Thursday, May 26, 2016

PART 1: If I Could Turn Back Time

Many if not most of you know that I lost my oldest son Henry, age 18 to a drug overdose and brutal drug-related beating on May 31, 2010. It's hard to believe that it's been six years now. I still hurt just as much as I did in the beginning. I cry almost every day. I feel broken in a way that I am not sure will ever heal. However, the one thing that has changed in the past six years is that I do have more perspective than I did in the immediate aftermath of Henry leaving us.

I have a lot to say on this subject so I will divide this blog post into several parts. Here is Part 1.

Frequently I receive emails and phone calls from frantic parents whose children are suffering in the depths of addiction. Every single time I hear from one of these parents it takes me back to the several years before we lost Henry - years during which he was actively abusing drugs - a period during which I felt helpless and alone. I honestly had no idea what I should do...what I COULD do to stop the runaway train that my beautiful son was on. I believe we did some things right. We sent him away to drug and alcohol treatment for basically his entire 17th year. We sent him to counselors and we sat him down with recovering addicts in an attempt to get through to him. However, in hindsight there are things I wish I had done differently.

The nearly hysterical parents who contact me looking for advice frequently ask me, "what do you wish you had done differently? Is there anything I should be doing that I am not?" After these six painful years without my son, I have come to some conclusions regarding the way I dealt with Henry's drug addiction before it finally killed him. When I speak to these parents I try to make it clear that I am not saying these are not necesssarily the "right" things to do. All I can say is that after some period of hindsight, these are the things I wish I'd done differently and that I believe might have made a difference and maybe, just maybe saved Henry's life.

1. Talk early and often about drugs: I admit it. I did not talk to Henry enough about drugs in his elementary and middle school years. This is because I simply couldn't imagine my accomplished, well-behaved child would ever turn to drugs. The whole concept seemed foreign to me and to our family. I have never used drugs - I've smoked pot twice in my life and got nothing whatsoever out of it, so I didn't even have the kind of experience that would have allowed me to speak to him with any knowledge or authority. But this doesn't matter; I should have found the right people to talk to Henry about drugs when he was 9-12 years old. I didn't do this. I just couldn't believe that drug addiction was in his future and so I chose to sort of ignore the whole issue. I talked to him about so many different dangers that I believed he faced but I erred terribly in my lack of conversation with him about drugs. And guess what? By age 14 my sweet, friendly, kind boy had already started smoking pot.

2. Know exactly what your 'tween and young teen is doing online. As someone who works in digital media you would think that I would have been more diligent in exploring my son's online activity. But once again, his demeanor was so very normal, at least until it finally wasn't that I didn't really worry what he was doing online. I mean, I watched him on Facebook but I had no idea that he was participating in drug-related chat rooms and forums, activity that I didn't discover until after he died (I had a friend hack into his computer for me after we lost Henry). In these chat rooms and forums he was actively discussing drugs and his own drug use as early as age 15 years old. My failure to pay closer attention to the conversations he was having online very well may have cost Henry his life. If I had known - MADE myself know - that at age 15 he was online very frequntly talking with ADULTS about drugs, drug experimentation, and how to avoid detection as a drug user I very well might have saved his life. The three years between age 15 and age 18 when he died were absolutely critical years - years when I still had legal and emotional control over my son. And because I was pretty much oblivious to much of the dangerous activity he was engaged in online, I lost that precious time to try to save him.

3. Be hyper-aware of any possible mental health issues that your child has that might lead him to self medicate. Henry suffered from what I now realize what was painful social anxiety and acute general anxiety for his entire life. Even as early as preschool he would come home complaining of stress headaches. We did take him to his pediatrician several times over the years to try to address what was clearly an anxiety disorder, and his pediatrician referred him for counseling. But not one of the several counselors we took Henry to see in early and later adolescence properly diagnosed him. Plus, Henry would clam up in couseling and so he got absolutely nothing out of these sessions. He simply refused to talk becaus he didn't want to be there. In hindsight, Henry almost certainly would have benefited from carefully monitored, prescribed anti-anxiety medication. But he never received this treatment and as a result, fairly early on he began to self medicate. At one point not long before he died, Henry told me that the first time he smoked pot ate age 14 he thought to himself, "Ah, so this is what normal feels like." Henry shouldn't have needed to smoke marijuana to find relief from the existential pain he was feeling (and which he described in great detail in the journals that he kept during his 17th year that he spent in treatment.) I failed my son in not pushing relentlessly for the top-notch mental health care that he deserved to receive before his self-medication turned into the addictive beast that took him from us far too soon.

Here is PART 2 of this series.


  1. I have followed from about the time you lost your Henry. I remember googling "Parents of addicted children" and I found you. Your 3rd point hits home. We had a few signs that I chalked up to a "phase" and I believe if my daughter had been on anti anxiety meds and good counseling it would have made a difference. Thankfully I have not lost my daughter, and she has been in recovery for 2 years straight after 5 or 6 years of on and off sobriety. However, I'm not naive enough to be too comfortable. She is 26 and there truly is very little I can do now, but if only......I have missed your writing the last couple of years....welcome back and thank you so much for sharing.

    1. Thank you Bobbie. I hope and pray that your daughter maintains her sobriety. - Katie

  2. I have often wondered this question, but didn't want to ask. I know it takes a lot of courage to open up but as a parent to a 10 and 12 year old, I thank you. It's time for us to have those conversations.

  3. Thank you for opening your broken heart to extend what help you can to those who are facing this, Katie. I do believe that a common thread among those caught in addiction is social anxiety and/or depression, which leads to self-medicating. Then, as science now bears out, that "1 in 5" person becomes a compulsive abuser, a victim of his/her own DNA. Henry's story touches so many...I appreciate the sacrifice you make in continuing to share it.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. You're in my thoughts as you contemplate. Hugs to you and all your family. So glad your courage won you over and you are writing. You are a blessing to many. Much love.

  6. You're in my thoughts as you contemplate. Hugs to you and all your family. So glad your courage won you over and you are writing. You are a blessing to many. Much love.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. A lot of the kids have had the conversations and it made no difference. Monitoring tweens and teens is crucial however. Not just on line, but who they are with, what they are doing. Chaperoned activities with vigilant adults is important. Knowing the kids and their families and backstories of those your kid is around is essential. I;m one who believes in keeping young people very busy as much as possible in supervised settings. Loose time, too much privacy, nothing to do leads to trouble too often.

  9. I believe, too, that while parents still have authority and control they should assertively weed out questionable friends. I know that's easier said than done, but it is more important now, with drugs so readily available, than it ever has been. No one wants a battle, but I think that's one worth fighting.

  10. I am very sorry to hear of your loss. I have also lost family members and it is the hardest thing for anyone to go through. I don't wish it on even my worst enemy. Time really helps and you realize how strong you are to survive losing them. I hope you can heal and find joy in your life.

    Jeffery @ New Dawn Treatment Centers

  11. I think of you, Henry and your family often and just Henry's story in general. I remember all your writing after he died warning our community, the state, anyone that would listen about how horrible opioid addiction is and what a crisis it will be if nothing is done. Sadly, everything you said has come true. My oldest is now 14 and I was just thinking that I wish that you would write a "what I would do differently" and randomly starting googling you and found your new blog. So good to see that you and your family are doing well (I hope your sister's health is ok) and living on the beautiful farm. Thank you so much for writing this. When Henry died I remember thinking that your description of him as a sweet, shy child seemed so similar to my daughter and the line the you originally wrote and repeated here after Henry smoked pot for the first time "ah this is what normal feels like" there is something about my daughter that makes me feel like she would have the same experience (and I have felt this way since she was 4 or 5) and it scares me to death. Thank you again for writing this for sharing your thoughts, I am sure it is not easy, but it is appreciated.