I am a recent refugee from the life I planned since I was twelve. For the last twenty years, I have been a mostly stay-at-home mom. I was the kind of mom who read to my kids pre-natally, breastfed, pureed baby food made from organically grown community supported agriculture, and dreaded their inevitable discovery of soda. I carried not only Band-Aids in my purse, but Neosporin and dry socks.
My kids had music lessons and birthday parties, religious instruction, family connections, parents who loved them. They had a community they were part of; they had success at school. They had safety and health and friends in abundance.
My dream had been delivered; here they were: bright eyed and bright, creative and thriving. For some people, life never gets this good and I knew it. I thanked Providence every day for my luck and love with these kids.
And then it all changed.
One spring day in the eighth grade, my middle son began drinking with a group of new friends. There was no warning: the kids arrived on bicycles at my front stoop in the same way a summer storm arrives. They had squeaky voices and acne. The boys seemed harmless. They told me they were going on the bike paths and I watched my son leave with them. When he came home, I smelled the alcohol on his breath.
By late summer, the scent of weed drifted from his room. Pills arrived as the leaves changed. Then he changed. He grew agitated and violent. He struck me when he didn’t get what he wanted.
I would think back to the days before the boys on bicycles arrived. How had this happened? And how had it happened so quickly?
We hired counselors and had him hospitalized. Sometimes the calm reigned for a few weeks, then the cycle would begin again. The drugs created strange behaviors, which led to multiple diagnoses. Some doctors said he had major depressive disorder; others pronounced him bipolar. They gave him pills. I had never heard of pill-chasing behavior, but I quickly came to see that my son could manipulate psychiatrists into giving him drugs. He knew the names of the pills he wanted and the symptoms he would feign to get them. Ultimately, he had no psychiatric illness aside from addiction.
A former honor student, my son began failing subjects. His intellectual energy was utilized in creating ways to obtain drugs. He was good at it. Money disappeared. Jewelry. Then trust and communication. He hid his phone and his thoughts. I would look at my son, only fifteen years old, and his eyes would glint in a way I had never before seen.
Then came the bombshell: his older brother told me that their father, an alcoholic supposedly in recovery for years, had participated in the first drinks with him back in the eighth grade. On that spring afternoon, they bonded over their mutual addictive behaviors.
My twenty three years of marriage ended as his father sheltered our son’s behavior. He allowed him to leave school at fifteen and take online high school. I fled to a New York apartment with my fourteen-year-old daughter. It was a refuge. From there, I would try to find a way to help my son.
One night after the divorce, I was cancelling email accounts in both names, my ex-husband’s email account accidentally opened. That’s when I saw the summons for my son’s arrest.
Arrest? I had not been told. Addiction thrives in secrecy.
This boy, a former National Honor student who had played in a Philharmonic band at the age of thirteen, had three felony counts against him.
They each involved heroin.
I used to think of heroin along with an image of poverty, of disenfranchised individuals who slept through rainstorms on city sidewalks. But of course, like any economic system, drug dealers need clients – and theirs tend to die young. Affluent teens of suburbia have stepped in to fill that vacancy. My son was one of them.
My son. I shut the computer off and sat there for a very long time after the reading the words of the arrest. I wished for someone to come into that living room and make everything better: I wanted Mary Poppins with a pocketbook full of songs and suboxen.
I spent that night looking through my son’s baby pictures, through his drawings and cards that he had given to me over the years. I Googled what type of person becomes a heroin addict until I realized I was looking for a reason so I could stop blaming myself. But there was no Neosporin for a heroine addiction, no amount of Band-Aids or dry socks.
I called his father. “What arrest?” he asked in a happy sing-song voice, despite the fact that the arrest summons was in his email. That is the voice of denial: it’s like living in a margin somewhere between surrealism and Dr. Seuss. Addicts and alcoholics live in that space where nothing is real; if it’s not real, it doesn’t have to be addressed.
My son, still a teen, is a heroin addict. I write that sentence and it is dream-like to me. Some nights I still Google heroin addiction. The experts state over and over that addiction is genetic. Still, I know this only intellectually; my emotions haven’t learned that yet.
I study addiction statistics. I go to open meetings for any kind of addiction. I want to know why doctors dispense scripts for hydrocodone as if it’s Tylenol when it is routinely listed as one of the three most addictive substances on earth. My son has told me that he first became addicted to hydrocodone, or Vicodin. “It was love,” he said. “It was all I ever wanted to feel.”
These pills change brain function. The drug makes itself the number one priority to the brain; life is second. Its use stops the creation of positive feelings. The user needs more and more of the drug. Tolerance builds. Then hydrocodone turns nastier. It no longer brings any type of euphoria; it only relieves the unbearable symptoms of withdrawal.
But pills are expensive, between twenty and thirty dollars a pill. Heroin runs about four dollars a fold now and does the trick. And it’s running through American high schools with the strength and speed of a rumor.
I got my son into a rehabilitation facility several states away. I cried as the plane lifted off because I knew he was on heroin even as he sat in his seat. But he was safe. I could breathe. Until the director of the facility called to let me know that my son’s father had sent a plane ticket back two weeks into the program. The director had wanted him to stay there for ninety days, then go to a halfway house. But my son was eighteen by now, there was nothing I could do.
At least after rehab, we could talk, my son and I. It was guarded conversation, but we could connect on some level. My son is trying to stay clean now. Involved in a program and meetings, I call him each day to make sure he has not relapsed, that his heart is still beating. I have to will myself not to think about him all the time or I wouldn’t be able to function. I have moments now where I do not think about him. I can’t afford to.
Two days ago, my young teen daughter went to visit her father and brother. When she came home, she was clearly under the influence of opiates. She refused a drug test.
Anne Spollen is the mother of three children. She has published numerous essays, poems and stories, in addition to two young adult novels: The Shape of Water and Light Beneath Ferns. She currently lives in Staten Island where she teaches college and is working on a book of essays exploring the effect addiction has had on her family. She can be reached at her website: annespollen.org
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