Why Giving Up Hope For My Addict Son Was The Best Decision I've Ever Made

Photo: Steve Halama

I am the father of an addict, an addict who happens to be a fantastic person but who had significant challenges and obstacles growing up and, unfortunately, turned to drugs as a means to cope. It’s a painful thing to say out loud. But it needs to be said.

How the hell did we get here? This was not in the grand plan.

When a parent first looks into the eyes of their newborn, they are overwhelmed by the possibility of what this little innocent creature could become. We can’t help but project our own dreams onto our children. We want the best for them. But we can't control their fate any more than we can our own.

The road to this place started long ago.

Perhaps his parents divorcing when he was a year old was a factor? As we slowly realized the depth and breadth of his addiction, I began to examine my own behavior and to blame myself. I was building a company and traveling constantly during his childhood. Maybe this was a cause? I had a rule against corporal punishment. In fact, I joke with him now and then that maybe I should have spanked him every once in a while. It's one of those funny/not funny things.

Or maybe it’s that he grew up in a relatively affluent community. While he wasn’t lavished with money by any means, he certainly could tap into resources behind our backs. We also happen to live in Boulder, Colorado, where cannabis stores outnumber convenience stores. Despite the fact that neither of his parents used pot or other drugs and drank only infrequently, the normalcy of drug use in the community he grew up in certainly influenced his perspective on it.

The acknowledged thinking, however, was that his difficulties were primarily based on clinical psychological challenges.

His kindergarten teachers called our attention to his difficulties with other children. He was uncomfortable with other kids getting too close and would sometimes push them away—it got bad enough that the school kicked him out in his second year. He might have been the youngest person ever to be expelled from school.

It’s something that we chuckle about now, but at the time it was hurtful to him and painful for all of us. This was the first of many schools that turned out not to know how to handle a child like ours. This also began our journey dealing with prescribed medications. We resisted as long as we could, until one of his schools simply strong-armed us and said he would be kicked out (again) if we didn't do something.

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He was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder.

Desperate to not have our son’s self-esteem eroded anymore, we pulled strings to get him into the Stanford University Psychiatry Clinic. There he was diagnosed as being on the spectrum with pervasive development disorder (PDD). This, in hindsight, is a nebulous diagnosis, given when there are multiple challenging behaviors and the doctors can't cleanly isolate one or two.

Translation: a cocktail of symptoms, and thus a cocktail of medications. And our own cocktail of madness, in trying to find the right mix. Modern Western medicine dictates that you rely on a young child’s behavioral and verbal feedback to determine drugs and dosages. This sometimes results in worse behavior and discomfort for the child. It’s not terribly surprising that children suffering these kinds of issues are often likely to self-medicate. Oftentimes this happens unbeknownst to the parents, no matter how vigilant they might be.

Many schools, behavioral treatment centers, wilderness experiences, hospitals, and transitional living programs later, it’s a wonder my son still manages to put a smile on his face. Every single time we made a decision about what was the "best environment" for him to be in, it was like a punch to the gut. I know my son’s exact experience was certainly more awful than ours. Each time he got into trouble and had to be transitioned into—or out of—a program, it was the worst day of our lives and his. I lost count of how many "worst days of my life" we’ve faced.

But nothing really prepared me for the spring of 2016.

Our son had transitioned from a Connecticut addiction treatment facility (his eighth) to a local Boulder program. He was 19. We were all excited for him to have a fresh start, to have him home for a change. During his time in Connecticut, he had not owned his addiction. Instead, he would say, "I have an addictive personality."

He had "mostly only" smoked pot during that time and had, on occasion, taken some nonprescribed meds. In fact, by his own admission, he resisted almost all the way through. Toward the end of the program, he kept trying to prepare us for the fact that he might smoke pot again someday.

Recognizing that there was nothing we could do, as he was an adult in the eyes of the law, we just prayed he'd realize that using any drugs at all post-recovery was asking for trouble.

Soon after returning to Boulder, he started his own IT consultancy. He seemed to be happy, productive, and he was making good money. He was, however, only working 10 to 15 hours per week. So, he had plenty of time on his hands. And when you're an addict, empty time equals danger. That time eventually got filled with bad decisions, questionable friends, and ultimately, lots of drugs. A downward spiral that accelerated very quickly.

He wasn’t just smoking and ingesting cannabis but using A-PVP (also known as Flakka), a research chemical. In addition, he was using cocaine and, at the bitter end of the downward spiral, snorting heroin. His "second job" was to figure out how he was going to get high. By his own admission, his use wasn’t always because of environmental pressure but rather his mental state.

Just like depression and anxiety, addiction doesn't discriminate.

Drug use doesn't plague only certain kinds of people. Addiction occurs regardless of socioeconomic status, race, gender, culture, or age. Anyone who wants to chase the high he was seeking doesn’t have to look very far.

His final three months in Boulder were erratic, unpredictable, and frightening for everyone in his life. Only after a few incredibly supportive police officers helped us with an intervention did he finally break down and truly own his addiction. A few hours later, in the hospital, he made it clear to us how close he was to dying. At 6-foot-1, he had dropped from 195 to 138 pounds. He had trouble forming words. We were scared out of our minds. And the doctors and addiction counselors who had "seen it all" had never seen anyone with this combination of drugs and research chemicals in their system. I truly hope no other parent ever has to have this experience.

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As profound a moment as it was, what was even more profound was that he asked to return to Connecticut.

He promised to take both the program and his addiction more seriously. This was intense and emotional for his mother and me. We weren’t sure anything was going to work at this stage, but we felt this was the best—and perhaps the only—chance he had to find a positive path forward.

This is when I finally gave up hope.

It sounds terrible, but bear with me here. On the tragic side, I had to accept the unacceptable—that my only child could actually die. This was not just an exercise in coming to grips with mortality in general. I had to accept that I could lose him at a very young age. And, possibly, quite soon. I had spent many years vacillating between hope and despair when it came to his behavior and drug use. We rode every behavioral wave with each new diagnosis, medication, and therapeutic modality. We kept hoping that something, anything, would work. And all we ended up with was more questions and fewer answers. As brutal as the journey must have been for him, I indeed found myself mentally and emotionally exhausted.

Finally, I realized that I had to exit the wave pool for my own sanity. I was losing it. Hanging on to hope kept resulting in profound disappointment, and I wasn't sure how much more I could take.

So, I told "hope" to go f*ck itself. And it ended up being one of the best things I ever did. It released me from the future. It released me from all of my hopes and dreams—from everything I'd projected into the beautiful eyes of my newborn son. It let me breathe. It allowed me to step into the here and now. It allowed me to see him less as my child, my dependent, and more as a person in the driver’s seat of his life. Someone who would make his own choices and deal with their consequences.

And it actually helped me to relate better to my son, who is currently in a 12-step program. "One day at a time," they say. We now say. Cliché, yes, but genius at its core.

A few months into the program, my son and I had a huge argument over the phone. I was so angry that I decided to take a long break from speaking with him. I stayed mad for weeks and weeks. As a pretty optimistic and upbeat person, staying angry for that long was unusual. But it ended up being a gift.

Combined with eliminating hope from my quiver of emotions, I detached from him in a way that allowed us both to rediscover our individuality. We ended our codependent relationship and started to rebuild a new one. I wouldn't have been able to do that had I not had that time to let go of the little boy in him—and to let go of the little boy in myself, too, now that I have reflected on it.

When we reconnected, the energy in our dynamic had shifted profoundly. There was a surprising new maturity in our interactions. We still disagreed and bickered on occasion, but those moments became the exception rather than the rule.

My son is now working for the very program that helped him overcome his drug dependency. He is an official staff member and charged with organizational and logistical responsibilities for young men just like the one he used to be. The other day, I asked him, "What would you have said a year ago if I'd told you you'd be in a leadership role, helping other people deal with addiction? Without missing a beat, he replied, "I'd have told you to f*ck off."

While I am incredibly proud of my son, I am not hopeful for tomorrow. This allows me to be newly proud of him every single day. His new job is intense, and it’s physically and emotionally draining. He sometimes works overnight shifts, and his time off is spent recovering and responsibly managing his own life. His free time is no longer dangerous, but productive.

Has he done permanent damage? We’re not entirely sure. It took over a month for his speech to be fully restored after the intervention. We think any damage may be negligible because of the body's and brain's resilience at his age. His short-term memory is still recovering. His long-term memory seems to be OK. If this proves to be the extent of the damage, he’s beyond lucky.

Bottom line: He has become a man. My son is an adult, who has a sense of purpose. He writes beautifully and intelligently. He is articulate, communicates more easily, and he cares to ask about how others are doing. He’s empathetic, honest, and responsible. And it chokes me up to think about how far he has come in the last 24 months. He wants to stay with this program for the time being. But for now, he’s taking it one day at a time. As am I.

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