This is the final entry of a series that started almost a year ago, when our 24-year-old son came home from his Hoboken, NJ apartment to tell us he was a heroin addict. Our journey with him became this journal, where I have documented as honestly as possible the events and emotions we experienced. Writing here helped me drain the wounds and reach out to others in pain, which became for me the essence of learning what I needed to know to move forward. Thank you to Parent Pathway for that opportunity.
Here we are, less than a year later, with a story of hope and renewal. Today we are on another side– ever-grateful for, ever-aware of the miracles available in the recovery community, where those with the experience, expertise, heart and spirit of healing are waiting to assist. We’ve met so many angels along the way, each appearing at the right time, in the right way, offering wisdom and one more opportunity. We are at the beginning of a new life with our son, a Heroin Addict– who by his own admission will ALWAYS be in recovery. And finally we’re at a place where that’s fine with us.
September was the month our son returned from Florida, the graduate of a 6-month program in a regimented halfway house, where rules were the rule, a full-time job was expected, and residents were tested weekly for all substances. The smallest infraction– like improper disposal of a cigarette butt– meant immediate loss of residency and any monies paid. The owner of the house was a no-nonsense recovering alcoholic with a huge heart but no patience for excuses and manipulation. To him, recovery is a vocation, not a vacation; and if a resident isn’t sufficiently committed to recovery, there’s always another who’s perhaps more serious. Under his roof our son relearned the simplest life patterns: how to find and work a basic job, how to get up early, keep his room clean, respect himself and others.
Our son was not the only one who benefitted from this arrangement. In so many ways this stage was crucial to OUR healing as well. It gave us distance from the daily worry, the inspection of his person, the suspicion of his whereabouts. It gave us badly needed respite from the intensity of his physical presence in our home. With two other children and a large extended family to think about, the hard reality was that he may not be successful, that he may take us all down the rabbit hole of addiction with him. Seeing my husband, already stressed to the breaking point from his job, unable to sleep and barely function, I knew I may have to make a very difficult choice. But to me the whole has always been more important than the piece. Loving one’s child does not mean giving them all unconditionally, and I was not willing to sacrifice the entire family for our son’s addiction. Imagining the worst-case scenario, I said to our son that should he not succeed at staying clean, in Florida he would at least have warmth on the streets. And God knows I meant it. At least I thought I did. Thankfully, this threat was never tested.
As his stay in Florida came to an end, my husband and I were both thrilled and excruciatingly anxious. We’d just begun to live our own lives again, sleep again, feel somewhat normal again, but now what? Our son had done well in Florida, but would he continue? What would he do next? What job would he find? Who would hire him? Would something at home trigger a relapse? Could we survive it? There was nothing to do but employ the “One Day at a Time” strategy and shut out the rest. We had no choice but to trust once again– in him, in ourselves, in the healing force that had already brought him and us so far.
It’s hard to describe the love and joy, the hope and tension of having our son back home. We weren’t sure where the journey would take us all next, but we all knew what had worked thus far. We discussed house rules and expectations. We enjoyed meals together and simple conversation. We occasionally delved into the pain of the past, and the possible reasons for it, but only in the continuing effort to heal as a family, not to rehash the events or dig too deep. Our son made NA meetings his first priority, going to sometimes two in a day and also volunteering for institutional service at hospitals and rehab centers to talk about his experiences. His belief in the NA program was total.
After a few weeks of mainly meetings, we began to worry about his recovery because we knew his self-worth was linked to work. But once again, through NA he met those who would vouch for his commitment to recovery and ultimately help him find that work. He eventually explained to us that he hoped to get a job at the same facility where he’d done his detox and rehab; that this was a career he could imagine himself in, where his recovery was not exactly part of the job but absolutely enhanced by it. Helping others was his new goal and part of his recovery equation. We talked about the emotions and stress of such a job, but he made a clear distinction between his own recovery and the recoveries of others: His recovery was achieved though working the steps of NA; theirs was up to them.
In October our son officially became the first former patient to be hired by the facility where he was once treated. He gladly accepted the overnight hours that were available and ironically became a vampire again, rising at dinnertime, going to a meeting at 7:30 and work at 11 pm. Now, while his father and I are on our first cup of coffee, he comes in the door at 7:30 am, exhausted but completely at peace. His life makes sense, and so does ours, because everything supports his recovery, his growth, and ours. We listen to a few stories from his night and then he’s off to bed.
While our journey is not one I would recommend or minimize, it is with relief and tremendous gratefulness that I share what has become a “happy ending.” Every day we see that he is healing and growing, and so are we. He has found his purpose and place, where for now he is healthy and safe, productive and part of something greater than himself. Apparently this is where he was meant to be.
What our son credits most for his recovery is NA. The members he met in the group near our home–the ones he first met and bonded with–were those he entrusted to guide him first to detox and then through rehab. In Florida, NA meetings were a requirement–one he was actually happy to honor, knowing the honesty and real-life experience available there were what he needed most. With NA to guide him, he gained strength and power over his addiction with every day, every meeting. He found his spirit there, let his ego go, relied on others and the healing force within him to help make each day a positive choice and opportunity. “Just for today” is the mantra he lives by.
While there really is no such thing in addiction as the “happy ending,” here’s what I definitely know: We are extremely lucky. Our son’s experience is not the norm, but it reveals some things about addiction that are true for all. These are the things that I would classify as such.
1) The addict must know the problem is real and must want it to end, must want and accept the wisdom of those who have gone before and trust in their direction. Those people should be part of a 12-step program, and NA is the best of those.
2) The addict must detox before his brain can begin to heal and detangle. Talking sense to an active addict is impossible.
3) Detox followed by intensive rehab that includes psychological and behavioral therapy is very important. There must be no drug substitute for the opiate, because another addiction will be the result. There is absolutely no substitute for being clean. Any mind-altering substance is a threat to sobriety.
4) The addict must find their spiritual self and learn to have a dialogue with and trust in that self.
5) The addict needs structure, support, discipline and honesty to rebuild his life, with an emphasis on moving forward incrementally, within reason. Understanding, healthy expectation, love and patience are all necessary, but also the occasional stern reminder that respectful cohabitation is all about exchange.
End notes on the our experience:
- Our son became an addict as an adult, and I’ve come to realize this was a huge advantage to his clearing hurdles in recovery. Listening to parents in NarAnon meetings, it became clear that age is a monumental factor. Explaining future life to a clean teenager is a challenge; expecting an addicted teen to comprehend the future or understand the reasons to get and stay clean is not just hampered by immaturity and hormones, it is absolutely obscured by the addiction itself. There is no reference point. Recovery for a teen presents many more problems than what we encountered, and their parents are at least twice as challenged.
- The particular practices of the addict are also a factor. Length of addiction and method of addiction are all part of the problem. As our son has pointed out, use of a needle takes addiction to another level, so we were beyond lucky that he chose his nose and not his vein.
My prayer as I close Jane’s Journal and we embark on the year 2017 is that all of you reading this will find your own version of closure and some semblance of serenity. I also pray this is the year scientists discover a drug-free way to cure addictions of all kinds, once and for all, investigating the addiction where it begins, in the brain. Until then I am part of this group always, wishing the same wishes and praying the same prayers.