By Kirsten Vogel

woman staring out window

I picked my son up from college at the end of his first semester as a seemingly successful student and exactly one week later was checking my drug addicted 18-year-old into rehab. Talk about recalibrating your entire life view at the speed of WHOA!

My baby boy. My pride. My talented, intelligent son, who has in him what it takes to be a gift to the world. How could this be? The torrent of unknowns and an uncertain future created unbearable heartache and suspense as my brain swirled through a bombardment of questions: How bad is he really? What drugs has he been doing? How could he function? Is he an addict? What defines an addict? Was his life ever in danger? Could I have prevented this? Did I miss clues? What happened? What WILL happen? Does he really want to get well? Will he go back to school? And, of course…..Will he be ok??!?? If I’d been reading a book I’d have flipped to the end to see how it all turned out. Instead, I was living it out in real time, second by unending second.

The first several months after rehab brought an abundance of meetings and outpatient care. There was slow but steady progress, ups and downs, celebrating milestones, and many jolting moments as we discovered the impact his mind and body had amassed. Evidence of the damage was worse than I had anticipated and lingered far longer than I had expected.

And, I, on the sidelines of my son’s important journey, could do so little. My mama heart wanted to help, but my natural instincts were rarely right. I needed to walk the fine line of supporting him without taking over his recovery, recalibrate my life view, keep denial at bay, and work to find a sense of calm, all while coping with the stigma and isolation that comes with this disease.

There’s no roadmap or manual to help, no FAQ to consult, and there was this disconcerting  and unusual barrier between me and even the most basic information or advice from the health professionals providing my son’s care. More stigma than HIPPA, I’m convinced. I found myself alone and weighing the pros and cons of every action and word, making one decision only to find myself questioning the last while moving on to the next. It felt like I needed to do or say just the right thing, but I was never certain what that right thing was. I yearned for a committee to consult to help me with daily choices. Meanwhile, the hard truth was that I never really was in charge anyway. My actions, my attentiveness, my hypervigilance were not the variables that would dictate any outcome. Instead, it was his choices, his desires, his work. I had to release control where I never had it to begin with again….and again.

So, his recovery has been a roller coaster of twists and turns, of fear and heartache and  rejoicing over the small but now significant-in-our-circumstance triumphs. And, along the way I’ve definitely learned some things. Here are a few:

It Won’t Happen to Everyone But it CAN Happen to Anyone

I used to think that my family was different from addicts and those who loved them. I think it helped quell the fear that the scary thing might happen to us. We tell ourselves we’re different and it won’t. I thought the work I’d done to be a good mom could insulate us and I was wrong.

In support groups, I began to meet others who loved addicts too. It was immediately clear that there really was no difference between us. In fact, to look around the room, we could just as easily have been in a PTA meeting. And, as I’ve begun to share our story, it’s rare that I don’t find others who’ve also been battling this disease in the name of someone close.

There is no stereotypical addict and no stereotypical addict family member. People  impacted by this disease, either directly or through relationship, are just that, people.

Addiction is Not a Choice

I don’t know of one person who picked up a first beer, smoked marijuana or took their prescribed pain or anti-anxiety meds and said, “I can’t wait to be an addict!” No, no one predicts a life that is out of control. Do addicts begin with some bad choices? Absolutely. But they are the same initial choices that many people make without experiencing the same outcome. Anyone using any kind of substance, whether for fun, for medical reasons, or to fill a hole in the soul, is rolling the dice.

Denial Can Comfort but Keep You Stuck

There is comfort in believing the best in the face of evidence that suggests otherwise. My brain wanted to deny the possibility of a drug problem and excuse away what we found, but my mom gut was spot on.

Each separate curious behavior or finding might have proved innocent on its own, but combining all that we saw painted the full picture. Within days we were acting to solve a problem I still did not WANT to believe in, and knew little about.

Overcome Guilt

Every unnatural rule or request brought the opportunity for guilt. The sentiment I kept top of mind was always, “I love my son, but I hate the disease. I trust my son, but I don’t trust the disease.” I stay very clear on this distinction to avoid feeling guilty for the safeguards we put in place.

Find Support

If you love an addict, he or she will likely not traverse this disease without impacting loved ones. I don’t know where I’d be today if I hadn’t found support groups. I feel less alone and can learn from others’ successes and their missteps too. Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, Families Anonymous and counseling are also great options. Find what works for you and plug in. Do not do this alone!

For over 25 years Kirsten, CEO of Focus Forward Coaching, has been an Author, Speaker and Coach working with leaders in family businesses and non-profits. Per her son’s request, she now speaks to loved ones to provide hope and strategies and to Addiction Professionals with a mission to fight stigma and generate compassionate care that includes loved ones. She is the author of In Sickness and In Silence. She has been featured as an expert
for media such as: NBC Nightly News, National Public Radio and Entrepreneur Magazine. Contact for speaking, interviews, or coaching: Find Kirsten’s book at