*trigger warning: suicidal ideation
On the top shelf of my walk-in closet sits a shoebox wrapped in striped, metallic wrapping paper. What’s inside are pieces of notebook paper written to my son when he was going through a difficult time. These notes not only have words of encouragement on them, but were also an exercise in letting go and having faith.
According to the American Addiction Centers website, 19.7 million American adults (aged 12 and older) battled a substance use disorder in 2017. It also states that teenagers and people with mental health disorders are more at risk for drug use and addiction than other populations.
I grew up in the ’80s. There were D.A.R.E programs in our schools and “Just say no to drugs” campaigns. We even had after school specials and Saved by the Bell episodes that touched on addiction. I also grew up with a father who battled alcoholism. I knew all about what that looked like. But none of this would prepare me for my son’s addiction.
In 2014, when Michael was beginning his sophomore year of high school, our world crumbled. It began unraveling when he was in middle school. He was struggling in school, had uncontrollable anger and wasn’t making the best choices, nor was he hanging out with a stellar group of kids. When he was in eighth grade, he came to me and said he thought he had ADD. My response? “Work harder.” My thoughts up until this point were that ADD was overdiagnosed and a crutch for parents who were too preoccupied to discipline their children.
It was during this time that I found pot in my son’s room. I was shocked. Sure, I smoked pot as a teenager, but my son? No way! I’ll never forget that fall day. I confronted him after he got out of the shower about the resin all over his desk. “What’s this?” I asked, pointing to the dried leaves.
“It’s marijuana,” he responded frankly.
I couldn’t believe he was telling the truth. He was 14 years old and wasn’t scared of anything. That day I made a bargain with Michael: “If you promise you won’t do it again, I won’t tell your dad.” To which he responded, “I won’t do it anymore.”
I was 35 years old, a single mom, and didn’t know what I was doing. In hindsight, I should have called his dad right away. I knew it was wrong, but I kept telling myself Michael was just experimenting and it was normal teenage behavior.
The next few years are a bit of a blur to me. There was lying, cheating, stealing, cutting and drug use. I’ll never forget the day Michael told me he didn’t want to live anymore. He was 15 years old. We were sitting on my bed and tears streamed down my face. I told him we would get him help, and I didn’t know what it was like living in his body.
That evening, I called his dad and told him I was afraid Michael was going to do something to hurt himself. A week later, following a confrontation with Michael at his dad’s house, we were driving home and again he told me he wanted to kill himself because he knew he let his father and me down.
I immediately pulled the car over and saw the pain in my son’s eyes. We sat in the parking lot of a local pizza place and he cried and I promised him everything would be okay. I have found in my years as a mother that blind faith is better than no faith. I didn’t know for sure everything was going to be okay, and I was scared as hell, but I leaned in and I said it anyway. I clung to those words for the next two years.
A week later, we admitted Michael to an inpatient facility. He was there for a week, and we visited every other day. He was completely withdrawn. However, I truly believe that move saved his life. I learned something about our healthcare system during this time: We do not have the appropriate resources needed to help teens fight drug addiction and depression. Most of the doctors wanted to prescribe medication to fight his depression that was caused by addiction, which itself was caused by self-medicating for ADD and depression initially. It’s a vicious cycle.
We were lucky enough to find two psychologists who were dedicated to treating our son and officially diagnose him with ADD. They were instrumental in helping us realize Michael needed a combination of medication and talk therapy to work through the problems he was facing.
Following his hospitalization, in the spring of his sophomore year, Michael went to live with his father and attend a new school. That was the hardest, yet best decision of my life. That kid was my world, but I knew I could no longer provide for him the way his father could. I felt like a failure, but I also knew he needed to be with his dad.
It was during this time that I started the shoebox. It contained encouraging notes in it dedicated to Michael. His sister and I would write, “We love you and miss you. You are strong. You got this.” It was therapeutic for us, too, as we were grieving not having him around.
Flash forward to 2020. My son is the most level-headed young man you’ll ever meet. Sure, he still has his battles and is far from perfect, just like anyone. But he is strong and he is a fighter. He’s 22 years old now, and living with his girlfriend.
We don’t talk a lot about those high school years anymore; these days, we’re focused on the future. Every time I run across that shoebox, I read the notes to remind myself life isn’t meant to be easy. Sometimes when you’re going through a difficult time, it’s hard to think about the future. But if you ask for help and stay the course, there is hope. My son is a shining example of that.