Emily is grieving the loss of her son. She has removed the framed pictures of the 19-year-old from the walls of her home. She's tucked away photo albums and removed pictures from beneath the magnets of her refrigerator. She's taken down his childhood artwork that froze his little hands in time, and has removed his telephone number from her phone. His bedroom door remains closed. This is how Emily is coping.
Only thing is, her son cannot be found in any cemetery. In fact, Emily has no idea where her son is sleeping tonight.
Emily describes her son as a "challenging, but very unique" boy.
"Growing up, some people called our son prodigal, because his musical talent was pretty extreme," said Emily.
By the age of 10, he was composing original pieces on the piano. He could pick up any instrument, even a bagpipe, and play it well. He loved butterflies, flowers, singing, and bluegrass music.
What set him apart caused him to be bullied in school, with many of his peers spewing homophobic slurs in his direction. His peers would continue to misunderstand him all the way through high school, and this resulted in her son rebelling.
"By his sophomore year he had been caught plagiarizing and cheating on tests. He was suspended twice. We moved him to a bigger high school, 60 miles away from home," said Emily. "In order to attend this school, he had to ride the bus for three hours, round trip. We thought this school, being bigger, more diverse, could offer him a new social environment to help him find his voice."
"We took him to naturopaths, neuropsychologists, doctors, alternative medical professionals to try and help him focus in school and cope with his unique personality," added Emily.
Changing schools and seeking treatment did not resolve her son's issues. He continued to struggle with his identity, jumping in and out of numerous social circles, donning new clothes and different tastes in music every two weeks. His grades started to drop, and he found himself in trouble with numerous teachers. This was when he began smoking 'e' cigarettes and marijuana.
"He became violent and combative, and increased his ability to lie compulsively," said Emily, describing her son's textbook addict-behavior. "He hacked into our eBay account and began spending thousands of dollars. He built an ethanol still in our attic and nearly blew the place up."
He was 15 when he first got into trouble with the law and had to complete community service.
Emily knew her son was experimenting with drugs like marijuana, hash oil, and possibly prescription pills, and began searching his bedroom regularly, destroying any paraphernalia she found.
Shortly after Emily confronted her son, he ran away from home, a few weeks shy of his 18th birthday.
"He drove off in a rainstorm in his 1928 model T ford. He even filed an abuse and neglect claim with Child Protective Services," recalled Emily. "He barely kept himself alive for the rest of the school year. He couch-surfed until he managed to rent a dive studio apartment above a bar. We attempted family therapy together as well as one-on-one counseling."
Ten days before his high school graduation, he was caught shooting at pedestrians with a BB gun from his apartment. He spent three days in jail. He was first sentenced with two felonies, but the charges were dropped to misdemeanors.
Six months later the charges were re-instated in district court. He pled guilty to two counts of felony assault.
Emily's routine is anything but routine, but it has become her norm. She reads the newspapers obsessively, flipping right to the Crime & Court. She routinely checks for her son's name in the city jail roster online. She flinches each time an unfamiliar phone number appears on her phone. She dreads a sheriff's call, the coroner's call. She has become all too familiar with the numbing, unmistakable sound of the prison phone line.
"I've taken to checking my Facebook page just to see if my son's been online in the last 12 hours," said Emily. "When more than 10 hours pass without any noticeable online activity, I start to worry that he is in the hospital, the morgue, or in some overdosed puddle of vomit and blood."
Her son's downward spiral and addictions have ruined his young life.
"He is now serving a three year deferred sentence. He has to register as a violent offender in every county that he spends more than 72 hours in," explained Emily. "He cannot vote, get a passport, travel beyond the state line, or get a car loan. He has paid thousands of dollars in court fines and completed dozens of community service hours. He cannot apply for many jobs because of his felony convictions."
There are nearly 27 conditions of his probation, including, of course, strict terms against using drugs and alcohol, yet his cell phone records lead Emily to believe her son is regularly dealing drugs, regardless of the circumstances of his probation.
Parents will hear time and time again that they cannot love their children out of their addiction. Parents will hear time and time again that the decision to enter a program and recover must come from within the user. Parents will hear time and time again, that regardless of the fates of their children, they themselves must make the appropriate steps to recover, too. Parents will hear time and time again that accepting all of this is easier said than done, and maybe even impossible.
"The fact that he no longer is part of our lives is just devastating," said Emily. "When other parents complain about their children, I find a bitterness welling up in my heart. I want to yell, 'At least your child isn't a felon! At least he isn't homeless, eating out of the Taco Bell dumpster! At least he isn't facing three years of strict probation in a small city where just about everyone knows his name!'"
In her small town, Emily receives little sympathy for her son's disease. Instead, she collects cold shoulders, hurtful whispers, and judging stares.
"I've felt stigmatized every f***ing day since he turned 14," said Emily. "We have lost multiple friends. People were horrified by the news, the newspaper articles, the radio, the child protective services visits. People have made judgments about us that will never change. No one can understand the hurt this causes, as if we haven't been drowning in pools of private hurt and guilt for the last five years!"
Sadly, outside of Emily's tiny town, many fellow parents can commiserate with Emily. A quick Google of the phrase "parents with drug addicted child" yields more than 64 million results in a mere two seconds.
"I hope other parents can learn that they aren't alone, that other people are going through similar situations with their families, their children," expressed Emily. "I hope other parents going through this can decide to not hide, withdraw, or remove themselves from their communities."
In Emily's case, she still has hope, though it is dwindling with each passing day where she does not receive a phone call from her son, the once promising musician.
"I'd like to think that he can crawl out of this deep, cold grave that he has dug for himself. My dreams for him were as big as his own dreams before he drowned them in whatever poison he feeds on these days," said Emily. "We never imagined this. Our family is broken, shattered. I'm devastated, depressed and withdrawn. We are grieving for our boy, our family. We miss him, and love him, and hurt so very much for him."