I choked back every maternal instinct that screamed at me to protect my son as I left him and his suitcase sitting on the side of a county highway next to that rehab, like so much discarded debris. In order to allow him any hope of recovery, any chance to survive, I felt forced to abandon him.
I was naive in hoping that a few weeks on the streets would snap him to his senses. Instead, for the next six harrowing years he only became increasingly isolated and entrenched in his addiction. He repeatedly suffered near-fatal overdoses in dark stairwells and public restrooms as he cycled between rehabs, jail and the streets.
Counselors and peers continued to encourage me to combat enabling by diligently questioning my own behavior to determine if I was loving my child or loving my child to death. A single glimpse of my son‘s emaciated frame made it shockingly clear that, in practicing tough love, I was doing the latter.
As the world abandoned him, my son came to believe that he‘d been given a death sentence, and had hopelessly resigned himself to it. Flirting with death became a daily routine; yet even death held no bottom.
It was early in the spring of 2013 and I hadn’t heard from my son in weeks. Calls to ERs, jails and morgues had been fruitless. I was panicked at the thought that I’d soon get a call telling me that he had been found, alone, in an anonymous dark corner, dead from an overdose. Pacing at home became unbearable, so, instead, I paced the hectic streets of downtown Denver with a photo of him in hand, looking for help.
A boy, all of 16, wild hair skirting the torn collar of his well-worn t-shirt, recognized my son, but had not seen him in weeks. He knew my worry well. He shared stories of loved ones he had lost to overdose and his concern for a friend who was still missing. Overdose was a looming fear on the street, just as it was in my home.
The gritty wear and tear of lives lived on concrete may have been all that defined these faceless junkies to the casual passerby. However, the young souls I met that day yearned to be seen as caring, worthwhile human beings. Undoubtedly, their capacity for compassion far outweighed any they might receive.
They offered advice on where to look for my addicted son. They asked if he carried naloxone. They told me I could find it at the syringe exchange and that perhaps the staff there had seen him.
Every reality I had come to accept about addiction was brought into question as I walked into that needle exchange and glimpsed the raw truth of my son’s struggle. What initially caught my eye and incensed me wasn’t the line of people, young and old, well groomed and disheveled, who waited to exchange used syringes for sterile ones. Even the bins filled with works—all the supplies needed to prepare and inject drugs—while foreign and shocking to me, didn’t evoke my anger. Instead, I found myself livid over a piece of literature. A thin booklet, it described how to shoot up, how to safely access a vein and where to find the cleanest water to prepare one’s drugs for injection if sterile water is inaccessible:
If a toilet is the only source of water, always draw from the tank, never the bowl. And at any cost, avoid scooping water from ditches and creek beds.
On the one hand, I was appalled. “They’re teaching my son to shoot up!” On the other hand, I was even further horrified thinking, “People are so desperately trapped in addiction they’re willing to shoot up sludge from a creek bed?”
It was a pivotal moment. These were the bottoms I had left my son to pursue. If the daily potential of death had no power to deter him, the thought of shooting up sludge from a ditch wouldn’t either.
“He knows that he’s valuable to me even if he continues to use.”