Denise and Gary Cullen’s Article in the Orange County Register
Submission Date: September 15, 2012
Attributing Author: David Whiting
Source: OC Register
This article written by David Whiting of the Orange County Register led to a series of articles he wrote about the overdose epidemic in Orange County, California.
It was a drive no mother should have to make. But, like life, there are a lot of things about parenting that aren’t fair.
On Aug. 3, 2008, Denise Cullen drove her white Lexus SUV to Theo Lacy Jail to pick up her 27-year-old son. It was close to midnight because that’s when inmates are released. The late hour didn’t matter much to Cullen, however. And any thoughts about fairness in life were long gone. The Cowan Heights mother only focused on one thing. Blonde, 5-foot-2 with a master’s degree in social work, Cullen was determined for the millionth time to help her son break free from the addictions that gripped his life since he was in middle school.
Less than 48 hours later, Jeff Cullen – one-time soccer and Little League player and always dad’s surfing partner was – was dead.
But even after their only child’s death, the Cullen’s remain parents.
They just have a broader mission.
As a kid, Jeff’s dad, Gary Cullen, 62, struggled with what he now recognizes as ADHD. He dropped out of high school in 1965 when he was a junior, joined the Army, saw combat in Vietnam and headed out on his own at age 20.
The Cullen’s met at an expo in Orange County. She was working for the Huntington Beach police department. He was launching what would become a successful business supplying parts to oil and gas companies.
They fell in love in four minutes. On March 2, 1981, the joy of their lives came into this world. Jeff Cullen was a happy baby and a loving toddler. Growing up, he zoomed around on his Big Wheel and played with Masters of the Universe action figures like Skeletor and He-Man. As the years went by, Jeff mastered snowboarding, BMX riding and body surfing. He even graduated to Newport Beach’s fearsome Wedge.
But from the first day of class, Jeff struggled mightily in school. He didn’t get in fights. Far from it. A fun-loving natural athlete, he was popular. But he forgot instructions almost before they were out of the teacher’s mouth. He couldn’t remember assignments. And when he did his homework, he left it home.
At age nine, Jeff was diagnosed with ADHD. He wasn’t hyperactive. But he was impulsive. The frontal cortex in his brain didn’t sort out all the input for Jeff to focus.
By then, Dinese Cullen worked at UCI and knew the university’s Child Development Center was expert in ADHD. But meds didn’t help. Like a lot of kids, Jeff got into his parents liquor when he was 13. And like a lot of kids, he smoked pot when he was 14. But Jeff was busted for smoking marijuana on the roof of an abandoned school – in broad daylight. Like I said, impulsive. The Cullen’s saw trouble. They immediately enrolled Jeff in a 30-day rehab program.
But within a month, their son was back trying whatever came along, booze, cigarettes, pot, LSD. Personal counseling didn’t help. Family counseling didn’t help. They enrolled Jeff in a private high school in Del Mar that specialized in kids with ADHD…..That didn’t help. When Jeff was 18, he broke his neck rolling his dad’s Explorer, drunk. Sometimes, he worked. Sometimes he didn’t. He started using meth, a truly nasty, destructive and addictive drug. The Cullen’s watched their 6-foot-3 son wither away to 140 pounds.
You may say, kick out the jerk. Make him join the military.
First, try making a person without an addiction do something. You can drag an adolescent to soccer practice. But forget about making the kid play. Second, the Cullen’s would ask if you’d throw out a kid with cancer. Of course not. Same with addiction, they’d tell you.
Addiction – and ADHD doesn’t help – is a disease at a certain point..
Still, nothing prepared them for the summer of 2001. On June 12, a police officer found their son sleeping in his car, door ajar, pot in back, meth pipe in the front. The Cullens could have hired an expensive attorney. They didn’t. Jeff pled guilty and served 37 days at Musick Jail in Irvine.
That didn’t help.
Just before a dinner party, Gary Cullen had an unsettling feeling. He opened his son’s door without knocking. Jeff sat on his bed. In the crook of his son’s elbow, dad saw a hypodermic needle. “He knew what (his addiction) was doing to us,” Denise Cullen told me during an afternoon at their home last week, “and that was just killing him.” Jeff knew the drugs were ruining him as well. With jagged red arrows in slashing black letters on a piece of paper he scrawled, “Change Your F***ing life!!! Stupid Ass.”
Jeff and his parents agreed it was time for him to move out. But Jeff was unable to hold a job, bounced between drugs and got tickets for dumb stuff like not wearing a seat belt. They helped. No car. Just enough money for rent and food.
There were still plenty good times, like the months in 2004 when dad and son played pool table leagues as a team winning trophies. But there were always bad times, like June 27, 2006. Jeff was arrested for DUI. He pled guilty (no one posted bail, no private attorney). He was sentenced to 45 days in jail.
On Jan. 9, 2008 Jeff once again was arrested for driving under the influence. He pled guilty and served four months. Thirty-six hours after Denise Cullen drove her son home from Theo Lacy, Jeff said he wanted to go to the beach to see some friends. It was going to be a father-son night of barbequing fish at home. Dad said they could barbeque another time. Mom dropped off Jeff in Costa Mesa. “Mom, I have my freedom,” Jeff said hugging his mother. “I have people who love me. What more could I want?”
At 2 a.m., the doorbell rang. Gary Cullen could not comprehend why a man from the coroner’s office would be at his door.
The report stated Jeff’s body was found about 10 p.m. on a lawn near an apartment building. The Cullen’s son died from a mix of Xanax and morphine.
Today, the Cullen’s are administrators for GRASP, a national organization for grief recovery after a substance passing. They also are forming Broken No More named for words Jeff doodled. Their main goal is to remove the stigma of addiction.
Denise Cullen also has become active with Moms United to End the War on Drugs. She regards her son’s problems as medical rather than criminal.
Jailers find beds. But when Jeff died, he was on a weeks-long waiting list for rehab.
Life is never going to be fair.
But we can make it more just.