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How one mother came to terms with what her heroin addicted son really needed

How one mother came to terms with what her heroin addicted son really needed

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 drugs 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 hadnt 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.

The Ironic Gateway

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 sons 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 hadnt 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.

A Tough Descent

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.”

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  1. I read this story in the magazine last year. It changed my way of thinking and doing about and for my son. Many people don’t understand it, and think I’m doing it wrong, however, I feel people should not judge, and whatever works for some, may not work for another. I chose this way, and it works for us. My son is currently incarcerated on prior charges that he was in drug court for, and “flunked” out of drug court, but this is the way I treated him after I read the article, and will continue to treat him even after he’s released.

  2. I cannot thank you enough..I’ve spent all day with angry moms trying to explain why I don’t agree with tuff love..I am shocked I stumbled on to this blog…i had a very similar experience and felt the same way..my addict daughter is now one year clean and my alcoholic son is now three months sober..i couldn’t fathom abandoning my kids in a time like this..I did try..for years..it just never felt ok with me…thank you agian..beautifully written..

  3. Thank you for sharing your story. I am going through the same exact thing. I have not one son but two that are heavily using meth and whatever they get there hands on. My youngest child was killed in November 2015. I need help please. I don’t want to lose another son. My boys are 35 & 36. I don’t know what to do or where to get help. I don’t have money. One of my sons is in jail getting out next week the other is on the streets talking about suicide. I don’t know what to do. Please call me if you have any resources. My phone #303 808 0279. Scared momma in Denver. I don’t drink or do drugs, I have a stressed heart had a heart attack when my son was killed… my stress and worry of losing another child has put me in the hospital several times. Please please help. Forever grateful.

  4. interesting article-we all know that there are People who are allergic to bee stings must carry a shot, people with asthma must carry an inhaler, people who are heart patients carry nitro and diabetics they too have their meds, smokers carry their oxygen one day etc – a lot of people carry condoms – for disease prevention and pregnancy prevention and one never knows when they will need these things if ever in some cases and they are all lifesaving items and it is in the best interest of the person to have it rather than not, a life depends on if they have it or not and no-one knows if or when on any of the above. this is an interesting article and based on this read yes i would I would provide the narcan (sp) /naloxone – this will save a life. Knowing as a parent that you have the ability to make an informed and personal decision with no regrets or “if onlys” – you have given every option possible is a huge statement for your heart and the addicts and educating them to use it and making sure an active user has it is priceless you can hope they never need it but if they do it is there for them. Making this available to an addict is no different than the above mentioned items needed to save lives on the above mentioned diseases. It is not enabling it is saving a life. Its not a cure its not granting permission it is saving a life period.#addictslivesmatterperiodmothersneverstoplovingnandnevergiveupontheirkidsfamilystrongsupportingourkids. You never know when asthma is going to take away your ability to breathe have hour inhaler- or when a tiny bee is going to fly out and sting you, its just a matter of time because you know they are out there somewhere if you know your allergic-be prepared and have your shot with you at all times..forever be prepared.