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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

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.

Enabling 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.

Finding Joy

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.



*Ellen Sousares is a pseudonym to protect the privacy of the author’s son.


  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.