Creighton Shipman - A life cut too short
Creighton Shipman was known for being a formidable force on the lacrosse field, helping his Wando High School team score its first perfect season and a decisive victory at the state championship during his senior year in 2015.
But the former Daniel Island resident’s athletic battle skills were no match for the relentless enemy he faced during his freshman year at Mars Hill University in North Carolina. Nearly two months ago, at age 19, Creighton died from a heroin overdose - just days after leaving a rehab facility in Georgia. Tragically, Creighton’s story is reflective of a disturbing national trend.
“Our story is so similar to everyone else’s story,” said his mother, Nanci Shipman, who moved with her family from Daniel Island to Mount Pleasant in 2010. “People now doing heroin and things of that sort are not what I initially used to think of in the 80s. There is no true face of what this disease is.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, heroin overdose death rates nationally climbed 26 percent between 2013 and 2014. And in the past decade, heroin use has more than doubled among young adults.
What led a bright, talented young man like Creighton to try the drug in the first place is something that will forever haunt his mother. It all started with an injury on the lacrosse field in December of 2011. After being cleated in the ankle, he began to experience excruciating pain.
“I said something is going on,” said Nanci. “…He was crawling to the bathroom screaming and crying.”
They visited an orthopedist and began to explore the causes of the pain. Many conditions were considered, including arthritis. But Nancy knew it had to be something more serious because of Creighton’s high level of pain. They asked a trusted friend, who is also an orthopedist, to look at Creighton’s x-rays and his ankle. He told them to get to an emergency room immediately. After arriving at the MUSC Children’s Hospital ER, Creighton was diagnosed with a Brodie’s Abscess, a very rare condition in which an infection eats away at the bone. He was rushed to emergency surgery. Nanci remembers being told that if Creighton had not been seen or treated within 24 hours, he would have either lost his leg or his life.
Managing pain was imperative for Creighton’s healing and he was prescribed opioids to aid in his recovery. He would later tell his mother that it was the first time he had ever experienced being “high.” In another revealing statistic from the Center for Disease Control, people who are addicted to prescription opioids are forty times more likely to become addicted to heroin. A family history of addiction can make certain people even more susceptible, as was the case with Creighton. The star athlete with the contagious smile had, quite innocently and unintentionally, exposed himself to a life-altering monster.
Throughout most of his high school years, Creighton didn’t exhibit any real signs of addiction, said Nanci.
“There was nothing out of the ordinary,” she recalled. But Nanci did notice that many in his generation seemed to not truly understand the dangers and ramifications of marijuana and alcohol use. This mindset, combined with a new wave of “partying” with prescription pills, was troubling.
By Creighton’s senior year, particularly after graduation, his behavior started to change slightly.
“I thought it was just ‘senioritis’,” added Nanci. “He was just over everything. He was very independent, just really wanting to express himself, saying ‘I’m 18, I’m an adult now.’”
Nanci thought it was all just normal, pre-college nerves. The summer of 2015, he was otherwise happy, excited and healthy, she said. He went off to college at Mars Hill on a lacrosse scholarship that fall. By all accounts, things seemed fine. During a visit to campus in February of 2016, Nanci said they had “great, deep conversations and laughed and talked a lot.” But she noticed something was a bit off – and he wasn’t himself.
By second semester, his grades had begun to slip a bit and he was forced to sit out of his beloved lacrosse. Not being able to play and be with his team for scrimmages, games and trips was tough on him, said Nanci. He also hated the cold weather and snow. She thought those factors might be contributing to his changed demeanor.
When he came home for Spring Break, she became concerned. Creighton was normally very enthusiastic and overly communicative, said Nanci. But this time, he was not offering up his typical jokes or funny antics, and he wasn’t active or wanting to spend time outdoors – activities he previously loved.
“He was very tired and was communicating very little,” Nanci recalled. He had dark circles under his eyes, had lost weight, and was easily angered and argumentative. When the family would get upset or concerned, Creighton would eventually hug them and apologize deeply. It broke Nanci’s heart.
“We know our children,” added Nanci. “You can’t put your finger on things sometimes, but you know something is different.”
What Nanci didn’t realize at the time was that Creighton had begun using heroin in November of 2015 while on a trip with friends to Asheville. Despite what was happening in his life, he stayed fairly functional. Nanci feared he might be suffering from a form of substance abuse – but she had more questions than answers. About a week after arriving home for the summer in May, just after Mother’s Day, things got especially heated and she asked him to move out. He went to live with friends, but still would make it a priority to get to his siblings’ lacrosse games, or the occasional family dinner. He even served as a confirmation sponsor for his sister Wheaton and brother Jack. Behind the scenes – a struggle was raging within him as heroin tightened its grip.
“It wasn’t a choice,” said Nanci, who still fights back tears when talking about her son. “…No one chooses to become this way…We had seen some of his friends at different points go to rehab and we would have those conversations. Nobody ever thinks it’s them. They just don’t think bad things can happen.”
But Creighton knew the fight had become too great for him to handle on his own, so he contacted his mother and told her he was ready to get help. Nanci sprang into action, connecting him with Sam Conley, regional director for education and treatment for Willingway, a rehab and recovery program in Statesboro, Georgia. At the time, Conley was leading a Willingway support group on Daniel Island at Holy Cross Church. When Conley told Creighton about Willingway, he said he was all in. Nanci told him how proud she was of him as they embraced in a sea of hugs and tears.
“I said this is your walk and your story…and I’ll keep it anonymous if you want. He looked at me and said, ‘Mom, I’ve alerted everyone and put it all over Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram. If I want to beat this, I’ve got to have everyone’s support.’”
With those words, Nanci believes Creighton gave her permission to share his experience with others, in hopes that more lives can be spared from the disease of addiction. She took him to the facility the next day.
“He drove,” recalled Nanci, of the special time they had together on the ride. “We had the music on, the windows down…and it was a really pretty day. That was the first time in a while that I saw my son again. I saw him. I felt him. The conversations in the car were really good.”
Once they arrived, emotions once again bubbled to the surface for both of them. She left her son at Willingway that June day, hoping for a miracle. As required by the facility, their only form of communication would be letters for the next six weeks. On June 24, she received a heartfelt note from him, in which he disclosed for the first time that his “drug of choice” had been heroin. He told her he had been doing it for almost six months, first smoking it and later injecting it in the last three months.
“When I saw that word ‘heroin’ – I immediately thought of how bad that drug is,” said Nanci. “It’s a lifelong battle. And that super scared me.”
By the time Family Weekend rolled around at Willingway July 10-14, a plan for Creighton’s discharge and follow-up care was being formulated. It was suggested that he do outpatient therapy (treatment meetings and some appointments) while attending school at Mars Hill. But suddenly Creighton shifted and told his mother he wanted to return to their home in Mount Pleasant and attend classes locally. He was constantly changing his idea of what his care and action plan should be. Nanci didn’t feel good about the flip flopping. She was concerned about the possibility of Creighton using again and needed to keep her other three siblings in the home safe. In an effort to exercise some tough love and avoid enabling her son, Nanci told him without a consistent plan for support and accountability, moving back home was not an option.
“He said that’s fine,” Nanci recalled. “And he packed his bags and left.”
As she left Statesboro for an emotional drive home, Nanci heard Creighton might be in the area near a local coffee shop. She turned her car around and headed for the location. After finding him outside the shop, she pleaded with him through tears to go back to Willingway, but he refused and told her he had a friend picking him up.
“We hugged each other tight and kissed each other on the cheeks and I said ‘I love you so much, Creighton,’ and he said ‘I love you so much, Mom.’”
Distraught, Nanci reluctantly left and headed home. The next two nights, plagued with anxiety, she had trouble sleeping.
“I had bad dreams that he was going to be a John Doe and that something bad would happen to him and he would be cast aside,” recalled Nanci.
Within 48 hours, a police officer knocked on her door and she learned that Creighton was in a hospital in Columbia fighting for his life after a drug overdose. Three days later, Creighton passed away. Surrounding him at his bedside during those heartbreaking final hours were Nanci, his father, Lee, his sister, Wheaton, and his brothers Jack and Hollice.
“It was just a month and a half ago,” said Nanci, her voice cracking with emotion as she shared his story. “It just happened, but at the same time it feels like it happened so long ago. It’s just a surreal thing…How can people do this for all those years – and my child did it for almost six months and he’s gone. It’s a lot to wrap your head around.”
For Nanci and her family, the tremendous outpouring of love and support they have received from the community has been comforting. Empowered to help others coping with addiction, the family has created a foundation in Creighton’s memory to provide resources and education about addiction, treatment and recovery, as well as to raise awareness. They have decided to call it the “Creighton Shipman 22 Forever Foundation,” in a nod to his Wando High School lacrosse jersey number.
“People ask, what can I do?” she said. “And we tell them please share Creighton’s story…We want people to know that this drug is out there and that this truly is a disease. Nobody would ever choose to go down this path.”
For Nanci, a concerned parent who tried relentlessly to get answers that didn’t come in time, it is now her mission to make sure another family doesn’t suffer the same fate.
“My worst fears came true. That’s a scary thing, number one. And it’s scary to use the word ‘heroin’ – and it’s scary to have these conversations. There is a real sense of urgency. Every day someone is going through what Creighton went through, and what I went through…I don’t want people to feel like they’re alone.”
For additional information, please visit the “Creighton Shipman 22 Forever Foundation” Facebook page. For those struggling with substance abuse, the Charleston Center, a division of Charleston County Government, specializes in renewing hope and strengthening lives. For information on how to obtain treatment and support, call the Charleston Center’s 24-hour helpline at (843) 722-0100. In Berkeley County, the Ernest K. Kennedy Center in Moncks Corner offers services geared towards prevention, intervention and treatment and can be reached at (843) 761-8272 or via their 24-hour crisis line at (843) 744-HELP.