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DRUGS AND A FAMILY'S DESPAIR

Some stories are too sad to hear, too heartbreaking to tell. And this is one of them.

It's about addiction.

How a mother's and father's hearts can be shredded and still beat. How a son, who started smoking marijuana when he was 12, can still profoundly sadden a family 25 years later.

"His father and I expect that we'll bury him," his mother said.

She's a woman I see fairly often, and she asked me recently, almost in passing, why she doesn't see much in the newspaper about how addiction affects a family. And then she spilled the story.

It's not an unusual family, by most standards. Though she is divorced from her son's father, they remain strongly united in wanting to help this son. They have an older and a younger son and everyone in the family runs businesses.

But surrounding their success is a deep moat of frustration and sadness about the middle son.

"I agonize about what I did differently with him," his mother said. "Why is he so different?"

She doesn't offer excuses, and she doesn't have an answer. All that she can come up with is that he never developed self-confidence or grew up because he was hooked so young.

At 37, he's graduated to crack cocaine, to heroin, to begging drugs in bars. He's been heavily sedated in a psych ward. His grandmothers have visited him in prison. He has hepatitis, picked up from a dirty needle, his mother suspects. His teen-age daughter hopes he won't show up at her birthday party.

With each self-destructive action, his brothers become more disgusted, his parents more heartbroken.

"All his life he's told me it's none of my business," said his mother, as she sips an early-morning coffee in her meticulously kept kitchen.

"What I tell him is that this is not a spectator sport. We all get to play."

They've "played" long past the time when counselors say they should stop. One counselor said after a while, help deteriorates to co-dependency.

Asked why she doesn't cut him free -- or cut herself free -- his mother admits that every counselor has suggested it, especially as he gets older.

"But at 18, at 25, 30, 35, I still haven't been able to do it," she said. "

When he was younger, they set curfews, they grounded him, they talked to him. Later his father paid thousands of dollars in drug debts. His mother slapped him, hard, across the face when she saw him covered with needle tracks.

The whole family, even his grandmothers, went to counseling.

"I remember the counselor saying she'd never seen so many people show up for one person," she said.

They were there for him. He was there, with his attitude.

"When it was my turn to talk, I said I wanted to kill my son," his mother said. "That way I'd know where he was at. If his life is going to be controlled by this white powder, I'd rather he be dead.

"They say it's a disease, but I call it a disease of choice," she said. "When you have cancer, you take chemo. If you are diabetic, you use insulin. If you have this disease, you take your medicine. You change the people, places and things around you.

"He tells me that he prays every night for a cure," she said. "I say you can pray all you want, but the helping hand is at the end of your arm."

A well-thumbed Bible "The Way" sits on her kitchen table; tucked into the back page is a prayer list with her son's name at the top, a place he's held for years.

She's no longer sure what to pray for. Once she believed that while there was life there was hope.

"Now, my prayer is 'cure him or take him,'" she said.

She doesn't want much: Normalcy would be a miracle.

Getting up for a job each morning, taking responsibility, appreciating his daughter.

To keep her head together, she sees Margaret Manzella, a certified social worker. Manzella, who has a background in addiction counseling, knows the scenario well of how caring families become drained by an addict's demands.

"They love their child, no matter what their age," said Manzella, who is a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph. "But they need to come to a point of realizing that they can't be the ones who will help them."

Manzella said it requires a different level of love to let go.

"What happens is that we love so much," she said, "and we do too much."

This family has tried. They've gotten him jobs. They set him up in business and he ran drug money through it. They put up with him arriving at dinners disheveled and smelly only to see him fall asleep, his boots dripping onto the furniture.

When he's around, people hide their purses and shove their wallets deeper into their pockets. Why wouldn't they? He stole the money from Mass cards at his grandfather's funeral.

Even now, his mother doesn't think it's the bottom.

"But the bottom scares us. It truly scares us."

The bottom, she said, will be him homeless, living on the streets.

When she hears about a shooting, a stabbing, a body found, her heart stops until she hears the name of the victim.

For two years, he was clean, but he started using again three or four months ago.

Before we finish talking, she brings over a framed photograph of her son in that better time, a clean-shaven young man, his arm around his daughter, his eyes bright and clear. "Here's a picture of him, smiling," she says.

Though she's accomplished a lot, professionally and in the community, there's one thing she hasn't been able to do.

"I wish I had the strength to let go," she said. "In my heart of hearts, I'm his mother. He's my son, regardless of what he's doing."

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