Family honors son and his painful, lonely journey through addiction

Boredom. Is it inevitable? No, only to conform to an unwanted routine, every day lifestyle that keeps leading me back to the subtle, blatant invisible death I know is slowly but surely creeping up on my weak heels.

Boredom. Is it inevitable? No, only to conform to an unwanted routine, every day lifestyle that keeps leading me back to the subtle, blatant invisible death I know is slowly but surely creeping up on my weak heels.

That's how Jeff Cullen's poem "Dump Truck" starts.

Denise Cullen said she discovered the poem after her son was found dead on Aug. 5, 2008, from an overdose of Xanax and morphine following a long battle with drugs.

In March, Denise will be dedicating a bench to her only child near the pier in Huntington Beach, the city of Jeff's birth. City workers installed it last month in a small plaza on the boardwalk, across from the Junior Lifeguard building. Denise and husband Gary financed the project for $6,000 after getting a supportive go-ahead from the Huntington Beach Art Center.

Since her son's death, Denise considers it her duty to help fight the affliction that took her son: addiction. The former AIDS social worker at UC Irvine Medical Center heads an organization that provides community support for grieving family and friends who have lost loved ones to drugs, the nonprofit Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing.

With opioids claiming more than 33,000 American lives in 2015, Denise hopes that her son's story can be used to help others.

*

Is there a way out? I'd love to know.

*

Jeff tried his best to find his way out of dependency's cold grip.

The lanky kid spent most of his life growing up in Costa Mesa. His true love, like a lot of Southern California kids, was surfing. When he would eventually be enrolled in drug treatment programs that required a higher power, Jeff made his the ocean.

His ashes would later be released into the sea by his family.

Jeff's war with addiction began when he was just 13, when he got drunk on his parents' alcohol stash while they were at work. His father, Gary, even considered taking him to the emergency room.

Denise said this first incident seemed like the experimenting that many teenagers are inclined toward.

The trouble came about a year later, when Jeff was cited by a police officer for smoking marijuana on the roof of an abandoned elementary school.

"It was shocking because we never expected it from him," Denise said.

It got worse. Denise found out that her son had experimented with other drugs, including LSD.

Jeff's parents enrolled him in a 30-day rehabilitation center, the first of many treatment facilities, where he spent his 15th birthday.

"There was never really any length in time after that where he wasn't at least smoking pot," Denise said.

A protective mother, Denise began recording her son's phone calls off the landline in his room. She would listen to the tapes in her car as she drove to her social worker job. Many times, she said, she would cry from things she heard on the tapes.

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Scattered thoughts know no higher being, just a mere shadow in the corner of my eye.

*

Jeff knew that his addiction was hurting him and his parents. Denise said he would regularly refer to his "fairy tale" life, yet, his addiction menacingly followed him wherever he went, like a shadow.

When Jeff was 20, Gary went into his room without knocking and found him injecting methamphetamine into his arm with a syringe.

To save them from further pain, Jeff left in his truck, telling his parents he wasn't going to use again but needed a few days to himself.

Denise said recovering from the highly addictive meth is "really tough," with the sufferer being up for days and then sleeping for days.

Jeff was found by a police officer sleeping in his car in a parking lot in Orange County. The door was slightly ajar and Jeff's foot was hanging out.

The officer found a syringe and pipe in the truck, but instead of giving him a ticket, decided to take him to jail to give him a "wake up call," Denise said.

In the late-night hours of Aug. 5, 2008, two days after being released from jail, Jeff was found dead of a drug overdose on the front lawn of an apartment in Costa Mesa. He was 27.

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What the future holds? A ticking clock we lay our eyes on, day after day to tell what we call time, which is all it will tell.

*

Denise went through the next year being numb with grief.

Jeff's room became an archaeological site, with clues to his struggle buried in previously undiscovered sheets of paper.

On a cork bulletin board, hidden behind a photo, was a piece of paper exclaiming "change your life" in Jeff's handwriting.

Denise came upon papers with the word "broken" doodled on them.

She uncovered sketches that spoke of self-contempt.

She also found the poem. Jeff seemed to write eloquently of an inner demon that he could not tame.

Eventually, Denise arose with a new kind of fire.

Utilizing her social worker acumen and her love for her son, she now heads Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing, which holds gatherings in the United States and Canada for grieving people who have lost loved ones to drug use. Under her and Gary's tutelage, the program has expanded to over 120 chapters from the original four when she first got involved.

Denise also runs GRASP's umbrella group Broken No More.

Denise said the nonprofit largely engages with the public through its Facebook page.

Denise also travels a lot, going to conferences on grief and addiction and organizing speakers.

"Denise is the most selfless person I know," said Sam Snodgrass, who works with Broken No More. "She took her grief after Jeff died and channeled it into helping others. This is her mission."

Denise made her mark in California by testifying in Sacramento for the passage of the 911 Good Samaritan law, which was passed in 2013. Such laws protect people from arrest and prosecution for drug possession when they call 911 to report an overdose.

"It is healing to do something positive in your child's name and to make their life matter," Denise said.

 

Epilogue

City workers installed the bench in remembrance of Jeff on Dec. 17. Wesley Horn, an artist based in Davis, created the artwork featured on the bench.

Horn was approached by Denise in the spring after she had seen a bench that he created for another member of Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing.

Horn said he was moved by Denise's story because he has had close friends who died from overdoses.

Horn's mother, Donna Billick, had created art for the lifeguard building when it was built about 15 years ago. Some of the artwork, a mural of a whale tail, had been damaged, so Horn proposed the bench as a replacement, said Kate Hoffman, senior supervisor of cultural affairs at the Huntington Beach Art Center.

Hoffman felt the bench would be a good replacement for the original mural. Horn said the project took about a year to complete.

Horn said he spoke with Jeff's friends and family to get a sense of his personality so the art would depict his life.

The very colorful and lively bench is largely ocean-related, paying homage to Jeff's love for the sea. Horn said the only part of the bench suggestive of drugs are representations of three vinyl records from artists Prince, Janis Joplin and Bradley Nowell.

"All had a lot to offer and were gone too soon because of opioids," Horn said about the musical artists.

Denise plans to hold a dedication for Jeff's bench in March with family and friends but has no details yet.

Because Jeff's ashes were released into the ocean, Denise and Gary don't have a headstone to visit. Denise said she hopes the Huntington Beach bench will provide her a place to be with her son.

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Like denial almost, unwilling to easily take some control over decisions where vital consequences dwell and linger overhead, shown to be obviously detrimental to oneself, very grim source of self destruction, only an imbecile would do anything but attempt an immediate 180 turn, especially with the knowledge and awareness of this incredibly strong force I choose to call a motivated beast growing stronger day in day out.

In over his head he immaturely takes more huge steps towards the edge, not having concern for what lies ahead in a fairy tale life that has pointlessly been turned into a struggle that eventually starts to ripple like a slight breeze on a glassed off cove at dawn.

benjamin.brazil@latimes.com

Twitter: @benbrazilpilot

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