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‘When did it all begin to fall apart?’ A son’s addiction, and a mother’s guilt

Katherine Ketcham writes about her son’s addiction in her new book, “ <a href=";tag=thewaspos09-20&amp;camp=1789&amp;linkCode=xm2&amp;creativeASIN=1622039777">The Only Life I Could Save</a> .” (Courtesy Sounds True)

Something has happened to Ben.  His beautiful red hair, the color of brick dust, is cut short — so short that the overhead fluorescent lights seem to shine off his scalp.

I look in his eyes, and I see distance. I want a hug, his big arms wrapped around me, my head turned to the side, buried in his chest. He’s nearly a foot taller than me. I would hold on tight, repeating the words I always say after a big hug when he starts to pull away, and I hold on: Sometimes, I don’t want to let go. Maybe he will say what he used to say, “I love you, Ma.”

Maybe we will be as we once were once upon a time, a long time ago.

He holds himself still, stone-like, and I see how these five weeks in treatment have narrowed and chiseled him. Is he breathing? I wait for the sigh; it always comes. This is a boy who holds his breath in excitement when he reads a book or plays a video game; he looks up, the chapter finished, the game over, takes a deep breath and then releases it with all the joy of the journey contained in that letting go and returning to the real world.

Addiction can happen to any family and parents need to know they didn’t fail

I wonder what world he inhabits now, and when the letting go will happen. I watch him as he looks at the strangers sitting in a circle of plastic chairs and the sigh comes, a ragged exhalation signaling anger and fear. He doesn’t want to be here with these families and their stories of pain, guilt and shame. He feels vulnerable. The look on his face mirrors the emotions I’m experiencing. I cross my arms against my chest to hold myself together.

It’s January 2006, and our family is participating in the Family Week at an inpatient treatment program in Montana. We don’t know these parents and their children, and yet we’re all too aware that within minutes, we’ll be asked to speak openly about the most emotionally devastating periods of our lives.

The counselor asks us to introduce ourselves. Tim, white-haired and blue-eyed, is the first to speak. “My son, Bryan,” he begins, his chin dropping to his chest. He tries to speak, but no words come, and the tears flow down his cheeks.

“My son, Bryan,” he begins again, “is a heroin addict.” He starts sobbing.  “I’m sorry,” he manages to say, wiping at his tears with the back of his hand. “I’m so sorry.” His wife, Susan, takes his hand and continues. Steve’s next. He’s stoic, but that changes as the days go on. My husband, Pat, and Ben’s two older sisters, and I struggle through our tears as we remember the way Ben used to be before drugs, and how he’s become a person we barely know.

I look around the circle and wonder where we all went wrong. Why did this happen to us when once upon a time we were so close — family dinners, soccer games, every night at bedtime repeating the same loving words, “Hugs, squeeze, big fat mooch.” When did it all begin to fall apart?

For years, these questions haunted me, endlessly running through my mind. I find small comfort in the knowledge that millions of others are asking themselves similar questions. Having spent three decades researching and writing about addiction, I know the facts. More than 20 million Americans over age 12 struggle with alcohol and drug addiction (not including nicotine). Experts estimate 100 million family members and friends are affected by a loved one’s addiction.

While the questions family members of addicts ask may differ, the feelings of guilt and shame are universal. Guilt for what we did or didn’t do, said or didn’t say. Shame for our imperfections and limitations, because even with all our endless expressions of love and concern, we couldn’t wrestle our children free of this demon of addiction. No matter how hard we fought, the addiction always seemed to win, leaving us alone with our anger, frustration, fear, helplessness, hopelessness.

I look at Ben, but he’s staring at the floor, his feet jumping, hands clenching and unclenching. I remember five years ago in the spring of 2001 when I picked up the phone — so sure of myself, so confident in my skills as a loving, compassionate parent — to hear the middle school principal tell me that Ben had been found with drugs.

No. Not possible. Not my Benny. My hand shook as I held the phone. I couldn’t speak, couldn’t think.  I realized I was holding my breath, but I couldn’t breathe.  I could feel my heart pounding against my ribs. It had to be a fluke, a dare, a risky adventure with no thought about consequences. Ben was only 12. Freckles. Beautiful red hair. Smart. Kind.  Thoughtful. Gentle. Every day when I dropped him off at school, he leaned over to kiss me. He never failed to say, “I love you.” 

That night, when we talked, his face was red with shame. “I’ll never use drugs again,” he said, his voice shaking, tears streaming down his face.

I believed him, and even as his behavior changed to that of aggression and hostility, I found excuses. He’s an adolescent.  Of course he has mood swings. Other kids make fun of his red hair and his freckles. Bullies push him, punch him, steal his backpack. He tells me everything — or so I think. When he stops talking to me, I think it’s a good sign that he’s establishing his independence. We’ve been so close, of course he needs space and distance.

I should’ve seen the signs. I should’ve known how to handle a drug problem in my own home; after all, I was the expert, writing multiple books on the subject of addiction.

But I didn’t see it coming, and when I did, I was clueless about how to stop it. He blamed us. “I hate you and Dad; I hate your rules and the way you interfere with my life.” I shot back. “And what about you, your language, the anger and the holes in our walls? Is that our fault?”

The silence was worse. Walking past each other. Leaving for school without a goodbye. No kisses. No “hug, squeeze, big fat mooch.”

Then the arrests for possession started. Assessments, treatment, counseling. Promises to quit. Promises broken.

And, finally, the phone call from college. “I’m lost. I can’t remember anything. Someone stole my backpack. I’m flunking all my courses.”

Treatment for six months. Relapse. Sober. Relapse. Sober.

It’s been a long, harrowing journey, but Ben is now 31 years old and recently celebrated his 10th year in recovery. He’s a writer, happily married, living in a home just a few miles from where he grew up, and thinking about starting his own family.

But even now I wonder what happened. Why did we have to go through the pain and terror of those years? Couldn’t I have prevented it, done something to protect him? The questions expose my deepest vulnerability, my greatest fear, that despite all my loving efforts, I was a “bad” mother.

I was the one who helped Ben learn to roll over, sit, take his first steps, brush his teeth, be kind, not be afraid to cry, apologize. Shouldn’t I, with all my knowledge and experience, have taught him how to avoid the horrors of addiction?

I smile now at the questions, because I know the answer. (After all, I am a mother first.) All the knowledge in the world cannot prevent this disease from walking into your front door and taking hold of someone you love. And no amount of knowledge can change the pain it causes.

When Ben was in treatment, I wrote him a letter, beginning with: “I have come to realize that I don’t know anything, and that I have to let go of any claim to knowledge and understanding and just get through day by day.” And I ended it with, “I’m sorry for the times I failed you, Ben. I just need you to know that I never, ever, not once, failed to love you with all my heart and soul.”

In my mind, I return to that circle of strangers, picturing the treatment center and the snow falling outside in huge flakes. I see Tim’s tears. I listen to Steve talk about his divorce and his fears that he’s responsible for his son’s drug use. I look into Susan’s eyes and see my own fear and pain. I hear my husband, a man of few words, express his deepest longing: “I want my son back.”

We tell our stories, and as the days go by, we become a community, bound together by our grief and our guilt, our shame and our soul-sickness, our fear and our pain.

In the mirror of each other’s stories, we discover that we’re not alone. And that makes all the difference.

Katherine Ketcham has co-authored 16 books, 10 on the subject of addiction and recovery, including “Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption,” with William Cope Moyers. Her latest book is “The Only Life I Could Save: A Memoir.” Ketcham has led treatment and recovery efforts at the Walla Walla Juvenile Justice Center in Washington State, and in 2009, she founded the Trilogy Recovery Community.

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More reading:

When it’s time to talk to kids about addiction

How my family teaches my son about addiction

My parents couldn’t have prevented me from becoming an addict. I will be honest with my daughter.