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My Son’s Opioid Addiction Made Me Feel Like A Failure On Yom Kippur

On the morning of Yom Kippur our rabbi says a prayer for children. He asks parents to stand with their sons and daughters, regardless of age. Parents place their hands on their child and repeat the threefold ancient blessing.

May God bless and protect you;
May God cause His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you;
May God lift His face to you and grant you peace.

So we stood, seven years ago, my husband and I, with our 21-year-old son, Jacob, between us. Eyes closed, praying for him, we must have looked like any of the other 100-plus families. Except we weren’t.

When that first phone call came early in Jacob’s senior year of high school, I thought for sure the teacher had the wrong kid. “Lisa,” this respected adviser said, “some of Jacob’s friends have come to me. They’re worried. They think he’s been drinking and smoking marijuana. They’re really not sure what else, and he’s hanging out with the wrong crowd.”

The sunlight in our home suddenly faded. Although educated and experienced in health care, I knew little about drug use. This was something that happened to “other” families, certainly not mine. There was no substance use in our family, at least none we knew of. Weren’t Jews immune to this problem? That’s what I thought. We knew of no Jewish child or adult who was an alcoholic, let alone a serious drug user.

It seemed especially impossible that our son, Jacob, would be afflicted with this problem. He was soaring through high school at the time, with a cadre of smart friends and a family that worshipped him. His path to an Ivy League college and a rich, fulfilling life seemed a foregone conclusion.

But it was true about my son, and Jacob’s drug use gradually worsened. During Beach Week following graduation, he was arrested in North Carolina. Even then, as he faced probation and community service, I focused only on getting him to the University of Maryland for his freshman year. Surely there he would find the counseling and camaraderie he needed to ensure the exciting future we’d imagined.

Meanwhile, I hid his addiction — or tried to. Denial, then shame, consumed me. Nowhere could I find refuge from the heart-wrenching thoughts of what he was doing to his body. I knew he was using, but wasn’t sure what. Droopy eyelids at dinnertime, slips of charred aluminum foil on his bedroom carpet, late- night disappearances all painted a nightmare I didn’t know how to face.

Coupled with all this was the total failure I felt as a mother. Wasn’t I the one who loved him most? Wasn’t it up to me to protect this child? If I couldn’t “fix” my son, then hadn’t I failed my most earthly purpose?

What I didn’t know then, but learned years later, is that even a mother who adores her child can’t “control” addiction and can’t “cure” it — even though I tried. Nor had I “caused” it. Much later, these “three C’s” became my watchwords, protecting me from further insanity, even as they finally helped me to let Jacob “go” to find his own life.

His addiction progressed. Jacob returned home after a failing freshman year and spent two years in the local community college. He worked part -time as a barista and, for a period, performed well, even though he was still using. Unknown to me then, he’d moved from marijuana to other drugs while at college. He discovered OxyContin. Pills became his “drug of choice,” fueled by a ready supply that’s now the subject of front-page headlines and TV documentaries.

Meanwhile, I was terrified that anyone at work — my CEO or board members or major donors to our hospital — would discover that my son was using drugs. What would that say about me? Would they trust me? Might it even mean I’d lose my job? I had to fix him.

Such were the sad, sick thoughts of a mother trying to hide her son’s addiction. Ignorant at the time, I was suffering the same feelings of fear, shame, isolation and depression as the addict.

Even though we sought professional help for Jacob –- including outpatient treatment and a private counselor -– eventually a fateful moment arrived. We gave him an ultimatum: Continue to use, and he could no longer live under our roof. Agree to inpatient treatment, and we’d provide it.

While he wasn’t ready to quit drugs, Jacob’s acceptance that day sent him –- and me –- on a slow path to recovery. Eventually he relocated to Florida for continued treatment. There were relapses and days of heartache. But finally, after a 90-day stay at a treatment center, he found the recovery he enjoys today.

When Jacob left for Florida, his counselor confronted me: “Your son will have his program. Now what are you going to do for yourself?”

Me? I wasn’t the addict; Jacob was. But I realized how many nights I cried, or paced the upstairs hallway, waiting to hear his footfall on the stairs, or drove him to work because I was afraid he’d crash the car if I didn’t. Given my obsession with Jacob and his whereabouts, the unrelenting fear and shame and sadness, wasn’t I just as “sick” as my son?

At the counselor’s suggestion, I tried Al-Anon. The anonymity it promised, along with the warmth and instant understanding of other parents at meetings, kept me coming back. I learned to let Jacob live his life, to “detach with love,” to take it one day at a time, and to stay close. I had to let my son grow up and find his way, even if it meant he might continue using.

Today, Jacob has been “clean” and free of drugs for more than five and a half years. My husband and I have been attending Al- Anon meetings regularly during that same time. We count ourselves healthier, too.

What Jacob’s disease has brought us is far more than a new understanding of addiction. During those years of active drug use, we suffered not only the worry over his health, but also the slow, mournful loss of dreams and expectations. No, he wouldn’t attend that Ivy League school. He wouldn’t graduate to an exciting job in a far-flung city with lots of sassy guy friends and his choice of girls. He wouldn’t be home for High Holidays, Thanksgiving or family celebrations.

It was even more basic than that. I soon learned to let go of all expectations. Don’t expect a hello when he walks in the door. Don’t look for that goodnight kiss. Let it all go. Let him go.

One morning at the gym, when Jacob’s addiction was at its worst and I struggled to keep it a secret, a mother asked me about my son. I shrugged off her question. “Oh, you know how boys are,” I said.

Then I remembered. She’d lost her 11-year-old son years before in a freak swimming accident at a camp. This strong, kind woman stared at me and said, “As long as there’s life, there’s hope.”

Often, when I am talking to families about addiction and its effect on them, I am asked what my relationship with Jacob is like today. He lives in Fort Lauderdale and works full time managing sober houses where men and women strive to find recovery. He’s back in college and hopes to graduate later this year. We’ll all be there, his father, sister and I, to celebrate.

But what I share most with these families is hope. There is a saying — “Addicts are angels in the making.” If that’s true, Jacob has become an angel in my life, keeping me honest, helping me stay focused, knowing what I can control, and feeling gratitude for all I have.

Jacob plans to make it home for Yom Kippur this year. My family will be together. My husband and I will stand, once again, to place our hands on our son, and repeat the threefold blessing — this time with profound gratitude, and, always, with hope.

Lisa Hillman is a writer and fundraising consultant who lives in Annapolis, Maryland, with her husband, Richard, and their greyhound, Harry.


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