Our story is probably not much different than other parents of children with substance abuse issues. Drew continually underachieved, was bad-tempered, self-isolating and furtive. Over the years we found marijuana, pipes and other paraphernalia and discarded them. Confrontations, especially with his father, were frequent. For a period of 18 months Drew refused to eat dinner with us. (That was after we forced him to go to therapy as a condition of living in the house after we discovered he was stealing from us.) Still, for the most part, we were enablers- hiring tutors, buying phones and a car – making excuses – to each other about his behaviors and our own needs. Counselors in his private high school did not pick up what both we and his teachers picked up on – Drew cared about nothing. Getting him through high school was excruciating, especially at the end, when he wanted to just drop out and get a GED at some later date. Two weeks before leaving for the University of Colorado at Boulder he pulled out. Then he signed up for Community College and did not attend. He then started at Montclair State University and spent 60 hours gaming during his first week of school. Two weeks later he dropped out.
Despite continued friction and stress he remained in our home (although, after we discovered that he was stealing from us we locked our bedroom door and took away his key to the house.) His existence was miserable from our perspective but we did not realize that he did not really mind how he lived as long as he could abuse substances and play Warcraft. He was arrested for marijuana possession but “handled” it himself. On Memorial Day weekend, while BBQing with friends, Drew showed up and was very outgoing. We then found a small white envelope with powder in the driveway. We forced him to take a drug test, and, when he came up positive for Cocaine, we kicked him out. He was 20 years old, unmoored and directionless and we were enabling him.
In the 10 months that he lived on his own, using drugs and working in a restaurant, Drew attended his sister’s college graduation, his paternal grandmother’s funeral and his maternal grandfather’s funeral. Each time we saw him he looked worse. He was clearly not taking care of himself. We then found out that he was also arrested again and did not appear for his court date. As a result, there was a warrant out for his arrest. Drew was scared.
In March, at the age of 21 and his problems mounting, Drew returned to the house, started seeing a therapist and attended an IOP. In return, we hired a lawyer and addressed his legal issues. We went to court, paid a fine and got him on probation. However, after completing the IOP he remained isolated, had no real friends (they all used drugs) and spent hundreds of hours gaming. Even though he lived with us, we saw him in 30-minute increments. In October, his mother got an alert from her bank about unusual charges and, after tracing it back, we discovered that, over the course of a few months, he had charged thousands of dollars to his mother’s ATM card to play online games. He had to leave again.
Drew’s therapist agreed that home was not a good place for him and suggested that a rehab camp would be appropriate. After looking at several options we settled on a horticulture rehab camp in Hilo, Hawaii. It was not inexpensive and ate up most of his College Fund. He would undergo intensive one on one and group therapy while cultivating vegetables (and, hopefully, himself). He would be alone only when showering or going to the bathroom. He would have no contact with us for the first 6 weeks and after that for one 1 hour skype session a week. Meanwhile, we would meet with his therapist 1 hour a week, via phone, and discuss Drew and ourselves. (Many of those sessions were emotionally draining). We had to write “Impact Letters” that detailed his impact on our lives over the prior 5-10 years with some specific incidents. He had to respond to those letters in a Skype session. As time progressed and Drew participated in growth “rituals”, we began to look at next steps as the 90-day engagement was drawing to a close. He certainly wasn’t going to just resume the life that he had in New Jersey.
We investigated a number of places in Denver, Boulder, Bend Oregon and New Jersey. We debated the close to home vs. distance decision and decided on a distant resource. We live close to Newark airport and inexpensive direct flights to any place are not an issue. In addition, we felt that the space afforded by something further away would be more therapeutic for Drew- and us as well.
We settled on New Life House for a variety of reasons. Young men his age, all substance abusers, in a controlled rule-bound setting was attractive. They all had a history of lying and cheating and could easily recognize and call out each other (We now know this as “Pulling the Sheets”). The association with the sister organization, The Clear Recovery Center IOP, was a big plus. Drew would continue addiction therapy while in New Life House. Finally, the setting was a major factor. Northern New Jersey, 12 miles from Manhattan, is a fabulous place to be. However, the southern California coast, with the consistently beautiful weather and the beaches seemed to us to be a perfect location for a life restart. The 3000+ addiction meetings per week in the LA area gave us hope that Drew would have lots of support.
After several phone discussions with the house director to cement the move, Drew’s father flew to LA and transitioned him from Hawaii to New Life House in February of 2017. At that time we were told that graduation would be 14-16 months away.
Our next encounter was at a family weekend in May. Although we had spoken to Drew every week on the phone for 10 minutes at a time over the past few months, this first session was an eye-opener. We saw the depth of scrutiny and challenges that the house directors and fellow members put each other through. It was gut-wrenching to see how no one was ever “let of the hook’ for any aspect of their behavior and to watch the interrogations. However, we were also keenly aware that there was no cruelty or vindictiveness. They did it to help each other and it came from caring for each other. They genuinely wanted each other to stay on the path and succeed.
When we went out that weekend, with Drew and a different senior member each time, we saw their support and learned about rules. Simple things like always cross in the crosswalks made us realize that they were starting from the ground up… Even though we spent a hard day of hiking in Topanga, the members could not fall asleep on the way back. They had to be there for each other. Many, if not most, of these young men, did not have rules to live by. New Life House was giving them a foundation for the rest of their lives.
By our second trip back, for a family weekend, Drew had gained “status” and more privileges. He had gone through a number of transitions. (“Regular Joe” was one where other people dressed him.) Drew seemed genuinely comfortable with the constraints of the house, living within the boundaries. He also clearly cared for his fellow members and often voiced encouragement and support. Once again, we cringed during the family meetings where the challenges and discussions occurred. However, the after meeting Al-anon sessions with other parents gave us more hope that this could work. Also, by this time it was clear that Drew was loving southern California and wanted to remain there after the program.
In January, our trip was a nice break from the extremely harsh winter in the Northeast. We were revitalized by the mild weather in southern California. This was the visit where Drew made amends and openly discussed his actions, how he hurt us, and how he wanted to change. We were encouraged but skeptical. Making amends was a large part of the next day’s family meeting as one of the graduates had returned home and made amends, not all of them successful. At the Al-anon family meeting, many parents spoke about how difficult it is to start trusting again. We have been lied to so often that it is difficult to accept an apology as genuine. We can only hope.
It is now May and our son, Drew is a graduate. He seems much more confident – self-assured, yet humble. He is interested in people. We believe that he has found a place for himself. He looks to give support yet understands that he needs support. He has a framework to live by and make a life. We are grateful to New Life House for making this happen.