May 19th, 2016
Our troubles began in June 2008, when both of my parents died. My son, Wyatt*, was about to turn 15. He and I had lived with them since he was in fourth grade. My mother died in my arms on the night of my father’s funeral, eight days after his passing, during a horrendous thunderstorm. Our family of four was suddenly sliced in half.
My brilliant, musical, Dungeons & Dragons-playing son fell apart. He had been very close to both my parents. By August, he was a mess. His behavior was so erratic and bizarre that I took him to the local crisis center in October.
I was still unaware at that point that he had begun tripping on copious amounts of dextromethorphan or “dex,” ingesting up to 40 Robitussin capsules at a time. He had also started smoking marijuana and drinking. Eventually, he was arrested for marijuana possession.
Wyatt had been given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder as well, but was illogically prescribed Adderall and Xanax, which he promptly started misusing.
I was a wreck, too. I coped through being overmedicated and numbed out. I experienced panic attacks at the slightest rumble of thunder. I couldn’t handle being alone in the house at night.
Al-Anon really helped me. This isn’t news. It has helped many people. I started attending up to three meetings a week. I developed a support group, some of whom are trusted friends today, despite my not-sosubtle straying from the path in more recent times. I could call these people in the middle of the night in a crisis, and they’d show up. I’ll always be grateful for that community.
However, I’ll also deeply regret that people in the program persuaded me to give “tough love” a try.
The tougher I became, the worse Wyatt and I fought and more sneaky he became. He lied, stole, bullied and badgered me. And I was consistently guided to hold my boundaries, to kick him out of my home before I let him call the shots.
This is not something that comes naturally. On top of it, I knew in my bones that the deaths had triggered Wyatt’s problems, and that the bipolar made it worse. Eventually, I told him he had to go to rehab.
The Rehab Racket
I know so much more now than I did then. The US rehab industry is completely unregulated. It’s in what you could call the “gold rush” phase, with so many operators just making a fast buck, taking advantage of traumatized patients and parents. The vast majority are 12-step-oriented.
I sent my son to one of the most established rehabs in the country, in Pennsylvania.
When I first called them to discuss admitting Wyatt, I just about fell on the floor when told the cost. The chirpy gal on the line suggested, without batting an eye, that I take out a loan on my home. She then proceeded to tell me that addiction is “a progressive disease”—a core AA belief, which is not, in fact, supported by the evidence—that “can only be arrested through abstinence.”
This sent chills of panic through me. Of course, they didn’t take my insurance, so I shelled out the $33,000 for the customary 28 days.
Dropping Wyatt off, I had a long meeting with his counselor. I explained the trauma, the bipolar disorder. The counselor listened but seemed to have another agenda. Wyatt submitted to the mandatory blackout from family contact and gradually moved up the facility’s “levels” by utilizing his eidetic (photographic) memory to become a 12-step wizard.
We had occasional family sessions. Most rehabs have “Family Education Programs,” which are mandatory before you visit your loved one. This particular rehab’s program lasts five days. On day one, the charismatic leader said, “Your child is not an addict because he is in pain, he is in pain because he’s an addict.”
I couldn’t agree with him less. I didn’t then, and I feel even more strongly about it now.
The tough-love propaganda continued. I was advised that the post-care treatment plan for Wyatt was their “extended care” program: three months in residence.
That turned out to be the recommendation for all the kids in the room.
Then we got a tour of the extended care facility. I forked over another $15,000. I was warned that Wyatt would likely put up a fight.
He did. He was furious with me. He cajoled and then threatened to walk out, as he was 18. I had enough AlAnon under my belt to not buy into his threats. I told him calmly that he could leave, but he could not come home. I drove home alone, a rattled, shaking mess.
Lifelong abstinence seems at first glance to be logical. But for most kids, it’s impractical. Of course they’re going to want to go to a bar and have a drink when they turn 21—something Wyatt repeatedly told me.
For those with additional mental health complications, most facilities claim to be “dual diagnosis” or to have the capacity to deal with “co-occurring” issues. My experience is that those issues are considered secondary. No matter how much I explained Wyatt’s issues, I’d always get the same condescending pat on the head.
There’s a reward/shame element to the 12-step philosophy. You get a chip when you do well. You start from square one when you “relapse.” After his anti-extended care outburst, Wyatt was promptly bumped down a level and his phone privileges were taken away. In retrospect, this seems like nothing but pure punishment.
Nearing the end of the three-month extended care period, we parents were summoned for another meeting. There, we were spoken to by a squeaky-clean young man who lived in one of the two sober homes the rehab recommended our kids “transition” to. The one recommended for Wyatt was $7,200 a month, minimum three months. Instead, I sent him to the $6,000 a month option, which was more like a large cabin nestled in the woods.
For all that money (not including transportation, seriously) he got meals and boredom. Four-to-six guys in a room.
Wyatt didn’t really fit in. He’s extremely verbal and quirky—a musical Sheldon Cooper-psychonaut who likes to trip a lot. The counselor there, whose only qualification was 12 years of sobriety under his belt, was a rough-around-the-edges, Jersey-boy type. He told me, “Wyatt suffers from terminal uniqueness.” Hearing the word “terminal” petrified me.
Apparently, it meant that Wyatt thought he was really different from others—and that that thought could kill him, via isolation, which would lead to more drug use.
After Wyatt and a friend moved out to an apartment, still heavily under the thumb of his counselor, he eventually did use again, big time—while maintaining a 4.8 GPA in college.
As Wyatt had always had girlfriends, his counselor had told me that the biggest danger to him would be “some girl, some piece of driftwood….” Instead, Wyatt experimented with a man. This freaked the shit out of his counselor, who belittled him and screamed at him to “pick a side.” He also called Wyatt a “filthy animal” and banished him from 12-step meetings at the cabin.
Wyatt was devastated. I allowed him to come back home with me under the condition he go to AA meetings, which he did for a while. But he could never buy the spirituality. He hated meetings by now. His drug use increased.
Read more from The Influence:
And so it went, on and on.
I hired an interventionist, sent him to another 12-step rehab, and then to another sober home.
Wyatt’s drug use continued to worsen. I held another intervention, this time with close AlAnon friends, and told him he had to get out from under my roof. I put him on a train to Baltimore to live with a friend.
Within 36 hours, I got the 2 am phone call. Wyatt was completely delirious, off his meds, tripping alone with no money in the Baltimore bus station. Eventually, he did his third rehab stint and another sober living spell. It seemed like there was no hope.
A Light Switched On
I have two very close friends whose sons died of heroin overdoses. When we talk, it’s often about our pain and anger over the rehab racket. And it was one of them who first told me about a different type of approach, known as “harm reduction,” that opened a bright new door for Wyatt and me.
“Harm Reduction means taking control—of your use of drugs or alcohol, of the damage that use does to you, of the harm your use causes others, and how you live your life,” write Patt Denning, Jeannie Little and Adina Glickman in Over the Influence.
According to this philosophy, abstinence is not required to be the goal—moderation, a reduction, or simply safer use are also seen as valuable positive outcomes. Importantly, individuals are encouraged to set their own goals, rather than having them imposed by others.
Substance use disorders don’t have to be viewed as lifelong diseases. And within this framework, many therapies, such as Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) or Dialectical Behavior Therapy, process groups and individual counseling can be utilized. It does not hold that someone experiencing drug-related problems must hit “rock bottom”—quite the contrary.
In Al-Anon and AA, that quote attributed to Einstein, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results,” is often bandied about. In that context, it means: Stop “enabling” and get tough! But I began to apply it to repeating the “tough love” cycle.
After a couple of sessions with a harm reduction counselor, Wyatt agreed to go to a SMART Recovery rehab in California. SMART Recovery support groups are abstinence-based, but they recognize that not everyone walks in the door with an abstinence goal, and everyone is welcome. They don’t require the use of terms such as “addict” or “alcoholic”—in fact, these are discouraged. The overarching philosophy is one of empowerment and the use of scientifically proven tools.
When Wyatt returned home he continued to see his therapist. One day he described his cravings to me, and how marijuana helped them. I was still in abstinence-only mode, but then a light switched on: If he found that using cannabis could help his PTSD and keep him off other, potentially much more harmful stuff, so be it.
I was very reluctant at first. But I considered a dear friend of mine who has acute lymphoid leukemia, and who treats her pain and nausea with cannabis. I decided I had nothing to lose.
It works. For Wyatt, it alleviates the anxiety and panic he experiences and assuages most (if not all) of his cravings for dex.
Last week, Wyatt commented that it had been a full year that he had not been in a hospital, in jail, on probation or in a rehab—the first full year since 2009.
I hadn’t been as aware of the anniversary as he was, and was pleased. It’s not been perfect. But, under the continued guidance of his therapist, our relationship has transformed, with not just less fighting, but increased honest communication. With the right medication, including marijuana, Wyatt is doing better. I am certain that had I continued on the “tough love” path, he’d be dead or in jail. I am also certain that in addition to the trauma of my parents’ deaths, there was considerable additional trauma as a result of the application of certain Al-Anon principles.
So now my next problem is that although medical marijuana use just became legal in Pennsylvania, it will be next to impossible to get for another two years. I used a version of this story to lobby my legislator. I hope that the CARERS Act passes Congress and will continue to lobby for this healing plant.
I no longer attend Al-Anon. I wish I could comfortably and honestly share in meetings about the benefits of marijuana, but I can’t. My friend whose son died has told me she’d have been more than willing to let her son smoke some marijuana to keep him alive. She feels she has learned too late about harm reduction.
I can no longer tolerate the sobs of a parent who has tossed their child on the street in the name of “tough love” and “hitting rock bottom.”
I now know that there’s a better way.
*Name has been changed.
Beth Laps is a pseudonym for a writer and activist who lives in Pennsylvania.