For the last ten years, I have been steeped in sadness–and without hope–for my older son, who is a heroin addict. Last year, he overdosed four times on Fentanyl and went into cardiac arrest, barely being resuscitated in the emergency room after his heart ceased to beat. Still, even these close calls did not stop him from pursuing his habit. I could not understand how he continued to make this bid for death, even though I had been through something like this before, when my mother killed herself. Can an addiction so grave–one that took my son so close to death–be considered anything other than suicide? When I made a trip to our old home town last week, I called him, willing to talk and get together for the first time in a year, as he finally had achieved some unspecified amount of sobriety. I drew boundaries around our meeting, however: he had to be on time, he couldn’t try to change the hour or the day (which in the past he had done relentlessly), and–even if he had relapsed–he could not use any kind of drug, including alcohol, before we saw one another. If he showed up high, I would leave.
The sight that greeted me that afternoon was nothing short of a miracle. My son was waiting for me early and at the appointed restaurant–both coherent and lucid. He was cleanly dressed, slender, and clear-eyed. He had not used. He had twenty-eight days sober in A.A. and two days later, should he remain that way, he would get his one-month participation “chip,” (which is something like a plastic poker chip with the number of days inscribed on it). He had to look up the exact date of his thirty-day anniversary on his computer calendar, as he is not attempting to rack up just hours and days, but is working his program one day at a time, as all successful practitioners of Alcoholics Anonymous must. We spent two hours together, exchanging news of our lives. For the first time in many, many years, he asked about me: what I was doing, feeling, experiencing in our new life in Maryland. He cared about my answers. I was overcome with happiness that he was interested in my life for the first time in so many years, rather than being wrapped up in his alone. After an hour, he asked if I would hear his “amends.” In A.A., participants take twelve “steps” toward healing: the fourth step is to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves,” and the fifth step is “to admit to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. Now working the ninth step of his program, he was “making amends” to all those he had harmed, except when to do so would injure them or others. The list on his laptop was very long and took at least an hour to go through. Speaking quietly and with great insight, he apologized for anything and everything he had ever done that had caused me pain during our two adult decades together, often touching on old wounds that I had long buried. I sat with a Kleenex bunched in my hand, swiping at my wet face, listening in amazement at his courage and his candor. My soul is eased for however long this precious moment lasts; my son is taking each day as it comes, and so must I. He may relapse, or he may go on to be one of old timers in the A.A. program. I cannot predict and neither can he. What we have between us now is hope. Hope that he will make the program work for him and that he will work the program. Hope that he will continue to survive the scourge that afflicted him. Hope that heroin is gone from his life and will remain only a memory. However it may turn out, I have heard his amends and recognize that he knows what his failings were, accepting that he must do serious work to repair our relationship. His willingness to do so lifts my heart. What a gift he has given me–as I am able, at last, to welcome my boy home again.