We often share the stories of someone currently in a recovery program, but we don’t usually hear from the loved ones who helped them get there. Recently, we spoke to Betsy, the mother of a young man named Michael, who struggled for years with addiction before seeking treatment at Pathfinders Recovery Center in Scottsdale, Arizona. This is her story:
You often hear that addiction is a family disease. I’m Irish and alcoholism runs in my blood. My parents didn’t drink excessively, but some other relatives did. I remember my Dad taking me aside and telling me that if I ever felt like I was drinking too much and I couldn’t control it, I needed to stop. He explained that some families have a genetic propensity for alcoholism and warned me to be aware of this. I always remembered that cautionary advice, but it’s hard to see if you have a drinking problem when everybody around you drinks a lot.
Then, in my thirties with two small kids, I started to feel like my drinking was out of control. I would get drunk at family parties and embarrass myself or wake up without remembering what I said to people. I got tired of feeling awful and regretting my actions. My Dad’s words echoed in my head. So, when I was 39, I decided to stop drinking. I did it on my own, cold turkey, without a program. I did start running because exercise made me feel good and filled that void. That was March of 1999.
My son Michael was born three months premature, in January 1992, and I haven’t stopped worrying about him since. I’ll never forget my first glimpse of Michael’s addiction on a family vacation when he was eight or nine years old. We were at the beach and it was right when Red Bull energy drinks came out, so the Red Bull car was handing out free cans. Nobody really knew too much about it. Michael got ahold of a Red Bull and it made him absolutely crazy. He was acting so wild, I remember my husband and I looking at each other and saying we better watch out when Michael gets old enough to drink alcohol.
Michael was always trying to get anything that made him feel good—candy, soda, ice cream, whatever. Then, in middle school, he was diagnosed with OCD, so we knew he had some mental health issues before he ever started drinking or using drugs. During the summer of 2010, right after he graduated from high school, things started to get out of control for the first time. Michael drank too much and didn’t make it home a couple times. At that point, it was hard to tell if he really had a drinking problem or if it was just experimentation. We were hoping for the best, so we sent him off to college that fall.
As parents, we struggled during the two years Michael was away at school. We knew he was getting in trouble, but we didn’t know when to step in. We got several calls from the college, telling us Michael was on probation for drinking. It got to the point where he wasn’t allowed to stay on campus during the weekends. Because he was home every week, we realized what was really going on. He was drinking and smoking pot, and he was abusing Adderall. He told us he had a friend with a prescription and she gave him a few pills. We found out later that he went and got his own prescription behind our backs.
We were very worried about him. I established contact with several of his friends at school, making sure they had my number. I was terrified he would overdose or get arrested and nobody would call me. I was living in a constant state of low-level anxiety. Around this time, I found some help for myself through a 12-step program for the relatives and friends of addicts. It made a huge difference to get support and share honestly with people who understood what I was going through. Things came to a head with Michael when I got another call from the school, this time from the drug and alcohol counselor. In 2012, we pulled him out of college and brought him home for good.
When Michael moved home, he was 20 and really angry to be back at our house. He stayed out of trouble for a little while, enrolled in a local college and seemed to be doing okay. Because we knew about the Adderall, we forbid him from taking it. Instead, he started secretly ordering illegal prescriptions online and trying different synthetic drugs. He got in the habit of staying out all the time, blacking out and ending up in dangerous situations. We started getting calls from bouncers telling us to come pick him up at clubs, or from his friends, saying he disappeared while they were out. It was a scary time.
In February of 2013, I came home from work one day and immediately knew something was wrong. There were water spots on the floor in the kitchen as if somebody came out of the shower without drying off. I went upstairs and found malt liquor cans and Adderall in the bathroom. Michael was under the covers in his bed, unconscious. He was not responsive and I immediately called 911. When he woke up in the hospital, his dad and I told him we had arranged for him to go directly to an inpatient rehab program. We told him that we loved him and wanted to help him, but coming home was not an option. Then we left.
A few hours later, he showed up at our house. He either caught a bus or walked—I don’t know. It was the middle of winter and all he had on was a t-shirt, jeans and loafers with no socks. He knocked and asked to come in, but we had just reached a breaking point. We warned him that we were going to call the police. When he didn’t leave, we did. He hadn’t broken any laws, so they couldn’t arrest him, but they told him to find another place to go. He ended up down the street at his aunt’s house. While he was there, they had a family intervention and tried to get him to go to rehab, but he just left. He returned to our house and this time he broke a window. The police came back and arrested him. I’ll never forget my son standing in handcuffs and one of the officers asking if we wanted him arrested; my husband said yes.
We live in a quiet cul de sac and our neighbors all came out to watch Michael get arrested. I didn’t care. I’m not ashamed of him for having a disease. I will always love him and do whatever I can to try to keep him safe. I wanted him to get help so desperately I thought maybe jail would wake him up. He spent the night behind bars then appeared in court. We were all there and the judge basically told him he had three choices, live on the street, go to a shelter or go to treatment. So he finally went.
Michael spent the next four years in and out of treatment. He has been to rehabs in Connecticut, Tennessee, Florida and three different facilities in Arizona. He never stayed more than 30 days. He would come home and clean up for awhile, then start using again. He managed to finish college, but didn’t pursue a career, preferring to work retail instead. He had at least three hospitalizations and it was always hard to tell what was really going on with him—mentally or physically— because of the drugs. One time I watched him have multiple seizures in my house as the paramedics took him away. I couldn’t even look because I thought he was dying.
When we found Pathfinders in Scottsdale, it was literally our last resort. Michael had been in another program in Arizona and we got a call that he was getting kicked out. In desperation, I called Pathfinders and spoke with the Admissions Director, Vito Fraccalvieri. I explained where Michael was and that he was clean, but I was scared because he had nowhere to go. From that first phone call, I got the feeling the guys at Pathfinders truly care about helping addicts. We had dealt with a lot of treatment facilities at that point and the experience with Pathfinders was different, more personal.
The admissions process was very easy and Vito told me not to worry, that they would go pick up Michael immediately and make sure he was safe. He told me they go get guys from airports, bus stations or off the streets to help them get to treatment—that’s how they do it. It was exactly what I needed to hear because I was so far away and feeling powerless. Right from the start, Pathfinders did everything they could to make sure my son got the best care and I was kept informed every step of the way.
The 90-day residential program at Pathfinders is exactly what my son needed. There are several options for the length of stay, but during the intake process, they helped Michael set some treatment goals and determine the best program for him. The staff really understands what addicts are going through because many of them are also in recovery. They focus on what it really takes to get off drugs and develop a sober lifestyle. It’s more than just getting clean; they pay special attention to treating the root causes of addiction and addressing mental health in order to stay clean.
Because it’s a small group of men, not one of these huge facilities, everybody gets to know each other and we got the sense that the client community is very supportive. They keep the residents engaged in therapeutic activities and 12-step meetings, but also take them on outings every week so they can learn to do normal things sober. They go golfing, to the gym and to movies. I loved hearing that Michael was finally having fun in recovery and doing the things other young men do.
My son is an adult, but the staff at Pathfinders understands how vital communication and family involvement are and we very much appreciate that. I’m in regular contact with Michael’s treatment team, which helps keep my mind at ease after years of worrying. I know when I call I will get a call back and get an honest update. We can tell the team sees Michael as an individual and is focused on his unique needs.
Pathfinders helped him find a sober living house after 90 days and he started the outpatient phase of treatment. He has slowly started to rebuild himself mentally, emotionally and financially. He has a job and he attends group at Pathfinders and meetings with the guys. Michael has never had this kind of support group before and I feel like that’s what he needed. He still has times when he wants to leave and come home, but with the guidance of his Pathfinders family he’s learning how to make better choices and live a sober life.
Pathfinders goes above and beyond for everyone in their program. If you are committed to staying clean, they will do whatever they can to help. Michael just celebrated his 26th birthday a few days ago and, thanks to Pathfinders, he has received the very best gift—a life in recovery.
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