When my wife and I brought our first child home from the hospital, I strapped him in to his NHTSA-approved baby seat in the back seat of our Camry. I drove 45 mph on the highway. While Rachael expressed motherly concerns about umbilical cords and breastfeeding, I mentally scanned the future for potential perils I might face in my newfound fatherhood. “I think I’ve got this parenting thing figured out,” I announced, “until he asks for the car keys.”
Sixteen years later, the day that I had long dreaded finally arrived. And you know what? He was an excellent driver from the start. All that worrying for nothing.
His teen years flew by without the angst that many of our friends experienced with their own adolescents. He played the piano and baseball, quoted Seinfeld, was passionate about fitness, skiing and nutrition. He was a joyful, loving son and big brother, and was compassionate and sensitive. He never partied. The only time he was ever sent to the principal’s office, the principal said, “What are you doing here?”
I remember thinking that I never had to worry about my son using drugs and alcohol because he never wanted to put so much as a carbohydrate in his body.
But our blissful ignorance was shattered when my phone rang one afternoon in February during his junior year in college. His friend in Colorado called to report horrific news of drugs and police, and everything spiraled way out of control. Rachael and I were completely dumbfounded. We couldn’t fathom how this could be happening. We thought our son was studying in the library.
The next days were a blur, as we shifted into our instinctual parent rescue mode, while also struggling to piece together the how and the why, what did we do wrong, and should we have known.
I have since spent over three years learning about addiction and substance use disorders. I learned that it hijacks the brain’s ability to make rational decisions, that I didn’t cause it, can’t cure it and can’t control it. I learned that 23 million Americans are currently addicted to alcohol and other substances — and only 1 in 10 of them receives the treatment they need.
We were among the lucky few who found the treatment that our son needed. We found good advice from a wise counselor who knew what we didn’t about treatment and recovery. Fortunately, we encountered a genuinely caring legal system that believed in rehabilitation instead of retribution. And our son, out of options, embraced the treatment we found and offered. He learned how to manage his illness, and surrounded himself with a supportive community of compassionate and dedicated souls who had traveled his road before him.
But my worry still remained. Relapse is such a common occurrence, and I still suffered from PTSD from that February call that had jolted me out of my serenity and ignorance. I flinched whenever my phone rang and I saw my son’s name on the caller ID. I feared the worst. But this time, his voice was clear and upbeat. “How long do you grill chicken thighs?” he wanted to know.
Rachael and I now volunteer as Parent Coaches. For an hour a week, we talk on the phone with other parents who are concerned about their children’s substance use. I especially like working with other fathers, who, by some accident of culture, have learned to keep their feelings to themselves. I don’t have all the answers, nor do I have a magic cure. What I do have is a little experience, perspective, and a few tools I’ve been taught, like listening openly and allowing natural consequences to be a learning experience. And that worrying is not very useful.
Sometimes these ideas help. Most often, the parents I coach are just happy to talk to someone who understands a bit about what they are going through, without feeling shame, judgment or stigma. And every once in a while, I get to hear a parent’s pride in their child’s progress.
This past summer, I got to see my son graduate from college. He is focused, determined and inspired. He has been in recovery for over three years. He has a full-time job and talks about going to graduate school. “You will be amazed,” said one of the tent-card slogans at a support group I attend. And I am.