Last Wednesday night — in the middle of the night — (which was actually early Thursday morning where I was in Minneapolis), my phone started ringing. Now, when I was growing up, I had heard from my mom that nothing good ever came from phone calls received after midnight. Disoriented and apprehensive, I picked up the phone. It was John, my 21-year-old son, who had been living in a sober house in Los Angeles for more than a year.
How did we – rather, how did he – end up there?
Awaiting John’s birth in 1996, like typical new parents, we hoped and prayed that the baby would be healthy, that the delivery would go well. As he grew, there were more hopes and dreams for him. We hoped that he would be happy, that he would make good choices, that he would treat others well, that he would go to church. We hoped that he would be a good student, a good (maybe even great) athlete and that he would be successful (whatever that means). Not once in all of our hopes and dreams and wishes for him did we ever say “hey, I sure hope he’s an alcoholic or addict.” Of course, you say, no parent ever wishes or plans or even considers that might happen. Yet, it does. And it did.
John had many God-given gifts. He was quick-witted, passionate and engaging. He had a thirst for adventure and energy to match. He was smart, competitive and a natural athlete. He could sing and he had rhythm (not sure where he got that) and a steel-trap memory. He was curious, creative and was a little mischievous (ok, sometimes more than a little). He was everything we had hoped he would be.
And yet, 19 years later, the reality was, John was an alcoholic.
I wish I could say that there was a specific moment when it became clear to me that he had a problem. There wasn’t. In hindsight, it was a long, sometimes slow, other times fast, steady decline over several years. Some of it was attributed to being a typical teenager: spending less time with family, hanging out with new kids other than his typical childhood friends, not caring about school and homework. In time, there were more alarming things that happened: skipping school, being cut or suspended from high school sports teams because of misbehavior and poor attitude, empty alcohol bottles/cans in his room, stealing money, motor vehicle tickets, multiple car accidents, increasing bouts of anger and yelling. And finally, realizing that it was not simply a phase that he would grow out of: failing community college, middle-of-the-night emergency room visit to get stitches after falling while high, finding him and a stranger passed out on my couch high on something, smashing a car windshield with his bare fist, being handcuffed, arrested, spending the night in jail, threatening to hurt himself (or worse). Alcohol and drugs had sucked the life from him and it seemed as though all the qualities that had made him “John” were gone. He was barely surviving.
After 2 months in a primary treatment center, John moved into New Life House in November 2016. It was life-changing. He learned to accept and even like himself. He had emotions and he shared them. He built friendships and a brotherhood with the other guys. He found hope and a future. As his mom, I heard the change in his voice. When he called, he talked – really talked – with me. He shared his feelings, his struggles, his accomplishments. And when I would go out to see him, he looked different. He looked good, really good. He was taking care of himself, how he dressed and cut his hair. He smiled a genuine smile that lit up his face. His eyes were alive like they had not been in years! He was happy and he was thriving.
Because New Life House holds family days 2 Saturdays each month, I would try to coordinate my trips to LA so I could attend those sessions. I loved getting to know the parents I met through the House. They were welcoming and inclusive. When John was new to the house, other parents guided me on what to expect, and New Life House management connected me with other out-of-town moms. It meant so much to receive a random text from another parent (sometimes parents I had never met) who would text me pictures of John when he would go out “on pass” with their son. It was like a big extended family. The parents who lived locally, they became my friends and would pass along news and pictures of John when I could not be there. They helped me feel like I was there even though I was thousands of miles away.
And so, 16 months and 5 days after John left Minneapolis for Montana and then Los Angeles, he was calling me in the middle of the night from his sober living house. He was calling to tell me that he had graduated. That old belief that nothing good comes from phone calls after midnight was wrong. He had graduated. He had completed the steps needed to move on to the next phase of his life, to move out in the next few months. I started crying. He was yelling and I was crying, but this time it was all good!
It has been a privilege to work with New Life House and its management, all the managers, who have pushed and pulled and encouraged and helped John on his journey. It has been no less than a miracle to watch John transform into this young man who is alive, really alive, who is present in the moment, who shares his feelings, who is looking forward to the future with some uncertainty, but certainly with hope and excitement. All the hopes and dreams and wishes that we had for John 21 years ago are all possible. Thanks to New Life House, he now has the foundation, the skills and the tools to live a full and healthy life.