My son, the junkie

I finally had to let him save, or kill, himself.

Published August 27, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Seth sits in the back of the car, crying quietly. My husband and I have just told him we will not pay his rent. He will not get out of the car. Having refused the rent money, we are unable to draw one more boundary: Neither of us tells him to get out of the car.

The young man in the back seat is not recognizable as our son. He is skinny, with a shaved head. His fingernails are dirty and cracked. He sweats profusely, even in cool weather. His clothes are stained, torn at the seams, missing buttons. He shuffles in his untied shoes. He doesn't use his hands to punctuate conversation, the way he used to. He holds them together in his lap to stop their shaking. He still carries around "Crime and Punishment," his favorite book, but he tells us he has trouble concentrating. When he speaks, his words slur, his voice trails off before the ends of sentences.

He looks like someone who is dying.

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When Seth was a child, I worried about accidents and intrusions -- a car swerving in the path of his bike, a stranger spiriting him away. But I was protecting him from what the world might do to him. When he became a teenager, I worried about what he might do to himself.

This did not include drug abuse. Yes, I went to school programs that warned of the dangers of drugs, and I talked to him about drugs, just as I talked to him about alcohol, and safe sex. But I didn't know one person who abused drugs. Not in my family, not among my friends or the larger neighborhood community. I couldn't connect drug use with a child who took drum lessons and walked the dog.

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"The latch on the door never worked right." Seth, 16, has returned from an evening out with friends, the door to his car smashed. Talking quickly, he gestures with his hands to show me how the car door swung open -- "all by itself, it just swung" -- as he drove past a tree.

This explanation is crazy. Could he be drinking? I ask myself. Or stoned? But his breath doesn't smell of liquor; his eyes look clear. He's an honors student, an editor of the school paper. When he played the lead in "Brighton Beach Memoirs," I attended all three performances, amazed at his presence onstage.

On the night he gives me his story about the car, I make him take me to the place on the road where he says the accident happened, as if the existence of that tree -- the solidity of the trunk, the bark rough and jagged where the car scraped it -- proves his story true.

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A tree trunk, rough or smooth, was not going to convince my husband. Concerned about Seth's bursts of anger and sullen withdrawals, he insisted that Seth's behavior might well be more than normal teenage angst. I saw my own rebelliousness in Seth and defended him, arguing that he needed time, freedom to explore. When the police came to the house to tell me my son's car was involved in a break-and-enter, I assured them, as I had been assuring my husband, that there was a mistake. I even called Seth at school -- he was at the newspaper office, getting out the weekly edition -- and told him to meet with the police and straighten this out.

When he arrived, they arrested him.

Over the next days Seth's insistence that everything was fine gave way to halting admissions. Sitting on the edge of his bed, staring at his hands, Seth confessed that he was involved in the break-and-enter. His explanation -- that he and some friends were trying to get money back from another teenager who hadn't delivered drugs he'd been paid for -- led to his confession that he used marijuana. He often went to school stoned and stayed high for the rest of the day.

Although I heard what Seth told me about drugs, I interpreted his story as a temporary problem, a problem that could be fixed. Drug abuse did not fit into my sense of who I was as a mother and who he was as my child. My husband might be right -- Seth had a problem, a serious problem -- but I believed he was willing to change. I believed we could help him change.

At first we tried to argue Seth out of his behavior. It was too costly a rebellion, we pleaded. The stakes were too high. Or was it more than rebellion? Was he self-medicating for depression, trying to find a remedy for his insomnia? When reasoning didn't work, when our empathy was pushed aside, we tried setting ever stricter limits on his behavior. If he couldn't be talked out of using, maybe we could establish enough control over what he did and who he saw to end his drug use that way. We searched out help. In addition to community service he performed as a result of the court case, Seth went to counseling and attended occasional AA meetings, and the whole family participated in therapy sessions. Our daughter, 12, and our younger son, 9, didn't say much, but our presence there, all together, made me hopeful. We were doing something and we were doing it together.

But Seth was not drawn in. He went through the motions of getting help but never seemed to feel the problem was as serious as we thought it was. He continued to use drugs and to lie about it. The worst was when he blamed us for his drug use, saying the inflexibility of our rules had forced him into experimentation. Though the therapist didn't buy into this -- "Did they hold your head back and force the pills down your throat?" -- the question of responsibility haunted us. Had we been too strict, or too lenient? Not present enough, or too involved? Was there a time when something we could have done differently might have changed the course of his life?

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"You can't go through my drawers!" Seth hisses, the skin on his cheekbones flushing.

"I can go through your drawers if that's where you're hiding drugs," I say.

He is taller than I am, and stronger. He stands in front of the door, blocking my way out.

"I'm going to my room," I say. "There is nothing more to discuss right now."

"Oh. Yes. There. Is."

His voice, low and even, sounds like a parody of menace, a gangster in some third-rate movie. But it's not a parody, and I feel the threat.

Now we're fighting over whether I can walk away from danger. Trying not to cry, I ask him to let me by.

As I retreat to my room, he kicks the radiator. "If I can't keep drugs in my room," he cries, "can I keep them in the car?"

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Although Seth was bright enough, and manipulative enough, to function quite well, occasionally the world caught up with him: Friends became distant, he lost his position on the school paper. When he won a scholarship to travel to Tunisia for a summer, we told him he couldn't go unless he stayed completely out of trouble. When he was sent home from the newspaper drunk, we made him call and decline the scholarship. But he finished high school a semester early and was accepted early decision into Harvard. College seemed to offer the hope of a fresh start, a place where he would have new friends and challenges. Maybe this would be what he needed, we told ourselves, to get back on track.

When he was living away from home, we tried to believe his drug use was under control. College, though, brought its own pressures, as well as the opportunities afforded by less parental supervision. By Thanksgiving of his sophomore year, he told us he was entering an inpatient treatment program for drug abuse. I wish we had been more surprised.

We brought Seth to the hospital and stayed with him while he filled out the intake forms, in triplicate. We stayed while they unzipped and emptied every compartment in his blue backpack, checking for drugs, and we stayed while the intern took his medical history. We left as he launched into a laundry list of drugs he'd taken.

The night outside was clear and cold, a perfect fall night, the sky opening out to display a fanfare of stars. We had answered the doctors' questions, and now we would go home and celebrate with our families, gathered for the holiday. Before we got to the car, we stopped on a hill above the parking lot. We held each other and cried.

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Seth wants to wear his cowboy outfit to the first day of kindergarten. "The cowboy clothes are for dress-up," I explain. "You're supposed to wear your own clothes to school."

But he is adamant, won't take off the plaid flannel shirt, the fringed chaps, the wide-brimmed hat. I don't want him to be late for the first day of school.

"OK," I say, "but just today," and he gets up from the floor where he has been staging his strike and starts to buckle on his holster with the two plastic guns.

"No," I say. "You can't take the holster."

"But I need it," he says. "I've never been to school before."

After his hospitalization, Seth stayed clean for several years. He graduated from college and headed for New York. Soon after he got there, though, we began receiving desperate phone calls. We accepted his explanations -- he was panicked about finding a job, overwhelmed by the demands of living on his own in New York. But even after he found a job and settled into his apartment, the calls continued, his muffled words and garbled sentences hard to understand. Eventually he told us what we didn't want to hear: He was using again.

Each time Seth started doing drugs was worse than the time before -- the drugs scarier, his dependence more complete. This smart, charming boy, always ready with a story and promise, couldn't bluff his way through anymore. He lost his job. He couldn't pay his rent. He didn't have money for groceries. The cook at a favorite diner gave him free breakfast, but refused him money. In another diner, he watched for coffee cups people left on the counter so he could get the free refills.

No matter how bad things got, Seth refused to enter long-term treatment. He went to detox, but not to rehab. Or he went to rehab, but not the halfway house. He tried therapy, counseling, methadone, acupuncture, medication for depression and anxiety, meditation and biofeedback.

He was an IV heroin user.

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We desperately wanted someone to tell us what to do to save Seth. We searched out help, any help, but the social workers, therapists, psychiatrists and drug counselors never agreed.

"Work is too much stress for him," one advised. "Pay his rent so he can concentrate on getting well."

"Never give him any money. Why should he get well if he doesn't have to face the consequences of his actions?"

"He's self-medicating. He needs to take something for his anxiety."

"Of course he's anxious. Wouldn't you be anxious if you were using heroin?"

"He needs to get away from his family and friends. He needs to be in an environment where he has no one to turn to but himself."

"We won't pay insurance unless he is close to his family. It is crucial to his recovery to count on their daily support."

In the turmoil of contradictory advice we received, the one consistent message came from Nar-Anon, the 12-step group for families of addicts. "Take care of yourselves," we were told. "Fix your own lives. The addict has to help himself."

This is not what we wanted to hear.

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"I couldn't get away," Seth whimpers. Ten years old, he is sitting up in his bed at 2 in the morning, all the lights in his room on, telling me about his nightmare.

"Put someone in your dream," I tell him. "Someone who can help you."

He frowns at me. "It's a dream."

"Yes, but it's your dream. You can invite someone in, someone strong, who can help you."

"You think it will work?" he asks. He looks small in the bed, knees hugged tightly to his chest.

"Of course it will work," I say. "I know it will work."

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Our fears about Seth absorbed the family's energies. My husband and I were often preoccupied. It was hard to concentrate, it was hard to sleep, it was hard to pay attention to our other children. We were exhausted, and though we tried to continue family activities, it was often an effort, and they could see this. We became stricter with them, wondering if we had been too lenient with Seth, and also less demanding, thinking that any behavior short of drug use was not worth correcting. They had their own fears for Seth's safety. Once, when our younger son was in high school, my husband left a message for him to call. He needed to change a plan about the car, but our son could only imagine one reason for his father to call him at school: Seth had died.

When I heard this story, I tried to imagine our younger son getting the message -- the blood drains from his cheeks as he leaves the classroom and walks to the office. How many halls does he pass through, clutching his books, thinking his brother is dead? How much time passes before he hears his father's calm, everyday voice? I had tried so hard to protect my children, and I couldn't even protect them from each other.

Everyone seemed to have better parenting skills than I did -- anyone whose child was not using drugs, anyone whose child could call home without imagining disaster. Leafing through the book review section of the Sunday Times, I happened upon the advertisement for a novel, "Cloud Nine." Even the reviewer's words accused me, proclaiming that "the strength of family ties can ultimately set things right." So why couldn't my love set things right? Why wasn't my love enough to save my son?

I am home alone when the doctor calls.

"You should prepare to lose this child," he says.

I am leaning against the wall, and when he says this I slide down the wall until I am sitting on the floor. I turn the words over in my mind

"Prepare." How do I do this, I wonder. Empty his closets? Plan his funeral?

"Lose." Is this like letting go of his hand in a crowd? I imagine craning my neck to see over other people, searching for my son, who is still small, still needs me.

"This child." As if we have spares, as if our other children can replace him.

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I lived in a smaller and smaller space, waking up in the morning, breathing, getting food on the table for my family. If things seemed better for a while, if Seth had a job and was staying clean, I allowed myself to be lulled into a feeling of normalcy, although always tentative, always waiting for the phone call with bad news. When the phone call came, when Seth slipped again and was out of money or in the hospital, my life constricted. It was an actual physical sensation, a tightening in my chest that made it feel as if there were less room to breathe.

Seth didn't want me to tell people about his drug use, and it was easy not to: I talked less and less with my friends. I felt I knew what they must be thinking: "He's still using drugs? Why don't you do something?" It was hard to show interest in my friends' concerns -- a child cut from the lacrosse team, an overdue term paper. I avoided celebrations. I had no patience for the cheerful superficiality of cocktail banter, and I was jealous that other families had something to celebrate. Graduations and weddings left me gripping my wine glass, feeling selfish and maudlin, blinking back tears.

My writing, which had centered me, providing space for my own life, was no longer a solace and anchor. When I sat at my desk, trying to write, scenarios of disaster and rescue spilled into each other until my mind felt fuzzy, swollen. I couldn't concentrate on language. The exploration of image and phrase and sound, the discovery of meaning, seemed lost to me.

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One night I attended a meeting on drugs at my younger son's school. It was a school my son switched to in part to get away from his older brother's reputation, a new school where I didn't yet know the parents or teachers. My intention was to go to the meeting, listen to what they had to say, and go home. I certainly didn't plan to share my experience.

The moderator of the panel reminded us that we were not, of course, worried that our children would become drug addicts. We were there, she said, because a youthful experiment might damage a child's chances to get into a good college. I understood that point of view; I had believed that, too. But now I found myself standing, trying to get control of my voice. Did everyone hear my voice shake as I said my oldest child was a drug addict? He was a bright, achieving child, I told them, trying to steady myself as I went along. I stared over the heads of the other parents when I said he had started experimenting with drugs in high school. That he had been able to hide his problem and was admitted to -- and graduated from -- Harvard. And he was a heroin addict. So who was it exactly who didn't have to worry about addiction?

The next day there was a message on my telephone answering tape: "You don't know me, but I was at the meeting last night. Thank you." It felt good to say who I was. Now it wasn't just me, or me and my husband, or the two of us and an army of experts. It was easier, too, to talk with friends, as if speaking at the meeting had opened a crack in my silence, which slowly widened. I participated in community again, the community of adults trying to raise children. I had been locked out of that community by my silence, but now, as I talked about our situation, I eased myself back in.

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There's a story we like to tell at Nar-Anon meetings, about a member of our group who was called in the middle of the night. The nurse on the other end of the phone told her to take the next plane to Florida, where her daughter was in the hospital from an overdose. Calculating the plane schedules, she said she couldn't arrive until the next afternoon.

"You have to hurry!" the nurse implored. "She won't be alive in the morning."

"If she won't be alive in the morning," my friend answered, "why should I hurry?"

My friend's daughter did live, which makes it easier to for us to smile, but I think we would smile anyway, drawn together by the black humor of families perched together on the edge.

I wanted to fix Seth's life, but failing again and again to do this, I began to turn that energy inward, trying, once more, to write. I felt almost too tired to start, so I wrote poems about my fatigue. Frightened by the risks Seth took, I wrote about the fear I felt when a cat attacked a bird's nest. I was haunted by memories of Seth when he was younger, the time before drugs, so I wrote about him as a small child. As the tempo of my writing became more established, and I had more energy and confidence, I wrote about Seth as the man he had become. I couldn't reconcile these images, so I let them exist against each other: Seth in his stroller, calling out the number of wheels on each truck that rumbles by; Seth curled in his bed, unable to fix himself a cup of coffee. I assembled these poems in a book, a book whose central question I still can't answer: How had we gotten where we were? I called the book "To Get Here."

Even though I was writing about Seth, the writing helped me separate my life from his. I was doing my work again, focused and attentive. Rather than staying near the phone, trying to keep busy, I organized my day around my writing time. Just the details of writing -- the solidity of the desk, the smell of an eraser -- gave me a physical reality apart from him. My writing room became a place where I could breathe; when I sat at my desk, the awful tightening in my chest loosened. And the words themselves offered the possibility of surprising understandings: a revealing image, a line that came from nowhere, telling me something I didn't know I knew.

Now it was not only news of Seth I waited for. Each day, at mail time, I felt a familiar restlessness, leaving my desk to fix a cup of coffee, but really waiting for the self-addressed stamped envelope the postman might bring, saying one of my poems had been accepted for publication. Once, when good news arrived, I turned in my excitement to read the poem to my daughter. She heard the poem's title as heroine, a female hero, although I was writing about Seth, and the poem was called "Heroin."

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Ten years after Seth told us he was using drugs, he entered a long-term treatment program in Florida. It was 1,500 miles away, so all of us got a chance to withdraw. Seth got to withdraw from drugs, a variety of prescription medications and his dependency on family and friends. We got a chance to withdraw from our continual involvement in his life.

It wasn't easy. Seth fought the rules there just as he had fought them at home. He looked for angles, some reason that the world should exempt him, treat him differently. And I stayed tied into the promise of his recovery, offering excuses for his behavior, pleading for second chances. But eventually there were no more chances, and Seth was kicked out of the program. He had been there three months.

I don't know what caused Seth's addiction. He was a rebellious adolescent, determined to live on the edge. He may have been depressed or anxious and using drugs to medicate these feelings. He probably had a tendency toward chemical dependency, so although another person might be able to try drugs and then stop, Seth could not. He tried, and then tried some more. And maybe it took us too long to admit to the seriousness of the problem. Maybe earlier, stricter intervention would have helped. But maybe not. I cannot explain his addiction, just as I cannot explain his recovery. When he was kicked out of the program, we asked his counselor to send us his return plane ticket and his charge card, and we did not get in touch with him. He had no money, no place to live and no job. He had no one to catch him.

And he succeeded. After the years of our begging and pleading, the years of his half-hearted attempts at recovery, Seth found a series of jobs and apartments, each one better than the last, and he stayed clean. Maybe being alone in a strange city with nowhere to turn was the "bottom" they talk about in recovery groups, the bottom the addict has to hit before he can change. Or maybe it's more mysterious than that. Seth's best friend in the treatment program, a beautiful boy, smart and funny, is dead of an overdose. How was Seth able to create a life for himself without drugs, while his friend was not? I do not know what strengths Seth had to call upon, but I am grateful.

I am grateful for his clear eyes and steady hands, his ability to work, his sense of humor. I can't say there are whole days when I don't worry, but there are hours.

I also grieve. I grieve for the years overwhelmed by his addiction, years when I was lost to my family, my writing, my self. I grieve for the loss of my optimism, the enthusiasm I used to feel that is now so hard to reclaim.

I grieve for the relationship I used to have with Seth, the relationship I might have had with him now, one of openness and trust. I do not know how long it will take to rebuild that intimacy, or if that is still possible.

I remember thinking when Seth was born that I would give my life to save his. Now I know that if he slips, there is nothing I can do.

By Wendy Mnookin

Wendy Mnookin is the author of "To Get Here," a collection of poems that explore her son's addiction to drugs.

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