My son’s drug use began with Adderall in college and escalated to new heights as I watched him become skinny, aloof, and sharp. I imagined my 20 year old slipping away and I felt compelled to save him.
“You’ve become addicted. You’re not well.” I said to him, attempting to open a conversation.
“Mom, I’m fine. There’s nothing wrong with me,” he snapped.
“Well, as soon as you admit the truth, the better,” I insisted, turning my back on him and leaving the room.
During the weeks and months I spent waiting for my son to realize he had a problem, I morphed into a mom-doctor. He alone was the object of my medical analysis as a hug became a sniff test, an attempted conversation hijacked by pupil and skin checks.
Our once-close relationship turned distant and acrimonious while all around us, youth we knew from our immediate neighborhood were dying from accidental opiate overdose. Every parent I spoke with admitted, “I didn’t know he was suffering. It was so difficult to talk to him.” I couldn’t bear hearing from another parent who, with words of love unspoken, lost a child to this epidemic. Re-connecting with my son became my top priority, although I had no idea how.
So I reached out to a young friend in recovery. We discussed his past, including his life-threatening substance use. Pain, insecurity, and a host of other internal struggles were at the root of his addiction. Through more candid conversations, I began to recognize my son was similar - sensitive yet tough, handsome yet insecure, close to family yet masterfully manipulative. My son was not an object to be studied, but a young man in a struggle for his life, as this young man had also been. I lowered my guard, inch by inch.
Our hugs became real. I made boundaries that he respected. Every time he left my house, I was sure to tell him I loved him. “I love you too, Mom” he’d say. Through talking and learning from this young role model in recovery, I noticed myself gently rekindling a relationship with my son, even though he was still using substances.
Then, I wondered...could dialogues with youth in recovery help other parents reconnect with their own children? I hosted facilitated dialogues between these two groups and people showed up. Parents asked hard questions, youth in recovery gave honest answers. These kids defied labels--many had tattoos, many didn’t. Some clean cut, others grungy. One was an Orthodox Jew, another a Born Again Christian. Yet, they unanimously revealed many similar feelings of isolation, loneliness, fear and shame that haunted them during their active addictions. And they all admitted deep love and gratitude for their families.
I watched parents’ faces soften as they listened, and engaged. I watched them experience aha moments which they took home, eager to begin new conversations with their own struggling children. I watched change happen as compassion for themselves and their kids was born.