“We loved and protected each other, read Harry Potter books, picked apples and peeled them and added sugar and cinnamon and baked them into pies,“ she writes in her new memoir, “A House on Stilts.” “People who looked at us thought, blessed children. Lucky mom and dad.”
What followed, though, was heartbreaking. After giving her children those idyllic early years, where “every day was different, and each day was rich,” her bright, loving eldest child fell into drugs, homelessness and tragedy.
Hunter became evasive and moody after starting public high school, yet he had always been an intense child and his behavior remained “within the realm of normal.” But he progressed to shoplifting candy bars and sneaking out at night, and that escalated quickly to smoking fentanyl and shooting heroin. For years, Becker struggled to help him recover without destroying their family of five. The house on stilts refers to their backyard playhouse, a childhood relic where Hunter would sometimes sleep while he was living on the streets and in the parks where he had played as a child.
He worked through rehab programs and any number of subsequent chances, but couldn’t stay clean.
Becker is a historian whose work includes a biography of Betty MacDonald (author of the “Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle” books.) Her husband, Barry, is a physician. Families like theirs are not usually seen as the public face of addiction, which is one reason she wrote the book.
“I know it’s very hard for a lot of families not to show up first with ‘Oh my God, that would never happen to me!’ followed by ‘Oh my God, I hope that never happens to me,’ followed by ‘Well, what did they do that made it happen to them?’ ” she said in a recent interview.
“It’s not that we couldn’t have made different choices, but this didn’t happen because of anything we did or didn’t do.”
I sat down with Becker in a Seattle coffee shop to talk about the book, and her experiences. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
At first, this felt like every parenting book I read when my kids were born, and my own life with kids: nursing, baby-wearing, the parks we visited, the songs we sang.
All those things gave me the feeling that I knew Hunter absolutely, which I think did us a disservice. I kept assuming that kid that I knew so well would resurface. Puberty and then drugs made that person go underground. I still believe he was there, but any kind of faith in his seeing the light because he would have when he was 9 was really futile.
In hindsight, would you have made different parenting choices?
I would not have home-schooled, though it’s sad to say that. Ultimately, it didn’t prepare Hunter for the world he encountered when we stopped. That’s not true of every home-schooler, but it was true of Hunter. I would have persisted with family counseling when he was young enough that we could have forced him into counseling with us, if we had better success in matching ourselves with the right counselor. I also really would have tried to understand earlier on, when the first warning signs were coming up, that this is not going to self-correct, you are not imagining this, and to somehow deal with what was going on early. We tried to do that, but it takes a long time to turn the ship away from the iceberg.
How is a dealing with a child’s addiction different from other family tragedies, like a car accident or cancer diagnosis?
There is not a community response to a family going through addiction. Nobody made a casserole. I was never shy about saying, “This is what we are going through,” and there were a variety of responses in our little happy liberal Seattle world. Some families pulled back, some families came forward.
You have something terrible happening, but life goes on. Barry and I had the responsibility of trying to cope with what was happening with Hunter and keep him from imploding, but we had two other children and we had each other, and we both had our work that we valued and loved. Very few people can just crawl under the covers and not come out, and for me, that wasn’t the right thing to do anyway. Continuing to claim the things that did give me joy was very important. I wouldn’t have called them things that gave me joy at that point, I would have said, “Anything that wasn’t terrible.”
What did you learn from reliving those years?
I learned a little more about how Hunter was feeling about what he was going through. I was able to appreciate, ruefully, the humor in a lot of the situations, even terrible situations like when I was walking through his room and found this picture of a frog he was dissecting from biology class. It was beautiful, he could really draw well. It was all labeled. I turned it over and found a shopping list of drugs he wanted to buy for Folklife [a Seattle music festival]. The person he was was both that guy who drew that beautiful frog and did his homework, and the guy who was saving up to buy drugs.
How did you get to the point of telling Hunter he could not live in your house anymore?
It was a gut reaction based on the fact that we had two other kids. He could not be shooting heroin in our basement. It would be great if there were some place you could put a person like that, when they couldn’t be in your house. That is an excruciating thing about making a decision like this. Your decision is “You can’t be here,” but it’s not “So you need to go there.” I write in the book that rehab is respite care for families, the reassurance of knowing your kid is someplace where they’re abstinent from their drug, but also, somebody else is watching out for them.
How did your marriage not break down?
I don’t know. I think the fact that Barry and I were on the same page about how to handle Hunter made a big difference. We tend to agree a lot anyway. … We’ve been married for 32 years, we’ve lived together for 35 years, we have a solid base. I guess we’re just blessed, but part of it was that we never let Hunter split us. And Hunter loved us very much. I think that’s part of this whole thing we were going through. Even though things got very terrible, we always loved each other.
Rebekah Denn is a freelance writer based in Seattle. Find her on Twitter @RebekahDenn.