Guest author: name withheld for confidentiality
The day before Christmas, I received a phone call from my oldest son asking me to pick him up on a downtown corner in a risky neighborhood. He gets in the car wearing sunglasses even though the day is dark and cloudy. My inner alarm sounds and my heart starts to tear… he is high again. Back home I watch him slowly begin to detox. How many times does this need to happen? My rule is that he can stay at home as long as he is willing to get help. Of course he agrees as he has nowhere to go. We plan to go to a local hospital inpatient unit but you have to be in a certain physical state to get admitted, and this depends on who is doing the intake and bed availability. Sometimes he can be admitted, sometimes not- yet he is the same person each time, out of control and in need of addiction treatment. We have to wait until Christmas morning to go there. Not exactly my plan for a family Christmas but I am prepared to do whatever it takes to save his life.
We arrive at the inpatient unit only to have him turned away. They say he is not sick enough. Really? He is an out of control addict using heroin, asking for help and I am terrified he will die. So now what? He can’t come back home and refuses to go to a different hospital inpatient unit to see if he can be admitted there. So he decides to stay with a ‘friend’ as he cannot stay with me if he is not in treatment- it is too risky for my family because of past incidents. I drop him off, not knowing what he will do next and the heartache I feel is overwhelming. What kind of mother turns her son out Christmas day? I feel like I am living in a perpetual grief state as I wait for the worst to happen. Will this be the last time I see him?
It wasn’t always like this. His childhood was blessed- large and loving family, many friends, fun activities, and strong church involvement. He graduated near the top of his high school class and attended a private university. But drugs don’t care if you have a college degree.
I was told people can have the potential to be an addict long before they touch a drug. This is true of my son. He is very creative with an eccentric personality that is so fun yet always intensely, sometimes obsessively, focused on the current interest. When he latched onto a new interest that was not so healthy, the consequences became deadly. After having suffered several major psychological traumas in his late teens, his addictive personality took over to stop his thoughts and feelings. First it was alcohol, then marijuana, then pain killers finally escalating to heroin. The lies, the deceptions, the thefts from family and friends could no longer be ignored but I was determined not to lose my child. The service system is far from perfect and whether or not your child is receptive to help makes a difference.
I have had people telling me to cut him off, let him hit rock bottom, and move on in with my life. And a few who said never give up on your child. How can I move on in my life when my son is a big part of it and needs help? I also walked a fine line trying to avoid being the enabler. I struggled with every decision and often doubted if my choices were right. Rock bottom can mean death. Will this push him to suicide or will he survive the next overdose? Will he start cutting his arms again? I have cried my eyes out over this, made myself physically and emotionally sick with worry and stress, mourned his death over and over, and planned his funeral.
Twice he was kicked out of inpatient residential programs for not following the rules leaving him with no place to go. How did that help him? He also quit seeing several outpatient therapists because he was smart enough to recognize their insufficient skills or they lacked the rapport needed to keep him in treatment. I have had him arrested, requested a three-day hold in psychiatric unit, cut him off financially, visited him in jail, begged for the best treatment placements through the drug court, taken him to therapy, attended NA meetings with him- often to no avail. I watched him make gains in his recovery only to relapse and have to start over. I remember when I first admitted to friends that he was an addict, I was told that expect him to relapse. I was stunned by this statement- not my kid, he can do this. I was so wrong as the addiction was more powerful than my amazing, talented son.
If I could offer any advice to families walking in my path and the service system, it would be:
- For families, please persevere. Ask many questions, seek help, get therapy, cry if you need to, get mad, and be prepared to fight the battle of your life. Give them hope when they are unable to do it for themselves.
- Always believe in the person battling an addiction and never give up on them. Be compassionate and persistent even in the face of lies and relapses.
- The addiction service system needs to find improved ways to meet the needs of people who are up sick and desperate for treatment.
- Please stop turning them away from treatment saying they don’t meet criteria, or there is no room and giving them no place to go when they are sick and desperate.
- Find better places for residential treatment homes so they are not close to ‘crack’ houses that create great temptation.
- When they keep their cell phones in residential treatment their dealers are still calling them- another temptation that could be avoided.
- When they are in drug court, break the rules for participation and get throw out of treatment, why are they immediately discharged from treatment on their own and not turned immediately back over the custody of the courts? They do eventually get re-arrested but the time in between can be deadly. This is a big gap in the program that needs to be fixed.
- Trauma and addiction go together as I saw this with my son. Psychological trauma is often part of why the person is addicted and both parts of who they are need to be treated as the drugs never go away as long as the emotional pain is still there. So intertwined, yet many of the counselors I interacted with did not have the skills or knowledge to provide effective treatment. I am told this is called a dual-disorder. Agencies need to support staff in gaining advanced treatment skills.
- Remember that the family is suffering, too. My son’s addiction traumatized all of us. Family members need support. Whether you are a friend, family member or service provider, please understand and empathize with the feelings of shame, sadness, anger, guilt, embarrassment and helplessness we feel. The effect of addiction is devastating and the impact on families and friends is horrific, widespread and so long lasting as trust is often irreparably broken.
Epilogue: As of this moment, my son is in recovery and making progress with the support of a very skilled trauma and addiction therapist. I hope and pray each day that healing and recovery continue. Yet part of me still is still scared, still holding my breath each time the phone rings…
New York State Combat Heroin & Prescription Drug Abuse http://combatheroin.ny.gov/
National Institute on Drug Abuse www.drugabuse.gov
Narcotics Anonymous www.na.org
Alcoholics Anonymous www.aa.org
Nar-Anon Family Groups www.nar-anon.org
National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence www.ncadd.org
SAMHSA evidence-based treatments for addiction http://www.nrepp.samhsa.gov/SearchResultsNew.aspx?s=b&q=addiction
SAMHSA Co-Occurring Disorders http://media.samhsa.gov/co-occurring/
National Center on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care http://beta.samhsa.gov/nctic/trauma-interventions
Woman and teen photos from www.morguefile.com
Drug photo credit- Drug and addiction use courtesy of Victor Habbick at www.freedigitalphotos.net