How one mother came to terms with what her heroin addicted son really needed—and how she saved his life with a surprising approach. Why I abandoned tough love instead of my child.
A year ago, I shoved naloxone—the medication used to reverse an opiate overdose—into my son’s backpack as he took off again in search of heroin. He’d just been released from a prolonged stint in county jail, and 48 hours later, he simply had to get high. As I cautioned him to please not use alone, to obtain his drugs from a known source, to “taste” his dose first (inject a small amount very slowly to test the drug‘s potency and avoid overdose) and to please call me and let me know he was still alive, he became visibly shaken and began to cry.
Doubt overwhelmed me: “Is this only encouraging further drug use? Am I giving my son permission to shoot heroin?” I’d recently abandoned the tough love approach, but I wasn’t sure this was better. As noon gave way to dusk and the phone still hadn‘t rung, I was petrified—as I had been so often in the past—that my son may have died, and that my enabling was to blame.
As a child, my son was rambunctious and full of energy, although, at times, shy. Focusing in class was a struggle, yet he excelled in sports—little league baseball, soccer and hockey. His greatest love was his guitar. He spent hours embracing the smooth cedar of that Ibanez, learning new tunes which he played with an earthy, mellow ease all his own. I can only imagine the pain and conflict he must have felt when he pawned even that love to buy heroin.
An experiment with marijuana at age 16 obliged him to a court-ordered 12-step program for teens. In a tragic twist to the gateway theory of addiction, it was at one of those meetings that he discovered heroin. As other teens were in the church library chanting “keep coming back—it works if you work it,” my son was down the hall in the restroom learning how to shoot up.
“I was petrified that my addicted son may have died, and that my enabling was to blame.”
The last moment of peace I would know ended abruptly on a bright spring day in 2008 with a call from the police informing me that my son had been apprehended with a needle. He was well into the throes of heroin addiction and whatever warning signs there may have been, even with my background as a nurse, I had missed them all. I was on guard for many things as a parent, but in middle-class suburbia, the need to search for potential signs of heroin use had never crossed my mind.
The opioid epidemic had yet to become front-page news, so I wrestled alone with my son‘s shameful secret. Terror and misplaced guilt became constant companions, yet the thought of reaching out for support only induced an acute sense of isolation. What would people think of me? That I hadn‘t taught my son better than to use drugs? That I must be a failure as a mother? Consequently, I rarely spoke of my son’s struggles outside of Al-Anon meetings (a program for the loved ones of those who struggle with addiction) or the walls of a therapist’s office.
When the first two or three attempts at rehab only resulted in escalating heroin use, I became desperate for solutions. How could I get through to my son? Rehab counselors urged me to “detach with love,” explaining that his only hope for recovery was to “hit bottom.” Desperate and exhausted, I complied. Interactions with my son became wrought with an excruciating internal debate—providing a bus pass, shoes or a cell phone triggered the inquiries of “Is this enabling? Am I helping or harming my son?”
At the conclusion of another failed attempt at rehab in 2009, a trusted counselor relayed a message that she had undoubtedly expressed to many parents before me—the best thing I could do for my son was to immediately, as of that day, not allow him back into my home.
The notions of tough love and enabling—ubiquitous in American culture—are tossed about casually by self-help gurus, armchair psychologists and well-meaning friends. Yet the tough love concept became a terrifying and cumbersome tool, akin to bringing a chainsaw to a duel, when I was confronted with the idea that even providing my son with housing might contribute to his demise. I desperately wanted him to survive. By any means necessary, I needed him to find hope.
“I was confronted with the idea that even providing my addicted son with housing might contribute to his demise.”