"Parents screw up -- just about every day"

An excerpt from "Dirty: A Search for Answers Inside America's Teenage Drug Epidemic."

Published November 3, 2003 7:24AM (EST)

Mike and his friend Jack are kicking it in Jack's room, drinking some beers, smoking some weed. It's the first night of Christmas break, freshman year of high school. Jack rummages through his sock drawer, pulls out a small white rock.

"What's that?" Mike asks.

"Crank," Jack answers.

"I heard that shit's tight," Mike says.

"Let's do it up." Jack shuts the door in case his mom comes home. Mike hesitates. Smoking weed is one thing. Putting something up his nose-that's what junkies do.

"C'mon, dude," Jack urges him. He pulls out a mirror and a razor blade, chops the rock into powder. He snorts a few lines, chops up some more, passes the mirror to Mike. Mike closes his eyes and snorts his first line of crank.

Instantly he's filled with the feeling he's always wanted and never had: pure happiness. All his problems -- in school, with his parents, even his zits -- vanish as if they've been vaporized by the Star Trek laser gun he played with as a kid.

Mike snorts another line. He can't sit still. He jumps up.

"Got any more of that shit?" he asks, his heart pounding in his chest.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Sitting in the backseat of his mom's BMW, his mom chatting with his grandmother in the front, Tristan slips a double dose of Xanax to his stepbrother, Max, and the same to his stepsister, Caitlin. They pass a water bottle, gulping the pills down.

The Xanax kicks in just as they arrive at their cousin's birthday party. "Let's go smoke a bowl," Tristan whispers to his sibs. They sneak out, float to a park nearby, stuff a pipe with pot.

"This stuff is hella strong," Caitlin mumbles.

"We just got dosed, dude," Tristan giggles. "This shit is laced with something serious." Falling all over each other, laughing, they stagger back to the house. Later that night while everyone's asleep, Tristan creeps into Caitlin's room. He takes her car keys and the two twenties he finds on her dresser. "She owes me that much for the pot and the pills," he tells himself.

Tristan drives Caitlin's VW to his friend Justin's house. He and Justin split a fifth of vodka. As Tristan's driving home -- sideswiping a few fire hydrants and parked cars along the way -- his cell phone starts ringing off the hook, his mom's number lighting up over and over on the screen. When he gets home she's in the kitchen, crying. Tristan promises her everything she wants to hear: he'll never smoke pot, drink, or drive without a license again.

"At least not till next weekend," he thinks, and falls into bed.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

"We're the police. Don't make this any harder than it is."

Zalika freezes. Two cops are standing in front of her, one black, the other white, their faces lit by the liquor store's neon sign.

"It's over for me," Zalika thinks. All the time she's been selling rock on this corner, she never thought it would come to this. Marcus had told her what to do if the Five-O came up on her: swallow everything she had. But how can she do that now? She has sixty rocks of crack on her body -- five in her mouth, twenty in her pockets, the rest in a baggie stuffed up inside her -- and two cops in her face.

Zalika starts swallowing the rocks in her mouth, grabbing handfuls from her pockets. But there are too many to swallow. Too many to hold. The rocks spray from her mouth, her hands; they're bouncing off her Nikes. Going on pure instinct, she drops to the ground to pick them up.

The white cop pulls her to her feet. "We were just gonna send you home to your parents," he says, shaking his head sadly. "What are you, seventeen?"

"Almost fifteen," Zalika answers.

Two more cop cars arrive, lights flashing. Cops swarm all over, scooping up the rocks, the street junkies watching with their mouths hanging open as if the police are snatching their last meal. The black cop handcuffs Zalika. "You have the right to remain silent ..."

Mike's gone. I leave the boys in their Conflict Resolution group, stumble downstairs, stand in the mattress-store doorway staring at the house across the street -- as if Mike might come bounding out the front door if I stare at it hard enough.

But no. Mike's gone.

Now what? Do I call his mom? His dad? His therapist? Get in my car and try to find him? Go back upstairs and pick another kid?

Wait. I know how to track down a missing boy. I've had plenty of practice trying to find Jesse. I do now what I used to do then: close my eyes, channel his thoughts. If I were Mike, where would I go?

The bus station, of course. The first thing he'd do is get out of town. There's nothing for Mike here but heat. No parents, no friends, no money; no cigarettes, no beer, no crank. First, though, I need information. Ron, the day-shift supervisor, looks up from his desk. Mike's file is open in front of him as if he's expecting me. I sit down, noticing for the first time a sign on the wall that says, "There are no crises we don't agree to have."

"Hakim came to me before breakfast," Ron begins. "He told me Mike's bed wasn't made. A few of his belongings were missing -- enough to make a road trip.

"We started the AWOL procedure: searched the property, counted the clients. I called Danny, the police, the parents, the PO. The police came. We gave them Mike's picture. They'll put him on a flyer listing him as a runaway child and distribute it electronically to other police departments."

"What happens when -- if -- they find him?"

"They'll ask us if we want him back," Ron says. "That'll be up to Danny. Our inclination is to come from a caring place, to make exceptions, especially with someone as charming as Mike. But this would be the second time he's come here and left.

"What we do here is behavior modification. We don't cave in like an enabling parent would." Translation: if the cops catch him, Mike will go straight to the Hall to serve his three-year sentence. Mike knows all of this, of course. And he knows how to disappear to avoid it. The realization lands in my chest with a thud. I might never see him again.

"Do you know what time he left?"

"Between six-thirty and seven. He could have gone through a window or out the front door."

"Can I see his room?"

Ron walks me through the spotless, silent house. "There may be some good that'll stay with him," he says. "A lot has been brought to Mike's attention, whether he wants to accept it or not."

I step into the room Mike shares -- shared -- with Henry. If a room could talk, this one would be saying, "Fuck Center Point." Hangers, clothes, and shoes are strewn everywhere. Mike's plaid button-down shirt and black jeans are spread out on the floor, as if Mike were a snowman who melted away in the night. The bed looks as if a battle was fought in it -- and maybe indeed one was. Was it a struggle or a reflex, I wonder, this decision of Mike's to run again?

Only Mike's dresser is still up to Center Point standards. His bottles of shampoo, acne soap, and deodorant are turned to the wall, as Mike always left them -- ever hungry for a morsel of privacy, a crumb of control. Only one of his toiletries has been turned face-out: a bullet-shaped cylinder of mousse called "Head Games."

As I was trained by my own disappearing son to do, I check the only available indicator of Mike's intentions. Which shoes was he wearing when he left? The brand-new Stacy Adams desert boots his mom just sent him -- his favorites, not yet broken in, unsuitable for walking long distances -- are still in the closet. His next favorites, a month-old pair of Adidas sneakers, aren't. "Face it," I tell myself. "Mike's not taking a walk around the block to cool off. He's gone."

I ask Ron to call me if he hears anything. I go to my car, leave a message on Barbara's cell phone, then one for Tess at home. I reach Michael in his truck.

"I raised him to where he's pretty self-sufficient," Michael says. "So I'm not really worried about him. There was too much nitpicky bullshit at that place. Mike's all boy, sure. But pushing a kid like they did -- it was too much for anybody." Michael promises to call me if he hears anything. I start cruising the streets of downtown San Rafael, looking for a tall, husky kid in Adidas, just as I used to cruise the streets of Oakland desperate for the sight of a tall, lean kid in Air Jordans. I notice for the first time how many bars there are, and that they're all open at eleven in the morning. Might Mike be drinking his first beer in sixty-eight days? No. Not here, anyway.

My cell phone rings. "He's at his dad's," Barbara says breathlessly. I recognize the terrible relief in her voice; I've heard it so many times in my own. Who cares if the kid's wanted by the law, if he's just screwed up the next three years of his life? He's safe for the moment. He's alive.

"I'm praying he'll go back to Center Point," she says. "But Meredith, he didn't run off. He didn't disappear." We breathe in that information together. "I'll call you later," Barbara says. "I just didn't want you to worry."

The phone rings again in my hand. "What's up, Meredith?" Mike exclaims. "How you doin'?" He sounds elated, energized. Is this a lively Mike I've never known, outside the Center Point monotone zone? Or is he already ...

"I'm staying in touch with you because I'm not going back to using. And I'm not going on the run. I'm gonna hang out with my dad for the weekend, go see my mom Sunday. On Monday I'm turning myself in."

"I'm so glad you called," I say. "But Mike -- are you sure you don't want to try to go back to Center Point, or some other --"

"No way," he interrupts me. "I'm through with fake-ass Tess and money-grubbing Danny. I'll serve my time in Juvenile Hall, get it over with, get on with my life. You can come visit me in the Hall. Okay?"

"Okay," I say. "What made you decide to run?"

"Lyle gave me two LEs last night," he says. "Then I called Richard a faggot. They put me on Contract. That was it."

"Did any of the kids know you were going?"

"I told most of 'em the night before. They didn't rat on me." So much for therapeutic community members "supporting" each other.

"Juanita woke me up at six-thirty. I had my bag packed. I went out my bedroom window, ran downtown, took the bus to Rohnert Park. Two seconds after I got off the bus -- I swear! -- this dude tried to sell me some crank."

"Where'd you get the money for the bus?" The clients aren't supposed to have any, ever.

"A friend at Center Point," he answers evasively, honoring the boys' own code of confidentiality. "Sue came to the bus stop and picked me up. She's pretty upset with me.

"Everyone's pretty upset with me. We went to my dad's. He's living in a motor home in my grandma and grandpa's yard. We ate some Mexican food. It tasted hella good after all that Center Point crap. I'm gonna go see my mom tomorrow. My dad's gonna bring the jet ski."

Talk about your mixed messages, I think, feeling a flash of anger at Michael. And then I think, no wonder the program people beat up on parents all the time. Look how easy it is to do.

I hear a deep voice yelling in the background. "My dad's mad at me for being on the phone," Mike says. "I'll call you tomorrow."

"Fake-ass Tess" calls me as I'm driving home. Even though Mike was raging at everyone in the house last night, she says, she didn't expect him to run. "Whenever I asked him if he felt like AWOLing, he'd say, 'No, I've already put my parents through enough.' That was part of the problem: he was always doing it for his parents, not himself."

Tess says she got more "emotional" about Mike's AWOL than anyone else on the staff. "Mike's leaving broke my heart. I invested a lot of time in him. But I don't know if he ever really attached to me." Tess is silent for a moment. "Mike's attachments tend to be superficial. He has a real conflict with independence versus dependence."

"Unlike most seventeen-year-olds?" I think, but don't say.

"To be honest," Tess confides, "I feel very strongly that his parents were a big cause of Mike's problems." I wince, knowing what's coming next. Parent blaming is the hammer in every therapist's toolbox. Tess wields hers like the avid apprentice she is.

"Mike has a great mom. But the dad still uses. His boundaries with Mike are not appropriate; they're friend to friend instead of father and child. The kids who are successful in the program are the ones whose parents realize they haven't been able to do it, so they hand the responsibility over to us. Mike's parents never did that."

No, they didn't. And neither did I when my son was a ward of the court. The day Jesse started getting into trouble was the day I started being blamed for it: for not disciplining him enough -- guilty. For not taking enough responsibility for what he said and did -- guilty. For raising him in a "broken home," as Mike's mom did. For making excuses for him, as Tristan's mom did. For wanting him to be more like me, or at least more understandable to me, as Zalika's parents did -- guilty, guilty, guilty. There weren't enough hours in the day for me to feel as bad as I was supposed to feel about the terrible mom I was being -- while continuing, apparently, to be one.

Then, suddenly, the accusations changed. Because Jesse was seventeen, not fifteen? Because his crimes became more serious? Because his new probation officer had memorized a different formula? I never knew. But now, suddenly, I was failing to relinquish responsibility, to hold Jesse accountable, to "let go and let him grow up." The charges were different, but the culpability was the same. And so were the effects on me. When I wasn't hating myself for screwing up my son, I was hating myself for the relief I felt when a therapist or PO heaped the blame on Jesse's father instead.

Parent blaming has much to recommend it. It's endorsed by the psychoanalytic masters, disseminated by their disciples, and so easy to practice; anyone can do it and pretty much everyone does. We're in a mess with our teenagers -- as individuals, as a nation. We need a target for our confusion and our grief. Parents make a good one, or so it seems. They're everywhere, they're fallible, and they'll take whatever anyone's dishing out on the off chance it might help their kids.

The problem is, it doesn't. Our kids do best when we think and expect the best of them. The same is true of their parents. The people who helped me be a better mother to Jesse were the ones who pointed out his strengths, and mine, the ones who reminded me that his path was his to stride or stumble down, the ones who showed me a better way to be with him by stepping in and being that way with him themselves. I was already on my knees with self-recrimination and sorrow. There was nothing to be gained for Jesse by knocking me any flatter.

Yes, parents screw up -- just about every day, in just about every way. Yes, kids' problems are a product, in part, of their parents'. But when a kid falls down, the whole family needs a hand up. The institutions and individuals who take care of other people's kids need to be trained and funded and screened to make sure that's what they do. To start with, they need to be expert at ferreting out -- and expressing -- what parents are doing right with their kids, then building an improvement plan from that foundation of mutual respect.

I had the opportunity to do it both ways, so I know this as surely as I know my name. It's challenging to be the great parent of a teenager who's doing well. It's impossible to be the great parent of a teenager who's not.

The real problem with parent blaming is, we have seen the enemy, and it is us.

At six o'clock on the Sunday evening after Mike's escape, I pull into the parking lot of the Rincon Valley Seven-Eleven, where he's chosen to spend his last free moments before he goes back to the Hall. Mike and Barbara are waiting for me in Barbara's bright blue convertible. She unfolds herself from the car -- a tall, well-built woman in an ankle-length black tank dress and platform sandals, her auburn shoulder-length hair streaked with henna. We exchange hugs, and I turn to Mike.

I swear his skin looks better already, his eyes more alive. I've never seen him smoking before -- the closest thing the boys managed to smuggle into Center Point was chewing tobacco -- but he's making up for lost nicotine now, puffing hungrily on one Parliament after another. "I'm cool," he answers before I ask. "I'm gonna get this over with. Then I'm never going back."

Barbara tells me to follow her in my car, and tells Mike to go with me. She says the five-mile ride to the Hall will give Mike and me a chance to catch up, but I suspect she needs a little distance right now herself.

"It's a hundred degrees out," Mike says as we pass the McDonald's where he jumped out of Danny's truck less than three months ago. "And they got no air conditioning in the Hall." He stares out the window. "That's alright. It won't stay hot for too long."

He lights a new Parliament with the ember of the last one. "I'm gonna know a bunch of people in there," he says, exhaling noisily. "That'll be cool."

Mike tells me about his "forty-eight hours of normal life," chilling with his dad and Sue, trying out his new jet ski with his mom. "It's so peaceful out there by the lake," he says, his face as soft as a sated child's. "And I got to spend some time with my grandma too."

He draws deeply on his cigarette. "So Meredith -- we're still doing the book, right?" I tell him we are indeed, and ask why he wants to do it.

"Because I know I'm gonna make it. Because I have a good story that's gonna help people understand. I may not be program material ..." How many of the trained professionals in his life have told him that? I wonder. "... but I'm definitely book material."

Ahead of us, Barbara turns left onto Pythian Road. Mike's body tenses. "Damn. Here I am again." The signs for Los Guillicos Juvenile Detention Center appear before us. "I can do this. I can do this," he repeats like a mantra. "I'm gonna make it. I'm gonna make it."

We park our cars and walk slowly past a cinder-block wall crowned with rusty curls of barbed wire, toward the low white stucco building where Mike will surrender to the law.

"Let's sit down and talk for a minute, Mike," Barbara says. She leads us to a picnic table chained to the wall. Barbara looks intently at her son. He busies himself lighting a cigarette. The tension is thick. I look up and see a rough-hewn sign hanging above us, its letters carved into a redwood slab. Order From Within.

"Wow," I say. "Is that some kind of Zen message? Are they trying to give the kids some spiritual guidance, or what?"

Barbara cocks her head quizzically at the sign, then erupts into peals of laughter. "It's an ad!" she tells me. "The kids make these picnic tables here. If you want to buy one, you ..."

She's laughing so hard, she can't finish the sentence. "Order from within," I say, and soon we're both hysterical. Mike smokes and ignores us, his eyes on the ground. Barbara chokes and gasps, wipes her eyes with a Kleenex. She looks at her son, suddenly dead serious. "Are you sure you don't want to go back to Center Point, Mike? Why would you rather do three years in here than --"

"I'll be able to see my parents twice a week," Mike interrupts her. "Anyway, Mom, I'm not gonna do three years. They just say that stuff to scare us."

"Mike." Barbara puts her hand on her son's, strokes it tenderly. "You've already bailed from a couple of programs. They're not just going to give you two weeks and let you out. Even if they do that, if you want to come live with me, you'll have to live up to my standards.

"Dave and I have a really peaceful life now. And we like it like that. I don't want the police coming to my house anymore. I don't want to drive you for drug testing at seven o'clock in the morning or to Drug Court an hour away ..." Barbara takes a deep breath.

"That being said, I'll go a million miles for you if I think you're trying."

"I'll never use speed again," Mike declares. "It's the only way my life's gonna stay together."

"I'm not saying I don't believe you, honey," Barbara says gently, her hand fluttering to her son's cheek. "I'm just saying I have to see it. There's been a lot of times you've told me you weren't using and I found out later it was a lie. Do you understand that?"

"Yeah." Mike stubs out his cigarette. "But I've learned some stuff about myself. For one, I'm a very impatient person. That's part of why I used the drug I did. I might even have ADD."

"Were you self-medicating, you think?" Barbara asks.

Mike can't muster the patience to answer. He jumps to his feet. "I'm ready to do this. Let's go."

Barbara stands too, and pulls her son to her. "I know you're not doing this to hurt me. I know this is your life. I know you're not a baby anymore." She starts to cry. "I'm just so sorry I have to take you in there and leave you."

Mike hugs her quickly, then steps away. "I'll be okay in a couple days. Don't worry about me, Mom."

We walk up to the door marked "Admissions." Mike knocks. A buzzer sounds. The three of us enter a tiny room. Mike steps up to the counter, spreads his arms apart, palms up. "I'm self-surrendering," he says into the vent in the glass partition.

"Hi, Mike. It's Butler, right?" The woman turns away, types into her computer.

"Yeah. How you doin', Melissa?" Mike greets her. Melissa frowns and turns back to him. "They haven't signed the warrant yet, Mike. The computer won't let me accept you."

Barbara laughs, that hearty, half-hysterical laugh. "I guess you're coming home with me, Pooh," she says.

"Come back tomorrow, Mike," Melissa says. "We'll get you in."

"You'd think we were trying to get him into college," Barbara whispers to me. Melissa buzzes us out. We stand blinking in the sunset's smoldering glow. Mike is glowing too.

"I never thought I'd be going back out that door!" he crows. He turns to Barbara. "Give me my cigarettes. Give me the cell phone. I gotta call Bobby. He won't believe this!"

Reprinted with permission of HarperSanFrancisco Publishers, a division of HarperCollins.

By Meredith Maran

Meredith Maran, a frequent Salon contributor, is the LA-based author of 14 books including "The New Old Me" and "Why We Write." A book critic and book editor, she’s on Twitter and Instagram at @meredithmaran

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