NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. – 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 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,” Colleen Lahey said. “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,” Colleen said during the first episode. “That’s why we’re here. To let people know there’s a way out.”
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.
Colleen used heroin for eight years. In one episode, she reflected on the impact it had on her parents and stepmother.
“They had a front row seat for my years of active addiction,” she said. “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,” Colleen said. “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.”