Our family didn’t witness the beginning of Jake’s addiction. He was a normal high-school kid, fun and athletic. We were proud of him as he went off to college. When a childhood friend, nearly in tears, shared his concerns about Jake’s risky behavior, his dad and I were shocked. The evidence tumbled in from there—two failed classes Jake’s freshman year, loss of his scholarship, the inability to hold down a job after we stopped funding his education, his skinny body and dark hollow eyes. But the final puzzle piece was an odd smudge of soot on his forehead—Jake was smoking OxyContin.
Abuse of Oxy quickly led him to heroin. How could this happen to a kid raised in a loving family on a quiet street in Silicon Valley? Our entire family became consumed in some wrenching years. I was plagued with self-doubt and crushing guilt. Blame and shame consumed me. Where did I go wrong? What more could I have done? Why didn’t I see this coming? My husband reacted to my son’s addiction with frustration and anger. He threw himself into work which was something he could control. He was angry that our son’s crisis was all we ever talked about and it was true; I was obsessed with saving Jake.
My daughter was a junior in high school when the worst began. She was depressed that her brother had abandoned her and she felt left alone to watch her parents suffer. She rebelled against us as I clamped down, wanting to keep her safe since I hadn’t with her brother. She chose a troubled boyfriend—someone she could save—but then he abandoned her too. I tried to be there for her but she wouldn’t let me in. My son’s drug abuse was greatly affecting us all. Powerful emotions were splintering our family apart. I’ve learned that this is why addiction is called a family disease. One person may use, but the whole family suffers.
The first time I got Jake into rehab, my husband was away on business, my daughter distraught over her boyfriend. I worked alone in exhausted frenzy, making decision after decision, a battered explorer learning a new world. When Jake arrived at the place in Utah, I remember we all felt huge relief thinking, “Great, he’ll be fixed in thirty days and we can all go back to our nice lives, he can get back on track, no one has to know.” It was a devastating realization to learn that addiction is a lifelong disease, that his brain would convince him he didn’t have a problem, so he would likely relapse more than once. On top of that, we learned that if he did become willing to find recovery, it would take a long time for him to learn to live in sobriety and he would need a strong
community for support.
Hard as it was for all of us to accept that, and believe me, our son was the last one to accept it. Understanding the science of the brain and sorting out the facts from misconceptions had ultimately helped us in our interactions with Jake. Learning about how his brain was working with the disease of addiction wrapped around it, started to change my thinking and pushed me to figure out better responses to those common symptoms of addiction: manipulation, entitlement, blame, lying, denial. If I viewed my son’s behavior as lazy and bad, I’d get angry. If I recognized those behaviors and actions as symptoms of the disease, it helped me gain compassion. Still, it took me a long time to learn it does no good to get angry at someone who is sick.
In the months that followed, Jake clung desperately to denial, cycling in and out of four different rehabs, as the rest of us struggled with the realities of our reconfigured family, our strained relationships with well-meaning family and friends, and the shame and stigma attached to addiction. I didn’t want to tell because we live in a society full of misperceptions and judgment but it was not a secret I could keep.
An addiction therapist encouraged me to tell my extended family and close friends that Jake was battling addiction; she saw that fear and silence were tearing me apart. She pointed out that telling instead of maintaining secrecy would ultimately help Jake because others could begin to learn about addiction for themselves. At first, I was all mixed-up not wanting to cross a line with Jake’s privacy, and he certainly didn’t want me to tell anybody, but as we feared for his life it got to be bigger than one person or one family could handle.
Breaking my silence began to help. Warmth and wisdom flowed from support meetings. Feeling understood by those who’d experienced the same chaos and heartbreak felt like balm on my roughened soul. I’d been desperately trying to save my son because that’s what mothers of drug addicts do. We try everything within our power to save them until we realize we have no power over our children or their drugs. I was learning the only person I had power over was me. Focusing on changing my own behavior—a slow and sometimes agonizing process— turned out to be the light to follow out of those deep dark woods.
I’ve written Saving Jake: When Addiction Hits Home to tell the story of our family’s battle, the lessons learned, the patterns repeated, the growth and change, the love. My book lets struggling families know they are not alone. Saving Jake is also intended for people with no experience of addiction, because I want everyone to learn more, to raise awareness, to gain compassion for the challenges facing an addict, and empathy for the family who often has to
deal with shame and silence. When people hear the words “drug abuse” and “addiction” fear and denial can take over. We can put on blinders, ignore new information and assume that’s someone else’s problem. I did that—until addiction hit home. But I’ve since learned how fear can keep misperceptions firmly in place and how denial can block urgently needed change. Fear and denial together perpetuate the deadly silence surrounding addiction. Our nation’s drug epidemic is impacting every community, taking down tens of thousands just like Jake. Ours is the story of how drug addiction can happen to anyone. And it’s the story of how one family eventually finds their way to a ray of hope.
D’Anne Burwell holds a Master’s degree in education and advocates for families of addicts through radio commentaries, parent mentoring, speaking engagements and her resource-and-information website, www.ASKforFamilyRecovery. com Her commentaries have appeared on the Perspectives series on KQED/NPR. SAVING JAKE is the winner of the 2016 Eric Hoffer Book Award for Memoir and the 2015 USA Best Book Award for Addiction & Recovery. The mother of two young adults, D ’Anne Burwell lives with her husband in Silicon Valley. For more information visit