by Patti Fish Stephens
I have not spoken (or written) publicly about this issue until now. My daughter and husband have both read this essay and given me permission to share it.
In March of 2015, my daughter realized she had a drinking problem and sought treatment. She was 21 years old, just two months shy of 22. I was devastated. While alcoholism runs in my family, I thought that my husband and I had adequately warned our two children against the dangers of drinking combined with their gene pool. The alcoholics in my family were almost exclusively male, so it somehow never occurred to me that my daughter could become one.
Once evaluated, our daughter was referred to outpatient treatment. Just before she was to complete the six-week program, she relapsed. We got a call from her outpatient program counselor recommending our daughter seek inpatient treatment at a nearby facility. We thought inpatient treatment would nip her problem in the bud. We were supportive. We didn’t yell. We didn’t scream. We cried. We assured her we loved her and would stand by her. And then we took her to the facility, dropped her off, and slept a full night for the first time in months.
When she called after the 72 hour waiting period, I thought I had never been so happy to hear her voice in all my life. I asked how her sessions were going and what the program and daily schedule was like. She said she was still in detox; she hadn’t started any of those things yet. I was baffled. Detox? She hadn’t been out of our sight since the relapse, and there was no alcohol in the house. Why did she need to detox? She said it was just protocol, not to worry. I put it out of my mind, grateful she was in rehab.
We were advised not to come to visitation or family day the first weekend after our addict’s arrival at the facility (to allow the patient to detox and acclimate). So it was nearly two weeks before we were able to see our daughter and hold her in our arms again. I had never been apart from her that long and it seemed like cruel and unusual punishment that we couldn’t see her when she most needed our support. She seemed edgy during that first visit, nervous. I chalked it up to the new environment, the rules, and the loss of her coping mechanism, alcohol.
So when she told us she had something to tell us, I had no idea what was coming. I was just so happy to see her, so relieved that she was getting the help she needed, that I was completely blindsided when she said she was in treatment not just for her addiction to alcohol, but for something else: heroin. I felt my world shift sideways; I thought I might pass out. In that moment, everything I thought I knew about my daughter, my identity as a parent, and our family changed. Nothing would ever be the same again.
In our family sessions, I heard the sentiment over and over (and I even expressed it myself that first time) that I just wanted my child to get better so our family and our lives could go back to the way they used to be. But here’s something I have learned on the roller coaster ride through hell that my family and I have been on for the last two years: things are never going to go back to the way they used to be for the family of any alcoholic or addict. This is something families must accept. Any other course of action is a recipe for heartache and could be harmful to the addict’s recovery as well as the web of family relationships. Out of recovery a stronger family can actually re-emerge if all members seek education about the disease of addiction as well as recovery for themselves.
Our daughter was in anguish as she told us how she had started using heroin while in IOP for alcohol abuse; dealers waited in the parking lots outside of AA meetings. She was full of shame, remorse, guilt, and fear that we would hate her. No matter what I felt that day or in the months after, I assured her then, as I do now, that I could never hate her. On the contrary, I felt only a mother’s love for her hurting child. I felt so broken-hearted for her that I wanted to help her in any way I could.
And we did continue to help her. Through two more rounds of in-patient treatment, an arrest for OVI (Operating a Vehicle while Intoxicated), a weekend in jail during which we did NOT bail her out, subsequent court appearances, elaborate fabrications to cover up multiple relapses, long weekends of driving the hour each way to grueling 8 hour family therapy sessions plus visiting days, paying for rent at a sober house, and conferences with drug & alcohol counselors, we supported her emotionally, financially, and physically. And through it all, we loved her. Through the lies, the unexplained dents in the car, the lost jobs, the sleepless nights when she didn’t come home, the thousands of dollars in attorney fees and medical bills, we never gave up on her.
Did we make mistakes in how we supported her? Of course. Sometimes we were too gullible. We missed key signs of relapse. We gave her too many chances, didn’t set hard enough boundaries early on. But we learned from our mistakes. When she got arrested for driving under the influence, we left her in jail and sold her car, as we had told her we would when we suspected she had driven impaired before. When there was no denying relapse, we made her choose: go to rehab or leave our home.
We educated ourselves at every opportunity. We learned the difference between supporting her recovery and supporting her addiction. We learned how to talk to friends, family, and coworkers about her addiction. We learned how to ask for support for her, and what kinds of support to request. And we learned how to educate and take care of ourselves while she was learning how to recover from her disease.
But all that we had learned, all that we had experienced, all that we thought we knew, was eclipsed on the morning of March 24, 2016 by the phone call from a neighbor that our unconscious daughter was being carried out of our home on a stretcher and taken away in an ambulance. With over 6 months clean and on Naltrexone, an opiate blocking medication, we had allowed her to stay at our home with a friend while we went to Florida for the anniversary trip we had canceled the previous fall when she was arrested for OVI. During that week she stopped taking her meds and relapsed, overdosing on just $5 to $10 worth of fentanyl- and cocaine-spiked heroin which killed 12 other people in our county that week.
Our universe had shattered in that one brief phone call, and the next 12 hours were the most agonizing of our lives. We had to change our flight to get home immediately; check out of our lodging; return our rented bikes and car; pack up our belongings and inform family of the situation. Never in our lives had we been more scared. Our son rushed to the hospital to be with her and texted us what information he could, but cell service was spotty on the plane and his messages weren’t all coming through. By the time we reached the hospital 12 hours later, our fear was accompanied by anger. I think we both thought she would be released before we ever got home. We hear all the time of overdoses where the patient is simply hydrated and released after regaining consciousness, but it quickly became evident that this was no ordinary overdose; our daughter had been admitted with a blood sugar of 37, had nearly died, and was not yet out of the woods.
When we reached her room in the Intensive Care Unit, she was heavily sedated. Her kidneys were not functioning properly. She couldn’t hear out of one ear at all, and barely out of the other. She could barely speak to us, and hardly registered our presence. Her condition was so much worse than we expected; our anger evaporated. It was clear she wasn’t coming home any time soon. It finally dawned on me that she might not come home at all, that she could actually die. In the moment I realized the gravity of her situation, life became a crystallized pinpoint of clarity: this was my beloved child, whom I loved beyond measure. I loved her despite the lies, the betrayal, the fear, the sorrow, the relapses, the deception. I loved my son as I watched him fear for his little sister and comfort her, staying by her side for hours. I loved them both as deep and as fathomless as I imagined the universe to be. And there was no room for anything else in my heart but this love. Everything else faded into background noise.
As her recovery from the overdose progressed, however, other emotions forced their way to the surface. There was shock and anger at the family members who took the opportunity of her overdose to tell us—while she still lay in the hospital fighting for her life–just exactly how we were wrong in our handling of her addiction (despite the fact that those family members had never dealt with anything remotely like our situation). There was sorrow, disappointment, and confusion about why so many of her aunts, uncles, and cousins never showed up to visit her or support us during her six day stay in the hospital. We so appreciated those people who showed us unconditional support and made the trip to the hospital or sent flowers or care packages as soon as they heard she was hospitalized. A coworker of my husband’s sent enough food to feed us for nearly a week; other friends I had lost touch with came to the hospital or brought us food, despite the distance that had grown between us. I was so grateful for their return to my life, regardless of the circumstances.
On Easter Sunday, our son, his girlfriend, and my parents came to our home for a quick Easter dinner before we all headed to the hospital for a visit. As we were sitting down to eat, the neighbor who had seen our daughter being loaded into the ambulance came to our door. Never once did he ask how our daughter—his child’s babysitter for years—was doing; he wanted to know why there were so many police cruisers at our house when she was taken to the hospital. He could clearly see we had company and were trying to eat our holiday meal, but he insisted on continuing to ask for details about what had happened. Our worst nightmare was like a train wreck people couldn’t help gawking at and speculating about. We felt preyed upon in our weakest moment.
Throughout that week and the months that followed, my anger with those who should have supported us unconditionally throughout this trauma grew in direct proportion to my love for my daughter. I had told her, as she cried tears of shame in the hospital, that there was nothing, no matter how bad she thought it was, that she could ever do to make me love her less. In that moment, I finally understood unconditional love. It was loving her not only despite her mistakes or flaws, but because this kind, creative, funny, smart, talented, beautiful human being deserves it no matter what; because she is a child of the universe and the child of my womb; and because I know how it feels to not be loved when it is most crucially needed. In that moment, I knew I would never forsake her no matter how many relapses, no matter how many tries it takes her to get clean. And I knew that there is always the possibility that this disease could kill her anyway.
Five years ago this month, in September of 2011, my 22-year-old nephew committed suicide by jumping from a seventh story parking garage. He was hundreds of miles from home, and had reportedly been struggling in recent months with drug use and mental illness. Our family was in shock. It had only been five years earlier, in 2006, that my brother died alone in his home of acute alcohol poisoning; his blood alcohol content was measured at .59 in the autopsy report. It had taken me years to recover from the grief of my brother’s sudden death at the age of 43 and to come to terms with its causes. After my nephew’s suicide, I thought our family couldn’t bear any more loss. I gathered my grief-stricken son and daughter around me and said this: There is nothing, NOTHING, in this life that you can’t come back from—except death. There is NOTHING that you could do to ever make me stop loving you. If you need me, I will ALWAYS come for you. Always. Never forget that.
I never thought that this promise would be put to the test so dramatically, but I am grateful that through the journey of my daughter’s addiction–through treatment and relapse, overdose and recovery, and from those who have supported us and not supported us–I have learned the true character of unconditional love. The disease of addiction is known in the recovery community as being “cunning, baffling, and deadly.” My child is alive and clean for today, and for that I am deeply grateful. I know that every day with my daughter is a gift, and it is one that I will never take for granted.
I love you to the moon and back, Peanut. Forever. Unconditionally.