I don't remember exactly when life changed from the beach, sports, birthday parties, barbecues and play dates to overwhelming chaos. I don't remember when our family's social life seemed to come to an end. Did we stop having friends over . . . or did friends just stop inviting us over? The isolation made it easier to avoid questions from friends. We couldn't have explained what was happening with our son because we didn't understand it ourselves. My focus was on trying to save my son, which was time consuming. Actually, more like life consuming. The feeling that he wasn’t going to make it overwhelmed me. Years later I was told by some of his friends that he overdosed so often that they were scared to be with him.
Other families in the community also kept to themselves. It's common for even the most educated on addiction to label parents “enablers” and blame the family so why would anyone want to speak out? The reality is that addiction can and does happen in the best of families with the best parents but too many are quick to judge. Were other parents up all night trying to find their child or waiting for a phone call saying their child was in jail or worse? Did any others hold their child, blue from an overdose, waiting for the EMT’s and wondering if the pain was finally over? Did they feel the guilt of not being able to handle this disease another moment and wishing it were over no matter what that meant? Almost every mother I've talked to who has lived this nightmare has agreed that watching your child self-destruct and seeing their pain is unbearable. I think most of us suffer from posttraumatic stress.
I didn't know where to turn for help and the entire family was falling apart. In my son's mind he believed everyone thought he was “cool” but his siblings were feeling the affects of his reputation in school as an “addict” and they became angry with him and with me for trying to help him. I tried not to fight with him in front of them so they thought that I was letting him “get away with it”. They had no idea how many times I stood in the driveway in the middle of the night to stop him and his friends from pushing a car out to the road or the angry fights that sometimes turned violent. He and his friends were all masters at manipulation and had brilliant plans to keep “having fun” and avoid the symptoms of withdrawal. It seemed impossible to stop the madness. I was mentally and physically exhausted.
Several years into the chaos I started talking to another mother going through the same thing with her daughter. The support helped us both even as our children hit what we thought, and hoped, was rock bottom. I don't remember how we found the book Beautiful Boy by David Sheff but we both connected to the story. We read more books written by parents but for whatever reason, Beautiful Boy made the biggest impact on me.
I nicknamed my friend the “Queen of Research”. She became obsessed (addicted?) with a need to read every book she could find on addiction. I believe she was responsible for an increase in Amazon's profit. One of the books led her to the website for the Faces and Voices of Recovery. It wasn't the first time we had searched for information but all of a sudden we were finding information that was leading us to more information. The sight not only connected us to multiple resources for treatment but also had a huge part in educating us on the addiction and recovery. We found a link to an organization in our state called Parent To Parent and a link to Brian McAlister a NJ author who wrote Full Recovery.
I had gone to a local support group in the past but never connected. The meeting's focus was on me but I had a hard time with the idea of detaching from my 18-year-old son who was very sick. If he had any other disease I would be considered a horrible parent if I wasn't involved in helping him make treatment decisions. The only education I got was on enabling and self-care. The importance of self-care is difficult to understand when your child is in crisis and the treatment system is so difficult to navigate especially for someone who is so sick.
I called Parent To Parent and they listened to my story and gave me compassion and empathy. I got off the phone feeling better and knew I had to go to their support meeting, which was over an hour away. My friend and I went to the meeting and knew that we had to join them to give families in our area the same support. We had no idea about the advocacy work they did and the fight for changes in the system. We had no idea about all they had accomplished to help NJ families and their children who suffer with the disease of addiction. All we knew is that we felt better. I am forever grateful for these women coming into our lives.
We also called Brian McAlister who asked us to read his book before we really talked. Brian's book is his story but it includes questions that are part of his Recovery Coach program. In the very beginning of the book he suggested getting a notebook before going any further. I didn't think I would need a notebook because I wasn't the person struggling or working towards recovery. After the first couple of chapters I started to re-think my decision. I flew through the book so I could talk to him as soon as possible. It was the very first time I had a conversation with someone about their recovery and it was the very first time that I felt like there was some hope for my son.
In 2013 I went through Brian's program to become a Recovery Coach. I recognized both my fears and my strengths and realized how everything in my life was connected. I have always been close to my family, even distant cousins, but I never realized how much the relationship with them affected everything in my life. I set both short and long term goals during coaching which helped me find direction. Each week I was given questions from the book to answer and discussed them with my coach the following week. One week I had to write about what would I like to do that I enjoyed doing in the past. I had shared a shore house with my cousins a few years earlier and I really wanted to vacation with them again. The very next week one of my cousins called and talked to me about a trip to Greece and a chance to meet my grandfather's family. It was crazy how things seem to happen related to discussions with my coach. I accomplished two goals on the trip. I met my grandfather's family and vacationed with my cousins. Coaching was the most empowering experience of my life!
The first time I shared my son's story to a large group was when I testified at the NJ Opiate Task Force meeting. We were given 3 minutes to speak and my testimony was 3 pages. It was impossible to finish especially since I cried through the entire testimony. I listened to other stories also filled with emotion and met other families who lost their children, families still struggling and people in recovery. I met people I now call friends and fellow advocates. We give each other strength when times are tough, celebrate each other's successes and fight side by side to make changes that will help other families and those who struggle. I credit them for my passion for advocacy. I am so honored to not only know them, but also call them friends. They have had a huge part in my recovery and continue to encourage me and give me support on the days I'm overwhelmed and feel like I can't keep it together.
I now speak out whenever I can and usually get my point across in less than 3 minutes (seldom crying). I'm a Recovery Coach and work with Parent To Parent and have learned from some of the most compassionate, educated and forward thinking people in the country. I am a Parent Coach with the Partnership For Drug Free Kids and work with organizations, coalitions and advocacy groups throughout New Jersey. I never would've imagined my son's struggles would lead me to so many unbelievable opportunities. Our journeys are all different but telling our stories gives hope to the hopeless and helps others realize that recovery is not only possible but also life changing.