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Photo Courtesy of Kathleen

Kathleen and Tommy (whose face is intentionally blurred)

Mother and son share story of addiction


By Susan Passi-Klaus
July-August 2015

Tommy is a drug addict ... a deep-down, drug-obsessed, hooked-real-bad meth addict. This "sweet kid" has been doing drugs since he was 16, when his suspecting parents would sneak into his bedroom looking for opiate stashes in toilet tanks, air vents and backpacks. They never found anything. Later, they learned their industrious son had gone as far as hiding cocaine inside hollow yellow highlighters and in Ziploc bags buried under mulch.

He's tried rehab 11 times, been in every halfway house in the city and been sent to psychiatrists, special schools and wilderness camps. Each time, he comes home to the streets, trading services for drugs. They call him a "middle man" – the human bridge between dealer and user. This well-mannered son of a United Methodist couple is open about his drug habit – he's shot it, smoked it, eaten it and found unmentionable ways to pay for his $150-a-day habit. "It will never be enough for me," he said.

For now, for today, and for the last six months, Tommy has been clean. Rehab and Narcotics Anonymous meetings are helping, but he admits that mostly fear keeps him off the streets. There's a long line of gypped "friends" who plan to kick out his teeth, an angry drug dealer threatening to blow his brains out, a probation officer waiting to send him to prison and a history of overdosing that may eventually end his life.

Add to all the challenges listed above a prescription pad filled with drugs that address obsessive-compulsive, attention deficit hyperactivity, bipolar and anxiety disorders; depression; and paranoia. Just managing and affording his meds challenges him everyday.

Call it courageous or call it crazy, Tommy and his mom, Kathleen, are willing to tell both sides of their story – a story they write one day at a time.

Tommy: If I don't get high a day, that's a miracle for me. I started early, and my drug use escalated quickly. One minute I'm out by a creek smoking a joint with a classmate, and then the next minute I'm in a drug house somewhere downtown. As much as I hate to say it, I will always love shooting dope. Most of the time I love it more than my own life.

A mother's love is rarely the cure for drug addiction. Long ago, one of Kathleen's friends told her, "The addict and the addict's mother are the sickest of the sick" – the addict can't stop drinking and drugging, and the mother's own addiction to enabling and saving her child makes the vicious cycle go round and round."

Tommy: I've lost so many people I loved. Anyone close to me, I tried to pull them down with me. I'm a better meth addict than I am a human being. This isn't who I wanted to be. This isn't what I wanted to do with my life. I don't want to be this way.

"I haven't met a parent of an addict that wasn't first in denial, including myself," Kathleen said. "Loving an addict is as hard as being an addict. I've learned in Al-Anon that I didn't cause his addiction, I can't control his addiction and I can't cure it, but despite everything in my head, in my heart, I just don't understand why he cannot accept that we love him unconditionally. How can he accept God's love if he can't accept our unconditional love?"

Tommy: I've seen a lot of things that made me think, well, maybe there is a God. But I've also seen a lot of things that make me think there is no God. I kind of think there's something out there, something greater than me, but I don't think I'll ever know if God is or isn't. That's OK with me.

Somewhere along the line between hospital emergencies, midnight rescues and countless diagnoses from doctors, the hurting, but wiser mom gave it to God. "I'm his mother," she said. "God can fix him, but I can't."

Throughout these tumultuous years, Kathleen's Sunday school class continues to support both her and her son. Whatever the mom and son have needed, her church friends have shared – providing towels and T-shirts whenever Tommy got off the street to visiting him in jail and holding Kathleen's hand in hospital waiting rooms – and they give without judgment.

"They have been the hands and feet of Jesus," she said. "I don't even know where I'd be without them."

Tommy: When I use, I don't go around my family. I can't look them in the eye. I'm too ashamed. Although they may have seen me on every drug I've ever used, I wouldn't let them see me with tracks on my arms or 20 pounds underweight or with drug-related tattoos on my body.

Most people don't know what to say when Kathleen talks honestly about Tommy and his struggles. Sadly, some people say all the wrong things. They've advised about tough love, setting boundaries and not "spoiling" him. Many have said hurtful things like, "Well, my child hasn't done anything as bad as your child." One of the most offensive comments was, "My children learned all about drugs in school, and they would never do drugs."

"Well, guess what?" Kathleen wanted to say, "My son went to the same school!"

"You can't believe the things people will say that bring on guilt, shame and anger," Kathleen said. "Occasionally, you do get understanding people who say, ‘I've been where you are,' or ‘I'm really sorry. Is there anything I can do to help you?'"

Tommy: I just don't feel like anybody understands why I stop and then keep going back to using drugs. Even though I've been clean since February, how do I explain my addiction and the fact that I would still get high if I could do it without consequences?

"I would give anything if our parenting problems had been ‘typical' of teenagers – breaking rules, disrespect, failing algebra or going goth," the mom said. "Most parents just hope their kids grow out of it.

"I felt like I had been robbed of something really important. Those are rites of passage for a teenager – prom, graduation and touring colleges. I never got to experience them."

Tommy: I haven't been happy in a long, long time. I don't really have any dreams. I just want to keep my job, pay my bills on my own, get a car and know that my mom's not wondering where I am or if I'm alive.

"I can talk with him in the morning, and he'll sound fine, but by evening, he'll be gone ... back on the streets again," she said. "I never know if it's the last time I'll ever talk to him, so I try to appreciate every sober day with him because it may be my last."

Can he kick it? Can he stay clean this time? Is this the last arrest, last stint at rehab and last halfway house? Kathleen doesn't guess any more. She just hopes.

"I'll be sad if it doesn't work," Kathleen said, "But I won't be surprised. You set yourself up for a fall if your child is clean and sober. You don't dare breathe a sigh of relief, but I've done it myself so many times."

Tommy: If I can just stay clean, I know I'll be able to love myself again.

"I think there's a purpose to Tommy's life," Kathleen added, "and I hope I'm here to see it. I believe God will give him peace, whether in this life or the next."

Tommy: People worry about the next life. All I care about is how I can stop ruining this one. I know a lot of people who are scared of going to hell, but I'm scared of going back.

Susan Passi-Klaus is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tennessee.