When someone you love has an addiction: a parent’s true story
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When someone you love has an addiction: a parent’s true story
When someone you love has an addiction, powerlessness can be overwhelming. A parent’s true story of a son’s depression and addiction.
I knocked on my son’s bedroom door. “Jack,” I said. He didn’t respond. I knocked again. Still no response. “Jack!” I tried the handle. Locked! I pressed my right ear to the door and held my breath. I was hoping to hear even the slightest human sound; the turning of a page, a sigh, the sound of breathing. Only terrifying silence. I pounded harder this time. “Jack,” I shouted. “Are you ok?” Still nothing. All I heard was the blood pumping in my ear. By then, Kathy, my wife, was at my side. She rapped her knuckles hard against the white door and called “Jack.” Still no answer.
I dashed outside to the bedroom window. The blinds were drawn. I tried to find a crack, a bent slat that would let me see him. My feet hurt from running barefoot on golf-ball-sized landscape stones. A rose thorn drew blood from my hand. I raced back to his door and called again, “Jack!” I pounded this time with the palms of both hands. Not a sound. I put my back against the hallway wall and slammed my right foot into the bedroom door. It took three tries, but finally, the jamb splintered, and the door swung open.
Our twenty-year-old son was sprawled face down across the bed, fully dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt. I remember noticing the worn spots on his shoes’ soles. I placed my hands on his shoulders and shook him, calling, “Jack, wake up”! No response. My wife, a nurse, put the tips of two fingers against his neck. “He’s alive,” she whispered. I saw one, two, three, no eight empty pint-size Purell hand-sanitizer bottles scattered on the floor. Sixty-percent ethyl alcohol hand sanitizer is a cheap alternative to 120-proof booze and can be more easily shoplifted.
As I counted empty bottles, my wife ran to the kitchen and called 911. Within one or two minutes, we heard the first siren, then another. The paramedics arrived soon after the police came to the door. One paramedic used a stethoscope to listen for our son’s heartbeat. Another pressed an oxygen mask against Jack’s face as he was loaded on a stretcher and moved to the ambulance. An officer wanted to ask us a few questions. “Can Kathy and I have a minute,” I asked? He nodded and returned to our son’s room. We stood alone on our front porch and listened to the siren. I put my arm around my wife and pulled her into me as the wail faded in the distance. This is what happens when someone you love has an addiction.
When someone you love has an addiction it is hard to remember when the nightmare began. The earliest incident occurred when Jack was fifteen. His older sister discovered him and his best friend unconscious in our basement. Our son had found the hidden key to Kathy’s medicine safe in our bedroom closet and had stolen some of her Oxycontin prescribed for chronic back pain. Kenny, Jack’s friend, wasn’t breathing. Kathy did CPR while Katie, our teenage daughter, called 911. Both boys recovered, but for Jack, it was just the beginning.
Shortly after he turned twenty-one, we sent Jack to his first 28-day recovery program, this one at the Harmony Foundation in Estes Park, Colorado, not far from where we live. Kathy and I would have done anything to save our son from himself. When the program was over, I remember feeling relieved as Kathy, and I drove along the two-lane mountain road on our way to pick up our son.
The counselors there recommended a structured follow-up program in Del Ray Beach, Florida. Participants, we were told, had found success in the work-oriented program. I made flight reservations for Jack to travel to Florida the next morning. He was not happy, but we insisted that he go. “Treat me like an adult,” Jack yelled, angry at being forced to leave Colorado.
An employee with the treatment center called that afternoon to explain that Jack had gotten drunk on the flight and was no longer welcome. I remember her Alabama drawl and her artificial apology. Jack, she said, had been transported to a nearby halfway house. She didn’t know the name or phone number. Several days later, Jack called. “I’m sorry,” he said.
When someone you love has an addiction you quickly come to despise those words.
Jack seemed to settle in. He began attending mandatory AA meetings and found a kitchen job at a Del Ray Beach restaurant. He occasionally called to complain about the neighborhood, which he described as a Haitian ghetto full of addicts who left trails of dirty syringes and needles. How ironic, I remember thinking, Jack judging others with similar problems. I learned from my son that crack addicts and meth users are the lowest of the low on the addict hierarchy.
Several months after Jack moved to Florida, we received a phone call. The man who ran the halfway house said Jack had been found unconscious and was taken to the hospital in Del Ray Beach, Florida. He didn’t know anything about our son’s condition but did know the name of the hospital. Kathy and I quickly decided that we would fly to Ft. Lauderdale the following day.
I had learned about a treatment center in upstate New York that advertised itself as a 12-Step alternative that seemed perfect for Jack. His resistance to Alcoholics Anonymous is rooted in the animus toward religion he developed while attending Catholic schools.
In seventh grade, he had been disciplined for not genuflecting during mass. Then, during high school, his English teacher was fired for bringing the book Tropic of Cancer into the classroom. Jack rebelled by bringing his own copy of the same book to school. We supported Jack, but his dislike for organized religion was already entrenched.
We planned to retrieve Jack and transport him directly to Albany, where he would be enrolled in the alternative program. We walked into the Florida hospital and asked for our son. Kathy and I took the elevator to the second floor.
“When will this end?” she asked.
“When he recovers or dies,” I said.
The elevator doors opened. The first person I saw was a paramedic. The second person was Jack strapped to a hospital gurney wearing an immodest pale blue hospital gown that tied in the back. His beard was unkempt; his hair was shaggy and greasy. “I’m sorry,” he said. I winced. Kathy kissed him on the forehead.
We learned that Jack had been released from the hospital the previous evening, but was readmitted after he was found in a fetal position under a palm tree on the hospital’s front lawn. He wasn’t drunk but didn’t have anywhere to go. We were told that he was being transported to a psychiatric hospital in Belle Glade, Florida, about an hour’s drive West of Del Ray Beach, and that we could follow the ambulance.
Driving west from Del Ray Beach, we quickly left the strip malls and housing developments and were swallowed by an ocean of six-foot-tall sugar cane as a two-lane road replaced the 8-lane interstate. Belle Glade Florida, straddling the state’s spine near Lake Okeechobee, is a town of 17,000 that is 70 percent black with a per capita annual income of less than $11,000 – a very different place than where our son grew up near Boulder, Colorado, an affluent college town that is 90 percent white. We followed the ambulance to a single-story cement block building surrounded by a 12-foot fence with the top foot angled inward and topped with barbed wire. On the front door was a sign that read “Center for Behavioral Health.”
I pushed the small doorbell next to the double-glass doors. “May I help you,” a woman said. We were buzzed into a small vestibule, then buzzed in again, allowing us to pass through a second windowless steel door. The interior was drab – white walls, brown linoleum floor, and a grimy white 1960-vintage suspended ceiling. There were several staff members milling about, all wearing gray scrubs and white athletic shoes. The woman at the front desk told us that we would not be able to see our son and that we would have to return the next day and speak with the psychiatrist who owned the hospital. He lived in Boca Raton and was expected to arrive sometime between 10 am and 1 pm the next day.
After spending the night near the coast, Kathy and I returned to Belle Glade early the next morning, hoping to catch the psychiatrist when he arrived. We waited in the car for hours.
“Why does Jack do this to himself? Why does he do this to us”? I mumbled.
“Because our son is an addict,” Kathy responded.
The October day had begun cool, but humidity and heat followed the sun’s ascension. Our rental car had a full tank of gas, so we sat and listened to a country radio station, and later, a college football game. We also watched two mangy dogs fight over road kill or maybe garbage thrown along the road. We alternated between running the air conditioner and rolling the windows down.
The Indian psychiatrist finally arrived, driving a shiny silver Mercedes sports car. We followed him in and found Jack lounging on a tattered couch in the main room, wearing a borrowed t-shirt and old sweats. He seemed in good spirits. “I’m sorry,” he said again.
The psychiatrist, a slender man wearing a Hawaiian-style shirt and tropical weight tan pants, told us that he would need to examine our son and that he would consider releasing him to us the next day only if Jack had a place to go. I explained that we had found him a spot in the New York program and that we would accompany Jack to Albany. Kathy and I returned to Del Ray Beach and went first to the hospital to retrieve Jack’s wallet and ID and then drove to our hotel to spend the night.
After the psychiatrist signed Jack’s release, we had most of the day left and decided to look for a place to eat. We found a seafood restaurant right on the beach with plastic picnic tables lined up outdoors under a thatched-roof. Turquoise waves were breaking not far from where we sat, enjoying fish and chips and ice tea. “Tell us what happened, Jack,” I asked.
“I want to talk about something else,” he said. “How are you guys?”
Jack never wants to talk about his behavior, and when someone you love has an addiction you avoid saying anything that might upset them, fearing that could lead to another relapse.
“It’s still nice in Colorado,” Kathy said. “This is a nice time of year out west.”
We flew to Albany, New York the next morning and rented a car. The day was chilly, the hardwood trees a blaze of red, orange, yellow. After dropping our son off at the treatment center Kathy and I headed to a hotel near the airport, emotionally and physically exhausted. “Maybe he’s ready to change,” Kathy said.
“I hope so,” I responded. “Hopefully, he’s learned a lesson from this experience.” My confidence was low, but we had to try something, anything to save our son.
Jack had been at the facility in Albany for around a month. Kathy and I had just come out of a movie theater near our home. I turned on my phone and saw a voicemail from the director of the Albany facility. He said that Jack had drunk hand sanitizer, had been thrown out of the treatment center, and dropped off at a motel near the Albany airport. “Fuck!” I said.
Kathy groaned after listening to the recording. We were both stunned that our son had been left alone. “What kind of a place would do that,” Kathy asked, fighting back tears. “One with rigid rules,” I said. “They made it clear that there was a zero-tolerance policy for substance abuse.” But we were surprised that they would just cast Jack out. “Surely other patients have relapsed, Kathy said.
I looked at her. “I’m becoming convinced that addiction treatment is a racket,” I said. “These people just want money. It’s a con game.”
“Jesus,” Kathy said, a tear rolling down her cheek. “It’s one thing to throw a kid out, but another not to make sure the kid is safe.”
I called the motel’s number left on the director’s voicemail. By then, it was close to midnight in New York. I asked the front-desk clerk to connect me to our son’s room. No answer. I called back, explaining that I was Jack’s father and suspected a health emergency, and asked the lady to go check on him. I didn’t mention substance abuse but said that Jack might be unconscious and that it was important to see if he was breathing. She reluctantly agreed. I asked her to leave her phone on.
I could hear the door to his room open. A few agonizing seconds went by. “He’s in bed but won’t wake up,” she said. I asked her to look around the room. “There are bottles all over the floor,” she told me. “Are they hand sanitizer bottles,” I asked. They were. I told her to call 911 immediately.
Jack was released from the hospital the next day, so I purchased a plane ticket for him to return to Denver.
“I’m sorry,” he said when I met him at the airport.
I sighed. “I know.”
Kathy and I often talk about our journey with Jack’s addiction and how our response has changed over the nearly two decades since that first incident and the myriad of doctors, programs, and diagnoses. Sometimes psychologists and psychiatrists remind me of magicians pulling different objects – rabbits, scarfs, colorful flowers – out of a hat. There is no telling what is coming next.
Over the years, Kathy and I have tried to educate ourselves about addiction. We learned about “dual diagnosis,’ the wicked combination of depression and addiction – Jack’s operative diagnosis today. We have also struggled to understand the concepts of disease and freewill. Where does one end and the other begin? To what extent is our son inflicted with a disease that is outside of his control? Is he capable of making choices? When someone you love has an addiction those are the imponderable questions we still ask ourselves every day.
I have spent many a sleepless night thinking about what I could have done. Did we treat Jack differently than our other kids? I don’t think so. I never pushed Jack to be an athlete like his older brother. Kathy and I encouraged him, our youngest child, to pursue his passions. We tried anything that sparked an interest – Boy Scouts, sports, and music. My career led us to move several times. Did those relocations cause more problems for Jack than for his brother and sister? Watching Jack spin out of control has been incredibly frustrating. I’ve read numerous articles about addiction and brain chemistry, but I still don’t understand the beast that has consumed my son.
Jack is so normal when he’s not drunk. I used to meet him on Sunday mornings at the 20th Street Café, an old family-run place near the bus station in Denver. He was living at a sober living house a few blocks away. At 8 am, we slid into one of the booths that line one wall. Jack would order a breakfast burrito, and I’d ask for two eggs over easy and hash browns. Our conversations were never about his addiction. “That’s the past, can’t we talk about the future?” he always said.
Instead, we’d talk about current events or the books we were reading. Jack is a voracious reader who spends his time at the Denver library when he can. He always appreciated me bringing him the Sunday New York Times. The breakfasts ended after he relapsed and was thrown out of the sober living house. When someone you love has an addiction all memories seem to blur. There have been so many relapses. I don’t recall when that was, maybe three years ago.
I also remember taking Jack fishing near Walden, Colorado. Walden, with a population of 500, is the Jackson County seat and the largest town in a valley of over a million acres. We had a good time, sharing a room at the Chedsney Motel and eating breakfast across the street at the Moose Creek Café. Afterward, we drove my truck up a rutted wagon trail to a remote lake on one of the valley’s ranches where my son unloaded two camping chairs while I rigged two fly rods. “This is really beautiful,” Jack said as he took in the snow-capped peaks that frame the small lake. Trout were sipping mayflies off the mirror-like lake surface, and within minutes Jack had hooked and landed a 15-inch rainbow. “I understand why you like this so much, Dad,” Jack said, smiling. “Keep your tip up,” I told him as he delighted in watching the fish jump.
Our conversation that weekend alternated between fly fishing and talking about US history and world religions.
We also discussed his experience of being homeless. Jack had spent several periods living on the street in Boulder and Denver. “What’s it like to be homeless?” I asked as we stood together on the lake’s edge. “It’s not fun,” he said, “especially in the winter. But I was never was hungry. We take care of each other. We share food and cigarettes.”
He paused to cast the fly that I had tied onto his line. “They taught me how to stay warm.” He described spending frigid winter nights on the top of the stairs of a parking garage huddled under a blanket with two guys. “They know that heat rises.” Jack lifted his line to recast. “The police are the worst threat. Denver cops look at the homeless like rats infesting their city. They enjoy harassing and intimidating us.”
Jack fell asleep as I drove the three hours back to our home near Boulder. It felt good having my son safe next to me.
Jack turned 30 last year. Kathy and I had planned to meet him for breakfast on a Sunday morning around his birthday. His social worker called the night before to tell us that Jack had relapsed and was confined to a detox floor at a Denver hospital. I’m sure that he was sorry, or at least that is what he would say. What does the word sorry mean to him, if anything? When someone you love has an addiction, the word sorry loses its meaning.
My son began receiving electroshock therapy to treat his underlying depression. I don’t understand how depression and addiction interact. It’s a chicken or the egg argument to me. Does addiction lead to depression or the reverse? Another imponderable.
I read an article published by the Mayo Clinic that suggested that ECT – electroconvulsive therapy -can be effective for particularly difficult to treat depression. I prayed that it would work, or at the very least, offer Jack some relief. I have not personally experienced depression, but I have heard it described as a pain that starts in the toes and runs to the top of your head. Substances are often abused to relieve the pain, some say. That must be why our son turns to hand sanitizer or cough syrup when he can’t find cheap vodka.
Jack has received numerous diagnoses – depression, anxiety, alcoholism, personality disorder, bipolar. One counselor told us that Jack was just a drunk and needed to spend time living under a bridge. Another told us that he was cognitively impaired. He said that after Jack had scored in the 93rd percentile on the ASVAB, the military entrance test. Jack joined the Air Force, but drank hand sanitizer shortly before completing boot camp and was given an administrative discharge.
“What the hell, Jack,” I remember asking him.
“I’m sorry, Dad,” he responded.
When someone you love has an addiction, you get to hear the word sorry an awful lot.
Today, we don’t react much when we learn that Jack has been hospitalized. We’re sad, and we speak with the social worker we hired to guide our son, but we don’t attempt to rescue him. Kathy and I finally realized that we can’t save him. When someone you love has an addiction you eventually realize that you have no control over their behavior. All we can do is hope and pray and continue telling Jack that we love him.
Kathy and I have worked hard to compartmentalize our son’s difficulties and not let them control our lives, but it hasn’t been easy. We love Jack, but we have finally come to the realization that his recovery if it’s going to happen, is up to him. We have also talked about the very real possibility that one day the caller will tell us that our son is dead. When someone you love has an addiction this is the reality.
The thump was unmistakable. It was the dull thud of a body hitting the floor. I had heard it before. I got out of bed and looked at my watch: 2:04 am. Jack had been staying with us last fall while he and the counselor looked for a long-term sober living facility. He was sleeping in our guest room. I went to the door and turned the handle. Fortunately, it wasn’t locked. We had replaced the carpet with tile, which helped me slide his lanky body by pushing hard on the door.
Once open a few feet, I wedged my body in and stood over my son. He stared at the ceiling, his mouth wide open. I thought he was dead until I watched his chest move up and down. I tried to lift him back into bed. He twisted suddenly, his head slamming into the hard floor. I tried to turn him and noticed a stream of blood coming from a cut near his eyebrow that would eventually require stitches. By then, Kathy had followed me into his room. “Call 911, Jeff,” she said.
“Let’s get him in the car,” I responded, foolishly worrying about disturbing the neighborhood.
But Kathy was insistent. “Call 911,” she shouted.”
The operator asked me to stand outside our home to meet the ambulance.
“His pulse is strong,” one of the paramedics said. “He’s breathing.” The gurney would not make the hallway turn, so the paramedics pulled Jack out by his arms and slid him down the hallway, leaving a long crimson smear on the floor.
Jack spent the night at a local hospital before being transferred to a county detox facility. He was there for four or five days. During that time, his social worker called. She had explored various options and recommended a six-month treatment program at a place called The Raleigh House. “It’s different,” she said. “It specializes in dual diagnosis.” After all the programs, after all the physicians and counselors, after all the hospital stays, this time was supposed to be different. We had heard that so many times.
We anguished over the decision and almost said yes. It was mid-October, and we’d already seen freezing overnight temperatures. At least the recommended treatment program would provide our son with a safe haven through the coming Colorado winter. Kathy and I wrestled with our decision. We could scrape together another $30 thousand to pay for the program, but what would it change? If money could have solved our son’s addiction, it would have done so long ago.
When someone you love has an addiction money is not the answer. We were close to a decision, but we still weren’t sure, so we turned to my good friend of 60 years who had been a social worker dealing with children and addiction. Dave explained that people don’t change their behavior until they decide to make the needed change, and those decisions usually occur after some traumatic experience like losing kids or surviving homelessness for an extended period. One of Dave’s last statements crystalized our thinking, “Six months in a comfortable treatment program is usually not a catalyst for change.”
“It’s up to Jack if he is going to stop drinking,” Kathy said. She paused. “How many programs has it been?” she asked. “Estes Park, Florida, New York, Tucson, Boulder – at least five.” We called the social worker and explained that we were not going to spend more money on rehab programs.
It’s a little before one o’clock in the morning, but I can’t sleep. I just stepped out on our deck to check the weather. There is no breeze. It’s cold for mid-October in Colorado. The moon over the mountains backlights fast-moving clouds. I wonder what Jack is doing. Did he make it to a shelter? Is he sleeping in a doorway somewhere or in a park? Is he warm, hungry, sober, or is he dead? At least he would be warm if he was in a jail cell.
My confidence in our decision to not rescue Jack is stronger during the day than when night descends and temperatures drop. My son would certainly be sleeping in a warm bed if we had made a different decision. As I sit here alone in the quiet darkness of our family room, I’m terrified for my son. I love him so. I don’t want to lose him. I’m tempted to drive into town and see if I can find him. Jack, I’m so sorry. I shut off the kitchen light and returned to bed.
Jeff Ewing is a retired businessman. Jeff and his wife, who is a retired registered nurse, have three children. Two are doing well, one is a teacher and the other a consultant. Their youngest son is struggling with depression and addiction.