested in connection with Caleb’s death was not one of his best friends, Michelle said. Regardless, the Joys don’t blame that man.

“Caleb was 28 years old, and Caleb made the choice to do that, so I don’t blame Daniel. I don’t approve of it, but I’m not angry with him. I never was,” Michelle said.

“My heart breaks for these people who are using, because so much of it comes from trauma and they don’t know how to process it, so they medicate it. My heart more hurt for him because I don’t want to see his life ruined. If it was Caleb, I wouldn’t want his life ruined. I want this to be the catalyst for him getting help. I want this to be the turning point,” she said.

“Our son made a choice,” Cory said, “and he wanted it, he got it and he did it.”

Never give up hope

Michelle and Cory advise parents whose children are using drugs to talk about it with them often and push treatment.

“Do everything you can to get them the help they need,” Michelle said. “That’s a regret of mine.

“Caleb wouldn’t talk about it. He wouldn’t tell us and tried to do things on his own. I would say, if you suspect, try everything you can to get your child to open up. Let them know you love them and care about them and that they can talk and share, but you’ve got to get them help.”

The Joys believe they were limited on what they could do with Caleb because he was an adult. “He wasn’t 16. He was 28. He had his own life. Even though he lived with us, he had a job and friends. We couldn’t tell him when he could come and go,” Michelle said. “We couldn’t ground him or search his things.”

“You have to be aware of boundaries and things like that, but what they need is your love and they need that unconditional love,” Michelle said.

“As far as I know, Caleb didn’t steal from us. We didn’t feel endangered. You hear scary stories about people who steal things. He didn’t do that. He was very respectful.”

Almost six months after Caleb’s death, Cory and Michelle say their younger son, Hudson, their faith, families, friends, their church, their community and each other have kept them going.

“We had some friends who lost their son recently. … They used the term, ‘The grass continues to grow.’ For me, I think about that every day,” Cory said.

“Life doesn’t stop, so we can’t stop. We’re here for a reason, and it’s to impact lives, to draw people to Jesus, to draw people into salvation for their eternity. While we’re here, you know what, we should leave a good mark and help people be all they can possibly be and live an abundant, fruitful life.”

“I never felt like he could grab ahold of his passion or his purpose,” Michelle said about her son. “We would try to help him, but it was like he could never get over that hump. So I’m committed that his life, I know it did matter, but I want it to matter even more.

“I want his life to impact people, that people get set free from addiction and they can point back and say ‘That was a turning point for my life.’”

Through it all, the family said the community continued to show love to them. “We never felt judged. We never felt alienated,” Michelle said.

“I don’t know how many people would message me and say, ‘You’re an amazing mother.’ That’s hard, because when you lose your child to drug addiction, there’s a lot of, ‘What did I do wrong?’ There’s a lot of guilt that can come in and a lot of questioning. ‘Was I not good enough?’ You see other families who maybe don’t struggle with addiction and you’re like, ‘What mistakes did I make?’”

“People who have seen us raise Caleb from a toddler would say, ‘You did this. You did that. You were amazing,’ really trying to point out the positive things and point out the positives of Caleb.

“He wasn’t the addiction. He was Caleb.”

IN THIS SERIES:

Addicted and Dying: An introduction

‘Addiction works when it gets to hide’

‘He wasn’t the addiction’

‘#DoSomething movement uniting the community

The science behind addiction

OPINION: In the midst of addiction, there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’

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Suzannah Couch grew up in Brown County, reading the Brown County Democrat. A 2013 Franklin College graduate, she covers business, cops/courts, education and arts/entertainment.