Would it not make more sense than tough love, not to mention be more humane, to offer my son tools and options to keep him alive and safe until effective help could be found?
I lifted my eyes from the page and I saw suffering human beings, at their lowest, who had been written off by society and even their own families. They had just this tiny 600-square-foot sliver of space in the entire world where they knew they’d be treated with dignity and respect in exactly the condition they presented themselves. There was no judgment here—only grace.
The syringe exchange staff not only met their participants right where they were, connecting them with an array of services all aimed at reducing harm and protecting health, they also met me exactly where I was, embracing me in all of my distress, anger and confusion. They provided me with tools, like naloxone, and advice on ways to restore my relationship with my son, even as he continued to use. Although I wouldn’t find him for several days yet, what I found that day, in that cramped space of grace, was hope.
In the spring of 2015, my addicted son was released from a yearlong jail sentence for having failed drug court. He returned home to what I hoped would be a fresh start for us both. My visit to the needle exchange left an indelible impact on me, and I experienced a paradigm shift away from the tough love ideology. While my son was incarcerated I visited homeless outreach centers, trained in overdose prevention and poured over harm-reduction literature. I found support for taking a harm-reduction approach on Facebook from advocacy groups such as Moms United to End the War on Drugs, United We CAN (Change Addiction Now), Broken No More and Families for Sensible Drug Policy.
So when my son was determined to find heroin after being released from jail last year, although I was shocked and just as fearful for him as I had been in the past, I was prepared with better tools. I had learned that it wasn’t feasible to mandate that the only two options for his struggle be either immediate abstinence and rehab or abandonment to the streets. I could no longer unwittingly take it upon myself to determine for my son how his readiness would be defined.
“The message I sent by giving him naloxone and instructing him on how to prevent an overdose wasn’t permission to get high, but to stay safe and alive.”
The message I sent by giving him naloxone and instructing him on how to prevent an overdose wasn’t permission to get high, but to stay safe and alive and to know that he was a valuable human being—whether or not he continued to use drugs.
That pragmatic discussion, as difficult as it was, pulled him out of shame and stigma instead of pushing him further into it. He was back home in hours, rather than showing up weeks later disheveled, sick and 30-pounds underweight, as had routinely been the case before.
Handing my addicted son naloxone didn’t prevent him from shooting heroin that night, nor did it result in an overdose reversal, but its effect was powerful nonetheless. He began to trust that I was no longer judging, but trying to understand and show him support. He talked with me more openly about his experiences than he ever had in the past.
Within a week he asked for help, sincerely—and on his own terms. He chose to pursue medication-assisted treatment, which has saved his life.
I occasionally visit my son at the busy local diner where he now works as a server. I watch him scramble to deliver club sandwiches and refill drinks on his way to a hard-earned lunch break. I marvel at how healthy he now appears, with clear skin and eyes bright with life, and a blend of surreal joy and gratitude inhabit my smile when I think that just a month ago he celebrated a year free from heroin.
It has been a challenging year for him, spent learning basic life skills and shedding almost a decade of street-life habits. But today he is no longer the target of disdainful sneers from strangers and he finds happiness in things heroin once stole. Simple pleasures, such as playing guitar or enjoying a meal, make him happy once again.
My tendency to compulsively wait for the other shoe to drop is gradually giving way to the anticipation of daily life and plans for the future as our painful, tough-love past becomes a distant memory.
WHY I ABANDONED TOUGH LOVE INSTEAD OF MY CHILD BY ELLEN SOUSARES from Women’sDay.
*Ellen Sousares is a pseudonym to protect the privacy of the author’s son.