I'll never forget the day we got our first phone call from the police. I heard my husband, Mark*, speaking to an unknown caller in a serious tone. "I see," he said. "Yes, I'll be right there." When Mark hung up, he delivered the blow: "David's been arrested for possession of marijuana at school. We need to meet him in the police office at school."
Drug possession? My head reeled. David was only 15. How could he have been arrested for possession? I didn't even know he smoked pot. As soon as I formulated the thought, memories started to surface. Actually, Mark had caught David smoking once or twice in the previous two years. But those seemed like isolated instances that we had addressed in appropriate ways at the time. Nothing to get overly concerned about.
I was wrong. David's arrest was the beginning of an ongoing journey through drug addiction and rehabilitation. Like cockroaches that had multiplied beyond the point of staying hidden from the light, David's arrest signaled a problem that had gotten out of control without us even knowing it. Initially, I felt angry for being forced to travel down this road. People with drug problems were not the kind of people I wanted to know. I resented the time I had to spend bringing David to see his probation officer each month, plus the daily meetings he was required to attend.
"For every hour I invest in dealing with your problem," I threatened through gritted teeth as I walked with David out of the courthouse the first time, "you will spend an hour doing what I need you to do!" Somehow I wanted him to pay for the grief I was feeling inside.
On top of my own anger about having our whole life turned upside down, I worried about what our neighbors would think. We were new in our community. What if word got out that our son used drugs. Would people be afraid to have their kids play at our house with our younger sons? Would my husband and I be ostracized socially?
For months—maybe even a full year—I wore anger like a blanket wrapped tightly around me. As long as I was mad, I didn't have to own any of David's problem. Gradually, I felt God whispering gently, Why are you so angry? With caution, I pulled my comforter down, just off my shoulders at first. I discovered grief and fear hiding beneath the cover. Grief over the fact that David's life would not look like every other high schooler's. There would be no cap and gown celebration marking the end of his high school career. I could cross college visits off my to-do list.
Having identified my loss of dreams for David, I grew bolder and pulled my anger blanket off just a little further. Underneath still was my fear of having failed as a parent. I had mistakenly thought that pouring ourselves into our children's lives would naturally produce good kids. Wrong. For all of our efforts, David made his own choices, which we had no control over and which said nothing about us as parents.
Suddenly, I realized the error in my parenting math: one intentional dad plus one well-meaning mom does not necessarily equal one good kid. Certainly there were areas where I could have—should have—done a better job. And yet, releasing myself from the burden of guilt over David's choices was a giant step toward healing for me. I had spent more time wringing my hands, wondering where I had gone wrong, instead of praying that God would make right all the ways David had gone wrong.
That's when it dawned on me: David's poor choices would actually become his most powerful teacher. By letting him experience the natural consequences of his actions, we would be giving him a gift. Anything we did to get in the way of this process was robbing him of the full teaching life wanted to offer him. And as a wise drug rehab counselor reminded us, it's far better to allow a 15-year-old to experience the consequences of arrest than an adult. At 15, David had the opportunity to clear his record. As an adult, he would be facing a lifetime reminder of his poor choices.
Going from bad to worse
Even with one arrest under his belt, David continued to experiment with more and harder drugs. As his drug use escalated, we began to fear for his life. Plus, with three younger sons under our roof, we desperately needed to establish boundaries to protect the rest of our kids from his influence. After investigating all of our options, we took a radical approach: We sent David to the frozen tundra of Idaho for a wilderness therapeutic program. For 30 days, we had no contact with him. In this time, he learned how to survive in the frigid outdoors. Learning how to navigate wide open, pathless territory became a powerful metaphor for teaching him how to find his way in the wilderness of his own life.
While David wrestled with his demons in the snow-covered desert, I went to the mat with mine too. I began to see how pride had been lurking in the darkest corners of my heart. Who said I had been pre-selected to have perfect kids? And who's to say God hadn't allowed David to travel down this road of drug addiction because it would be the means by which he would reach him and do his best teaching in David's life?
In my pride, I had assumed a sense of entitlement about the kind of life and family I would have. I also realized how little I trusted God to work in and through my children's lives.
When David's 30 days in the desert were up, our family traveled to Idaho to celebrate his wilderness graduation. We drove to the base camp before daybreak. In the distance, across the flat, snow-packed ground, a campfire raged. A group of kids were busily preparing the area for their ceremony. Each of these teens represented a family who loved them enough to let them experience what was probably the hardest month of their lives. Tears began to well up, and my throat knotted the moment we saw him.
"David!" Covered head to toe in desert grit and smelling of month-old body odor, we ran up and embraced in a group bear hug. After all of the families had been reunited with their prodigal children, the flickering firelight beckoned us to form a circle. The graduation was underway.
One by one, each teenager explained what he or she had learned in the desert. They demonstrated the physical survival skills they had learned, like making a bow drill fire out of a handful of tinder and two sticks, and explained how these tasks also served as metaphors for the personal growth they each had experienced. For instance, by having to rely on a partner to build a fire for staying warm and cooking, they learned what it means to be in community with other people.
Like a proud mom of a valedictorian, I could not hold back the tears when it was David's turn to speak. "I learned that I can stick with a job even when it gets hard," David admitted. "For the first time in a few years, I can see everything so clearly. I was always in such a fog. It feels good to be able to see again."
As I listened to each child tell his or her story, my heart swelled. God had replaced my shame over David's struggle with compassion for the challenges he and these kids and all people who battle addictions endure. God was alive among the drug addicted of the world and doing some of his best work in their midst! At that moment, I decided everyone should have a friend who's in recovery.
The other shoe drops
Flash forward one year. Another phone call. "You'll need to go to the police station," the dean of the high school informed Mark. "Your son, Paul, has been arrested and is being charged with a felony for stealing property from the school and for possession of marijuana."
My heart sank. Another set of dreams died in that moment. Grief surfaced quickly, but to my surprise, a different emotion was absent: anger. I had long since discarded the idea that I had some kind of "good mother" reputation to uphold. My focus was immediately on Paul and what he—and we—could learn from this latest "opportunity." Rather than seeing our life with teenagers as a series of unfortunate events, I reacted to this news with sadness, yes, but also with confidence that God was with us in it.
I didn't wallow in my grief as long the second time around. Instead, I actually plugged into a parent group at the drug rehab center that Paul had been assigned to attend by his probation officer. I was stunned to discover more than 40 other parents from our town dealing with the same kinds of issues as ours—many of them much more severe.
In the months that followed, I began to look forward to meeting with these families, rather than resenting the time I was investing in my son's—our—problem. Drugs were part of our life whether I liked it or not. I could either embrace the reality of this and learn from it and help others as they struggled to understand what to do in the midst of their kids' problems, or I could resist the opportunity and learn nothing.
"Do you know how lucky we are to have found out about our kids' drug problems?" Mark pointed out one day while we were walking together. "So many parents never know how deep into drugs their kids really are until it's too late."
"I am so grateful God let us walk with them through all of this," I added. "I feel like we're a stronger family because of everything we've been through. That's the blessing of having drug addicted kids."
Wait, did I just say that out loud? The words had tumbled out truthfully and effortlessly. Maybe I was recovering too.
Watching and waiting
I have thought long and hard about the man in the Bible with the prodigal son. Did he wring his hands day after day, wondering where he had gone wrong in his parenting while he sat on his porch watching for his son to return? The Bible gives us no inkling of this. Instead, I see a dad letting his son go, though it breaks his heart to do so. I see a father who understands that his son will learn best by the natural consequences of his actions. And I see a parent who patiently, lovingly waits for as long as it takes for God to do his best teaching in his son. When the day finally arrives and his son returns, I see a man who lavishes his child with the best of his love, celebrating the tender mercy his Father has shown his son.
This is the day I look forward to also—the day when our kids no longer struggle with substance abuse. And while I wait—for as long as it takes—I trust that God knows the beginning from the end, and he'll be with us every step of the way.
*Susan Bailey is a pseudonym for a writer living in the Midwest. Though this story is true, all names have been changed.