These days, I have a lot of hope and love. Yes, as we move toward the end of the year, I do have that feeling of real hope for a great year ahead. Much different from the constant fear I felt so many years prior when my son was actively struggling with substance use and heroin addiction.
I tend to keep things – letters, greeting cards, notes. But I have held closer than ever those few notes received from my son Ryan. For so many years I had the dismal thought that someday these papers would be all I’d have left of him. Notes on Christmas saying, “Mom, I’m sorry this year has been such a difficult one. 2004 holds much promise and with God’s grace, I’ll make it the best year yet.” And seven years later a note: “Dear mom, God does have a plan and I think I’m finally following it. Thank you for loving me as I am and always being there for me… love you, your son, Ryan.” However, it wasn’t until three more long and frightening years that Ryan finally came face to face with his addiction. Thankfully, far away in Los Angeles, Ryan finally found the medical rehabilitation he needed.
It was another S.O.S. cry for help, but this time Ryan was willing to sleep outside a detox center for as long as it took to be processed. He knew he needed help and would do anything to get it… But after just one short week of detox at a public facility, he wondered, “now what?” He had been told there was no bed for him. With grace and a lot of luck, Ryan was sent to treatment.
The cost, at this point in my life, was beyond my financial ability. I was still paying off treatment he had received in years prior at substandard facilities that I had charged on credit cards. I even transferred to no-interest lines of credit in order to space out the payments for previous treatments. I was a widowed school teacher, with my last child still living at home and finishing college. With terror in my gut, I tearfully and patiently listened to the treatment personnel. They thoroughly explained the treatment and cost and enrolled him — even though I had no idea at the time how I’d be able to pay. I was able to come up with a down payment and a plan to pay the balance — and it was probably the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. Ryan was getting help, and finally had admitted to himself and others that he had a serious heroin addiction that would, if he didn’t do something about it now, eventually take his life. This is when the hard work began for him. Knowing your child is in treatment gives you a tremendous piece of mind and a break from the constant worry — but it is when the real hard work truly begins.
I understand that treatment centers can’t function on “a wing and a prayer,” and that payroll for good, qualified personnel and facility bills need to be paid in order to remain open. But when Ryan’s first 30 days were up, we all knew — especially Ryan — that he wasn’t ready to make the transition to the outside world… yet. I was completely out of resources and spoke directly with the owner of the center. I’ll never forget that call. Ryan was just beginning to stop believing his own lies — and was beginning to see that recovery is possible and worth the hard work. With the help of Ryan’s counselor, our family discovered the truth about his addiction. It’s a brain disease. And no matter how much he wanted to stop — without the proper counseling and daily support, recovery is almost impossible. They made it possible for Ryan to stay almost another month. With the honest and caring support of his counselors, Ryan was sent to a sober living facility after treatment, where he stayed for 18 months and continued his care.
"I still painfully remember that hot, burning feeling of terror in my chest and throat that I felt for so many years. My phone would hardly ring and I was always waiting for the one call I was so terrified to receive."
Our family suffered for years in silence through this horrific journey — but I had no idea that freedom for all of us was just around the corner. The physical, financial and emotional toll it takes on family members is devastating, but shame and silence are killers.
Our family is now bonded into a stronger and more loving unit because we can speak of Ryan’s health problem out loud. Ryan is recovering from a disease. We love, support and celebrate his life daily in recovery. Last year, he participated in his little sister’s wedding in Miami, the same little sister who for years feared she would wake up one morning and he would be dead.
Today, Ryan is doing so well and I’m incredibly proud of him. He works daily on his own recovery and has become a powerful voice and nationwide advocate for countless others in the process. When I watch the heart-wrenching videos of parents who have lost their sons or daughters to heroin overdoses, I still painfully remember that hot, burning feeling of terror in my chest and throat that I felt for so many years. My phone would hardly ring and I was always waiting for the one call I was so terrified to receive. Those thousands of calls I made that went unanswered and the hundreds of nights wondering if he was sick, warm, fed, alive or dead.
These days, I receive phone calls from my son regularly, just wanting to say hello. No longer do I fearfully search for him or wait by the phone hoping he checks in. I truly know he is healthy, working daily on his recovery and with an amazing life ahead. My heart is incredibly full of gratitude.
Our family is filled with promise. This process has been a healing one and Ryan’s life has been saved thanks to the right treatment. I’m a professional with a good job, and I had some limited resources to draw upon. But what about the countless families who truly have nowhere to turn? Compassion for Ryan and our family’s financial flexibility without question helped lead him to a life of recovery. Addiction is a disease and effective treatment should be available for all who are suffering. This year I plan to get more involved in how we, as a nation, can make this happen.