Cathy, and I decided to publish our story of our son's addiction to heroin. Dealing with addiction is something that involves the whole family, not just the addict.
Our story is one that too many families understand today. Addiction is an epidemic. There is a stigma to it that prevents us from having a conversation about how best to deal with it as a society. Jailing our way out of it isn't working. You will see some recent statistics on deaths and drug use in the post.
Society has a difficult time accepting addiction for what it is – a disease. Like most (not all) diseases, there are successful treatments available. Every addict is different. A treatment that works for one person may not work for another. The experts in the field offer several options that have proven successful for many addicts. However, until we as a society accept the fact that addiction is a disease, it's unlikely treatment options will be available to most.
That's a topic for another day. I will be writing about one of the most successful alternatives to incarceration in a future post. At the end of the post, I'll introduce you to some resource you may find helpful.
For now, here is our story.
Dealing with addiction
Why we're doing this
My wife, Cathy, and I collaborated on writing this story.
Our story is about dealing with a son or daughter that's an addict. We know some of you have likely had the same or similar experience. Even if you haven't, it's likely that someone in your family, your job, or your circle of friends has dealt with the horrors of addiction.
I know how lonely this journey can be. When you talk about it with someone who hasn't experienced it, it's hard to know what to say. Or, they may think they have great advice and offer it to you unsolicited.
One of my hopes in talking about our experience is to educate. In the end, I'll tell you what we've learned from our experience dealing with a son who's an addict. I also want to provide tools to help you or anyone in your circle to avoid making the mistakes we made, personally and financially. And there were many.
It's not a pretty story. Addiction stories never are. But it's a timely story.
There are more people addicted and more deaths from addiction than at any time in our country's history. Check out the stats from the American Addiction Center's study, Statistics on Drug Addiction. According to the study, 21.5 million American adults (considered age 12 and older) struggled with substance abuse in 2014. That number is much more significant today.
As hard as it is to tell our story, I want to let anyone who reads this that's dealing with addiction that you are not alone.
With that background, here's our story.
How it started
I'll never forget the day.
It was Labor Day weekend of 2007. My wife Cathy and I always had our best friends from Indianapolis at our house for the week of Labor Day. This tradition has endured pretty much since we moved to Northern Virginia in 1998.
Our friends and I were sitting on our back patio enjoying the late afternoon weather when Cathy came outside, looking as if she'd seen a ghost. She said, Freddy (her favorite name for me), I need to talk to you. I knew something terrible happened.
It turns out, Cathy had been having dreams about our son at night. I won't give you the details of the dreams. Suffice it to say they were pretty bad. She never told me about those dreams.
Let me preface this by saying that Cathy and I are a couple with a strong Christian faith. We believe that Jesus is active in the tiny detail of our lives. On several occasions in the past, Cathy had dreams where she believed God had spoken to her about things that were going to happen. On several times, not just one or two, those things happened. So, when she said she'd been having dreams about our son, I took her seriously.
In these dreams, let's say she believes God showed her that our son was likely using heroin. Before coming downstairs, she called him to confront him with this. After first reacting in anger and denial, he called her back a few minutes later to confess that, yes, he was shooting up heroin. Thus began the journey through his addiction.
Marriage and a son
In 2004, Jason got married to a young woman who had a son. At the time, he was 10 or 11 years old. They met in Charlottesville, VA where the University of Virginia campus sits. As it turns out, both were fans of a favorite touring band that had an active drug culture. They followed them around the country. While in that scene, they met some people who worked on the crew of another favorite band who lived in the Charlottesville area. They too had an active drug culture.
Before becoming addicted, we knew Jason was doing other kinds of drugs. We assumed his wife was as well. It's hard to say whether that's where he got introduced to heroin. Most of his friends who followed these groups didn't get addicted to drugs. Many of them became responsible, contributing members of society. Many are successful and have families of their own.
The initial choice to try heroin was his and his alone. I'll talk more about the “choice” argument shortly. Bringing a wife and her pre-teenage boy into the picture was a game changer for Cathy and me. It's how many addicts keep their parents involved in their addiction. We were no exception.
Books to educate yourself:
How it progressed
When Cathy confronted him in 2007, 0f course, Jason said he was going to go to the doctor and get help to kick the habit. At the time, methadone was the drug used to help wean people off of heroin. We thought he was clean. That is until April 2008 when we got a call from him after being arrested. They found empty packets with the residue of heroin and paraphernalia associated with drug use.
The financial issues kicked into high gear then. Jason found an attorney who specialized in dealing with drug offenders. The cost – $8,000, which Cathy and I agreed to pay. That was our first of many, many bad financial decisions.
A seemingly successful outcome
The attorney did a fantastic job for Jason. He got two years probation. At the sentencing, the judge told him if he so much as got a parking ticket during the two years, he would put him in jail to serve out the remainder of his sentence.
That fear proved a great motivator! Every week, Jason had to call a phone number to see if it was his time to get drug tested. He had a specific code that, if it came up, gave him something like 4 hours to get tested. If he was unable or if he failed to get to the test in the time allotted, he would go to jail. He made it for the two year period without incident and got released from probation.
We were very hopeful.
(New information: We learned this week, much of this is incorrect. Read the update).
A year or so into his probation, Jason got the best job he’d ever had. Unfortunately, he lost that job toward the end of the year. The result? He started using again.
During the two-year period from 2010-2012, Cathy and I spent embarrassing amounts of money to help our son. We paid for two recovery centers. He got thrown out of the second. We also paid off car loans, student loans, and other sundry debts along the way. I know some of you reading this may be thinking, “why are you paying off bills of your adult son?”
That’s a very legitimate question. All I can say is when you’re in the midst of it; it’s hard to think clearly. It feels like you’re moving from one crisis to the next in rapid succession with little time to stop and think.
The succeeding years
We haven't seen or heard from his wife or her son for several years. Her son was the innocent victim in all of this. Kids always are. We understand he is doing well, living on his own with a great job. That is a blessing beyond what we could expect.
After exhausting our finances and patience, we made one of the hardest decisions we've ever had to make – to cut off contact with our son. It was just bringing too much heartache and pain, especially to Cathy. She began having health problems – (anxiety, depression, blood pressure). She was hurting badly, and I couldn't fix it.
By the time he finally got put away for an extended period, Jason had amassed 24 grand larceny felony charges (stealing stuff to sell for drug money), and seven misdemeanors. His last arrest included resisting arrest, escape attempt, and assault on a police officer. The judge sentenced him to7 1/2 years, with four suspended. It's remarkable with all these charges he served less than 3 1/2 years.
He'd spent most of his jail time over the years in county jails, which are for short-term sentences. Since this was a long sentence, he got sent to state prison. He got out on March 13, 2017. I remember that specific day. It was my birthday!
Learning about addiction
We hear all of the time that addiction is a disease. And it is. But we had trouble getting our heads around this concept. The symptoms of the disease are behavioral, which is why it's so hard to accept and understand. Addicts are desperate people. Desperate people do desperate things.
As parents, you try to prepare yourselves for the worst case scenarios. In the case of an addict, that's an overdose. We had talked about it and, to the extent possible, prepared ourselves for that outcome. Oddly, we felt better having our son in jail, rather than on the street. At least there we didn't worry about an overdose.
Our education began
Dr. Kevin McCauley, a doctor who became addicted to prescription drugs, decided if he was going to beat his addiction, he needed to learn everything he could about it. The result?
A series of videos in which he lays out the latest research from scientist all over the world on the disease of addiction. The title of the video series is Promise Unwoven. These videos opened Cathy's and my eyes to a detailed scientific explanation of what goes on in an addicts brain. Watch these videos to understand what happens to an addict's brain chemistry and why it's so difficult to stop.
Pass them along to anyone dealing with an addiction.
The choice argument
I mentioned earlier that yes, Jason chose to use heroin in the first place. Once that initial choice was made, and addiction kicked in, the choice argument is no longer valid. Dr. McCauley explains what happens to the brain once addiction takes over. It's quite frightening!
I won't get into the details here. The bottom line is this. Once a person becomes an addict, the brain gets rewired. The longer they stay that way, the worse the rewiring gets. The brain chemistry gets flipped upside down. Because of the change in chemistry, the addict's brain associates the drug with survival. In other words, the addict's brain is telling them, “if we don't get our drug, we're not going to survive.” When you believe your survival depends on getting your drug, you don't have a choice anymore. Your entire life is planned around getting it.
Can you imagine the horror of living with that every day?
For further reading:
Characteristics of a disease
A disease has three elements to it. First is the sickness. Second is the organ the illness affects. Third, are the symptoms.
Let's use diabetes as an example.
The sickness is the body loses its ability to produce insulin. The affected organ is the pancreas. The symptoms of the disease are things like poor circulation causing pain in the extremities. Loss of feeling in those extremities is another. Of course, there are many more.
Using this format to diagnose addiction, here's how it would go. The sickness is the addiction. The organ affected is the brain. The symptoms are behavioral – things like lying, stealing and manipulating. The addict will do anything, whatever it takes, to get their drug.
When you're on the receiving end of these behaviors, it's hard to see them as symptoms of a disease. That's what makes addiction as a disease so tricky. When you're on the receiving end of these symptoms, the last thing you're thinking about is an illness. It's counterintuitive to look at bad behaviors this way. We'd rather punish them than treat them. For the most part, that's how the system deals with it. However, if we want to look at this from a factual, scientific perspective, we need to look at it differently.
Where we are now (June 2018)
I'll spare you the rest of the details and tell how this chapter ends.
On Friday, May 25, 2018, local police officers appeared at our doorstep looking for Jason (in the past they surrounded the house to cover all possible escape routes. So this was a significant improvement). We told them what we knew, which was next to nothing. We asked if they were here for his parole violation. No, they said, these were new charges.
On Sunday, May 27, they arrested him. We looked up the charges in the court system (which we learned how to do over the years). There were seven new grand larceny felony charges and one misdemeanor larceny charge. Old habits die hard. He's now back in the local county jail and likely went through detox there.
What we have learned
There is so much we've learned through this process. I will categorize them in two areas and address each one in kind.
They are personal (emotional) and financial. They are very much connected
So many well-intentioned people along the way wanted to give us advice on how to deal with our son. My boss at the time, family members, well-meaning friends. That's going to be part of the process. People want to help. They just don't know the best way to do it.
Let me suggest, based on our experience, how best to help someone you know dealing with addiction. A close African American pastor friend has a saying that I love. I don't know if it's original, but it's appropriate. Here's the context.
A Caucasian pastor friend of his reached out to him during one of the many crazy incidents of innocent black men being killed. It was the summer of 2016. He called his African American friend to check in and see how he was doing. He didn't give him advice. Nor did he try to fix the problem. He only called to let him know he was thinking about him, praying for him, and was there for him.
The pastor on the receiving end called this “the ministry of presence.”
Often, people want to know they're not alone; that someone cares. They feel lonely. They're embarrassed. Often, it's just plain hard to talk about. The best advice I can give anyone who wants to help someone dealing with addiction – engage in the ministry of presence.
Be present and let the conversation happen when it happens.
Financial lessons learned
We made numerous bad decisions about our finances along this journey. The best advice I can offer is advice we didn't follow – protect yourself and your finances at all costs!
If you deal with an addict, the mess they create builds up incredibly fast. We got lulled into a false sense of hope during the first 2-year probation period from 2008-2010. Then things started slowly unraveling.
Below are some of the lessons we learned (the hard way)!
Financial lesson #1
(I want to clarify something first. When I talk about a son or daughter, I'm talking about an adult son or daughter. A teen or someone who is still your dependent offers you, the parent, the ability to have more control. That's a different discussion for another day.)
Once you find out your son or daughter is addicted, I would advise not supporting them financially.
Once you start, it's hard to turn it off. They are phenomenal at getting you to feel sorry for them. Their stories. Their logic. Even their excuses somehow seem to make sense. Seeing your son or daughter suffer and not helping is one of the hardest things a parent will ever do. I can advise you not to give them money. You probably will (of course, we did).
If you're going to help financially, my suggestion is to put a hard and fast dollar limit on it. When you reach that limit, stop the support. Listen, this is hard. When we finally decided to cut him off, it was excruciating, especially for Cathy. A mother's connection to her son is special. He used that connection during the years in the time he was most desperate.
If you provide financial help with the expectation that this will speed the process to get your son or daughter better, you will likely be very disappointed. Their recovery is up to them. My advice, something we did not do – protect yourselves and your finances above everything else.
Throwing money at the problem won't help.
Financial lesson #2
If we could turn back the clock, we would not have let Jason and his family move into our house. If an addict is living with you, it’s much easier to be manipulated into helping them. Here’s another reason – they will steal from you.
Remember the disease and the choice argument. Once the addict associates their drug with survival, they will do anything to get money for their daily dose. If that means stealing. That’s what they will likely do.
Here’s a partial list of things they stole:
A gas power washer, a set of Calloway golf clubs, all of the inherited jewelry my mother gave Cathy. Inherited flatware (we found this item gone when preparing for Thanksgiving dinner). The total value of these items was over $35,000! They probably got a few hundred for all of it at a pawn shop.
We never dreamed our son was capable of this.
Remember, drug = survival. No drug = death!
They will do whatever it takes to get what they need.
Financial lesson #3
Under no circumstances should you ever touch your retirement accounts to bail your addict out of trouble. Look, I'm a financial advisor. I would never, ever advise anyone to tap into these accounts to bail out an irresponsible child. But I'm going to be completely transparent about what can happen.
When you see your child in complete desperation mode, it is incredibly hard not to make emotional decisions to protect them. How much did we put into them? It was well into six figures! As I said earlier, we started over at a time when we were accumulating assets and getting closer to financial independence near retirement.
Understand that in the best of circumstances, your addict is going to relapse after attempts at recovery. The recovering addict relapses on average 4 or 5 times. That's' why it is important to protect yourself. Because of what happens to brain chemistry, it's difficult to stay clean. I know this was a lot to absorb. Addiction is messy. And as you see, it can last a very long time.
I know that if you're in the midst of this yourself, you are struggling mightily with difficult decisions. Forgive yourself when you make mistakes. (and you will). And maybe, more importantly, forgive your spouse when they do. Each of us has a different psychological and emotional makeup and will deal with it differently. Sometimes, we need to engage in the ministry of presence with our spouse, significant other or our sons and daughters.
The toughest decision you will ever have to make is to cut your addicted son or daughter off. You love them. You want to help them. We did too. Please understand that the kind of help they need, you can't give them. Watching them suffer, reel in shame, live on the street; I can tell you how excruciating that is.
Don't isolate yourself. There are a few support groups in place for family members of addicts. You can find some below in a list of resources. For a short time, Al-Anon was very helpful to me. We also participated in Celebrate Recovery groups. This is a 12-step program like AA. The difference is CR is focused on Christ-centered recovery.