Come for the healing. Stay for the community.
For more than a decade, we tried to fix our daughter. It wasn’t until we found Learn to Cope that we understood we needed to fix ourselves. Addiction is a family disease. Unfortunately, many parents don’t reach this revelation until they’re nearly broken. That was the case for us.
My wife Chris and I moved to Boston from a small town in Vermont in 2007, seeking more opportunities for ourselves and our daughter, who was fifteen at the time—a funny, creative, big-hearted kid who played soccer, loved the stage, never missed an episode of Survivor, and was crazy about creatures, from hermit crabs to shelter dogs.
But the transition was difficult. Our daughter went from a homogenous high school in a rural state to a large, diverse one in a bustling city. At the time, I didn’t think it was a big deal. When I was eleven, I had moved to another country where I didn’t speak the language, so I figured that even with some bumps here and there she’d be fine. Little did we realize her struggle with anxiety and depression had already begun. Even before the moving vans arrived, her mom worried she was spending less time with friends and had lost interest in her favorite summer camp. I chalked it up to adolescent moodiness. The move would fix all that, I hoped. More friends to choose from. More excitement. More things to do.
It wasn’t long after changing our license plates that an eating disorder revealed itself. Much of the next five years was spent cycling through treatment centers, rushing her to emergency rooms with a dangerously low heart rate, and taking her to therapists who put her on stronger and stronger medications. Her mom drove her to every appointment fearing she couldn’t afford to lose any more calories. Our holidays were spent in clinic visiting rooms. No matter what we threw at the situation, nothing changed. Except the clouds of anger and confusion passing across my face. How could she do this to us? Why was she wrecking our little tribe? We never sought out a support group, convinced that sheer will, determination, and love would prevail.
Later, when she started drinking, smoking weed, and running with a fast crowd, I was almost relieved. At least she seemed to be leaving the eating disorder behind and making friends, even if some were a little shady. In my mind, she was coming back around. I used to hang out with kids my parents didn’t like, too.
But that delusion was short-lived. When heroin entered the picture, the real nightmare began. And it moved with alarming speed. Predators, police interactions, homelessness. Our get-togethers became less frequent and often ended in screaming matches. Her conscience had vanished, all the light swallowed up. In her place, a vacant-eyed stranger picking at sores. Beneath the stupors and lies, she may have still loved us, and she may have known that we loved her, too, but we were no match for heroin. Love was not enough.
But it takes a long time to realize that, let alone accept it. So, we resumed our war footing and scrambled the jets, determined to save her from herself. Meanwhile, we weren’t sleeping, couldn’t keep anything straight, minds poisoned with worst-case scenarios, waiting to be greeted at the door by a pair of stone-faced cops. We isolated from friends and family. Silence was easier. Besides, guilt has a way of muting your voice. If only we had stayed in Vermont. If only we hadn’t been so indulgent. If only we hadn’t pulled her out of that first eating disorder clinic. If only. If only. If only.
Still, we soldiered on. Because that’s what parents do, right? Save them or die trying. We’d find her the right rehab, the right counselor, the right sober home. We’d make sure she wasn’t evicted, that she didn’t starve. We drained our bank account cleaning up wreckage. Little did we realize, we were only removing obstacles, making it easier for her to keep doing what she was doing.
My wife’s health was suffering. I was gripped by paranoia. Yet somehow, we kept showing up to work every day—Chris fielding emergency calls in the office stairwell or whispering with detox counselors at her desk, me on the phone in a bathroom stall trying to stop her from AMA-ing or calm down an angry landlord. We had become shells of who we used to be… Or die trying.
Until we met Kathy Day during Family Day at our daughter’s latest treatment center, and she told us about Learn2Cope. I’d never heard of it and wasn’t especially hopeful about meetings, unsure how a support group would help our kid get well and stay well. We’d tried a couple others, but they didn’t click. Besides, our daughter seemed to be embracing recovery this time, even her counselor was optimistic. My wife looked at Kathy’s pamphlets and whispered, “I hope we never have to go there.”
A few days later, we walked into a hospital in Cambridge and followed the signs until we reached a third-floor chapel. I stared at the Learn2Cope placard for a moment before the double doors swung open and we walked in. Our daughter had picked up within hours of being discharged from treatment. When I screwed up the courage to introduce ourselves to the group—mothers, mostly—I was startled to learn there was another Caleb in the folding chair across from me. I could count on one hand the number of times I’d met someone with my name, especially my own age. It brought into stark relief the pervasive reach of this epidemic. Still, I was doubtful anyone—even Caleb—could relate to our decade-long nightmare. After finding needles in her trash can, tossed as casually as used Kleenex, we kicked our daughter out of our home and changed the locks. A crushing move. But as we told our story, heads began nodding. When we talked about the stash she’d hidden in the car before going to rehab, someone recounted how they’d handled a similar gut punch. When we described the countless syringes we’d had to discard over the years, the criminal characters she ran with, the phone she’d left behind that granted a disturbing window into her secret life, we weren’t greeted with blank looks. We were met with compassion. With understanding. We heard stories worse than ours—parents with children in federal prison, parents with multiple kids addicted, whose sons and daughters were threatening to kill them.
L2C was clearly different. And we had unwittingly taken our first step toward change. We began hearing things that we’d needed to hear for years, starting with the Three Cs: “You didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure it.” And “We’re parents, not professionals.” We heard about the importance of self-care: “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But one phrase stuck out: “When the family changes, the addict changes.”* After years of careening blindly, it felt like a plan, maybe even like something resembling hope. We’d been turning ourselves inside out trying to save someone who didn’t want saving. But did we really have power over our situation? As long as we stayed sick, so would she.
Of course, this insight didn’t stop the crises nor our plunges into despair. Our hope for our daughter had ceased to be about her happiness, even her sobriety. It had dwindled to but one—that she not die. But in L2C, we had found a place where, if only for 90 minutes a week, we could unburden ourselves, to shed tears, to rage, to listen, to learn, and even, believe it or not, sometimes to laugh.
We heard from speakers in recovery who passed out their phone numbers afterward, which we promptly texted our daughter. We made sure she knew we were getting educated and finding support. We worked on pausing before reacting, taking time for ourselves, and accepting that the only lives we could control were our own.
Meanwhile, we tried to narrow her path and followed through on our threat to have her civilly committed to a state-run treatment facility. An extreme move some others in the group had undertaken. We had flirted with the idea for more than a year, but always pulled back, agonizing at the thought of our petite blond daughter locked up with a bunch of rough and tumble, hardened cases. Until we recognized that our petite blond daughter was herself a rough and tumble, hardened case. And hurtling toward an early grave. Whether the Section-35 would trigger the mysterious click in her brain, who knew, but at least it would interrupt the cycle, expose her once more to the vapors of recovery, and give us a few nights sleep back. Upon release, she agreed to vivitrol and sober living in another state.
But as we learned, the road to recovery is rarely linear. After a year, she relapsed, picking up where she left off, even running back in Boston right under our noses. Until she ran out of steam, or options, or both, and called to say she had checked herself into detox. Although we’d grown suspicious, I was crushed that she’d picked up again and was back in another facility—I wasn’t sure I had another “here we go again” in me. But this time, we’d had nothing to do with getting her to treatment. And that was different.
In rehab this go-round, she finally began to surrender, and slowly, painfully, with help of those in recovery and treatment professionals, found her vulnerability and enough courage to start probing the emotions she had been numbing for so long. Eating disorders, substance abuse, those aren’t the problems. They’re the solutions. Remedies to a slate of torturous feelings young minds aren’t necessarily equipped to handle. And it wasn’t until she, as well as we, recognized these root causes that the real work could begin. As her world slowly opened, so did ours.
Today, the gleam is back in her eyes. She has been drug-free for more than two years and has surrounded herself with a group of strong, sober women. She sponsors others in AA, serves as a recovery coach for an addiction recovery organization, and works in a treatment center. She regularly shares her story—her wisdom, strength, and hope—with others including at Learn2Cope.
Sobriety has allowed her to begin rebuilding her life. She finally earned her driver’s license and is going back to school 12 years after dropping out. She has found an outlet in the weight room, building both her outer and inner strength, determined to take up space in this world rather than try and vanish. Her belly laugh has returned, which sends me over the moon with delight. She’s so damn funny, I spend a lot of time in orbit. And she spends time with us for no reason other than just being together.
While we hate the reason we’ve all met, a powerful community has emerged out of shared anguish and suffering. A group of like-minded, empathetic, and wise people, from all walks of life, who have your back, week in and week out, people who get it. And that’s exactly what you need to get through what is perhaps the toughest challenge life will throw at you.
Though the pain and toll of this disease feels unceasing as we see new faces join the group, and the losses in our community soberly remind us what’s at stake, each new mother or father, spouse or sibling, makes our army that much stronger. My wife and I know, as parents, we are never out of the woods and it doesn’t take much to stir the PTSD that still lurks just below the surface. But should our daughter ever stumble, we know exactly where to turn.
Today, we live in a world that is no longer colored by evil but by the miraculous, not crawling with predators, but infused with compassion and gratitude. Where giving back moves us forward. And that is a beautiful place to be. And ironically, it was the disease of addiction that led us here.
We can’t give enough thanks to Joanne Peterson, Kathy Day, the entire L2C staff, all the volunteer meeting facilitators (special shout-out to Doris, Joe, Ann and, of course, Caleb), and our resilient crew of fellow travelers. If you want to see what hope looks like, where phoenixes take flight, come to a Learn2Cope meeting. It might just change your life.
Chris and Caleb D.
Chris and Caleb are L2C facilitators in Cambridge, Mass., and Caleb runs Write2Cope, a writing group for parents to explore and express their experiences on the page.
*While I try to avoid the word “addict” as it tends to dehumanize individuals struggling with substance use disorder, these were the exact words we heard four-and-a-half years ago when such terms were more common, and since this phrase was significant to our story, and the journalist in me runs deep, I chose to stick to the accuracy of the moment despite the outdated language.