In the months following my son’s first year of sobriety and graduation from New Life House, what resounds most clearly for me is the peace I feel in seeing my son become the person he was meant to be. Coupled with the deep joy, gratitude, love and respect my son, daughter and I have shared in our healing as a family.
My son literally crash-landed on the slippery slope that propelled his downhill slide into addiction; when at age 15 a sudden seizure caused him to fall 30-feet from a ski-lift. He suffered catastrophic injuries and was airlifted to a Trauma 1 Hospital where he spent 3-weeks in the ICU on a morphine pump. The trauma team, for whom I am forever grateful for keeping my son alive, released him with a 30-day supply of opioids stressing the importance of “keeping ahead of the pain.” Sans caution, education or resource regarding the high likelihood of future addiction.
His spinning out was not obvious. It came in waves over many years, with long periods of impressive success, followed inevitably by self-sabotage. The shadow emerged predictably in arrogance, blame, a lot of “I’m gonna,” and excuses accompanying denial amidst the impending collapse of dreams, as he held on despite the obvious loss of control. He plummeted aimlessly with deception and empty promises (lying to himself as much as anyone else), escalating carelessness, avoidance, numbing, isolation . . . and then darkness.
My son’s likeability, humor, insight, influence, charisma and savvy were character traits that had become darkly manipulative liabilities. He has always been talented and skillful, but impulsivity and lack of a coherent strategy or follow-through often derailed his efforts. At NLH he came face to face with people who could understand him, speak a language he could hear, hold boundaries and most of all, see through the bullshit; while providing the mirror that he may have been too ashamed or ingrained to provide for himself. Beneath the self-sabotage, avoidance, skepticism, shame and nihilistic thinking, he sought trust and truth and real connection—a tribe to which he could belong.
At NLH straight–up truth with love multilayered with consistent highly structured inclusive grindstone personal work and unrelenting support allowed my son to trust enough to begin shedding one layer, after another, after another. He has actively turned liabilities into strengths, and furthermore employs assets with right action to contribute compassionately to the world rather than just being stuck in self. Although, an accomplished hard-core athlete, and a young man who once clung to and fought for his life after a traumatic accident; he unabashedly declares that NLH is hands-down the most challenging and rewarding thing he has ever done. When describing what NLH has given him, he quotes the proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, Teach a man to fish, and you’ve fed himfor a lifetime.” NLH has emboldened him with the courage, support and the tools to be the man he has been waiting to become.
With a full heart, I joined my son at a packed 12-step meeting in West Hollywood when he celebrated his first year of sobriety. He invited me along with members from NLH to the front of the room to present him with his 1-year sobriety ‘birthday’ cake (an LA 12-step tradition) and to stand with him as he spoke a few words. He began by expressing his gratitude to me for traveling from another state to share this day with him. A collective “Awwww,” emitted sweetly from the audience, as he turned to me and smiled.
He continued, “My mom told me last night that she is no longer writing my eulogy in her head,” A somber knowing silence grazed the room. My son was fully aware of how close he had dangled on the edge of his existence in this world, and was not at all surprised when I shared with him how this morbid intrusion was a twisted way of distancing myself from a heartbreak I could never withstand, while at the same time keeping me entangled in his life, ready for crisis response and rescue at a moment’s notice. I used to believe that by following a thought to its worst possible conclusion, that I might actually maintain some control over the outcome.
Then, I heard him say, “. . . And I’m no longer asking her to pay off my drug dealers.”
Wait…what?? I felt my face flush. I wanted to protest, Hold on, I haven’t, actually . . . Then, as if my thinking instantly hit a cul-du-sac of mirrors, I realized I had no defense. There I was exposed, wide-eyed and feeling very small, my own hidden truth reflected back to me in front of so many people—with acceptance, understanding, and love, as if a warm hand had rested on my shoulder. If anyone could have a compassionate understanding of the paradoxical feelings of pride for my son and shame for myself that struck me at that moment, it was the people in that room, and particularly the young men from NLH who stood with me.
At that instant, when I couldn’t hide from myself pretending that I had it all together, I too was embraced. Truth is, I was paying his drug dealers every time I paid his phone bill, so I could maintain contact with him; every time I “loaned” him money for rent; every time I bought into whatever manipulative request he was pining for with promises of a no-less-than fantastical imagined outcome that was certain to turn things around; every time I made excuses for him or tried to ‘fix’ the situation by absorbing his consequences. And to be fully transparent, there was a time when I actually paid off his drug dealer (and it was a large amount of money), because I believed I was keeping my son safe.
I always believed that my work as a parent encompassed two most vital tasks, loving well, and letting go. I had no idea how convoluted my instincts, understanding, and beliefs could get when love for my son became fuel for his addiction, and when my heart and my head were hijacked by the terror of losing him to that disease.
None of that money or my convincing myself was actually helping him. If I were to look at it honestly, I too played it forward to an imaginary pie in the sky ending. In truth, I was enabling his addiction by paying off his drug dealers, so essentially became his supplier. Yet in my twisted thinking, I was loving well. I wanted desperately to keep him alive. All the while telling myself, He’s gonna . . . or, I have to . . . and, Just to get him on track again . . . or, What if . . . and, It IS my problem; and always, This time it will be different . . . trying to somehow level the slippery slope he had lost control of. I kept convincing myself I was talking to the person I knew him to be or knew he had potential to become, and by supporting him—just a little—I was helping him find his way. I was believing in him.
Yet, as a single working mom, without a surplus of funds or time, I seemed to always be willing to sacrifice my basic needs in a futile attempt to upright my son’s life. I bent and made my own excuses, and as little, by little, he settled for less within himself, I learned to settle for less, as well. As I held on to hopeless hope, my health and happiness faltered. I struggled to maintain my own equilibrium, and keep my life together.
From the moment I left my son in the office of Miracle House (NLH) with the graduates who surrounded him. It was easy to let go on a much more sustainable level. Support came with weekly updates from Garrett, the house director, and with the ease of conversations I had with my son. I appreciated the inclusion of family members throughout and many opportunities for connection with other parents. I found camaraderie in a great little Al-Anon group, which has helped me tremendously in navigating muddy waters and steering away from enabling tendencies.
Naturally, I’ve had missteps, interjecting my ‘professional opinion’ or my experience with my son (since of course, I knew him best). My internal anxiety occasionally continues to rumble, perseverating at times with the struggle of how to find a balance of wanting my son to know that I am there for him, while not reaching out unnecessarily or too far in order to minimize my own fears—or in an autonomic hyper-vigilant response. The agency my son has taken over his own life, with genuine appreciation, ownership, accountability, and follow-through has helped me to relax in the knowledge that he doesn’t want or need a rescue. Furthermore, I have had the opportunity to look searchingly and fearlessly at myself; mindful of my true feelings, motives, and actions.
My relationship with both my children is more solid than ever before, without pretense, addressing real-time emotions, stating needs, making requests, and feeling the joy in the magnificent genuineness and internal honesty the work has awakened within our entire family system. Yes, I will always be there for my children—in a healthy recovery-informed capacity. Yet, I am gratefully showing up for myself, first. Most importantly, I am no longer perpetually prepared for the fall.
NLH’s truth with love model provides so much more than a viable path to substance abuse recovery. I have had the opportunity to witness many impressive men shed layers of protection and defense to emerge the best versions of themselves led by mentors who have become the men they were meant to be—one day at a time. NLH is as authentic and effective as it gets… and I’m not just talking about recovery, I’m talking about life.
I have watched as my son’s heart has become full and open again. His dreams have awakened. His creativity is alive and abundant. Each day on his journey, his ongoing recovery is embraced with concentric circles of support; his sponsor, his roommates, NLH friends, the house itself, inclusive NLH events, NLH alumni around every corner (The NLH community is so ubiquitous, that it seems whenever I am anywhere with my son, we invariably cross paths with a gentlemanly NLH member or grad. I always comment, “You guys are everywhere!”), and the thriving recovery environment in Los Angeles County with more than 3,100 meetings a week.
I wish this story was mine alone, but the reality is millions of parents from all walks of life are facing the nightmare of having a drug-addicted child. The Center for Disease Control reported more than 72,000 drug overdose deaths in the US in 2017 (200 a day). 68% involved an opioid. Yearly deaths attributable to alcohol are more than 88,000 annually and continue to drastically increase. This is a reality that cannot be minimized or rationalized or rescued away. Stigma keeps addiction compartmentalized and we try to keep the unimaginable at a distance. Yet, the crisis has become more and more impossible to ignore, and no one is immune to the impact. Relationships are not preserved by not bringing it up.
I had to let go of what I thought I knew in order to trust what I didn’t yet know. NLH knew what I could not begin to grapple with or fix or love away. There are no shortcuts, quick fixes or special cases. Addiction is a family disease in that we all are complicit in avoiding at least some aspect of the truth. What I know now is that I see my son in your son, and you will see your son in mine. I also know there is hope. The time-honored structure, consistency, support and alumni involvement of NLH is a testament to what is possible. I am beyond grateful.