It started out with my staying in an abusive marriage. I didn’t grow up in an abusive family. I thought my husband’s chronic “bad mood” and rage would pass over time. It didn’t. I eventually hated my life and my husband. We had never had a divorce in our family and I had pressure to stay in my unhappy situation “because of the children.” I stayed. I read books about parenting. I lectured my husband about what I learned. I went to counseling. My husband went for one session. He took no ownership in his son’s struggles. I was lost. I didn’t know what to do. I turned to food for salvation. I just existed. My life became one of trying to protect my children from their father. Michael was the oldest of three. He got the brunt of his father’s rage. After fourteen unhappy years I got a divorce. It was one of the happiest days of my life. But then the unthinkable happened.
In his junior year of high school, Michael took to taking long naps. I told myself that I knew the reason for this. It was a growing spurt! It didn’t dawn on me that my teenager was into drugs. He began leaving our house without telling me where he was going. He broke each and every family rule that was set. He got consequences but he didn’t care.
One night, Michael decided he was going to drive to some undisclosed place. I determined that the best way to keep Michael home was to sit in his car so he couldn’t leave. I took his 14-year-old sister with me for company. I was shocked when Michael carried a hammer out of the garage and began to hit the car screaming, “I’m going to kill you.” I had never been in a situation in which I feared for my life but I was now. Michael’s brother heard the commotion and came out to the driveway and started to fight his brother. I sent my daughter running into the house to call the police.
Michael spent his 18th birthday in Juvenile Hall. He was Court mandated to residential care for addiction. He graduated from the program and relapsed on cocaine. He well knew that the consequence for a relapse would be having to leave his family home. Michael also knew that all he needed to do was return to his treatment facility for more treatment and then he could come back home. That never happened.
My parents were the “saviors” when Michael showed up on their doorstep begging for housing. They provided it. They thought Michael’s addiction was my fault, that I was a terrible parent and that they knew better than I. This thought was based on no education, no counseling and no attendance at the family meetings at the treatment facility. They housed Michael for 4 years even though he stole from them, never got a job and sold his car to a drug dealer.
Michael eventually left his “rescue home” when he married a girl he had met in high school. She was a fellow drug user. They used together. I watched Michael go through times of sobriety only to chronically relapse. I was powerless, and Michael didn’t care what I had to say. Over time, he turned to opioids. My beautiful son disappeared- his soul left him, any good judgment he had left him, his humor left him. He died from an overdose of methadone. As I write this, eleven years later, I can still feel the shock in my body. When we lose a child the grief never leaves.
About five years ago, I had an epiphany. I would never have left a very successful career, gone to graduate school and earned a doctorate in psychology if Michael had not lived his life the way he did. I would never have returned to his treatment facility to help other parents create kind, loving and structured lives for their addicted teens. I would never have been blessed by the experiences Michael gave me so I could mentor others who fear their loved ones will die from an addiction.
Today, I am privileged to work in a nationally renowned HMO. I work with addicts. I love my patients. One day, as I was sitting in a staff meeting, it came to me that addiction is a band aid for a deeper issue that usually starts with a family of origin problem much like the one Michael grew up with. These are traumatizing. In the treatment profession, historically, we usually treat the addiction but not the trauma. I became a trauma specialist so I could treat addiction at a much deeper level. I have watched my patients experience miraculous recoveries when we get to the root causes of their addictions. I never dreamed my life would turn out the way it has.
Michael, I miss you every day. I pray for you. Thank you for all the gifts that you give me. Your life has helped seed recovery for scores of others.
Dr. Ann Schiebert has spent 25 years working with families who have unintentionally turned over control of the family to a teen or young adult’s drug-using behavior. She is currently a psychologist in the Emergency Department at the medical center of one of the country’s most respected major HMOs. She also works in the medical center’s Chemical Dependency Department where she treats patients challenged by trauma, chemical dependency, codependency and dual diagnosis. She is host of Dr. Ann’s Relationship Radio Show on America’s Web Radio, aired weekly. Ann is the mother of three children. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband and her two Ragamuffin kittens, Biscuit and Ted E. Bear.