It was a bright August morning in 1997 when Bob, my husband of 20 years, and I got into our car with our son, Bobby, then 18. Parents of other kids Bobby's age were taking their children to college, but that wasn't our errand. Bobby sat hunched in the back seat, his long, greasy hair falling about his face. We were on our way to check him into SAFE (Substance Abuse Family Education), a residential drug-treatment program a few miles from our home in the Orlando area.
Our admission interview was an ordeal. Bob and I had forced our son into drug treatment through the juvenile court. Bobby's anger, familiar to us after more than a year of family fights, burned in his eyes as two teenage boys, both SAFE clients, told him about the program. Away from family—we would see each other only in a weekly assembly—Bobby would follow a rigid schedule of in-house school and group therapy. He would have to earn the right to live at home, return to school, and work outside the program.
When the session was over, the counselor, a big, calm man, stood up.
"Bobby, do you want to hug Mom and Dad good-bye? You won't see them for a while," he said.
"No. I'll never forgive them for this," Bobby said, then left the room without looking at us.
We drove home to our daughters, Jasmine and Rose, then 16 and 13. They took their brother's absence quietly; I, on the other hand, struggled not to cry. I wasn't supposed to have a child who used drugs and hated me for trying to help him. Though my husband, Bob, doesn't share my faith, we both taught our kids morals. And I always urged our kids to bring their emotional bumps and bruises to me. Somehow, though, I'd failed to help my son.
Sunny-natured Bobby had once packed a serious bear hug and given the family affectionate nicknames. He did well at school and church. He began to change, however, when he was a junior in high school. A sullen sneer replaced his smile. He quarreled regularly with his sisters. He fought our rules in order to stay out late with his new buddies.
Bob and I tried to respond with firmness and patience, even when we found drugs in Bobby's room. But it was a losing struggle to keep Bobby under control. Over the course of 18 months, our son dropped out of high school and was in court twice for alcohol and drug possession. On probation, while attending drug counseling, he continued to use marijuana, ecstasy, cocaine, and alcohol. He was ordered to live at home under our supervision, but his defiance and verbal abuse kept the family in an uproar.
Bob and I had little time and energy to give our other children, and we argued over what to do. Bob wanted to turn Bobby out of our home. As a big brother, he was a terrible example for his sisters. But I was afraid for our son. He looked dirty and unhealthy, and he didn't take care of himself.
In my prayers I often broke down crying. I hated feeling that everything, even my communication with the Lord, was so out of control. I quit my job and worked instead at looking for ways to battle Bobby's drug use. That's when I found SAFE, a reportedly tough but effective program. The cost was steep, about $25,000 for an eight-month-minimum stay. But I knew, and managed to convince Bob, that our son could die if we didn't do something.
We first saw bobby at a SAFE assembly a few days after his admission. We sat in a big room on plastic chairs with about 60 other parents. Bobby, his hair cut short, sat with 37 other youths at the front of the room.
I wondered what he was feeling. For so long he'd come and gone as he pleased. Now, after a long day of school and group, he went straight from the program to the home of another SAFE family for dinner and an early bedtime. In the first "phase" of his treatment, he was to focus on the feelings that had led him to use drugs. He couldn't watch television, listen to the radio, or read anything outside of schoolwork until he earned these privileges.
I steeled myself as the assembly began. We were told resentful clients sometimes misbehaved and even swore at their parents. But when Bobby took the microphone to introduce himself to the group, he didn't rage at us. He said he'd felt desperate and lonely for a long time. His voice broke when he said he needed God in his life again.
He cried when Bob and I, emotional ourselves, each described to him before the group a time his drug use had hurt us. Bob and I went home exhausted but hopeful our son was at last seeking help for his problem. We had another challenge ahead of us, though—we and our other children had changes to make, too.
SAFE's philosophy is that substance abuse is a "disease" that affects entire families. Loretta Parrish, SAFE's executive director who founded the program in 1992, believes that while the addict alone is accountable to God for the sinful choice to use drugs, the family, like the addict, must learn a healthy pattern of life called "recovery."
Recovery involves principles summed up in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. One of them, the need to give control of our life to a Higher Power, I thought I'd learned when I became a Christian at 19. SAFE made me uncomfortably aware, however, that I wasn't in control of getting my family well.
Bob and I felt out of our depth in the hours of songs, role-playing, and sharing in our mandatory parent sessions. We had difficulty talking about the feelings Bobby's drug use stirred up, though we were told exploring our emotions was the best way to help our family. I found I hardly knew what my feelings were after focusing so long on those of my family. Bob, my "strong, silent" husband, hated the sessions.
A crisis at home changed Bob's attitude. Rose had gone along with the change in our lives, but Jasmine seemed to take over Bobby's rebellion. We discovered she was drinking and using drugs with friends. We were devastated. At our program counselor's recommendation, we had Jasmine admitted to SAFE for assessment.
The same week, two months after his admission, Bobby earned the right to come home. After the announcement in assembly, he ran to hug us. My joy at touching him again broke through my grief about Jasmine, now sitting among the female clients. Bob's eyes filled with tears as he held our son. Later, Bobby told us he'd worried about Jasmine and asked God to help her—the day before she entered the program.
We prepared to host SAFE clients in our home along with Bobby for the remaining months of his treatment. I felt jittery as we emptied Bobby's room of everything but mattresses, and fitted the door and window with alarms.
I need not have worried. Soon our evenings were filled with the laughter of young people crowding around our table, calling us "Mom" and "Dad." The boys or girls—we had them separately—helped in the kitchen, did laundry and their homework. Occasionally someone refused to take medication or fussed at having to get up at 5:30 a.m. to prepare for a day at SAFE. But often the kids seemed well-behaved and wise beyond their years.
To our joy, Jasmine was discharged from SAFE after a few weeks. Not an addict, she had learned about herself and the risk she had taken by following her brother's example. She came home eager to make a new start.
In group therapy I began sharing more of my feelings and frustrations. I didn't feel my family was progressing as I was. Bobby struggled with fear that he'd always feel guilty about his drug use. Bob closed himself in our room, away from conflict, as he often did in our marriage. Rose said little about her feelings, but Jasmine poured out new resentment over her stay at SAFE.
I expected sympathy from the group, but I didn't get it. Several parents reminded me of the Twelve Steps. They suggested I turn my will for others over to God. I felt misunderstood. How could trying for a happy atmosphere at home be willful? More group sessions showed me.
I learned many of us in the program were afraid of strong feelings. But we didn't turn to God for help. Instead, we clamped down on emotion in ourselves and our children. Many parents tried to reason their children into obedience instead of setting limits and risking the children's anger. All of this helped to set our families up for substance abuse, which thrives on repressed feelings.
My habit of emotional control was strong, and I wrestled with it. I experienced a breakthrough when I called to encourage a mom whose son had run away from the program. When I heard her anxious voice, I wanted to reel off advice. But I remembered the group sessions and found myself saying, "We're powerless, but God isn't"—and really believing it. Perhaps for the first time in my life, I trusted in God's strength instead of my own. I worked to increase that trust as the weeks went by. In my prayers and on paper, I told the Lord my hopes and fears for myself, Bob, my children, and other people, and I asked him to take them.
Amazing things happened. In one joy-filled week I saw Bobby, who had returned to church and school, get baptized and receive his high-school diploma. My relationship with my daughters and Bob improved. Before, I often spent hours thinking up ways to get them to see things as I did. Now I became comfortable accepting my girls' gripes over a boundary such as a curfew, as long as the disagreement was respectful. I also stopped trying to make Bob over emotionally and spiritually. Instead, I worked at sharing how I felt about our differences. He did the same, and though we had our setbacks, we became closer than we'd been in years.
In September 1998, 13 months after his admission, Bobby completed active treatment at SAFE. He graduated after six months of outpatient supervision. Before an Open Meeting audience, he thanked everyone who had helped him. He was in tears when he turned to me. "I wouldn't be here without you. You saved my life, Mom," he said.
I felt joy and awe. While I was learning to let go, the Lord was giving me back my son.
People sometimes look at me strangely when I tell them I'm grateful for the year and a half our family spent in drug treatment. I believe, however, God used this experience to teach me to genuinely "cast my cares" on him.
Bobby worked at SAFE for 16 months as a peer counselor, and I still volunteer at the program. Hearing the new families' stories, knowing that similar ones are afflicting our communities and congregations, I sometimes feel fear at the destructive power of sin. But I give it to the Lord, and thank him for the strength he gives when we lean on him. —tcw
For information about SAFE, go to www.safeorlando.com. Mary Burns is an editor living in Florida.
Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Today's Christian Woman.