Loving and losing an addict

Barbara Theodosiou says her son Daniel Montalbano was bullied and grew up with behavioral problems.

Story highlights

  • Barbara Theodosiou says mothers cannot save their children from addiction
  • Society is unaware of the damage addiction causes for families, she says

Barbara Theodosiou is the founder of The Addict's Mom, a support group for mothers of those struggling with addiction. The opinions in this commentary are solely those of the author.

The final part of Dr. Sanjay Gupta's report, Primary Concern: Heroin, airs tonight on Anderson Cooper 360° at 8 p.m. ET.

(CNN)Years ago, I learned that two of my sons were addicted to drugs. My life fell apart. I felt isolated, desperate and burdened by an unbearable heartache. I was suffering, and so were my relationships. But I knew I wasn't alone.

In response to my own grief, I created The Addict's Mom in 2008, and I have tried to help support thousands of mothers who understand the heartache of watching a child succumb to the disease of addiction. I wanted to create a place for all addicts' moms to gather, a safe place where they would have the freedom to share their anguish without the burden of shame and guilt that comes with having an addicted child.
Daniel Montalbano died this year after a long battle with drug addiction.
Society is unaware of and apathetic to the damage that drug addiction causes for a family. As other parents enjoy the milestones of life with their children, for example, a graduation, a wedding, or a new baby, support group members visit their children in jail, in the ER, in a psychiatric hospital, in a homeless shelter and sometimes even in the morgue.
    Beginning as an online site, the group has grown to more than 50,000 members, with a chapter in every state. With drug use reaching epidemic proportions in our country, the group plays a vital role in supporting families. I am blessed to coordinate a remarkable group of volunteer mothers who organize events, raise awareness of and de-stigmatize addiction, and lobby for changes in the laws. The Addict's Mom is a unique organization; it gives voice to those who were previously unheard: the mothers. Mothers report that they feel support, understanding and hope that their child will recover.
    One of my sons is in recovery, but tragically, my beloved Daniel died this spring after a long battle with drugs. Daniel was 23. Daniel's story is familiar to many families of children diagnosed with mental illness and suffering from substance abuse.
    At school, Daniel was ostracized and bullied by his peers. He developed behavioral problems, so the teachers isolated him from other students.
    Daniel developed low self-esteem and became angry. I removed him from school; he completed his diploma at home. I soon realized that I needed professional help with Daniel.
    Montalbano also struggled with mental illness, his mother says.
    Daniel's mental health deteriorated further; he began using drugs to numb the pain of his mental illness and accompanying social struggles. He spent thousands of hours in treatment, in mental hospitals, in jail or homeless. The broken systems of mental health institutions and the criminal justice system failed Daniel because he did not receive specialized and appropriate therapies.
    Daniel's experience is not unique; members of The Addict's Mom report similar stories with their children, demonstrating that treatment and incarceration systems are failing nationwide.

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    A voracious reader, Daniel was intelligent and creative. He wrote poems and painted; his work reveals his tortured soul. I advocated for him and demonstrated my unconditional love for my troubled son. Daniel and I spoke daily, even when he was imprisoned. Daniel trusted me above anyone else. But I could not save Daniel; I could not heal him of his addiction.
    Any mother who is struggling with an addicted child knows this hard and painful truth: Mothers cannot save their children from addiction. Unless and until the addicted person wishes to recover, mothers and other family members are powerless to heal their loved one.
    Through my work with the support group, I have been awarded and recognized on local and national levels, becoming the face and the voice of the topic of addiction, not only in South Florida but across the country. Even though I am pleased by the recognition, my goal remains to reach out to the mothers.
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    I plan to continue the work and the mission of The Addict's Mom to ensure that Daniel's brief, tragic life was not lived in vain. I hope that Daniel would be proud of me for continuing the group's work. I do not wish to abandon the thousands of families trapped in the deadly cycle of drug addiction. My goal is to find every mom who is sitting alone in the dark, with tears running down her cheeks, feeling broken and desperate.