Editor’s Note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She is a mom of two girls. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.
Mothers of addicts say they go through a range of emotions -- from guilt to sadness to anger
The Addict's Mom now has over 20,000 members, with chapters in every state
Moms of addicts are working together to raise awareness of what they say is an epidemic
For those who can't afford rehab, jail is their treatment, says The Addict's Mom founder
Seven years ago, Barbara Theodosiou, then a successful entrepreneur building a women’s business mentoring group, stopped going to meetings, leaving the house and taking care of herself. She grew increasingly distraught.
“You almost wake up and get this haunting feeling, this horrible feeling that my God, I just wish I wasn’t going to live today,” said Theodosiou, a mother of four from Davie, Florida. “Not that you would take your life but you’re so scared.”
Petrified, really, but not for herself. For her children.
Theodosiou learned two of her four kids were addicted to drugs.
“I found out within six months that both my sons were addicts and like every other mother, I just wanted to go into bed and never get out.”
Her older son, Peter, now 25, took prescription drugs and then escalated to heroin. Her younger son, Daniel, now 22, started what’s called robotripping, where he would take large quantities of cough medicine to get high.
She says she first noticed signs of problems when her younger son was 16.
“I was taking Daniel to school one day and he was just like almost choking. I thought he was having a panic attack,” she said. A short time later, the school called and said staff members thought Daniel was on drugs.
“I was like, ‘There’s no way.’ … I have talked to my children my whole life about drugs.”
Within just months, after a call from her son Peter’s roommate, her husband went to his house and found needles all over the place.
“If you know about addiction then when you find this out, you realize not only are you in for the fight of your life, but this is not something that gets fixed in six months. This could go on,” she said.
“It’s like having someone punch you in the stomach. … You’re never the same from the second you find out.”
How does the mother of an addict cope? How does she juggle the incomprehensible challenge between supporting a loved one and not enabling their habit? And how does she deal with the stigma of having a child who is an addict?
In my in-depth interviews with Theodosiou and other mothers of addicts across the country, they made it very clear that being the mother of an addict is an incredibly lonely and isolating place, and that often the only people who understand what they’re going through are other mothers who are going through it themselves.
The fear of getting the call
Theodosiou’s son Daniel overdosed three times that first year she realized he was using and nearly died each time.
One day, she returned to her house and saw police officers out front. “I remember pulling up and my heart was beating … I was just going to faint right there.”
The police officer asked if she was Daniel’s mother. “For sure, I thought he was going to tell me Daniel was dead, and it ended up Daniel overdosed again, and again he was in the hospital.”
Melva Sherwood of Vermilion, Ohio, got that unimaginable call on October 3, 2012. Her son Andrew, 27 at the time, died of an overdose of heroin. It was his son’s fifth birthday.
“It was 11:30 at night. I was sound asleep and it was October. All the windows were open, and the entire neighborhood knew what had happened,” said Sherwood, who says she screamed “at the reality of it, that it was over, that it was done.”
“I have a friend who lives down the street, and she said it was horrifying to hear.”
The blame game
Many mothers immediately beat up on themselves when they learn their children are battling addiction.
Brenda Stewart of Worthington, Ohio, says it was heartbreaking realizing two of her three kids were addicts. Her son Jeremy, now 29, used prescription drugs and then heroin, and the drug of choice for Richard, now 31, was crystal meth, she said.
“I’ve been going to counseling for years to figure out what I did wrong. It’s just like, ‘What did I do?’” said Stewart, who has adopted Jeremy’s two children, ages 5 and 7.
“And then you come to find out through tons of counseling and parents’ groups and everything else that this is something you didn’t do to your children. And that’s the hardest thing to get away from because you always feel responsible.”
Debbie Gross Longo, whose son started using drugs at 13 and taking prescription drugs at 15, says the powerlessness of being an addict’s mom is worse than people might imagine.
“As a mother, it’s been hell,” said the mom of four in Stony Brook, New York. “It’s like having a child that you cannot help and sitting on the edge of your seat all at the time because you know something might happen.”
Viewing addiction as a disease was instrumental, many mothers say, in helping understand they didn’t cause their child’s addiction and couldn’t fix it either.
“When you really start to understand that it is a disease … you can start looking at your child in a different way, loving them for who they are and hating the disease,” said Stewart.
Sadly, the stigma of having a child with addiction is all too real and incredibly painful. Announce to your community your child has a disease like cancer and people will jump to help, said mothers I interviewed. Not so when you tell them your child is an addict.
“There are no little girls selling cookies for addiction. Nobody has bumper stickers on their car,” said Theodosiou.
Her son Daniel was in the church group. “When they found out he was an addict, the entire church shunned him. He was completely not invited anywhere.”
‘The hardest thing in the entire world’
Every mom I spoke with talked about the intense struggle between supporting their addicted child or children and not enabling their destructive habit.
It is “the hardest thing in the entire world,” said Theodosiou, who said it was only after seven years and 30-plus stints in rehab that she knew she had to make a drastic change.
“All of these people were telling me you have to stop enabling Daniel. You need to let Daniel go. You need to just stop. … I had to actually face leaving Daniel on the street,” she said.
“I finally spoke to a pastor and an addiction specialist who told me that … the last person in the world who could ever help Daniel is me.”
Sherwood, who lost one son to a drug overdose and has another son who battled drug addiction, said she was never able to cut off her children completely, but she set limits.
“As far as enabling, I think you need to lay it on the table for them. This is what you can do. Here are your options but I’m not going to sit here and let you take advantage of me and lie to me,” said Sherwood, who is a registered nurse and the owner of a business providing caregivers for in-home assisted living.
Stewart, whose two sons were addicts, said she eventually realized the longer she enabled her children, the longer they weren’t going to face the consequences.
“It took the line in the sand, telling them I love them and if they were ever ready to get the help and really wanted it that I’m here for them … but I’m not going to set up another appointment,” she said.
But the enabling isn’t just about the addicts, said Stewart. Parents need to realize they are enabling themselves and are risking losing everything by thinking they can save their children.
“There are moms losing their lives to save their children. … They’re spending their whole paycheck trying to take care of their child. They’re not taking care of themselves. That’s just a ripple effect.”
Finding support from other moms
Theodosiou went through the range of emotions that most mothers of addicts experience: the guilt followed by the intense sadness and then the anger.
“It’s just a very, very sad and a very lonely place,” she said.
Then, one day about a year and a half into her new kind of normal with two sons who were addicted, she had a conversation with God.
“I said, you know, God, if my sons are going to be living this life and be destroyed by this, I’m going to tell every mother and help every mother I can think of. I’m not going to keep it a secret.”
She headed to Facebook and started a group called The Addict’s Mom in 2008.
Her friend thought she was insane.
“She was like, ‘Are you crazy? You are going to go on Facebook and say that you are an addict’s mom?’ And I said, ‘You know what, I am and I know there have to be a million mothers just like me who are addicts’ moms.’”
Stewart is the state coordinator in Ohio for The Addict’s Mom.
“It’s given me a place that I feel at home, a place that I feel I can give back,” she said. “I also understand the parent’s pain and for me if I can help one parent ease that pain, then I’ve done something.”
Sherwood, who’s an administrator for the Facebook group, said the online community was an “unbelievable eye opener.”
“It was just like somebody turned on the light in the closet,” she said. “It gave me such comfort to … be able to put something out there online at any time during the day and have 20 people respond back with, ‘Hey, we know. We’ve been where you’re at. We feel for you. We’re praying for you.’ “
“It definitely was a life-changing experience.”
‘If you can’t afford it, jail is your treatment’
Besides providing invaluable comfort and support, The Addict’s Mom is a resource center with information on low and no-cost rehabs, psychologists and sober living environments. This month, the group is launching weekly online video meetings where mothers can call in from all over the country and talk with experts on addiction.
The group has also launched offshoots, including The Addict’s Mom Healthy Moms, where the focus is solely on helping the mom live a healthy life (“We don’t even talk about the addict there,” said Theodosiou) and The Addict’s Mom Grieving Moms for mothers who lost children to addiction. It’s also started The Addict’s Dad for fathers and a group called The Addict for the addicts to talk directly with each other.
A big focus now, the moms I interviewed said, is raising awareness about the problem of drug addiction and finding affordable solutions.
“There is treatment if you’re rich and if you can afford it,” said Theodosiou. “If you can’t afford it, jail is your treatment.”
The Addict’s Mom is starting programs in states including New York, Kentucky and Ohio, where moms go into schools and educate students about addiction. The member moms are also flexing their lobbying muscles, advocating for laws such as legislation that allows a judge to order a person into treatment if a family member feels that person is a danger to himself or others.
“Our children are dying and at such an alarming rate,” said Theodosiou, noting how the day before our conversation there were two posts on The Addict’s Mom with reports that two children died.
“We are seeing an alarming rate of death in our society. We have to break the stigma. It’s a disease,’” said Theodosiou. “They are not bad people. We have to get the word out.”
Raising awareness and helping other mothers drives members of The Addict’s Mom, but they are also always mindful of the lifelong battle their children are facing.
Sherwood’s surviving son is doing well, she said, working full-time in marketing and sales, and planning to take a nutritional coaching course for a possible career in nutrition.
“Today, I have my son back as he learns and implements the plan he has put into place with nutrition, exercise and being with those that truly love him and support his journey toward a better life,” said Sherwood. “What more could a parent ask for!”
Stewart’s son Jeremy has been in recovery for over two years. He’s engaged, is getting ready to buy a house and is very active with his two children. “Our hope is that in the very near future they are back with their father,” said Stewart, who currently cares for her son’s kids. Her older son, Richard, is also doing well, and has been in treatment since the end of June.
Gross Longo’s son, now 25, had been in recovery for six months and just recently relapsed. He entered a detox program and is starting again on the road to recovery, his mother said.
“I am once again heartbroken,” she said. “(My son) is doing what he needs to do to get well, but do you understand how this is a day-to-day, year-to-year fight?”
Before her son’s relapse, Gross Longo told me she was so pleased about his recovery but also very cautious.
“They could change on a dime,” she said. “They could be doing wonderful for five years … and then one evening it’s gone.”
Theodosiou’s older son, Peter, has been in recovery for 3½ years and is a recent college graduate. He will soon begin a master’s program in speech pathology.
Her younger son, Daniel, had been in rehab for five weeks – his longest time ever in treatment – but recently relapsed, breaking the condition of his release from jail so he is back behind bars.
“I am really sad about Daniel,” said Theodosiou.
Despite her son’s setback, she continues to advocate for other moms of addicts, but also gets some much needed help for herself.
A few days before our conversation, a member of The Addict’s Mom called her and expressed concern.
“She said, ‘Barbara, we’re worried about you.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘Because you have to take care of yourself. You help so many other people.’”
“I still struggle with being OK and with my own issues and they help by reminding me, by being there, by being able to talk to them, by sharing resources and supporting me.”
Have any of your loved ones ever been addicted to prescription drugs? What do you think is the best way to help addicts and their families? Share in the comments or tell Kelly Wallace on Twitter or CNN Living on Facebook.
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