A few months ago, I uttered these words to the headmaster of my younger son’s school: “My older son’s addiction has made me a better person.”
It was the first time I’d ever said that to anyone, including myself. It just came out.
And you know what? It’s true.
First of all, let me be crystal clear: As I’ve told people many times before, being the parent of an addict who also suffers from depression is something I wouldn’t wish on anyone. That scenario isn’t one that crosses your mind when you have a child. When you see that new human being you’ve created for the first time, you envision nothing but wonderful things for their future.
My hopes and dreams for my older son were, I imagine, the same ones almost every parent has for their child. That list included academic excellence, graduating from high school, going off to college, etc. Not on that list? Severe depression, a suicide attempt, dropping out of high school, and, ultimately, addiction.
My son was diagnosed with severe depression and an anxiety disorder at age 15. A few months later, while being weaned off an anti-depressant that wasn’t working for him, he took an overdose of that medication and aspirin. Luckily, my wife discovered what had happened in time for us to get our son to the hospital for treatment.
Depression was a huge struggle for my son. There were stays in psychiatric hospitals and many self-injury incidents. Therapy and prescribed drugs didn’t help him, so he turned to self-medication. The marijuana, prescription meds (not his), and heroin he used were all attempts on his part to feel “normal.” What started out as casual drug use eventually spiraled out of control a couple years later.
When I first learned that addiction had overtaken my depressed child, it was a nightmare for me. I thought it was a curse. Why? Because I used to be one of those people who believed the stigma that is so frequently associated with addiction and mental illness. I thought kids who attempted suicide and became heroin addicts couldn’t possibly come from a decent, suburban family. I thought a heroin addict wasn’t a worthy member of society.
Boy, was I wrong. And I got educated in a hurry.
I will never say that my son’s depression and addiction were a “blessing.” That would be a ridiculous statement. Certainly, I would rather we lived a more “normal” life, with memories of my son’s high school and college graduations locked away in my mind, instead of memories of psychiatric hospitals, deception, stealing, heroin withdrawal, rehab stays, and the like. That said, my son’s issues have turned out to be, to this point, anything but a curse.
Being the parent of a child with two different brain diseases has made me a more cognizant, sympathetic, empathetic, forgiving, caring, understanding, grateful person. It’s taught me to appreciate the little things in life and made me more aware that I should live in the moment instead of worrying about yesterday or tomorrow. It’s also taught me volumes about unconditional love.
This might sound kind of twisted to some people, but going through what I’ve gone through with my son has made the current me much kinder and gentler than the old me. Not only am I more willing to help people, I want to help people. I want people who are going through experiences similar to mine and my son’s to know that things can work out. There is no guarantee, of course. But there is hope. And you should never give up.
I have also become passionate about working to help break the stigma associated with addiction and depression. I blog about it. I post on Facebook about it. I tweet about it. I talk to people about it. The world needs to know: Addiction and depression are diseases that can happen to anyone.
People I know frequently tell me they can’t imagine how my wife, my son, and I made it through all the things we’ve been through over the last several years. Well, if you would’ve told me eight years ago what was in store for me and my family, I probably would’ve said “Uncle” and told you I wouldn’t be able to handle it.
But as I look back today, I was able to handle it. So was my wife. We were able to handle it together, as a team. And I believe we are better people because of it. I also believe our relationships with each other and with both our children are stronger as a result. It took a while, for sure, but never giving up on our son—or on each other—has paid off.
My wife and I may have a few more gray hairs and be poorer financially because of our son’s mental health issues. But we are emotionally richer because of them. And that’s not such a bad thing.
Postscript: As I write this, my son has been clean and sober for more than 20 months, and his depression is under control. He has his GED, a job, and a girlfriend he adores. Best of all, he laughs and smiles and enjoys life every day.