I had inadvertently held my breath as he began a story in the final seconds of our video visitation. “Thank you for talking to me mom. So many parents cut their kids off, they think it is a moral issue and”, I was listening but distracted by the countdown clock in the corner of the screen. At the last moment I shouted “I LOVE you” as his face froze.
After 18 years of parenting in smooth waters heroin moved in like freak storm; unexpected and severely damaging. The devastation forced me to let go of expectations, deny my emotional well-being and shift into sheer survival. It took more than 3 years to escape the vortex and find contentment in visiting with my son from county jail.
In the beginning I underestimated the intensity of addiction and believed that completion of a treatment program would resolve the problem. I was naively unaware heroin remained under the surface, but when punishments that stripped my son of coveted privileges were met with ambivalence and he began to pass out mid-sentence its presence was undeniable. My focus shifted to assessing clues and gathering intelligence.
Late one night I parked my car on the street and evaluated the exterior of our house. Although nothing appeared out of place, I left the keys in the ignition and told my daughters to lock me out. My son met me at the door and denied that anyone else was present, however I recklessly pushed back curtains, slid under beds and crawled on closet floors, mentally checking off every horror movie hiding space. 15 minutes later a pause allowed me to evaluate my strategy, glance at my throbbing rug burns and recall 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 of flowers from an overhead branch. Predictably the drug dealer, a former childhood teammate, had positioned himself to be concealed behind the opened door. The overwhelmingly sweet fragrance of orange blossoms contrasted with the emptiness of his 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 nonchalance sounded distorted. From that moment on I despised that beautiful house and resented our prefect, master planned community as both became instantly irrelevant in our lives.
It was a dichotomy to love my son and protect our family from him. Less than a year into his addiction fear became my barometer. I executed “tough love” with a vengeance and kicked my son out. I had grown savvy and locked his car in our garage and kept it’s battery in my trunk. When he was homeless we interacted via text. We met for lunch so that I could tell him we had moved out of the community. While we waited for our food he chatted with his 7 year old sister who was giddy because he had gifted her his bracelet. Later I caught her in the rear-view mirror gripping the jewelry to her tiny arm. She stared out the window at the corner of the parking lot where her brother sat with his tattered backpack and three Styrofoam boxes of leftovers. I reminded myself that this would “shock him on the right path” while I quietly sobbed the entire way 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 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 was based on my analysis of his behavior and interpretation of his intentions. All the while 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 or that will be his only reason for sobriety”. The ambiguity of 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.
Our unconventional family dynamics garnered well-intended comments about 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 his sobriety without my support, bystanders demonized him. I began to resent him being painted as the enemy and us as helpless victims. Although living with his addiction felt like hell, I had accepted our family’s circumstances. The insinuations that we should abandon a member of our family ultimately prompted to me to quit tough love.
I moved forward without a road-map, intent on supporting my son without enabling his access drugs. I was in court when he was sentenced for possession, while on probation for an overdose a year earlier. Once the shock of witnessing impaired people being sentenced to extensive jail time diminished I became passionate about the decriminalization of addiction. A therapist suggested I had fallen back into codependency but I respectfully disagreed.
A conversation with a legal expert introduced me to the concept of Harm Reduction. Fortuitously, he shared that an event on the topic would be held just miles from my home. I entered 11th National Harm Reduction Conference perplexed by the meaning of the disjointed words but left feeling like an adopted child having found their birth parents. 22 pages of hastily scrawled notes provided me with validation and a new direction; there was a tangible alternative to codependency and tough love; advocacy. Harm Reduction practices such as seat-belts, vaccinations, condom distribution and in the case of addicts, needle exchanges, limit risk. It’s logical that providing clean needles and syringes reduces the spread of diseases like Hepatitis C and HIV. What was intriguing were the additional benefits of the interaction at an exchange, such as 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 every member of a community can benefit from an increase in emergency resources, unintentional contact with dirty needles and less panhandling.
Embracing the philosophy of Harm Reduction hasn’t stopped me from praying for abstinence but it does offer me the ability to support my son despite it. I am grateful to have found a community that responds the reality of addiction with humanity. For today and for love, my goal is to improve our family’s circumstance by lessening the negative impact of addiction in our lives.