What do you do with a child, relative or friend who is an addict?
Is addiction a moral failure?
Is it a treatable disease?
I went to a funeral today. The dead person was a 19-year-old boy. He had overdosed on cocaine and alcohol. He fell against a bathroom sink during a cocaine seizure, lapsed into a coma and died in the hospital four days later. Someone had dialed 9-1-1 too late and disappeared. The sink detail was in the police report. All names are changed in this sad story for obvious reasons. This beautiful child was dead forever. We’ll call him Jeremy.
His mother, my good friend, wept uncontrollably. Six months earlier, after seven rehabs, AA, NA* and CA* meetings all to no avail, my friend Marcie had decided to throw Jeremy out of the house. She told me that he had exhausted her patience as well as her finances. She had been advised to let him hit rock bottom. She wept, curled up on my lap sobbing, whispering hoarsely that she had herself been overdosed on the prevailing diagnosis of being unduly complicit in her son’s addiction. She had been advised that by sheltering him, she had been an enabler – allowing her son to continue his abuse. “I’m letting him go,” she said one day, surprising me. “That’s what I’ve learned to do.” She now blamed herself.
Marcie said she was left with one child, her daughter, Mandy. Mandy turned 17 three days before her brother’s funeral. I had known Mandy since she was 6 lb. 3 oz. – a perfect baby girl. Then Mandy started having seizures and was later diagnosed at five as epileptic. Marcie and I went to many neurologists together. Finally Mandy was put on some seven various medications and they seemed to mostly work. Her seizures were milder and, though slightly tremulous at times, Mandy led a relatively normal life. She was high school valedictorian, had a solicitous boyfriend, lots of girlfriends and bragged outrageously over her Ivy stripes – with early admission to Radcliffe.
Jeremy was another story. He had always been a difficult child. Handsome, funny and – in spite of it all – sweet. At an early age he was diagnosed with ADD*. Jeremy had tantrums, was completely disorganized and totally unpredictable. Little things would set him off. At 13 he was smoking and drinking and lying about it. By 15 he was doing illegal drugs – alcohol, cigarettes, then ecstasy and soon speed. Nothing helped. Jeremy’s father was remarried and Marcie was unable to get her ex to help her with their only son. She tried. A single parent, a working mom, she went to Al-Anon where she found like-minded mothers that had successfully taken a hard- line with their kids.
She decided to follow their m.o. She changed the locks and tossed Jeremy out of the house. “If you can’t come home clean,” she said, “don’t come back!” And when she slammed the door she felt uneasy but correct in her behavior.
Marcie hadn’t heard from Jeremy for the six months. She was worried sick, sleepless and fearful. And then one evening, the tragic phone call … “Mrs. Hanratty?” “Yes, this is she.” “This is Sergeant Adams and I’m sorry …”
I held her hand at the cemetery. Jeremy was buried next to his adoring grandmother and grandfather. They had lived to 80 and 85. Long lives. I wondered in my heart if Jeremy was responsible for his addiction? Was it treatable? Had Marcie given up too soon? Was enabling a bad thing if it brought more time to live life and more time for hope? Was addiction Jeremy’s moral failure? Did he suffer some mental disorder? Mandy’s epilepsy was deemed neurological and not her fault. Was addiction a disease, possibly genetic, a mental illness, treatable?
I don’t know – but what I do know was that tough love had allowed Jeremy to hit rock bottom and in this case it meant no more.
*NA = Narcotics Anonymous
*CA = Cocaine Anonymous
*ADD = Attention Deficit Disorder