August 5, 2011

Throughout her relatively brief career, media reports seemed to focus as much on British singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse’s troubled life as on her music. Last month, her father, outspoken about Amy’s drug and alcohol addiction, depression, early stage emphysema and legal woes, received the call he had anticipated, informing him his daughter had died in bed at age 27.

Other parents whose children are fighting addiction can be reluctant to speak of it as publicly as Winehouse’s father. A Minnesota woman I’ll call “Monica” agreed to shine a light on her family’s struggles on condition of anonymity. She hopes that this discussion of her experiences might be helpful to others in what feels like an otherwise helpless situation.

“You really don’t know addiction until it’s personal,” she says. “Although people who know me well understand what I’m dealing with, how do I tell someone at a cocktail party about my 22–year- old son who suffers from both mental illness and addiction?”

While already challenging because of his ADHD and anxiety issues, life became surreal when they discovered the son I‘ll call “Michael” was consuming large quantities of alcohol as a high school junior. That discovery led to a stress-filled journey for the entire family as they’ve faced a range of issues they would never otherwise have contemplated. “We spent Christmas at Hazelden opening gifts. How could I have arrived at this point in life?” she wonders.

Monica and her husband raised three children in an upscale Minneapolis suburb. Active in their church, they educated their children in private schools, assuming all would be college bound. Straight laced, they have a close-knit group of family and friends. While they strive for normalcy, they are continually extinguishing the flames of the latest crisis. Monica explains Michael is impulsive and lacks clear judgment. “He thinks he has friends, but does not. The people he finds get him into trouble,” she says. Although It’s easier to be mad than sad, it’s wrenching for them to anticipate “the phone call.”

“Technically, we are empty nesters — but we really aren’t.” It’s difficult to go away for fear of what might happen in their absence. Inpatient treatment offers a reprieve because they know Michael is safe there. Otherwise, they never know when he may knock at the door or they may get a call. “I spend my days worrying if he is alive, if he wants to be alive. I’ve planned his funeral 10 times in my mind when things have gotten really bad,” she says.

Wiser now, his parents struggle to distinguish between helping and enabling him. Currently, Michael is not welcome to live in their home. “If he chooses to live this lifestyle he must live somewhere else,” Monica says, although it’s awful to think he may be living on the streets. They often do not know where he is staying, and they gave him a phone so he can call from anywhere.

Michael has multiple diagnoses from numerous practitioners. Discerning whether his behavior is a result of his addictions or his mental illness is nearly impossible. Since treatment centers tend to focus on one or the other, formulating a plan with professionals who have conflicting opinions has been an exhaustive effort, yielding little clarity, she says.

Communicating with Michael is difficult because they must filter his stories for fact and fiction. Although he purportedly drank five bottles of vodka in a week he showed no signs of intoxication. Nor was there evidence to substantiate alleged suicide attempts or claims he is in a gang. Yet, he definitely has abused a variety of illicit and over-the-counter drugs, as well as alcohol. And he admits he cannot think past tomorrow.

There are legal concerns and expenses. The threat of incarceration always looms, as he is on probation for previous infractions resulting from his impulsive behavior. If he violates his probation, prison is probable. Jail would do nothing to help him, Monica says, because his legal issues derive from his mental illness and the impulsivity that has plagued him since childhood, rather than from criminal intent.

Recent efforts have focused on getting Michael into “the system,” a step they long avoided because they could help him pay legal fees and medical insurance covered his treatments. Once he became an adult their policy did not cover treatment for mental illness so he is on medical assistance now. They are also establishing a special needs trust and guardianship and working with county workers to ensure he will always have a place to live. Yet they have lost some of the control to which they were accustomed.

An overarching concern is to protect their other children, Monica says. “If they ask, we tell them, but they don’t know the worst of it. They know their brother has stolen nearly everything of value from their home, though, and they have a security system, a lockbox and a safe to protect what’s left.”

An optimistic nature and strong faith sustains Monica. “I wake up every day feeling hopeful and happy,” she says. Nevertheless, after five years and 14 inpatient treatment programs for her son, she no longer sees gold at the end of the rainbow. Rather, she often prays for a soft landing for the young man who does not feel he fits into this world. “Every day is so hard for him I wonder whether he would be better off with God,” she says. “My God would find a place for him to have some peace.”