The statistics are out there. The highest level of substance abuse occurs in those 18 to 25 years old, our most at-risk population, according to the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. These young adults are in danger of becoming the drug addicted sons or daughters of parents across the nation. Sadly, it’s very likely that some of those who are now addicted to drugs started as young as 12. In fact, nearly two million (8%) of children ages 12 to 17 reported using illicit drugs in the previous 12 months .
Behind every statistic, though, there are real people who are struggling. And it’s not just the addict. Everyone their lives touches – particularly those closest to them – is affected by the addiction.
Today, Debbie L. shares her experience with her only son, Joshua. Starting at 13 with an opioid prescription, Josh went on to harder drugs like heroin. Now, at 25, he is still addicted, although there have been many moments of hope. Debbie agreed to do this interview because she wants to share her story with other parents (and loved ones) of the addicted. She wants them to know that they are not alone.
Q: Thank you so much for agreeing to talk with us about your son. Most likely there are many other mothers – and fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, and other loved ones – out there, searching for information online about their drug addicted son, daughter, grandson or granddaughter. They don’t know what to do or how to cope. Let’s get started by finding out more about your son. What was he like as a child?
A: Josh* was a very active young boy, very busy – but also sweet and polite – and he did well in school. He was well behaved; he never gave me any trouble as a child. Teachers loved him all throughout his school years. He had lots of friends and he didn’t really struggle with anything as a child. He was handsome, charming and super-smart. He was also incredible at snowboarding, skateboarding and biking.
Anything Josh did physically, he excelled at.
The only thing that concerned me about Josh was that he was fearless. He would just charge into physical activities without first assessing the situation.
Since he was my only son, I thought “Oh, that’s just a boy thing. They are impulsive and act spontaneously.” Looking back, I think that should have been a warning sign. Being fearless was one of his best qualities, but, now, in hindsight, I feel that it accelerated his experimentation with drugs at a young age.
I loved his spirit – he was a spirited little guy.
Q: What was the first sign of trouble ahead?
A: Josh lost one of his very best friends to an extremely tragic accident at the end of seventh grade.
I feel like he had a breakdown after the loss of his friend, and he could not process the grief he was experiencing. His behavior changed dramatically after this occurred.
We enlisted the help of a grief counselor, both at school and privately. Eventually, he was referred to a psychiatrist because he was clearly depressed and struggling badly with the loss. The psychiatrist put him on a couple of different drugs for depression. The medications didn’t work. In fact, they impaired him to the point that he was so sedated that I couldn’t wake him up at 12 years old.
At the time, medicating him didn’t sit well with me. I was never a parent that thought a pill was the magic solution. Although I wasn’t comfortable with it, I was also desperate to help him. He was so devastated. I really felt he had a breakdown. At that point, I would have done anything to help him.
Unfortunately, none of the medication worked. They didn’t help his depression and they didn’t help him process the grief.
I don’t know what could have been done differently. Nothing was working; he was stuck in his grief and depression.
Then, about a year later, he broke his collarbone in a snowboarding accident. Josh had always had a high pain tolerance, but he couldn’t lift his arm. I rushed him to the ER, and he was admitted to the hospital. To relieve the pain, the doctor gave him a prescription for Vicodin.
After just one pill, he told me, “Mom, I feel really good.”
I was upset to hear that. Warning bells went off in my head.
It was the beginning of hard-core addiction… the switch had been flipped.
Unfortunately, I feel he was somewhat wired for addiction. Josh’s father is an alcoholic and addiction runs in both families.
Now, I had given him the bare minimum dose of Vicodin, and, after the second day, I stopped giving it to him altogether. However, the pill bottle disappeared. He obviously wanted more Vicodin.
Both the death of his friend and the opiates they gave him for his surgery were the triggers that sent him down the road to darkness.
Knowing what I know now, I would not have allowed them to give him Vicodin at 13 years old. I’m not sure what I would have done, I just wasn’t sure of the options at that time.
Q: You’re right in that the dangers of opioid prescriptions weren’t widely known – even by doctors – 11 or 12 years ago. In fact, physicians were encouraged to keep patients out of pain. Underlying trauma, such as the sudden loss of someone close to you, though, is very common in people who become addicted. Taking drugs or drinking alcohol can be a form of self-medication.
A: Yes, I agree that he was definitely self-medicating his feelings of grief over the death of his friend. After Vicodin, of course, things escalated. By age 15, he was addicted to heroin.
Q: What happened once you discovered he had a problem?
A: His father and I… there wasn’t anything we could do to stop him. He was going full steam ahead with drug use.
We petitioned the court to put him under house arrest at age 15. When he violated that, he went into juvenile detention and stayed for 30 days… it broke my heart.
Joshua would beg me to take him home, and I couldn’t do it. I had vowed that I was not going to be the one that brought him home so he could die.
For the next few years, every decision I made, any time I brought him home from hospital – I was terrified to do it. I was terrified that it was going to enable him to continue using and to potentially overdose. It would be excruciating because he was crying. But I kept thinking, “What if he overdosed at home?”
We shipped to him to Florida at 17, to an addiction treatment center.
We had good insurance and were able to get him into one of the very best treatment facilities. We hadn’t had much luck in our home state; there were not too many options beyond juvenile detention and the hospital.
After 11 months in treatment, he was doing very well, but he then relapsed. I was devastated when that happened. I thought that the facility was one of the best. I thought that it was the golden ticket to his sobriety. So, when he relapsed after 11 months, I thought all was lost. I was devastated.
But I’ve learned in the last eight years that relapses are not the end of the world. Addicts do relapse; it happens. Sometimes it’s a part of their recovery journey.
Does it make them a failure? No.
Is it the end of the world? No.
In the last eight years there have been multiple relapses, but, at the same time, he has also gone eight to nine months sober when he works a solid program.
Relapses are a setback. You get up and start over again, but it doesn’t negate the progress you’ve made and the knowledge you’ve gained about how to work a program.
Q: Where is Josh now?
A: He has moved to another state. Things were going well for a while. Unfortunately, he hit some bad luck and has relapsed.
He’s the hardest person on himself when he relapses. He beats himself up. I do my best to encourage him, telling him it’s just a relapse. He makes it into being the end of the world. When you do that, you lose hope and give up. I don’t ever want him to give up.
He’s had multiple overdoses and several arrests. He’s also progressed to meth. That drug frightens me more than anything as a mother. I’ve witnessed how he is on drugs, and meth scares me the most.
Still, there is hope. I just talked to him on the phone today. He has re-admitted himself to treatment and has just completed detox. His car got towed and impounded and he told me he was not going to go get it. He doesn’t trust himself to have a vehicle, because it would make it too easy to go out there and start using again. I thought that was a very good decision on his part.
This is part of why I wanted to share my story. I had to learn that there’s no magic cure for this; I don’t have the cure for my son’s addiction. I had to learn how to continue to love him and have a relationship with him no matter what. That includes detaching. That includes not letting him in my house while he is using drugs. It includes not giving him cash – a rule we established together; a boundary I have.
I want to be clear that our approach, as parents, is much different in the situation of an addict who is a minor. We have a moral and legal obligation to our children to seek any and all appropriate help for them – whatever that may be – especially in the case of an adolescent with mental illness and addiction. I don’t feel that adolescents should be expected to “find their way” out of the darkness alone.
The thing I’ve learned is that it’s a whole different life – a whole different way of thinking and living – when you love an addict. Life changes and things are unpredictable. For me, it’s not about writing off my son because he is choosing to use drugs. I struggled with that for a long time. What do I do? Walk away? Turn my back on him? I couldn’t do any of those things. It tormented me as a mother, but I couldn’t turn my back.
Q: You said that he’s had a lot of relapses. How do you cope with those?
A: I’m not going to lie. They make me very sad. They are devastating and they break my heart. Yes, I do have to give myself a chance to cry. I was on autopilot for far too many years, being strong because I was his mother and I had to hold it together. Well, I am a human being.
I’ve learned that addicts make bad choices. And when they relapse, I’ve learned that there is a lot of fall-out and wreckage, and it affects people that love them. It’s devastating emotionally and financially. I give myself a little bit of time to process the sadness when it happens. I have to work through it; it’s grief. If I don’t, I can’t move forward.
When it happens, I pray for him. I go to Al-Anon meetings. I call my sponsor. I immerse myself in my recovery because I can’t help him.
Now I know that relapses are oftentimes part of someone’s recovery journey. As sad as it sounds, it’s the truth.
As a parent or a loved one of a drug addict, if it’s your first time on this sometimes sad, crazy, devastating roller coaster ride – know that relapse is not the end of the world. It’s not a failure on the addict’s part and it’s not a failure on the parent’s part.
Josh has gone almost a year without using multiple times in the past eight years, and, for that, I am very proud and thankful. During those times when he is sober, he goes to many meetings, he has a sponsor, he is invested in his recovery and works really hard on his sobriety. And during those times I try to spend as much quality time with him as possible.
Because I feel like I’ve lost so much, I cherish my time with him. If he’s sober, I want to spend time with him. For instance, he loves pizza. When he’s sober, I want to watch a movie, have a pizza and laugh with him. He’s a great young man – fun to be around. I cherish those moments and I let go of all the bad when I spend time with him while he is sober.
Over the last 10 years, there have been about three years total of sobriety for Josh. It’s been very difficult as a mother, but Al-Anon is my lifeline.
Q: It is definitely a long-term, daily battle, for parents of a drug addicted son or daughter, as well as for others closes to them. How has it been for you, dealing with this over all these years?
A: It’s devastating and very sad and tragic at times, just heartbreaking. As a parent, you want to save them. You want to shake them and scream, “Why are you doing this?”
The problem is that there is no good answer to the question “Why are you doing this?”
And as parents, in the beginning, we want to know why so that we can fix it. There’s just no real good answer. There’s not an answer that is helpful to us, and so it’s exhausting to keep beating that question to death. The answer never comes. The only answer is because he’s addicted – and that doesn’t make a mother feel any better.
The addict doesn’t even know why they do what they do.
My son told me he’s been struggling with this almost longer than he hasn’t been in his 25 years of life. He is tired of this, and when he gets tired of being in the darkness when he’s using, he does pull himself up, ask for help and get back into treatment. He knows that help is there.
Here’s the thing: Only he can do it. I can’t do it for him.
He has hit bottom many times, including several overdoses. I believe the overdoses have really scared him to get back on track with his program.
I know he doesn’t want to destroy his life. I know that he is still capable of making good choices. For example, his decision today to not get his car out of the impound parking lot was a good decision. He knows right now he’s on shaky ground and having a vehicle would make his access to drugs a lot easier.
And it’s like that. It’s just one day at a time… one decision at a time.
Now, though, when I talk to him, I tell him I love him. I do not judge him or get angry at him, even if he has relapsed.
Instead, I hang up and cry my eyes out – but I don’t do it when he’s on the other line.
Q: Even though this issue is not resolved, you seem to be handling it in a much healthier way now. Why do you think that is?
A: I found Al-Anon five years ago because I had nothing left. I had lost all hope for my son. I had exhausted every avenue to help him, including hospitalization, juvenile detention, law enforcement, and the Baker Act. I exhausted every single source of help to save my son, and there was nothing left.
Did I want to go? No. I wasn’t the addict.
Why should I have to attend a meeting when I had done nothing wrong? At least tell me how to save my son and how to cure him of addiction, but that’s not how it works.
Al-Anon has been a lifesaver. It taught me a lot of things. It’s not the magic cure, though. It’s not the magic cure for the sadness we experience and the devastation we feel when the people we love destroy their lives.
It helps us to understand that we are powerless over the choices of our loved ones and addiction and alcoholism. Now, Al-Anon does not teach necessarily. It’s a process of evolution, and everyone evolves at their own pace and time.
It’s taken me five years to come to a comfortable place, to understand that it’s not my fault, and that I don’t have control over my son’s choices.
This is a real hard one to swallow as a mother – that you can’t control your child’s choices.
But he is truly the only one that can do it. He has to access the help that is out there, and he has to put it to use.
I’ve come to terms with that. It was definitely hard in the beginning, though.
When you are told you are powerless – that you cannot fix them, you have no control – it’s so hard to take. But you have to get to the point that you accept this as reality.
If you can’t get there – if you can’t get to a place in your heart, mind and soul where you understand that you didn’t cause the addiction, you can’t control it, you can’t cure it, and you are powerless over the choices your children make – you’ll continue to spin your wheels. You’ll drive yourself crazy looking for solutions that aren’t there. You’ll be consumed with trying to soften the blow and trying to undo the messes. It’s exhausting and impossible.
Q: That is profound. That realization alone has a lot of transformative power for parents of drug addicted sons and daughters. What else has Al-Anon taught you?
A: Now, I focus more on the positive. It’s a good sign that he has gone a year at a time without using. It means that recovery is possible.
Again, I don’t judge him when he relapses. It used to anger me, and I would say to him, “Why are you doing this? You are killing me!” I don’t ever say that now.
Now, I understand that he is devastated enough when he relapses. He has sobbed and cried to me; he definitely doesn’t like what he is doing.
Q: Do you recommend Al-Anon for parents and loved ones of drug addicts?
A: Absolutely, I highly recommend it. I would recommend that they try out six meetings, especially beginner’s meetings. There, you have a chance to ask questions and really share.
If nothing else, you are sitting in a room with other parents who’ve been there, parents who are heartbroken and have done everything they can to save their kids’ lives.
You really have to give it a chance by trying six meetings.
Q: Why do you recommend committing to six meetings up front?
A: When I first went to Al-Anon, I was devastated, heartbroken and hopeless and I wanted someone to help me fix my son.
The thing is, Al-Anon doesn’t tell us what to do.
At Al-Anon, members share their experiences, their strength, their hope, and what they’ve been through. We take what is helpful for us, and we don’t give advice or tell people how to fix their loved ones. Al-Anon won’t tell you how to save your child, or how to cure addiction.
The focus is on us. We discover how to be helpful without enabling; we learn how to build bridges where bridges have been burned.
Sometimes addicts do bad things. A lot of relationships are destroyed and damaged.
We learn that it’s possible to rebuild relationships, with boundaries.
We learn how to put one foot in front of the other. We learn how to deal with relapses and get support from other members when in crisis, and likewise how to give support to other members in crisis.
I will not support Josh, as in pay his rent, but when he takes steps toward recovery, I’m on the sideline cheering the loudest for him. He knows that. But when he’s using, I’m not cleaning up messes. I have to set boundaries for that.
In Al-Anon, members understand like few others can what we have been going through.
Friends and family oftentimes don’t know what to say to a mother of an addict who is actively using. They oftentimes suggest things that you should try as a parent. Although they mean well, they don’t understand. There is an unspoken camaraderie in Al-Anon, and, many times, the less that is said, the more supported members are when in a crisis. At Al-Anon, they don’t bombard you with advice.
Family and friends all have some magic suggestion that they feel you haven’t yet tried. It’s very upsetting to listen to that because, God knows, as a mother of an addict, I have done everything humanly possible to get my child the help he needed.
As parents, it’s very common that we start to isolate from family and friends because of the unsolicited advice they give us. It’s hurtful to imply that we haven’t been diligent in trying to help our children. In giving advice, although well-intentioned, it feels like they are saying, “You haven’t done all you can, so let me offer a suggestion or two.” It’s very hurtful.
In Al-Anon, there are the three C’s and the three A’s.
I’ve mentioned the three c’s already: You didn’t cause the addiction. You can’t cure it, and you can’t control it.
The three A’s are awareness, acceptance and action. It takes time and work, but there comes a point when you are the parent of an addict that, although it’s hard, you have to accept reality. If you don’t, you are living an illusion and are in denial. Acceptance is key – accepting the truth of our lives and our children’s lives.
Once we come to that acceptance, then we can take action – whether that be Al-Anon, setting boundaries, praying, etc. – but we take the action we need to move forward in our lives, without turning our backs on our children. It’s important for us as parents. It takes time, and Al-Anon is a good guide to get us there.
Q: What helped you to get to the understanding that you, as a parent, don’t control your son’s drug addiction, that you didn’t cause it, and you certainly can’t cure it?
A: It’s realizing that whatever we as parents have done up to this point hasn’t worked to cure our children of their addiction. There is no magic cure for the heartache or sadness you experience as a parent.
There will still be hard days, even after you reach this understanding.
You also learn that relapses are not the end of the world. If it happens, it doesn’t mean you give up hope for your child. It is just a relapse! You get up each day and start over.
Al-Anon teaches us boundaries. It teaches us how to set boundaries, how to detach with love, and how to go on with our lives – all while not turning our backs on the addict we love. It teaches us how to continue with our lives, and how to be helpful without getting in the way of their recovery.
Because of my experience with Al-Anon, I’m no longer angry or resentful at my son for his choices. Al-Anon helps us to put our lives into perspective and to let go of the illusions that we cling to. After all, addiction is a disease, and you wouldn’t be angry at your child who is struggling with any other disease like cancer or diabetes.
It helps us learn to live life one day at a time, sometimes one minute at a time, when facing a crisis or relapse, as well as how to live on life on life’s terms.
Q: Is there anything else you’d recommend to parents out there who are where you were? Parents who are angry, heartbroken and devastated over their drug addicted son or daughter?
A: Al-Anon literature is very wonderful and helpful. I just want to stress that the meetings are the meat and potatoes of program. Meetings are how we survive, how we get through the days and the crises. The meetings are where you get the most potent Al-Anon experience, and the literature is secondary. However, it’s been my lifeline when I can’t get to a meeting.
Al-Anon has a lot of excellent literature. They sell the books at most meetings, or you can purchase them online.
My favorite book that I’ve turned to the most is Opening our Hearts, Transforming our Losses. It’s filled with stories of people in Al-Anon that are about the losses we experience as parents.
You see, our ability to raise our children gets halted because of drugs.
That was a hard thing for me as well. Josh missed graduation, prom, and so many milestones.
When what would have been his graduation day came and went, I cried my eyes out. Prom time came and went, and I cried my eyes out. My checklist of things that I wanted for my beautiful son got torn away from me when he was 15 years old. I had the rug pulled out from under me.
It was a huge loss – the closest thing to death I have experienced as a parent – because he was ripped away at such a young age. This book helped me a lot. It helped me to process the grief and work through it. I had to come to an acceptance. I had to let go of all of that and I had to move on.
All of those things you wanted for your child but your child didn’t have, those are all losses.
Losses can consume us. Al-Anon can help us dig out of the black hole.
We lose so much – hopes, dreams, and what we think of as normalcy. Al-Anon helps us to let go of those illusions we were clinging to and work through the grief. As we process it, we come to understand our new normal, where we live life on life’s terms instead of our own.
So this is a very good book for parents about loss – not necessarily death, although there are some stories of that – mostly, it’s about the loss of normalcy that you had hoped for your child.
Q: What final message would you give to those who love an addict or an alcoholic?
A: It’s critical for families/friends to work their own recovery program apart from the addict/alcoholic. God knows how many of us completely lose ourselves in another person’s disease because we are trying to save them.
By the time Josh was 18, his three years of hard-core drug use had taken its toll on me physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, professionally, and socially. I was physically ill with chronic migraines, relentless insomnia and digestion problems requiring a colon resection. My heart ached so badly that I was sure that I would have a heart attack and die, and sometimes I prayed that I would. I was an emotional wreck – waiting for the next shoe to drop, terrified every day that this might be the day or night that my son overdosed and died.
I was extremely angry at God (and the world) for dealing such a cruel hand to me and my son. I completely lost my faith and felt that Josh’s addiction was some kind punishment toward me.
It was very difficult to concentrate at work, and I would go into the ladies room stall, cry, pull myself together, and go back to my desk to put on my professional, helpful, cheerful, brave face – working in Social Services, helping people all day long while my son was dying. It was a bitter irony.
I declined social invitations in and out of work – I couldn’t bear the thought of well-meaning people asking about my children. What would I say? Lying was exhausting and telling the truth was too painful for me. I couldn’t enjoy anything, knowing that my beautiful son was making choices that could very well kill him.
The guilt, the shame, and the sense of failure that I felt, as his mother, consumed me day and night. I sought professional help early on, but found that, after three and a half years, I was tired of talking about the devastation and the wreckage that Josh would leave in the wake of his drug use.
My therapist suggested Al-Anon early on, but I saw no point in that at the time. Several years later, as my last resort, I went to an Al-Anon beginner’s meeting – lost and emotionally and spiritually broken. It took some time to learn the Al-Anon way of life, but it helps me in every area of my life, including the restoration of my faith in God.
For me, the last 10 years have been extremely difficult, heartbreaking and devastating at times. But my son is alive, and so there is hope. I’ve seen Josh work a program and go almost a year sober on several occasions.
I know that he can do this, I know that I can’t do it for him, and I know that as long as he is alive, there is hope that he will have a happy life and a bright future.
Today, Josh is doing well, and is engaged and committed to sobriety in a very comprehensive and supportive treatment center.
I’m learning to live one day at a time.
And thus, for today, I can have a grateful and peaceful heart, a mind that is free from fear and worry, knowing my son is doing the very best he can, today, to remain sober. I will do my best, with what I’ve learned in Al-Anon, not to look back and not to look forward, but rather stay in this day with a grateful heart and be thankful for my son’s renewed commitment to himself and life.
*Name has been changed at request of interviewee to protect the privacy of her son.