Harm Less Addiction

In the final seconds of our video visitation my son commented, “Thank you for talking to me, Mom. So many parents cut their kids off. They think addiction is a moral issue.” I glanced at the countdown clock in the corner of the screen and quickly called out, “I LOVE you!” As I stared at his face frozen on the screen, I reflected on the journey that had brought us here.

After eighteen years of relatively uneventful parenting heroin moved in like a freak storm, unexpected and devastating. In the immediate aftermath, I found a treatment program for my son in hopes of repairing the destruction. At that point, he maintained sobriety by dutifully attending recovery meetings, which made me optimistic that sunny skies would return. But in the months that followed, his increased distance became a warning. Once he began nodding off mid-sentence, I realized the peace that we had experienced was nothing but the eye of the storm. I cursed my innocence and prepared for a resurgence.

I began to obsessively processed clues to minimize the next disaster. His halfhearted attempts to conceal his drug use were no match for my focus. When my daughters and I returned home late one evening, I instinctively sensed danger. I left the girls in the car with the keys in the ignition. I took deep breaths up as I made my way to the front door. My son meet me at the entryway claimed all was well, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of deception. I recklessly tore through my home, pushing back curtains, sliding under beds, and crawling on closet floors, mentally checking off every potential horror movie hiding space.

Fifteen minutes later, I was sweaty and gasping for breath. I paused to glance at my throbbing knees and as I was assessing the angry rug burns realized that I had overlooked a corner of the back patio. A cascade of flowers rained down from an overhead branch as swung open the french door and jerked it back in one fluid motion. To my horror, there was a person hiding behind the door. I struggled to recognize the motionless figure as one of my son’s childhood friends, now a drug dealer. I suppressed a gag, a reaction to the combination of the overwhelmingly sweet fragrance of orange blossoms and the black, emptiness of his eyes. My energy protectively downshifted. “I will lose my girls if there are drugs in my home,” I appealed to the boy who I had last seen wearing a royal blue Pop Warner football uniform, “You can never come back here”.

After that incident, I executed “tough love” with a like pro. I kicked my son out, locked his car in our garage, and muscled it’s dirty battery in my car’s trunk. He became homeless and I doggedly followed the tough love protocol. My only relief was in the moments when he would intermittently text or briefly show active on Facebook.

The drug dealers forgotten fire arm in my home compromised our safety. The girls and I met my homeless son for lunch at the Islands for burgers. As we waited for our food, I broke the news that we had moved. He barely reacted to the revelation and focused giving his attention to his seven-year-old sister. She was charmed by his antics and his gift of a cheap rubber bracelet.

As we pulled away, I caught her in the rear-view mirror gripping the plastic around her tiny arm. She stared out the window at the corner of the parking lot where her brother sat with his tattered backpack and three boxes of leftovers. “Where is he going?” she asked me. I managed to croak, “With friends”, without breaking down. While I quietly sobbed the entire way to our new, undisclosed address. I wiped the fog from my sunglasses and I told myself I needed to tolerate the pain to shock him onto the right path.

The act of withholding love was so painfully unnatural. I roamed the new house all night seeking comfort, wishing for sleep and praying for miracles. There were endless hours to find the logic in the tactics, but I found it impossible to fathom how someone who was as miserable as my son could be restored to functionality without compassion.

Even when he gained sober time, the tough love continued but the execution became tortuous. Recovery professionals urged me not to give him definitive milestones: “Don’t let him know he can come home if he is clean for six months or else that will be his only reason not to use.” Instead, I was advised to include him in our family by scrutinizing his behavior and interpreting his intentions. I would bounce between acceptance and the cold-shoulder, never knowing the right reaction.  The ambiguity of success became as mysterious to me as it was to him.

While my son continued to fight for his life without my support, acquaintances demonized him and harped on my need for self-preservation. “You are going to have to let him go,” they’d advise. “He is wasting your time and money, and you and the girls have been heartbroken time and time again.” I resented him being painted as the enemy and our family, helpless victims.

Once I accepted addiction was our family’s circumstance I quit tough love and moved forward without a road map. I was determined to support my son without enabling his access to drugs. I spent a day in court waiting for him to be sentenced for a felony charge of “internal possession,” meaning use of illicit drugs. Once the shock of witnessing sick people being sentenced to extensive jail time subsided, I became passionate about the need to decriminalize addiction.

A conversation with a legal expert prompted me to attend a national harm reduction conference. I entered the event perplexed by the meaning of the seemingly disjointed words, harm and reduction, and left feeling like an adopted child who had found her birth parents. My twenty-two pages of hastily scrawled notes provided me with validation. There was a tangible alternative between codependency and tough love, it was advocacy.

Harm Reduction practices are ingrained in our world. Seat-belts, vaccinations, and condoms limit risk. In the case of addicts, clean needles and syringes reduces the spread of diseases like hepatitis C and HIV. The other benefits of needle exchange program include reliable advice about overdose prevention and referrals to treatment or other general welfare services. If community members thoroughly investigated this approach, there would be an understanding that the resource benefits the general public by decreasing demand on public services, as well as unintentional contact with addicts.

In retrospect, my adoption of a harm reduction philosophy coincided with my evolution as an addict’s mom. I had to experience the chaos to accept that it was impossible to shape the outcome of my son’s disease with my actions. I stopped personalizing addiction as a failure and started to address the reality with humanity.

I am especially grateful that this approach allows me to acknowledge my son with dignity. Above all, it is a relief to know that I can love him unconditionally, under any circumstances—even when he’s an inmate in the county jail.

Allyson Aabram