Amy: They don’t bring you casserole

Apparently, my family didn’t heed early spring warnings of the dangerous rapids. We were totally inexperienced at white water rafting and without a professional guide to man our ship. I couldn’t understand how we got there. Yet there we were – the four of us bouncing and jerking from one side of the raft to the other, poking our paddles at jagged rocks, screaming instructions that fell on deaf ears. The sky opened a torrent of rain. Our raft was moving erratically. We were reacting to the danger at every turn, keenly aware of our almost certain peril. I could see solid ground less than a yard away, but the rapids were too strong and those lucid moments too rare. Without warning, my youngest son was tossed from the raft into the cold and angry current. My chest squeezed and twisted around my heart. Desperate and helpless I jumped in to save him. I woke up in a sweat soaked fog, not knowing how the nightmare would end.

We caught our son Blake smoking pot when he was barely thirteen. I naively believed we could love and parent him out of it. We would educate him on the numerous reasons why drug use would negatively impact his health and potentially shorten his life. We presented the potential consequences, getting kicked out of lacrosse, or school, or worse entangled with the law. If not the future consequences, maybe the loss of privileges would motivate our son to abstain from using drugs. Certainly, our disappointment in his choice to use drugs would have some influence, right? But none of this worked. We found ourselves in dangerous waters.

I didn’t like Blake’s new friends, his grades were suffering, and he was caught lying and stealing. He was suspended for buying pot on school property in 7th grade. We sat through drug and alcohol classes mandated by school. I desperately ran him to tutors, school counselors, doctors, and therapists seeking help we couldn’t find. We set stricter rules and enforced consequences, which usually led to a major outburst and broken windows. We were CSI experts. We could locate drugs and drug paraphernalia hidden within a block of our home. Our family became increasingly exhausted and desperate. We made side deals and kept secrets from other family members in an attempt to create normalcy in our home, even if false in reality. We compromised our values and morals. When we weren’t avoiding each other, we were fighting. Our lives were spinning out of control, consumed by anxiety and fear, poking our paddles at jagged rocks, screaming instructions that fell on deaf ears.

By high school the sky had opened a torrent of rain that wouldn’t end. My son was suspended again his freshman year and kicked off the lacrosse team for buying drugs across the street from school. By his sophomore year he was taken to the ER. A mix of marijuana, Adderall and cocaine triggered a manic psychosis. He was sent home from the hospital less than three days later, an empty shell of himself, overmedicated on a mood stabilizer. No psychiatric hospitalization or addiction treatment and no aftercare plan. We scrambled to find help for Blake and for ourselves, but it wasn’t available. Our parenting methods continued to be erratic and motivated by fear. The addiction had caused another layer of illness in our family. A desperate heaviness permeated our home, my marriage and health. I was keenly aware of my certain peril, if not everyone else’s.

During his junior year, Blake was suspended again for getting high at school, his second offense. By this time, he was using a myriad of drugs on a daily basis. Neither he nor his family was in control – our lives had become unmanageable. I desperately struggled to put solid ground under our feet, but the rapids were too strong and the lucid moments too rare. We sent our son away to a wilderness treatment center for nine weeks, followed by four months in an aftercare program in Florida. Treatment not paid for by our policy that said we had 100% mental healthcare coverage with no maximum. We did family Skype sessions once a week. My husband and I, together and separately, met with a therapist once a week. We attended Al-anon meetings weekly, sometimes daily. Two months after my son returned, he relapsed.

A few weeks into Blake’s senior year my son crashed his truck into a street sign while high on his way to school. Police were involved and he was charged with possession and intent to sell. My son had taken a handful of Xanax before the police officer confiscated the remaining 42 bars. He was sent to the emergency room by ambulance. The hospital let him out in less than three hours. By the time we got him home that day he was barely coherent. We called five hospitals and not one of them detoxed adolescents. Finally, we walked into Denver Health ER and refused to leave. They came up with a plan to detox him in the pediatrics unit where he stayed for two weeks before they found him a spot in the mental health ward. He is now in the Denver Health Step Program. He sees a therapist and a psychiatrist once weekly. Denver Health is the first to help us and guide us to an aftercare program that has been successful. Blake has been sober for almost a year.

I have bipolar illness. I was diagnosed at twenty-two. I functioned well and few people knew about my illness. I sought help but never really got the help I needed until recently. For thirty years, I’ve tried to get help and overcome the stigma. Where I experienced stigma the most was within the medical profession. Even before my son became an addict, I was codependent.

I knew instinctively the night my son was on the roof that I was experiencing major trauma as well as triggering trauma from my past. A switch had been flipped in my brain and for the next eighteen months I was in a mixed manic and depressive state, uncontrolled by my medications. The effects of trauma, addiction and an uncontrolled mental illness created a soul-crushing sickness that stripped the life right out of me. Addiction had hijacked Blake’s brain, ripped him out of our raft and tossed him mercilessly into the cold rapids. Instead of throwing him a life raft, I jumped in after him. I woke up (figuratively) in a treatment center (not covered by insurance), where I stayed for six weeks. I have had stable moods and feel healthy for the first time in 30 years! Treatment works!

Addiction is a vile illness. In my son’s case, caused partially by a choice, a genetic predisposition and some dysfunction. Where we saw that drugs were a problem for Blake, he saw a solution. It was a solution to the years of tormenting anxiety and difficulty in school. It masked the years of feeling stupid or different because he had learning disabilities. It stuffed away the loneliness he felt when he missed school recess to finish his homework.

Addicts eventually lie, steal, and break the law to feed their voracious appetite for drugs. It’s not always easy to feel compassion for them. Instead they are ostracized, not trusted and left out. It’s a debilitating and isolating disease that repels family and friends. Blake once said, “it’s not like people stop by to bring the family casseroles along with their love and support. They don’t walk for you or wear pink ribbons either. They just stay away as if addiction is contagious.”

We were all sick in different ways. Addiction was just one symptom of a very complicated family illness. Our story is about mental illness, addiction, and a broken mental health care system. It’s about the effects of mental illness and addiction on the family. It’s also about a family who didn’t give up on each other, whose love carried them through a very dark, unrelenting storm to the other side. Today, all of us are in a good place, healthier than we ever have been, and we continue to work very hard every day to stay that way. Today is a good day and for that I am extremely grateful.

I am sharing our very personal family stories, with the permission of my family, so that others may not feel so alone.

— Amy Jones

This story is an excerpt from a book Amy is currently writing about her experience.