An awful realization about my son’s drug use points the way forward
It was spring, 2014, and we’d been planning our family vacation for months. The soon-to-be travelers were me, my wife, and our three grown children. We were excited.
Just weeks before our scheduled departure, we got the news that our son’s passport renewal had been denied because of his criminal record.
He’d had several drug-related offenses at that point (thus the passport denial), and had been in rehab twice, but he seemed to be doing better after six years of struggling. The family getaway was in part a celebration of that. But he would miss out on it. Like he’d missed out on so many things.
The four of us went anyway, my wife and I and our two girls. We had a good time, but for me at least, the entire trip was tinged with sadness that our son wasn’t with us.
Soon after we got back, I called a family friend to say we’d returned from vacation. She said she had bad news for me. She had heard via the neighborhood grapevine that our son was using heroin.
Standing there holding the phone, it felt like the floor had just given way.
Living in a fantasyland
We were probably naïve, but we never suspected he was using such a serious drug. Other stuff, for sure, but heroin? We and our daughters were stunned and scared, but here’s the thing: Almost instantly, along with the fear and anxiety I felt, I also felt clarity.
Now I could no longer deceive or console myself that his drug use and bad behavior were just youthful hijinks, rebelliousness, or thrill-seeking.
That’s how I’d explained it to that point, which is a normal thing for a parent to do, right? Willful blindness when you don’t want to believe something about your child?
The problem with that kind of wishful thinking is that it allowed me to live for years with the illusion that I could fix our son. That through firmness and threats and old-fashioned disapproving dad anger, I could get him to shape up. That I could parent him through this mess he was making of his life.
I believed that if I angrily implored him enough times with my strongly worded logic, he would eventually stop all this bad behavior.
It didn’t work.
Too many times to count, I’d finish my bang-on-the-kitchen-table, haranguing sessions thinking this time I’d gotten through to him. Too many times to count, I would head upstairs to bed afterwards and say to my wife, “Did you hear that? I was furious with him but that went pretty well, don’t you think? He really seemed to be taking it in this time.”
I was sure it was working, that I was getting through, that we were getting closer to a good resolution, and that our son was coming around. If I could keep the pressure on, I told myself, I could father him back to his old wonderful self.
Then the next night the bad behavior and my yelling would happen all over again.
Groundhog Day, addiction edition.
But back to the clarity moment. The silver lining. When I heard from our friend after our trip that my son was using heroin, a long-delayed lightbulb went on in my head: My son was an addict. He had substance use disorder. That’s what’s going on here.
And with that realization came another: I was no longer angry at him.
If you want him to listen, just yell louder
It won’t surprise you to learn that for the six years leading up to that point, anger had been my go-to emotion in dealing with my son’s drug-related behavior. There was a certain logic to that: He is doing these things to make me angry, so I would get angry.
Stealing our money. Not texting us (again) as he had agreed to do (again) if he was out past midnight. Being generally uninterested in following house rules. Playing Xbox late at night with friends when he had a big exam at school the next morning.
I saw a lot of that behavior as his way to rebel against me. Against his mom too, of course, but mostly against me.
It felt like he was baiting me, and I always took the bait.
But there was method to my madness. Clearly he must have hated it when I was angry at him and got in his face with my demands. And I was sure that my anger and disapproval would eventually be the deterrent that made the difference for him. To stop me from getting angry at him so often—which made his life pretty darned unpleasant at times—he would straighten up and fly right. That’s what I believed.
It just wasn’t accurate. He wasn’t doing these things to be rebellious, or to get back at me or his mom for something, or to prove any point at all. He was doing them because he had a brain disease called substance use disorder (SUD).
I couldn’t be angry with him for that. It would be like being angry with him for having high blood pressure, or depression, or bipolar disorder.
How to know if it’s addiction
You’d be right to wonder how it took me so long to figure out what was really going on with my son. Six years of fairly constant off-the-rails drug- and alcohol-related behavior—how could I have missed it?
In my defense, several things threw me off the trail, and I would like to briefly list them. Hopefully this will help you gain clarity quicker than I did, even if that clarity means your child has SUD. Yes, that’s a scary diagnosis, but at least it provides a starting point for how to move forward with appropriate care and support.
Here are three factors that helped keep me in the dark for so long:
My son didn’t know either: I’m not suggesting parents should wait until their child says, “Dear parent, I have substance use disorder.” A young adult—everyone, for that matter—often has poor insight on his addiction, even when his world is crashing down around him. My point here is that he didn’t know, he was in denial, he didn’t think he had a drug problem, and I went along with all of it because I wanted to believe it so badly. I was just waiting for him to snap out of it.
He was just being a teenager: People often develop SUD in their teens, so it can be tough to discern if it’s addictive behavior you’re witnessing, or garden-variety teenage acting out. Again, I wanted to believe it was the latter, which enabled me to stay in that mindset way longer than I should have. Kids have been acting out like this from the beginning of time. It’s not always addiction.
It’s clear now that I wasted a lot of time and emotion fooling myself that his behavior was something that it wasn’t. If I hadn’t been so deluded, maybe I could’ve helped him find better care a lot sooner. I feel a lot of regret about that. I got there in the end, we got there in the end, but yes, it took six years.
There is no medical test for it: It would be nice if there was. But it’s not like going to your doctor or an urgent care center where the doctor looks at your throat and says, “Aha, you have strep.” Or getting a blood test that definitively shows you have high cholesterol or that you’re anemic—because the numbers say so. Maybe one day there will be a convenient outpatient test like that for addiction, but there isn’t yet.
NOTE: If you do suspect your son or daughter may have SUD, you can certainly start gaining clarity by making an appointment for your child with a pediatrician or PCP to get expert input on the matter. Or maybe better, consider getting your child an appointment with a family therapist. Just be prepared to use your awesome powers of persuasion to get him or her to comply with that.
The new me
I want to clarify that my son’s heroin use is what turned the lightbulb on for me, but don’t think that’s the ultimate litmus test. For others, addicts included, the moment of clarity might be some other drug, behavior, mindset, or event.
But I found that clarity, and things have been so much better for me since.
It’s been such a relief to stop being so angry with my son all the time. Anger is so debilitating, so exhausting. And ultimately, so counter-productive.
Things got better for him, too. How could they not once I stopped getting bug-eyed in his face on a twice weekly basis? But they did in other ways as well.
There have been other nice ripple effects. In the years since that clarifying moment, I’ve tended to be more patient with him. With everyone, really.
Also, I rarely blame him for things I used to blame him for. I’m more understanding when he does things that seem contrary to his well-being.
And I’m more open to him getting all the treatment and support he deserves.
Me coming to terms with my son’s condition didn’t make him better (his hard work did that!), but it sure helped me.