The countdown timer was an ongoing distraction and when it hit 10 seconds I inadvertently held my breath, “Thank you for talking to me mom. So many parents cut their kids off, they think it is a moral issue and…” At the 1 second mark I shouted “I LOVE you” as his face froze on the screen.
The mental, physical and financial devastation of my son’s opiate addiction forced me to let go of expectations, deny my emotional well-being and shift into sheer survival. It took me more than 3 years to find a road back from the edge of the abyss to feeling at peace connecting with him via video chat from county jail.
After 18 years of parenting in smooth waters “heroin” moved in like freak storm, unexpected and severely damaging. My immediate reaction to enroll my son in treatment and shift into “red alert” proved inept. I found that none of the usual maneuvers worked, punishments that stripped him of coveted privileges were met with ambivalence. When he began to pass out mid-sentence I realized I had severely underestimated the intensity of the situation. Blindsided by frequent and unexpected waves like missing jewelry and an early departure from a treatment center left my thoughts dominated by the threat of the unknown. My parenting became focused on critically interpreting clues and gathering intelligence.
Late one night I parked my car on the street and assessed every exterior inch of the house. Although nothing appeared out of place my instincts insisted something was off. I left the keys in the car and told my daughters to lock me out. I was resolute when my son met me at the door and vehemently denied that anyone else was present. I recklessly pushed back curtains, slid under beds and crawled on closet floors, mentally checking off every horror movie hiding space. 15 minutes later while considering my strategy and throbbing rug burns I recalled an unchecked corner of the back patio. In one fluid motion I swung open the French door and jerked it back with enough emphasis to create a cascade flowers from an overhead branch. Predictably the drug dealer had positioned himself to be concealed by the opened door. The overwhelmingly sweet fragrance of orange blossoms contrasted with the evil of his empty, black eyes. My energy automatically downshifted. “I will lose my girls if there are drugs in my home. You can never come back here”, my nonchalant tone sounded distorted. From that moment on I despised that house and resented our prefect, master planned community, both became instantly irrelevant with this reality.
It was a dichotomy to love my son and try to determine how to protect the family from him, so fear became my barometer. I executed “tough love” with a vengeance. I kicked my son out of the house on his birthday for because he was high. Although we were less than a year into his addiction I had grown savvy, I locked his car in our garage and muscled the battery in my trunk. When he was homeless we interacted via text. We met for lunch so that I could tell him we had left the beautiful house and moved where he wouldn’t find us. While we waited for our food he chatted with his 7 year old sister who was giddy because he had given her his bracelet. I caught a site of her rearview mirror gripping the jewelry on her tiny arm as she stared out the window at the corner of the parking lot where her brother sat with his tattered backpack and Styrofoam leftovers. I reminded myself that this would “shock him on the right path” but quietly sobbed the entire drive to our new, undisclosed location. The act of withholding was so painfully unnatural. I roamed the house every night looking for comfort, wishing for sleep and praying for miracles. In the quiet and darkness time demanded that I find logic in the approach, but I was unable to able reconcile how someone who hated himself so deeply would improve without compassion.
It became more complex to continue to execute tough love when my son was sober. Inclusion in our family life was based on my analysis of his behavior and intentions. Recovery professionals urged me not to give him definitive milestones, “Don’t let him know he can come home if he is six months clean that will be his only reason for sobriety”. The ambiguity of measuring success became as mysterious to me as it was to him. Inevitably I would warm up only to revert to the cold shoulder when he’d do something I deemed as “off track”. It was exhausting to be reactive.
Well-intended comments about our unconventional family dynamics focused on our self-preservation “You are going to have to let him go. He is wasting your time and money, and you and the girls have been heartbroken time and time again”. Although my son continued to fight for sobriety during the throes of his addiction without my support, bystanders demonized him. I began to resent him being painted as the enemy and us as helpless victims. “The girls shouldn’t have to experience this”. What, I thought, our family’s circumstances? Ironically it was these types of comments prompted me to forego tough love.
When he was charged with possession while on probation for an overdose a year earlier I felt he needed and ally. I moved forward without a roadmap and focused supporting my son, without enabling his access drugs. The day in court was jarring, witnessing impaired people being sentenced for extensive jail time was horrifying. When the shock wore off I became passionate about the decriminalization of addiction. My therapist suggested I had fallen back into codependency but I respectfully disagreed.
A conversation with a legal expert introduced to the concept of Harm Reduction. Fortuitously, he shared that an event on the topic would be held just miles from my home a few days later. I entered 11th National Harm Reduction Conference perplexed by the meaning of the disjointed words. I left with 22 pages of notes and new perspective. I felt like an adopted child finding my birth parents, everything made sense! There was an alternative to codependency and tough love- it was advocacy.
Harm reduction practices such as installing seatbelts, giving vaccinations, condom accessibility and in the case of addicts, needle exchanges are rooted in addressing the reality of a situation. While it might seem “wrong” to give clean needles and syringes to addicts, it simply provides a safer, less damaging way for them to do what they will do anyway. There is far more value in this activity than reducing the risk of addicts spreading diseases like Hepatitis C and HIV. The interaction offers the opportunity to provide advice on avoiding an overdose, the safe disposal of injecting equipment, referrals to treatment facilities, as well as other general welfare services. If society can pause on the moral policing we can all significantly benefit from an increase in emergency resources, decreased unintentional contact with dirty needles, less panhandling and an increase of contributing members in our communities.
I carry permanent scars from loving my son through his disease, unfortunately it seems many of those wounds could have been avoided had I known there was an alternative. Harm Reduction will not change our circumstances and it hasn’t stopped me from praying for abstinence. This new filter however, offers me the ability to acknowledge my son where he is at. For today and for love, my goal is to be mindful of minimizing the hurt and negativity of his addiction.