My Story - Loving My Son Through Alcoholism
My 32-year-old daughter and I searched the streets of New York City. We checked hospitals and police stations. My son, 29, was on these streets somewhere, blind drunk and struggling to ward off another seizure from alcohol withdrawal. I tried to recognize my grown son’s shape in the men face down over subway grates and huddled in doorways. It was getting dark. I had to find him. I had never been so terrified.
It wasn’t always this way. My son was a loving little boy. He would hug me with his whole body, throwing his arms and even a leg around me to get closer.
When he was four, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and mostly unavailable to him for a year. He developed anxiety and we sent him to a psychologist for the first time. Many more mental health professionals would follow.
A year later I was better, and we bought him a dog. He and Harpo were inseparable. He grew up playing in the woods around our house, Harpo trotting by his side, stopping home throughout the day for Oreos and milk, a dog biscuit for Harpo or to tell me about life in the woods – a litter of feral kittens, a nest of birds, or a hiding place behind a log.
His sweet nature was apparent at school. Both his 1st and 2nd grade teachers asked me if it was okay to seat him with special needs children because he was so kind to them.
He related to people of all ages. At 12, he was sitting in the back seat of my car with his 80-year old grandmother. He started the conversation. “Grandma, what grocery stores do you like to shop in?” She lit up.
The change came in high school.
His grades slipped. He skipped classes. I received calls from teachers and coaches. I found evidence of drinking. Empty beer cans replaced the feral kittens in the woods.
I saw it but was in denial. Drinking was common in high school I told myself. He was a gifted athlete and was still sweet and loving, even charming. But it was that charm that allowed him to talk himself out of trouble at school and at home. At some level I knew the truth, and my son’s drinking became the elephant in the room.
Soon I couldn't deny what I was seeing. The hidden empty beer and vodka bottles multiplied. Evidence of drug use sat right in front of me, almost as a dare. I found empty pill capsules and
Bic pens with the ink cartridge pulled out. His friends changed. He sneaked out of the house at night.
I was terrified.
I moved from denial to obsession with my son. I checked his cell phone, room, closet, drawers, backpack, under his bed and in his bathroom. I was horrified by what I found. There were empty bottles hidden everywhere. I found at least a hundred empty vodka bottles in our basement crawl space. How will we ever fish them out of there? I actually wondered what the new family who would buy our house someday would think.
My son was in trouble and so was I. I could barely breathe. He denied and made excuses for everything. He blamed me for violating his privacy. Getting the truth from him was like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.
I moved from obsession to control. I was going to fix it. I’ve got this, I thought. By 11th grade I had taken him to psychologists, psychiatrists, drug and alcohol counselors, AA meetings and IOPs. I drove him to all these places and sat in the parking lots to make sure he stayed.
I had a new idea every day. This pill, that doctor, another meeting was going to fix it. And when none of that worked, I started the whole process over again. Maybe this time he will change. I embodied the definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
Then things got worse.
There were car accidents. The baseball coach kicked him off the team. Finally, in his senior year, he got arrested. My husband and I hired lawyers and fixed as much as we could. We wanted to save him. The next step was college. College, in our minds, was the answer.
Only, of course, it wasn’t.
A few days before the end of his freshman year he was expelled for drinking. Now 20, he came home. Two weeks later I found 2lbs of marijuana in his car and $1500. I flushed the weed down the toilet. It takes a surprisingly long time to flush 2lbs of marijuana. The toilet kept clogging as I sobbed. My husband was out of town, and I had to handle this on my own.
Two days later my son was in his first rehab. He was finally safe and I slept through the night for the first time in years. A sober house followed. He begged to come home. My heart broke as I said no.
After he completed his time in the sober house, he came home and was arrested again. We hired lawyers. I knew at this point he should suffer the consequences of his behavior but neither my husband nor I could live with the prospect of jail.
He continued to drink and do drugs. At 21, we sent him to his second rehab, where three things happened:
First, he stopped doing drugs for good (and I thought at the time alcohol)
Second, I learned about codependency for the first time in the rehab facility’s family program. I needed to stop enabling, to support recovery, not addiction.To let go. It was my son’s job to get sober, not mine. Learning to let go would be a process but I never gave up hope, not for myself, not for him.
Third, he buckled down when he came home. He finished a 4-year degree in economics from UCONN in 3 years.
While living at home and working on his degree, life dramatically changed for our family again. I had a major stroke. Many factors contributed to this event, but years of anxiety and depression did not help. My son was home with me when it happened. He called 911 and saved my life.
Months later, after I recovered, he seemed okay. But I was on guard. Ever vigilant. Always anxious. I checked his eyes, his speech. I forced myself not to search his room. I didn’t always succeed, but I was at least conscious of what I was doing then. I needed to let go. I reminded myself about what I had learned: Letting go isn’t putting up a wall; it’s building a bridge. It’s staying connected and always letting him know I love him.
After college, we believed a job was the answer for keeping him on track.
At 26 and with a degree in economics, he got a job in his dad’s office as an advertising project manager. My husband cosigned for an apartment. We thought our son was sober.
Six months later, he got another job for more money at a major NYC advertising agency. He must be doing well, we thought. My husband cosigned for another apartment.
Then he told us he was drinking socially. A friend, who heads up a state social services program, including rehab placement, warned me not to label him an alcoholic too soon. We went along with it. I wanted to believe he could control his drinking, but a heavy stone took up residence in my stomach and that elephant was back in my house.
In the end, we were all wrong about social drinking.
My son went silent. He became impossible to contact. Finally, he called us. For money. Rent money. We paid his rent. He’ll be okay if we take the financial pressure off, we thought. We were right back enabling. Our recovery, it turned out, was not a straight line.
Then my son went completely dark. His sister, who was his emergency contact at work, received a call from his HR department. Her brother had not shown up for work in five days and was unreachable.
She and I raced to his Brooklyn apartment not knowing what we'd find. He was holed up in his bedroom. Empty vodka bottles littered the floor and his bed. The room was a mess. He was so drunk I was amazed he was still conscious.
A 3rd rehab followed, then a 4th. My young man was now 28.
After the 4th rehab failed, my daughter asked me to get him out of her apartment where he had been staying. He was packing when I got there. I asked him where he wanted me to drop him off.
“You mean I can’t come home?” he said.
“Home is not helping you.” I was firm. I was resolute. I was heartbroken. I am doing what is best I told myself over and over so I could actually go through with it.
“I love you. I’m here when you’re ready to get sober,” I said.
He made a good choice. He called a sober friend, and together they got him into a sober house.
Eventually, he was kicked out of that house for drinking. I wouldn’t let him come home and he admitted himself into a 28-day state program, his 5th rehab, followed by another sober house. It wasn’t a great sober house. The men found ways to drink and do drugs. My son claimed to be sober, but it was clear he wasn’t.
At 29, still claiming sobriety, he decided he was ready to move out of the sober house. He got an $80,000 a year job at another big ad agency in NYC. He’d been seeing a young woman over the past couple of years, feigning sobriety, and they decided to get an apartment together. He had two weeks before the lease began, and he had already started his job. One week before he could move into the apartment, he got kicked out of the sober house for stealing a pizza from the house freezer, but I knew it was more than that. He didn’t want his girlfriend to find out and I wouldn't let him come home. I was both resolved and terrified. He said he would figure something out. It was only a week until the apartment would be ready.
His disease progressed.
Out of the sober house, there were no guardrails at all. I received an ambulance bill from NYU. I later found out he had had a seizure in a hotel lobby that week while he waited to move into the apartment and was taken to the ER. Delirious, he left the hospital and went to work the next day, trying to hold his life together, but alcoholism had full control of him at this point.
He moved in with his girlfriend but couldn't hide his addiction. He made multiple trips to the ER where they gave him benzos to manage detoxing at home. He washed the pills down with vodka. His girlfriend called me to get him. "He needs to go to the hospital, but he won’t go," she said. I headed to their apartment in Washington Heights from Connecticut and my daughter headed there from midtown. Just before we arrived, he slipped out the door, blind drunk. His girlfriend chased him, but he got away.
My daughter and I searched for him while his girlfriend waited in their apartment in case he returned. We checked hospitals and police stations. I tried to recognize my grown son’s shape in the men face down over subway grates and huddled in doorways.
We spent the entire day scouring NYC. It was getting dark. This has to be his bottom, I thought, because the next rung down is death. I have to find him.
We went back to his apartment and reported him missing to the police. Three officers arrived; one got on the phone. A half hour later, she yelled from the kitchen, “I found him!”
He was in the psych ward at the Columbia-Presbyterian ER. Unable to get more alcohol, he had arrived with signs of another seizure taking hold. He was delirious and covered in bruises from his damaged liver. I planned to pick him up in the morning to take him to a detox center. That night, at 3am, he checked himself out of the hospital and went to his apartment.
That morning, my daughter, his girlfriend and I performed an impromptu intervention. We each told him he could not live with us. He agreed to go to his 6th rehab.
That’s when something clicked.
There have been a few slips along the way, but my son has been sober for over three and a half years. He and his girlfriend, now wife, had a baby boy. That baby was his inspiration for sobriety. At a recent talk he and I gave to a group of high school students, he told them how good life is sober and, with a catch in his throat, said, “My son has never seen me drunk.”
I had to get out of the way so my son could find his own reason to get sober. His name is