The Holidays:  The Gift of Treatment for My Addicted Child


It gets dark really early the week before Christmas.  It was already quite dark that afternoon. I watched the holiday lights come on in people’s yards and glimpsed the decorated trees through the windows of each home. Memories of Christmas pasts came rushing in – the baking and roasting, the pretty dresses and candlelit church at midnight.  Board games after all the presents were opened and the turkey was in the oven. Of course, all those holidays hadn’t been perfect. There was an impossible brother-in-law, the meltdowns of overstimulated kids and exhausted parents, but through it all, we were a solid family.

This year my house was dark, and I had no plans to celebrate the holidays. I looked over at my daughter, slumped sullenly in the passenger seat. Instead, I was taking my 19-year-old heroin-addicted daughter to a rehabilitation center to get the help she needed. The help I couldn’t provide her.

When people say they can’t imagine how I got through that awful time, I think of the parents I’ve met in support groups for loved ones with a drug dependency. Survivors are a practical bunch. They ask me, “What did you do to get through this?”

What I tell them is that I focused on the gift of hope that rehab represented, the shot at becoming herself again that my daughter had at last accepted.  Mind you, she didn’t do it with grace or gratitude.

“Mom,” she first said, when I’d confronted her for the nth time with evidence of her use, “you’re being overly dramatic again.  Anyway, that’s not mine. I don’t have a problem.” But I had come a long way since the early days of my gifted, kind and sociable girl’s transformation into a manipulative, miserable and lonely young woman whose lies merited an Academy Award.

I felt icy and trembling as I said, “You may not think you have a problem with drugs. That will be for the experts and you to decide together at rehab. Either we go there now or you’ll have to make other living arrangements.”

I’d come to accept that my daughter was an addict. A girl who’d lost her father to cancer in her senior year of high school, she took the classic route to drug dependency. Drinking and smoking pot at parties led to trying pills, especially painkillers cadged from kids’ medicine cabinets. Snorting heroin came next and now, for some time, shooting heroin. I was always a few steps behind, but by now I knew more than I’d ever wanted to know about the symptoms of the chronic brain disorder of heroin addiction. It had incapacitated her brain from making rational decisions.

Usually on the run-up to Christmas and New Year’s, I would be dashing around, picking up last-minute gifts and more food, or baking my Norwegian grandmother’s recipes for fruitcakes and cookies. Instead I’d spent the morning on the phone finding my daughter a place at the recovery center near our home and packing a bag for her.

“You’re so cruel to be doing this to me,” she said, breaking a long silence much later, as we approached the gates of the rehab. “All I want is to be lying by the fire with the cats, watching ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ and eating Christmas cookies.  I even got you a present.”  Even though I choked up again, I somehow knew what to say. “Your addiction won’t allow you to do that, honey.  It will make you go out and steal something to get the next fix. This place is where you need to be.”

Grim as it was to be taking my 19-year-old to rehab, I knew it was also a minor miracle. She needed medically-supervised detox and an evidence-based recovery program, not the old blame game we’d played so long.  And I needed help too.

Addiction mows down families like a hurricane.  At the detox unit, I got her settled, or enrolled – whatever they call it, it’s a wrenching process.  They searched her for contraband like it was a jail, handing me back her cell phone, the cigarettes she had in her bra and the paperbacks I’d bought, memoirs of young women who’d recovered.  I hugged her one last time and watched her droop away down a hall with an attendant, so thin her pants fell to her hips, her hair messy and unwashed, her complexion mottled, but worst of all, her spirit broken.

“I’ll call you tomorrow!” I called out.  “I’ll come see you…,” when they let me, I didn’t add.

A funny thing happened to me after my child became an addict.  I could only tolerate supportive people in my life.  Anyone else had to go.  “You’re too soft on her,” I’d been told, or, “you shouldn’t come down on her so hard,” and “How did you not see it coming?”  And the worst:  I must be a bad parent; it’s their own fault if they get hooked; lock up the junkies.

After I got home, I called my closest friend. “Well, I finally did it.” She’d been with me as I struggled first to accept, then to change. We made a lunch date at a cozy restaurant. That was it for my holiday celebrations, but this year, it was enough.

The rehab said I could visit my daughter for two hours on Christmas day.  I baked dozens of cookies for the clients and wrapped a few small gifts for my daughter including a funny graphic novel.  We sat in the cafeteria with our decaf coffee. “Everything’s decaf here, Mom,” my daughter remarked.  She looked better already.  She was eating, her hair was washed and even her skin looked better. When I gave her a little bag of presents, she handed me a card she’d made there. Inside, it said, “I love you Mom.”

When I left the rehab, all I wanted to do was to go home, but I went to a support group meeting. Yes, they have them on holidays: those are key dates for people in recovery and their loved ones.  I cried, but I also laughed.  Something about being with other people who refuse to let self-pity swamp them brings out the survival humor. We had coffee and Christmas cookies and hugged.

Rehab didn’t stick for her that time, but I had wonderful friends and family and the support group.  I learned that you don’t give up, because you never know when “the miracle” will happen. Several Christmases later, yes, Christmas again, my daughter went to another recovery center far from her dealers and drug friends. This time, it was voluntary. I mailed her a package from the approved list and we talked on the phone.  I missed her so much, but she was getting help.

“Are you eating well?  Sleeping ok?  Are the mood swings getting better?”  “Mom,” she said, “I’m fine. Stop micromanaging me.” She was right to say that, and it turned out she was fine. And you know what, I was too.

That year I bought a miniature tree with tiny twinkling lights and had a few people over for Christmas dinner. I knew how to take care of myself now.