JUNE 18, 2014. Eight young men in royal blue caps and gowns pose holding high school diplomas. Our boys. They have completed one milestone that I didn’t expect to happen this spring, at least not in my son’s case. They have finished high school. An independent study program at North High School in Torrance, California, allowed them to meet with a teacher once a week, working online from the recovery house where the young men live. They have now walked with the other seniors, as if their lives were those of ordinary high school graduates.
“I never thought I’d graduate high school on time. But here I am, thanks to the support of all my brothers in the house,” my son, Raphael, says, as he gives a short speech at the graduation celebration.
I never thought Raphael would graduate on time either. Less than a year ago, my son was taking eighty Robitussin caplets at a time.
Now they give speeches while their families stand and listen. A cake decorated with their faces sits in front of them — eight young addicts.
The New Life House Recovery Community is a home for young men ages eighteen to twenty-two “on the path of recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.” There is something different about this large, custom-built, immaculate home in the South Bay area of L.A., where young men sleep in bunk beds four or six to a room. The décor inside is a masculine, heavily Western motif, including a wagon wheel chandelier and a black-and-white photo of the last surviving Indian chiefs. The walls are filled with photos of other residents at high school graduation and on camping trips. The New Life House has been in existence for almost thirty years. Many of the young men here have graduated numerous treatment centers, completed wilderness programs, been on and off the street, and have faced legal charges as a result of their addictions. Two large, old, honey-colored Labradors sit on the patio. They have seen a lot of boys come and go. Each young man has a different story, but most parents will tell you, as will I, that their sons once had bright eyes, big dreams, and were small enough to be held in their arms.
* * *
Only a year ago, I was heading off to the emergency room. I was on autopilot. Charger? Check. iPad? Check. Book, sweatshirt, snacks? Check. Too often I had been stranded following the 911 calls, arriving at the ER and only emerging at dawn. One long night, I told him to move over, closed my eyes for a moment, and scrunched down next to him on the gurney in the ER hallway. Sometimes my son came back with me. Sometimes — when they decided that his pattern of drug abuse posed a risk to his life —he headed out for the “5150” mandatory seventy-two-hour hold in a hospital adolescent psych ward. While the social workers evaluated him, he joked about rating his favorite hospitals on Yelp.
I wasn’t thinking about whether Raphael might graduate from high school when one evaluating social worker in the ER told me, “Your son says he doesn’t have much more time. It’s curious — he lacks affect.”
“He must mean until he turns eighteen,” I told the social worker.
“No, he means until he dies from what he’s taking,” the social worker said. “If he were eighteen, I would just send him home to kill himself.“
I was out of my mind: shell-shocked, pleading, angry, bereft, wondering if I should try using. Desperate not to lose my son’s love, not to lose him to addiction, I even threatened to kill myself if I couldn’t stop him — something I later heard repeated by other mothers as we recounted the insanity of trying to control the uncontrollable. I relived and regretted every decision, every trauma, every battle I fought for him and lost.
Sometimes I wanted to take my son in my arms and rock him like when he was a baby. When he fell asleep, head on my lap, waiting to be admitted to yet another inpatient center, I wished I could make everything okay. This was the son I would do anything for, the one I almost couldn’t have.
* * *
Five years before my son was born, I survived a burning boat in the middle of the Mediterranean. I was the only one on our lifeboat not weeping, other than a mother comforting her baby. I looked at her, and then I wept, not ready to leave the world without having had a child.
I lost six pregnancies prior to giving birth to my son. The baby I finally had was the color of café au lait with dark, deep eyes and lashes that my sister accused me of curling, ones that he later began to pull out at age eleven when my second marriage – our blended family –began to un-blend.
Two years later, Raphael, a thirteen-year-old Afro-Jew, decided to have a Bar Mitzvah. Together with the rabbi, he distilled his bizarre Torah portion — “What to do if your wife is unfaithful?” — down to issues of trust and vulnerability, peppering his sermon with vignettes about teen prostitutes and Bernie Madoff. Later, he read his poetry. Watching him up on the podium, I believed that he would be more than okay.
But at fourteen, shortly after he started high school, he began using drugs. One evening I got a call from the local police: Raphael and some other boys had been caught smoking marijuana. The other (white) teenage boys ran away. But my (black) son wisely stopped and put up his hands.
It wasn’t long before marijuana use became everything use. Soon I was taking my son to his first outpatient treatment program. One program followed another over the next three years.
Feeling as if my insides were spilling out, I bounced between 911 calls, ER visits, psych holds, and my own fantasy of being placed on a mandatory weeklong rest period. I was thrilled to get pneumonia after my son went into another inpatient treatment program. I rested for almost a week. Pneumonia gave me permission to breathe.
I began to read all I could about addiction. By addicts. By their parents. I went to my own twelve-step meetings — Al-Anon — for the families of those affected by drugs and alcohol. And I found compassion again.
Then about six months ago, I came home, one more time, to see my son’s eyes rolled back in his head. I called 911. But I knew this time was different.
I told him he couldn’t live with me anymore; I could not protect him from this disease. I told him “I love you beyond everything” like the children’s book we once read over and over again, “Guess How Much I Love You.”
“But you know I can’t keep you alive here,” I said as we held each other tightly.
It felt like the most loving moment that we’d had in years. We understood each other perfectly, even though I felt as if the most vital part of me was being savagely ripped away.
The mother of a young man who was with Raphael in another treatment center had called me repeatedly over the previous months, urging me to look at New Life House, where her son was now staying. I decided to visit. I spoke with some of the young men there who told me how much fear they had lived with all their lives, and how living and working together, they had found the strength and peace to live a different, sober, life. This place looked like home; the tight structure and long-term program seemed to provide the scaffolding these young men needed, along with a community of “brothers” — something my son had craved.
I went to see Raphael at the thirty-day treatment center, and he (gratefully) chose to go to New Life House. I wanted to imagine him staying there the full eighteen months; they only asked him to try it out for three. It’s not easy being in “the House,” as everyone calls it; no one is allowed to just vegetate. Not everyone makes it.
During the first months he was there, though sober, he struggled with being fully present, honest, and participating in the program. He slept behind dark glasses, pretending he was studying. I was told that perhaps he needed more serious consequences like incarceration or homelessness, something no mom would want to have happen to her son. But then another month passed, and he began to cross over to a new level of willingness — desire — to make real change. He finished his schoolwork for graduation a full month before the ceremony.
Over the last six months since my son left home, I’ve tried to figure out what I like to eat, what music I like to hear. My iTunes, refrigerator, and everything else revolved around my son. I hadn’t lived alone for many years. Knowing I would have to look at my own demons at some point, I stayed busy. Then I began to catch up on sleep.
My therapist asked, “What are you doing besides Al-Anon, work and visiting your son? Try stand up comedy or improv; you’re funny!”
I signed up for a stand-up class. At the end of the series, we had to do a set at the Comedy Store in West Hollywood. It was a packed Sunday night, but I only invited a few friends. I was a bit terrified. I’d been promised by our instructor, a stand-up comedian, that once I went up on stage, nothing else in my life would be as scary or difficult, and I needed that. It was dark. People were stoked and nervous in the green room.
“So my son just left home recently — it was a really hard choice — Harvard, Yale or … the last house on the block, the young men’s recovery house,” I said during my first set. “Yup, he’s doing his gap year studying addiction.”
Lots of laughs. I got asked back to do another set but declined. Our instructor was right, though: I did feel different — fearless — for a moment.
I woke up the day after my set feeling like shit. I had “outed” my son as an addict! But my son had given me the go-ahead to write about him, about us, about addiction. And maybe some other family would benefit.
* * *
Three weeks later, I’m at his graduation. Today, June, 18, 2014, is joyful, as Raphael walks down the field to be handed his diploma, and I sit in the stands with family. Later we celebrate at his recovery house and at the bowling alley with all his “brothers” and their families. No drunken grad night.
After so many years of micromanaging, advocating and screaming — homework ruling our lives, pleading with teachers to understand my dreamy, intellectual, creative (distracted, unfocused, disorganized) beautiful son, he is graduating. He did this with the support of the twenty-four other young men in the house — without me standing over him. The next step will be to get a job, and eventually, if he “stays the course,” move out with a few of the other young men from the house. And maybe college and beyond. But I am only looking at today.
“I love the way you are so happy about your son’s high school graduation,” a friend tells me. “For most other kids it’s just a step on the way to the next — it’s all about where they are going to college.” I am thrilled that he is graduating, but mostly I’m happy each time I see that he is alive.
Getting and staying sober holds particular challenges for young people. Two of the eight high school graduates recently left the recovery house abruptly; one came back. Another young man walked out and lost an eye from an unexplained street brawl his first night “back out.”
These young men have lost years of their lives to addiction. Those who stay in the house are far ahead of their peers in their profound work of self-examination — work I wish I’d done at that age.
Dealing with my son’s addiction has forced me to find a different way of living. “One day at a time” has finally become the only option — short of being placed on my own psych hold.
“Hey, Raphael, maybe I’ll go back to school when you start college. We’ll live in a dorm together and go out partying,” I used to tease, years ago, terrifying him. Before addiction took over.
Now I am going back to school at age fifty-five, getting my MFA in creative writing, something I have contemplated for more than twenty years but found daunting as a single mom. Coming face-to-face with my son’s mortality has helped me realize that we need to seize today for our dreams. Seeing Raphael and the other young men in the house face their demons so unflinchingly has given me the courage to face mine. Not so long ago, I was only able to see myself in the fetal position.
He’s proud of me. I’m proud of him. “That’s sick, mom,” Raphael tells me. Urban Dictionary translation of “sick”: Crazy. Cool. Insane. Awesome. The ultimate teen compliment, laced with love.
* * *
Carla Sameth is a writer based in Pasadena, California. Her work has been published in several anthologies and has appeared in online and print publications including Pasadena Weekly, La Bloga and Tikkun. She has helped others tell their stories as co-founder of The Pasadena Writing Project and president of iMinds PR.
Eric Palma is a freelance illustrator living in New York City. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Smithsonian.