FOR PARENTS WITH CHILDREN IN THE STRUGGLE
Have you ever tried to hold water in your hands?
I have and it doesn’t work. That’s how it feels right now for me as I try and hold on to my son who is struggling with addiction and related behavioral problems. It often feels as if I have lost him. When he occasionally surfaces in moments of love, connection and empathy, those moments don’t last for very long and away he goes again both physically and emotionally. The water analogy is perfect and so too is the movie, “Beautiful Boy” with Steve Carrell. There wasn’t one scene in that movie that I could not personally and intimately relate to and that did not resemble my own experiences both as a father and a husband. Not one. For those who have a child or a loved one struggling with addiction and or mental health issues, you know precisely what I am talking about. For those who don’t, count your lucky stars.
On the 6-hour drive to treatment I knew the chances were slim that he would last more than a few days but still I was hopeful. My family, who doesn’t know how “this” works as well as I do, naively assumed he would go and return all better. I knew better. Step one was getting him there. Step two was getting through the first few days… If we got past that we could maybe start discussing a medium term plan. But we didn’t.
The trip started off a little rocky. I picked him up from the hotel room where he had been staying because he won’t abide by any COVID safety protocol and therefore we can’t let him stay at home with us. The room was stinky with late night food wrappers and the sweet smell of marijuana. I had to knock for 10 minutes before he opened the door and then as I packed up his stuff he spent about 10 minutes in the bathroom doing I am not quite sure what. I sensed there was a very small part of him that wanted to go. He was angry for the first 30 minutes but after that the next 6 hours were amazing. We talked a lot, we laughed a lot, we reminisced about the road trips we used to take to hockey tournaments. We seemed to connect, and it was powerful.
By the time we got there we were both in tears. He told me he didn’t “hate” me as I hugged him tightly, the first time I touched anyone outside of my “Covid bubble” in 9 months. I was proud of him. He was scared. The last thing he said to me as I left was, “I don’t hate you dad… and please don’t get in to an accident on the way home…”. I tell everyone that there was nobody sweeter and more caring to me after I had cancer surgery 10 years ago than my son… I will never forget it and I will always be grateful for his deep love and concern during this time. Thus, this comment didn’t surprise me except for the fact that he hasn’t expressed this kind of concern for anyone (not even himself) in years. This is my son, I thought, not the kid who the day before wrote something along the lines of “I hate you” on his bedroom wall as he got rid of all items that were connected to me in any way or that he felt meant something to me.
Leading up to the this day was the typical stuff that generally precedes a trip to rehab… nearly failing out of his dream school in the mountains in his first semester, a run in with the law that involved drugs and alcohol, promises not kept, increasingly irritable, frayed relationships with family members, etc. He has always pushed back against any sort of therapy but this time the legal issues got him over the hump. Fortunately, because we are “in the field”, we focused in on two young adult programs almost immediately. My wife asked a group of trusted fellow addiction psychiatrists where to send a kid like him, and they gave us a few names… Thank god we did not have to rely on websites or pretty pictures or aggressive marketing campaigns in order to find appropriate facilities for him, like most people do. (WE NEED STANDARDIZED OUTCOME DATA DESPERATELY) Surprisingly only one of the facilities seemed to live up to its reputation and within days we were planning an admission. I have to admit, however, that despite the generally negative perception we have on out of network “destination treatment centers”, we did look at a few in Colorado, California and Florida. The thought at the time was maybe he would actually go to treatment if he can ski in the afternoons or swim in the ocean on the weekends while eating gourmet food in his own private suite…. Lots of holes in this line of thinking, I know, but there is undoubtedly a place for these facilities with some people, and I can see even more clearly now than ever just how easy (and unethical) it might be to capitalize on people’s vulnerabilities in these moments with the wrong intentions.
I was maybe three hours on my way back home when my son called to tell me how angry he was to be there, that he didn’t belong, that he was way less sick than everyone else there and that he was already planning an early discharge. We started the journey in the admission process with a discussion around 28 days. That got whittled down to 21 before he even got there and then after the first few hours we were down to one week at a time…. I was able to talk him off the ledge that first evening by reminding him of why he was there and that he could leave but that he shouldn’t leave. Having the choice seemed to help but it wasn’t good enough to keep him there past the third night.
When the psychiatrist called the first day after his visit with my son we got alot of very useful information for which I will always be incredibly grateful. Most notably he reiterated to us that we were likely in for a “long haul” with my son (treatment resistant, deep in denial, says he doesn’t want to be sober, doesn’t understand the concept of consequences, etc). While the psychiatrist was very careful not to judge my parenting, he gently but firmly made sure I understood that I needed to change my behaviors in order to effect some change in my son. In other words, if I want him to change, I need to make some changes myself… I have heard this before but this time it really resonated. When he told me that physicians and pilots have the highest addiction recovery rates because of the consequences imposed on them if they are not sober (they can’t work!), I got it. He told me mine was a kid we were going to need to keep alive and out of trouble long enough, we can only hope, for him to be open to change one day. His approach with my son, he would go on to say, was designed to leave a good enough impression with the treatment experience so that if and hopefully when he’s ready, he will consider trying again. They hadn’t given up yet in this first day, but they knew what to expect and they were brutally honest with me. The message was loud and clear- keep expectations low, make some changes and expect a long and bumpy ride.
He also told me about a support group called, “CRAFT” that he thought might be helpful for our family. In their own words, “The CRAFT approach is a system for helping family members change the way that they are interact with a drug user or someone is drinking too much. The aim of CRAFT is to help that person get into treatment and on the road to recovery from drugs and alcohol….”. This model, I have learned, is different from other approaches when dealing with addicted family members as this program is designed specifically to invite change in the loved one, not just to improve family members well-being. I can personally appreciate this nuanced difference. I have always struggled with the concept of “letting go” and making sure I “take care of myself”. No doubt these are important principles but most importantly I want to see my kid survive and maybe even thrive, and I want to do whatever I can do to increase the odds that this will happen.
Three nights into it and at the already regularly scheduled time of “phone time”, my son calls me and tells me once again that he is leaving. This time he tells me its because another young adult on the unit, he feels, wants to hurt him but after a few minutes more I realize any rational attempts at trying to address his concerns are futile. His mind was made up and in the midst of sadness, fear and disappointment I found comfort in the words of the doctor who had seen him two days earlier. My newly designed seat belt held me in place during this crash. It was a new experience for me, one that still left me with profound sadness but with less anxiety and less panic. One hour later the nurse called to tell me he had officially discharged. A day later he tells me a friend of his paid for a plane ticket back to our home city, and that he’s on his way out of the state to be with his friends…. He tells me this abbreviated treatment episode was enough to scare him away from addiction, as he says he saw enough “really sick” people to never want to go “there” again. I know this won’t be enough and of course I know he is already “there” himself.
Every time I speak to him I tell him I love him. I speak of how much I enjoyed our car trip to the treatment center, and how proud of him I am of him for giving it a shot. I tell him that I am disappointed and very worried but there is no anger anymore. I have asked him what his plans for the immediate future are. He has no plans beyond the immediate pleasure in front of him in the moment. I have told him I won’t be supporting his previous lifestyle anymore, which includes school right now. I don’t think he believes me.. I have told him that if and hopefully when he is ready for help, that I will always be here to support him in that quest. He has told me “never again”. He is 18. We have a long way to go.
There are moments when I want to go grab him and try to get through to him like I was able to do when he was a young boy. My heart tells me if I try hard enough, I will be successful. My head, on the other hand, reminds me I have been trying for years to hold this water in my hands and no matter what I do or how hard I try, it just keeps flowing through. I have moments of deep sadness for my son and for the relationship that I once had with him. These moments are accompanied by fear and anxiety, worrying that one day I might get a call that he has been arrested or that he was found dead on a fraternity couch of an overdose. I am well beyond worrying about whether or not he will graduate college and get a “good” job… I would be THRILLED if he got a job working at a ski lift in Colorado IF that makes him happy and IF that helps ground him in some semblance of spiritual peace and life manageability.
I write this for all the parents out there who might be in a similar situation and who can relate. Know that you are not alone and know that sometimes no matter how hard you try, you can’t fix “this” problem just like I can’t fix the one in front of me. Addiction is a brain disease. It hijacks the brain and takes away our kids. It can be treated by trusted professionals, and it is probably not just going to disappear on its own. As parents and loved ones we need to understand our role in the disease and make the necessary changes on our end so as to hopefully invite change in our kids. As my son’s doctor told me, sometimes we have to recognize that the journey might be a long one and that we should prepare ourselves for some starts and stops.
I look at our 3 day stint in treatment this time around with both gratitude and hope. I am grateful for the time I got to spend with my son, for the support of my family and for the wisdom his doctor was able to impart on me in just a one hour conversation after meeting with my son only one time. I am hopeful that my son picked up something positive in the experience. If nothing else he was reminded of how much he is loved and that his life is worth if not saving, at the very least improving. He knows the door is open for future support should be express interest in it. I have faith that in time he will find his way. The challenge for me lies in ensuring that my actions invite some much-needed change in my son. The good news is I know there is support out there for me and others to help with this, and I intend to take advantage of every opportunity to do just that. The saying that we are only as happy as our most unhappy child is true for many of us….. It is for me. That is for sure.