I grew up in New Jersey and spent a lot of time in the Bronx, but moved to Pennsylvania before attending high school. I went to college and have a wonderful career that I’ve been at for over twenty years. I’ve been married to my wife for 25 years and have three children who are 22, 20, and 18. It’s a pretty full house, as my mother and mother-in-law also live with us, having been widowed. We’re also taking care of my brother from a housing and support perspective who is intellectually disabled. Clearly, we are not the typical suburban family where everyone gets their own bedroom and quiet space. It’s truly a FULL house, and we all take care of each other. My wife and I are pretty hands on parents, but I wouldn’t consider us helicopter parents. My kids have always been active in school, church, and athletics. Addiction is something that has been historically present in both my wife’s and my family. As a child, you don’t view your uncle or aunt as an alcoholic, necessarily. You just view them as the fun relatives that the rest of the family finds undependable. However, it is very different when you find out it’s your child who has issues with addiction, and you no longer see the challenge through child’s eyes.
My son is a tender-hearted guy who truly loves his family. He has always been highly competitive and drawn to athletics with a lot of his own focus on “winning” and “competing at a high level.” That determination gave him an opportunity to become a college athlete, and we thought it would translate to other areas of his life as he grew and developed. Like many youth, he was a person of potential, but at the moment, that potential has nearly completely atrophied. It’s been a huge change from seeing him graduate five years ago with that hope you have as a parent, to now where you wonder if you are going to plant a tree in his memory sometime soon. In the beginning, it wasn’t clear that my oldest child (son) had any unique issues. Like many HS people, it started out with a little bit of beer and weed, but at some point, it took off into something else.
We noticed our son was using marijuana heavily, and he eventually had several run-ins with the police due to that usage. That’s when we realized that something wasn’t “normal.” Many people would back off and settle down after some small infractions, but our son ran towards the substances, as he began to be caught. In his freshman year of college, we noticed he was losing his academic focus and drive. When he left college after one year, we didn’t see him that much as he moved out. He didn’t want to live in our rules and structure. He would visit and attend family functions, graduations, etc., and we noticed he was definitely sliding down hill, but always denied any substance issues. I think he was just ashamed of the situation and was afraid of what my reaction would be potentially, plus he was already in to heavy usage.
As a young person, it can be difficult to realize that your family will always love you, even after crossing a major line. This makes it hard to come forward with a problem and causes you to isolate yourself; I think that was the case for my son. Plus, addiction and lying go hand in hand in my experience. I’m not sure when he began using opioids, but he is now on his fourth run through rehab. He decided to go back recently after he showed up at a funeral that much of my family was attending. Several of our relatives had not seen him in a long time and knew he was battling addiction. Some of them shared stories of their own addiction or what they were fighting with him one on one. The understanding of everyone made him more comfortable in going back to rehab.
I’m optimistic about his recovery, because in many ways the alternative pessimism is difficult for me to bear daily. However, it’s a journey that my family and I are still processing and learning through. I was raised to see addiction as a weakness, but now that I am educated and the more I learn about it, the more I see it as a disease. Navigating the world of substance use disorder can be incredibly difficult, however we’ve received a lot of help from family, people, and organizations; like Caron and Independence Blue Cross. Through their programs, we were able to assist our son and maintain a level of mental health ourselves.
My wife and I received counseling early on in the situation and have been devouring books on the issue of addiction. There were a lot of things we needed to work on; a lot of enabling functions and boundary issues. My wife and I just spend a lot of time on ourselves. It is still tough.
We also attend weekly family support groups that have really been an anchor for us. Sometimes it’s listening, sometimes it’s sharing, but often it’s just to be there. Unfortunately, there is always someone new coming through the door with a story that could be equally or more challenging than ours. Personally, I’ve never had to deal with my son robbing us or overdosing in our home. There are many people whose children have passed, and I’m grateful for not having to deal with that. It’s one thing to hear about the death of your child, it’s another to be waiting for it to happen. If I am honest, I will say that those days do occur. No matter how long your child has been sober, it’s always in the back of your head. I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve cried over it. My wife and I are only able to cope with it through our spiritual grounding and our personal support network.
It’s invaluable to have a network of people you can be brutally honest with on an emotional level. I’ve connected with total strangers over this issue of addiction. For example, my wife and I attended a talk, and before the event started, we overheard someone mention to a couple next to us that they were sorry for their loss. My wife elbowed me to check if I heard it, and the woman next to us noticed. She informed my wife and I that they had recently lost a son due to addiction. We began to share the story of our son with them and they shared the story of their son with us. After speaking for a bit, the husband of the couple began crying and told me that he never talked about this with anyone. We developed a connection with these people who were complete strangers only ten minutes ago. It was clear to me, at least with the husband, that they had received no counseling for this and had been burying it emotionally.
I have met several other parents facing this and one common thread is that they want to reach out to others and talk about it. I even started a podcast called Opioid Dad in late 2017 as a bit of an outreach to others on this issue and have listeners checking in from Australia, Europe and all over the United States.
There’s that phrase “One Day at a Time,” and it certainly applies to people dealing with substance abuse, but it also applies to the affected families as well. If you don’t get that in your head fast, you are not going to be able to compartmentalize and navigate the issue of addiction in your family. It’s important to take stock of how addiction is affecting your family so you can properly help them process and deal with issues that will occur. People are at different places in their journey, and you have to respect where they are as some may understand what addiction is and what it is not. Some of them may never go past a certain point in their understanding.
If you are 80 years old, and you spent your life trying to get someone sober, and it didn’t work, facing the reality that you could have done something different for yourself may be so painful that you’re not willing visit that potential. As a result, you want to maintain your (mis) understanding of addiction, and you don’t want to alter it.
Substance use disorder can happen to anyone. This epidemic is cutting across social, economic, religious, and geographic lines. There have been communities in the city that have been fighting drug issues for generations. In a weird way, the spread of this has brought a needed spotlight. We are a divided country politically, but there are events that can rally us together.
This epidemic requires neighbors to help neighbors. That really is a part of the indomitable spirit of this country; it’s helping each other. We have a real problem in the United States and we are losing many young people to a war without borders. We lose 112 people to addiction daily, and we’ll never know the difference that they could have made on this planet. We are not going to recapture the lost, but we can help those who are still here. We need to figure out how to get resources to them, like treatment beds and counselors.
This is why I am sharing my story, because I view it as my personal mission to air out the reality of addiction and address it head on. I make it a point to be honest about what’s going on with my son when people ask how he’s doing. By doing so, people feel more comfortable asking for advice on how to deal with an addiction issue of their own. Everyone is affected by this and we need to be honest with each other and ourselves about what’s going on with the reality of addiction.