The Secret Keepers

(Twentieth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

National secrecy. Communal secrecy. Familial secrecy. Cloaked as “Discretion” it perpetuates problems. What it did for us when we found out that our son was addicted to heroin was to create a puzzle that we were forced to try to put together in the dark with many missing pieces. No one was talking – not friends, parents, school leaders. When the drug bust happened at his high school in the spring of 2005, and the administration didn’t call a meeting of all parents to alert us to what was going on, one wonders what motivation was behind that decision? Clearly, it wasn’t what was best for the rest of the students, families, or our community.

Years ago, while working through our angst with the systemic problems in organized Christianity, and continuing to run into absolute resistance, secrets, and denial, we came upon a quote that finally explained why we were not, and never would be, making headway: “If you speak about the problem, you become the problem.” This wisdom came from an important and insightful book, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. But the subtle power of abuse is not limited to churches: governments, schools, communities, families—no one wants to be seen as part of the problem, especially with drug addiction and alcoholism. So, if we just keep troublesome or messy things secret, if we don’t speak about them, we can all just get along.

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The Cost of Secrets

 (Fourteenth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

When Breaking Bad was released in 2008, our son, and most of his generation of young people, watched it. He told us about it and encouraged us to watch it while also warning us that there would be some parts we wouldn’t like – but to keep watching. We did and he was right. But JL knew that we wanted to be connected to his life through the media he viewed and so we became fully engaged and finished the series.

When I think back about it now I realize that we didn’t fully ‘get’ why JL wanted us to watch this series. I believe now that he wanted us to understand the complications and conflicts that drug use brings into a life, perhaps knowing it would reveal secrets that he just couldn’t talk about with us directly. His life was complicated and so he lived with many inner conflicts. It is the inescapable nature of any addiction.

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A Lament and A Love Song – for Our Son

Lament for a Son is an intensely personal tribute by Nicholas Wolterstorff to his 25-yr-old son who died in a climbing accident. It is eloquent and unforgettable as he gives voice to a grief that is both unique and universal: the tortured pain of losing an individual, a child, your child.

We lost our 25-yr-old son to a heroin overdose six years ago on August 2, 2014. Lament for a Son has been one of our go-to books since that time. Wolterstorff expresses the incomprehension and sense of unfairness that, I believe, parents worldwide feel when they lose a child – someone who is supposed to bury you, not the other way around. It doesn’t fit with the cycle of life we expect – it is jarring, unsettling, bewildering, frustrating, disquieting.

In the Preface he relates:

A friend told me he gave a copy of Lament to all of his children. “Why?” I asked. “Because it’s a love song,” he said. That took me aback. But, Yes, it is a love-song. Every lament is a love song. Will love-songs one day no longer be laments?

Yet, while the book expresses the common feelings brought on by sudden unexpected death, what he doesn’t share with those of us who have lost a child to drug/alcohol addiction are the previous long years, sometimes decades, of turmoil, anxiety, fear, and depression that we experience on top of all the normal grief.

And shame.

There is no glory in being the parent of someone who is an addict or alcoholic.

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Handwriting on the Wall

The other day I was thinking about our son and his struggles with drugs and alcohol and all that we know and understand now compared to what we knew and understood in the early 2000’s right up until his death in 2014. I saw myself, as if I were standing out in an open field, turning, looking back over my shoulder. That’s what I do when something unexpected or disturbing happens. I look back and try to figure out what I missed, what I could have done differently.

My next thought was: Why couldn’t my husband and I see the handwriting on the wall? Why didn’t we realize how dire the situation was at every new juncture with our son as the years went by? But, I realized that it wasn’t that we couldn’t see the handwriting on the wall. It was that we didn’t understand what it meant.

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PAIN – Part 2

Not only did we, and many of our generation of parents, try to shield our children from as much physical pain as possible, we tried to spare them emotional pain too. But there is one source of pain that we will all experience and that parents and loved ones of an active addict experience on a daily basis: pain of loss. Lost hopes, lost dreams, lost potential, lost futures. When we  birth our children, we experience the joy of a new life and all the expectations of journeying through life together. We embark on a path with goals and plans and dreams fueled by hope and joy. But life rarely delivers what our dreams foresee.

“Awakening to joy awakens us to pain….Eventually, I am guaranteed to lose every earthly thing I have ever possessed. I will lose every single person I have ever loved. Either abruptly or eventually. All human relationships end in loss (death).” (Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts)

The losses that people who are addicted (to anything) experience on a daily basis brings pain for them too. Sadly, addicts will lose most of their relationships while they are still alive. We watched this happen to our son as his addiction progressed. Initially, friends who were not involved in drugs slowly distanced themselves. Eventually, JL was spending more time on his relationship with heroin and had no energy left for friends. When he was sober, this was a source of pain – and shame – for him.

The sense of shame that hangs like low black clouds gathering over our lives any time we as humans engage in something we know is not good for us – or others – is the ultimate loss of self-worth. It erodes the very core of our being and I believe it is the hardest obstacle (aside from the physical addiction) for opiate addicts to surmount in seeking recovery. Shame paralyzes us.

“Shame is an overwhelming negative sense that who we are isn’t okay. It is a no-win situation. Authentic, legitimate guilt is the feeling or thought that what we did is not okay…Compulsive and addictive behaviors are shame-based. If we participate in them, we will feel ashamed. It is inevitable…When guilt is legitimate, it acts as a warning light, signaling that we are off course, and need to make a change…Learn to change shame into guilt, correct the behavior, and move forward.” (Melody Beattie, The Language of Letting Go)

Yet, it seems that for the rare few who have escaped their addiction and are in recovery, that very shame and sense of worthlessness somehow became the impetus for seeking change. Herb Stepherson is a young man who is in active recovery and helping others. His website/blog is: https://junkboxdiaries.com/.  It seems he had a similar story to our son, with one exception: he was not propped up by well-meaning parents and was allowed to experience the full degradation of his heroin addiction. While in prison and planning on suicide, he had an epiphany and God entered the story.

As we look back at the path of our son’s addiction, we feel that by our being overly involved probably prevented him from hitting whatever ‘bottom’ would have been the stimulus he needed to desperately seek help. Although we know he felt a lot of shame, our continual encouragement to him as a person of value and worth to us and God was constant. The conflict was how to communicate that to him without enabling his addiction? Did we short-circuit the role of shame fueling legitimate guilt and the desire to change? We were never sure. We always tried our best. May others learn from our story and do better.