Our son Steve has been the biggest challenge of our married life. He is our second son, adopted at birth, and always a fireball of energy and daring. He was in constant motion growing up, usually looking for someone to play with and wanting to stir up excitement.
He was diagnosed at age 5 with ADHD and learning difficulties, which translated to challenges at school. As health professionals, my husband Al, (a pediatrician) and I (a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner) thought we had what it took to raise him in a healthy environment in order to help him achieve his greatest potential. We thought we were doing pretty well with providing structure, using community resources for tutors, mentors, educational learning experiences and just having fun as a family. All of this changed in middle school and high school when he found alcohol and drugs.
The more we tried to control our son’s choice of friends, curfew, computer web sites, give consequences for misbehavior and have him conform to our expectations of living a healthy, manageable life, the more he fought us. His friends were so much more exciting, as was the call to sneak out at night, smoke cigarettes and marijuana, break rules, lie, steal, and do all the other behaviors that most parents of risky teens experience. We tried years of counseling, ADHD medications, diversion programs when he started to get into trouble with the law and multiple outpatient and inpatient rehab programs. We spent lots of hours making sure he attended the required AA meetings, community service work and mandatory classes. During this time we were more invested than he was in his recovery. Counselors told us “don’t worry about marijuana, all the teens smoke it and it’s not a big deal.” For our son, it was the gateway drug to heroin, among other substances. All of his post-high school friends drank and used drugs and he was going nowhere fast, despite our best efforts to enroll him in community college and then welding school.
In the 2 years after high school, our son’s drug use was much heavier. He dropped out of college and sold most of his possessions (and many of ours) to feed his habit. To protect ourselves, we told him he had to leave. He was on the street for almost a year before he consented to come to New Life House. He was in pretty poor shape, having spent 5 days in jail. The day I left him at New Life House, I was so relieved. I didn’t have to worry if he was eating, where he was sleeping, and if the next phone call would be someone telling me that he was dead.
It has been 18 months and he has made great progress, now as an in-house alumni. He hasn’t had an easy time, but he has learned accountability to his brothers in the house, responsibility in doing chores,and has managed to secure a few jobs in hopes of earning money to live on his own. He has grown in wisdom and integrity, and our relationship has improved dramatically. His greatest challenge is to come, as he learns to live without the structure of the recovery house and encounters the everyday temptations of real life.
This whole journey has taught us that we were not in control. We surrendered to God and prayed every day. We used resources, including several friends and family members who had been through similar experiences, as well as the support of Al Anon. We read lots of articles and books on parenting teens with substance abuse problems and experiencing trouble with the law. Now, when parents bring their teens in to see my husband or I in our practices for substance abuse issues, we feel a deeper understanding and empathy that we never would have had without knowing it first hand. We also can be much more direct when we talk with teens who are starting to use drugs. We are much more aggressive in getting teens into treatment early and providing community resources for parents. Most of the parents are very grateful that we have this first hand experience and that we can be candid with them. Most of all we can give them hope and support for the long journey ahead. We know that it is a “one day at a time” endeavor and the battle is not over, but hopefully we can make a difference in starting their child’s recovery.