EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 3, 2013

A dad, his daughter and drugs ...

Her heroin addiction drove them apart; helping others kick the habit reunited them

By Brian Messenger
bmessenger@eagletribune.com

---- — It’s a choice no parent wants to make.

Phil Lahey had just been sworn in as a Methuen city councilor in 2006 when he did the unthinkable.

“It’s hard throwing your daughter out,” said the 64-year-old former Methuen DPW worker. “But it wasn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The hardest thing was when I got a phone call and learned she OD’ed. I thought I lost her.”

A decade and a half earlier, Colleen Lahey was an innocent teenager fresh out of Catholic grade school. But a series of bad choices in high school started her down the dark path of drug addiction.

The day her father kicked her out was nearly her last. Colleen overdosed on heroin with the intent to kill herself.

Now, at age 36 and approaching four and a half years clean, she’s making the most of her second chance — with a little help from dad.

Since April 2012, the Laheys have hosted an addiction awareness show on Methuen Community Television. They speak openly about their personal experiences — both good and bad — and invite their guests to do the same.

“We want people to know that just because you’re an addict, you’re not a bad person,” said Colleen Lahey. “You’re just sick.

“I had a good childhood, a good upbringing, all of that. It doesn’t matter. Addiction can strike anybody.”

“The Empty Chair Show” takes its name from the vacant seat placed on the set next to Colleen and her dad during each taping. The chair represents addicts who died not knowing that recovery was possible.

“That could have been me,” says Colleen during the first episode. “That’s why we’re here. To let people know there’s a way out.”

‘It changes everything’

The creative spark for “The Empty Chair Show” came three years ago, when the Laheys appeared as guests on the MCTV program “In Focus,” hosted by former City Councilor Pat Uliano.

It was then that the Laheys first talked publicly about Colleen’s battle with addiction and its effects on their family.

“It’s just kind of snowballed since then,” said Phil.

Colleen used heroin for eight years. In one episode, she reflects on the impact it had on her parents and stepmother.

“They had a front row seat for my years of active addiction,” said Colleen. “They went through everything with me. They saw everything. They felt everything. ... I was numbed by drugs through the whole thing, but they weren’t.”

Phil Lahey said addiction is the one disease whose sufferers resist treatment.

Addiction comes with such heavy stigma that it’s still nearly impossible for the show to recruit the parents of addicts as guests, he said.

Lahey can relate, having held public office in the midst of the family crisis. He served on the Methuen City Council from 2006 to 2011.

“She was supposed to help me on my campaign,” he said. But his daughter was never around to lend a hand.

“I couldn’t show up for anything,” added Colleen. “Getting money, doing drugs. That’s all my life consisted of.”

As an addict, she held a series of food service jobs but also managed to total her car five times.

Her father says she’s lucky she never killed anyone else. Hardly in control of her own life, she’d steal from her parents in the middle of the night as a means to get drug money.

“That was the mindset I was in,” she said. “It’s the disease. It changes everything about you.”

‘People like us’

Colleen Lahey’s personal story of addiction starts like those of so many others.

After eight years at St. Monica School, she enrolled in 1990 at Greater Lawrence Technical High School. Struggling to fit in and plagued with low esteem, she made friends with a different crowd.

She said they smoked, drank and listened to heavy metal. She learned to play guitar and eventually joined a band.

“I wanted to fit in,” said Colleen. “I didn’t know I’d be a heroin addict later on. I had no idea.”

An early experiment with booze at age 15 led to alcohol poisoning and a trip to the hospital.

Looking back, Phil Lahey said he knew his daughter was drinking and, later, smoking marijuana.

“We never took it seriously,” he said. “A little pot, a little drinking. What could be the harm? She’ll grow out of it.”

But he began attending meetings of support groups for families of addicts after Colleen overdosed in 2006.

Today, he says that enabling parents are “public enemy No. 1” for addicts.

His daughter was still drinking and smoking pot toward the end of high school. That’s when she also began experimenting with pills and hallucinogens.

She managed to graduate from the Tech in 1994. The step up to cocaine and Ecstasy was only a few years away, she said.

Phil Lahey still remembers when his daughter first admitted she had tried heroin.

It was around 2001 and came during an episode of what Colleen called “forced communication,” as her father confronted her about stealing money from her job at the time.

She tried to justify her drug use by telling her dad she only snorted the heroin and had never used needles.

“You talk about a wake-up call,” said Lahey. “(We’re a) middle-class family. People like us don’t do heroin.”

One of the lessons the Laheys hope to teach with “The Empty Chair Show” is that addiction does not discriminate.

They say anyone can fall victim to the grasp of drugs or alcohol regardless of class or upbringing.

‘Life after drugs’

By 2003 the stigma of needles had eroded as Colleen Lahey’s heroin addiction really took hold.

She would spend the next three years shooting the drug into her veins any chance she could. Her father kicking her out on the street did nothing to change that.

She remembers going directly to her mother’s house to steal checks. The next stop was downtown Lawrence.

“I got as much dope as I could,” she said.

Once she walked into the bathroom of an Essex Street business and shot what she hoped would be a fatal dose of heroin. She was later found in a snowbank. She had turned blue before rescue personnel arrived and rushed her to a hospital.

“Not only could I not accomplish anything in life, I couldn’t even kill myself properly,” she said.

Rock bottom was followed by 15 clean months in a series of treatment facilities. But she never changed her friends, and an ill-fated attempt to help get one of them clean led to her relapsing badly.

Thanks to the knowledge he gained at parent support groups, Phil Lahey knew his daughter couldn’t come home until she was ready to kick drugs for good.

It’s when an addict relapses that loved ones are tested the most, he said.

It wasn’t easy. With a pit in his stomach, Lahey said, he would ceaselessly drive around Lawrence looking for his daughter. He never found her. But six months later, she called and was ready to try again. She has now been clean since Sept. 1, 2008.

“That’s my new birthday,” she joked.

Colleen Lahey said she has new friends and a new attitude. She’s now grateful for everything in her life, especially her family.

Her message to people battling addiction is that it may be a struggle, but it’s never a death sentence.

“There’s life after drugs,” she said. “And it’s a good life.”

Circle of HopeFor information on Phil Lahey’s support group for addicts and their loved ones, call 978-886-2949 or go to methuenhope.com.

The Empty Chair Show

Watch episodes on MCTV and at youtube.com/user/TheEmptyChairShow