Stay Close: A Mother’s Story Of Her Son’s Addiction

sober man happy in a field

This is my story, our story: my son is a heroin addict. He wasn’t born this way, or maybe he was and the addiction was there, hiding, all through his childhood years. That’s the thing with addiction, no one knows the cause. I have spent a lot of time trying to ferret out the answer to why one son is an addict and the other isn’t, but I’ve given that up. I now spend my time learning about how best to support my son through his recovery. My son is twenty-nine years old, and he is good today, sober and productive after fourteen years of addiction.

This story is about addiction, but more importantly, it is about hope. Addiction isn’t going away. At one of my son’s first rehab centers, a place in Maryland, the counselors told me that for every one addict at least four other people are affected. Addiction attacks the family first, then moves outward, affecting extended family and close friends: a cousin, a husband, a sister, a coworker, none of their lives will ever be the same. In our home, addiction took on the characteristics of another living member, demanded attention, caused trauma, concealed itself, never went away and never will go away. My son will always be an addict. There is no finish line.

Every addict has a mom and dad. We parents suffer as we see our children dying a little at a time. We want to save them, jump into the fire, grab them, and bring them to safety, but we can’t. Tell that to a parent, that he or she can’t save her child — the pain is incomprehensible. But as Jeff said, “I know the writing of the book was hard, Momma, but the living of it was harder.”

When I first started attending Al-Anon Meetings more than ten years ago, I sat in on three different meetings before I found a group where there were other parents of addicted children. At that time, we were in the minority; we were only four parents out of more than twenty people. These days, when I attend meetings, I find that most members of the group are parents. It seems as if the number of young people who are addicted to drugs has increased greatly. Words like heroin, crack, and crystal meth are common.

Sadly, Jeff’s story is not the exception.

Many experts claim that “an addict has to hit his bottom,” but I could never gauge where Jeff was on his descent. Alcoholics Anonymous defines addiction as a progressive and fatal illness, and I saw that Jeff’s bottoms got continually worse. Each time he fell lower and faster until I feared he would die. With every new low, I would rush in thinking, “This is the time. This is his bottom. Go, Lib.”

The recovery centers, the psychologists, Jeff’s arrests, and all his many interventions must have made a difference, but I don’t know how much of one. Jeff was in rehab programs, jails, and institutions of many kinds. He lived on the streets and the beach. He stole, had things stolen, and ultimately he pawned almost everything he owned.

He lost friends and destroyed his veins. At times, my articulate, ambitious son could hardly put two words together. I banished him from the house. I threatened, cajoled, pleaded, wept, and wrung my hands. I punished, screamed, fought, ached, had nightmares, stuffed my emotions into my belly and suffered in silence. His father and I followed the advice of experts and friends and even people who knew nothing. We wrote intervention letters, paid for psychologists, recovery centers, and medicines. His father, brother, and I were like a starving family, ready to latch onto anything that might alleviate our pain and Jeff’s hunger for drugs. I would have sold my soul for his recovery, made a bargain with the Devil himself – but all this was to no avail.

Addicts live a tortured existence. Jeff has told me that he was filled with shame, regret, self-blame, and self-loathing. He says that addicts, even those who can’t mouth these words, hate themselves for what they are doing, despise the destruction they are causing, but they can’t imagine a life without drugs. About the final days of Jeff’s last descent, he wrote, I chalked death up to an unfortunate repercussion, not a deterrent. I couldn’t imagine my life without drugs in it. I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t want to stop using. They say that addicts aren’t afraid to die, they’re afraid to live without drugs.

My family knows well the Hell of addiction, but we know only our own Hell. Those who love addicts suffer. The addict suffers. No one is immune. In our family, we each handled our grief differently. Jeremy, the younger brother by twenty months, held things inside, caught in that gap between loving his brother and hiding the truth and loving his brother and telling the truth. How does a brother handle these conflicted loyalties? Tim and I suffered and responded in our own divergent ways. He became quiet, withdrawn; his absence spoke for him. I whirled into action, trying anything that I thought would help, running from one possible solution to another. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends, no one knew what to do. During one Christmas, when neither son came home for our large Italian family gatherings, my brothers didn’t know what to say. They didn’t even know whether to invite me to the festivities. The cousins were confused; could they ask about Jeff or would it be kinder to leave him out of the conversation?

It is time to bring addiction out of the shadows and into a place of healing. There is great shame associated with this illness, I know. However, I also know that when I was young, we didn’t talk about topics like breast cancer or homosexuality. Today we talk openly
about these things. We name the issues and try to face them.

Jeff, Jeremy and I are committed to carrying the message of hope and compassion, of reaching out a hand to help another family, another parent, maybe even another brother. Jeff says this is his Twelfth Step: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics (and addicts), and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Every day we’re grateful. Every day, in the very marrow of our bones, we give thanks that today Jeff is okay, that he is alive and productive, that he has good hope of creating a better future. But we know that we only have today.

Jeff once asked me, “Never quit believing, OK, Momma?”
I won’t quit believing, Jeff.
Never.

Dr. Libby Cataldi holds a doctorate in education from the University of Pittsburgh and has been an educator all her life. For seventeen years (1987 – 2004) she was head of The Calverton School, an independent day school in MD.

STAY CLOSE was published in May 2009 by St. Martin’s Press (NY) and is currently at work on her second book. She lives part of the year in Florence, Italy, where she is a proud member of the Florence Dragon Boat Ladies, a rowing team of breast cancer survivors. She also serves on the Board of the International School of Florence and is a member of the American International League of Women. Dr. Cataldi has appeared on National Public Radio (NPR), Good Morning Maryland, Fox News Washington, and radio stations, Dr. Cataldi and her son Jeff spoke to groups about drug addiction. For more information, visit www.libbycataldi.com or contact her representative – judymacwilliams@comcast.net