“I just don’t understand how we got here.” That might have been one of the most insightful and truthful statements my son had made to date. More than confusion, however, his statement was accusatory. I realized right then and there that he was having second thoughts about going to treatment, and while I couldn’t know the extent to which the next several years would get even worse before getting better, it was one spot-on statement – he really had no clue how we’d gotten here.
Here – was June 2011. Here – was just hours from boarding a plane to attend a very well respected wilderness treatment program for young men addicted to drugs. Here – was a sequence of progressively poor decisions and a growing list of consequences. Here- was a deep hole of chemical dependency, of depression, of debt, of lost friendships, of substance abuse, of lies, of stealing …of losing himself.
My response at the time was along the lines of, “You’ve got to be kidding.” It was all too apparent to me how we had gotten here, and it was clear to me that treatment was just what he needed. I understood he was scared, but I figured he’d be fine and feel relief once he got there. Whether he was ready or not (a concept I hadn’t wrapped my arms around at the time), the family was ready for the chaos to end. We were ready to move forward. We were ready for our son to stop using drugs.
Here – was time for a positive change. Here – was a loving, supportive family. Only he didn’t see it that way, and he wouldn’t for quite a few more years.
He made that statement after having been asleep for the past 12 hours having shown up on our doorstep earlier in the day after having been who knows where the night before. In fact, the night before had been a good evening that included attending his little brother’s baseball game, calling his grandpa to wish him a happy birthday, and then having us drop him off at a childhood friend’s house (a non-drug user) to share his decision to go to treatment.
He had agreed that he wanted to go to treatment and that drug-use was not making him feel better. He agreed that a program for young men would suit him well, and being a nature and Boundary Waters enthusiast, he thought the hiking would be a good fit as he addressed having been diagnosed as having the co-occurring disorders of addiction and mental illness.
That night, his friend never brought him home because he never actually went in the friend’s house. As we’d experienced so many times before, we dropped him off and then he slipped away. The friend hadn’t even heard from him that day, and that our son was missing was nothing new. He pulled this disappearing trick so many times that we’d learned to let go after a few rounds of calls and searching. Eventually he always showed up.
He was 18 years old and the past couple of years had been unimaginable as he tried drugs and almost immediately became addicted. This near-genius IQ with 34s on his ACTs was popular at school and a star athlete who was captain of his team two years in a row. In spite of getting high all day every day for the past 18 months, he managed a charade that fooled teachers, coaches, neighbors and family members, and even medical doctors, family counselors and addiction professionals into thinking he was just going through a phase with experimentation.
We knew better, all along. Let’s back up and look at some of the chronology:
By spring of senior year, 2010, he was skipping classes, not turning in homework, and at risk of not graduating. Up until then, his stellar academic record had carried him, and so he had college scholarships and offers to play men’s varsity-level sports. Instead, he wasn’t interested in the least and his attitude was defiant.
During the summer following graduation as he neared his 18th birthday, the defiance continued to grow. More often than not, we found drugs and paraphernalia in the car and in the house. Following another attempt to talk with him about what was going on, in a fit, he threw the car keys and house keys on the kitchen counter and stormed out of the house not returning for several days. It wasn’t the first time he’d done this; it was however the first time that we didn’t give back the house or car keys. This only made him madder, and it made his problem all the more clear to us.
We sought out additional expertise to understand what was going on and how to address it. Counseling took us in circles with the development of family contracts that he never agreed to and that left us in the position of being the bad cop. Meanwhile, we witnessed his denial that drugs were a problem or that there was mounting mental illness.
In January 2011, he decided he would go to college – probably to escape the household rules and to prove he didn’t have a problem. Lucky kid, the college gave him the scholarship and sports position. Rationally, we knew he was in too deep of trouble to go, but truthfully, we needed him out of the house and we knew he needed a clean slate.
The clean slate didn’t even last one week. We dropped him at college on a Sunday afternoon. The following Friday, he used a combination of pills, marijuana and alcohol to the point of passing out in sub-zero temperatures. Discovered by campus security, he was taken by ambulance to the emergency room and then to detox.
Within two weeks, he was using and dealing in the dorms to the point that the college revoked his housing contract. With nowhere to live, he sofa surfed and occasionally went to class.
By late February 2011, he was in a terrible place. We drove north to have a face-to-face, heart-to-heart with him. The college had packed up his things and put everything in storage at the dorms. We picked these up and offered to give him a ride somewhere, to treatment we suggested. No, he said he didn’t have a problem.
Throughout the spring, he lived at a family friend’s home. He saw a licensed alcohol and drug counselor and participated in a comprehensive mental health assessment. We saw him regularly but knew he was using more and more, and becoming increasingly depressed. The friend called us one day worried because our son hadn’t been to work in several weeks and was hardly getting out of bed except to get high. We immediately came over and sat on the bed hugging him, supporting him, and offering him help. He wanted to feel better he said.
We were so hopeful when he got on that plane with my husband – even after a very long night of resistance and denial – and went to treatment … only to run away nine days later. If we thought we’d witnessed chaos to that point, it had only been a preview of what was yet to come.
This was around the time that I started writing. If it hadn’t been for my black-and-white composition notebooks, I’m not sure I could have kept all the twists and turns straight nor could I have kept my own sanity. I also went online and started searching for resources, which were mostly elusive at the time. Writing and speaking about young-adult addiction became my calling. I had to share this experience, but moreover, I had to find and share resources and hope.
From Summer 2011 until Summer 2014, the next three years were full of the unimaginable – unless you are the parent of a young-adult addict. My son was homeless, jobless, penniless and hopeless. His drug of choice was heroin along with marijuana. He lived in the storage closet on a university campus and later in a homeless shelter. From there, he sofa surfed and lived with one of his dealers. He sold his plasma, when he could, and got wrapped up in a cell-phone scam. During this time be tried a couple more treatment programs; one was a nightmare, and another one was a lifesaver but he didn’t fully embrace aftercare or recovery experiencing a terrible relapse in spring of 2014.
This was new low in a series of lows. We didn’t know what would happen next, but we never gave up. Instead, we continued to educate ourselves, did our best to go on about our lives, take care of our work and family responsibilities, share our experience with others, and yes, we continued to stay in touch with him and include him in family activities … hoping that he’d one day be ready to recover.
That day finally came last summer. He’d become so distraught, so thin, and so unhappy. I really thought his days were numbered, that he couldn’t physically go on like this let alone emotionally. Our so-called leverage had been exhausted years back and short of not paying for his cell phone – often his only lifeline to us – or cutting him out of our lives – something we just couldn’t, wouldn’t do – we took him in welcoming him back home. It was against what the treatment and intervention professionals recommended, but the only thing we had to lose was the one thing we didn’t want to lose – our son.
We thought if he didn’t have some good food, a clean bed, a shower, and unconditional love and fellowship that he was never going to be able to make a good decision or turn things around. (Interestingly, this “welcome” puppy statue was a Mother’s Day gift from my son in 2011. I placed it outside our door as an ongoing reminder message to my son that we would always be welcome at home. It has withstood all the elements and that’s saying a lot in the Midwest!)
For the next couple of months it was like a revolving door at a bed and breakfast. Then July 8, 2014, after showing up late in the evening and unannounced (and after our younger son’s wallet had been stolen again a few days before), we calmly yet directly said, “Tomorrow, you need to make a plan to get help. You need to make a call. You need to make a decision. We’ll be here for you, but you need to do something. You can’t go on like this.”
Midway through the conversation, he nodded off only mildly aware that we were talking about. We realized he was high or coming down from something. We simply stopped talking and went upstairs to bed. A few minutes later, we heard him come upstairs and go to his bedroom.
The next morning, sluggishly, he took a piece of paper with some phone numbers on it and throughout the next couple of days proceeded to make some calls. I overheard him tell a place he’d see if his mom could give him a ride. Excitedly, I nodded my head.
The next day, July 11, 2014, he started a new high-intensity outpatient program. I was hopeful but somewhat skeptical having been down this path before but he’d done his research and this one offered the approach that was important to him.
A week later, he was still attending. A month later, he was still attending. Three months later he graduated.
In the fall, he got a part-time job at a local restaurant, and in January 2015, he started back to college part time. He has paid back all of his debt including a suspended driver’s license, some fines for underage consumption, and some scams he became involved with while addicted. He attended classes, did his homework and passed his courses with A’s and B’s – tough ones, including differential equations and linear algebra – and is now applying to a four-year program at a local university so he can live at home and attend his recovery appointments
Nearly a year sober, he continues to see his counselor once a month and is subject to random drug tests at the clinic. In addition, he works with a mental-health practitioner every other week.
Curious, I asked him what made the difference this time. He said it was the first time that he really wanted to change, to stop using, and to start living. I know it was the first time he was committed and ready.
There’s so much more to the story. There always is, and over the years I started writing as Midwestern Mama as a way to tell the story while protecting my son’s identity – I call it “AA,” which stands for appropriately anonymous.
At first, I wrote in those black-and-white composition notebooks. Later, I wrote as a columnist for a local newspaper and essayist for several national recovery magazines. Now, most prolifically as Midwestern Mama the founder of Our Young Addicts, I am creating a community of parents and professionals. In the near future, I hope to create a resource repository on our website and to begin speaking with local and national groups. It’s so important to consider how we got here, and more importantly how here can progress from addiction to recovery.
Midwestern Mama has a 20-something son in recovery from drug addiction. She created Our Young Addicts, a community of parents and professionals who share experiences, resources and hopes for the young addicts in their lives on the continuum of addiction, treatment, and recovery. An active participant in online chats, follow Midwestern Mama’s blog and on Twitter @OurYoungAddicts.
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