Op-Ed: The Journey Through Addiction—Never Give Up

By G. Bruce Wiley, Leesburg

I saw your year-end article on opiate addiction in Loudoun and wanted to share my family’s journey through addiction with the hope it helps someone—anyone—suffering the despair of this disease. They need not feel alone.

It began innocently, just two teen age boys trying their wings—or so I thought. Sipping fresh-brewed coffee while enjoying the warm morning sun streaming through the kitchen window, I watched my son, Brandon, and his friend Rob, stretched out on the cool morning grass after another Saturday night party with friends, and thought to myself: Life is good. Both were outstanding students, active in sports, popular, and handsome. The world was theirs for the asking.

A new career path was the reason he and I moved from Denver to Bethesda, MD, and I thought he had adjusted well. Over the next two years I saw changes that concerned me, falling grades, lethargy, and a general lack of interest in most everything. Alcohol or drug abuse was the farthest thing from my mind.

By the end of his junior year drinking was out of control. He spent most weekends sobering up. His grades continued to fall and communication between us was strained. Normally polite and non-confrontational, he was angry. His favorite sport was lacrosse. It was a rough physical sport that allowed an opportunity to vent his anger.

Knowing alcoholism ran in our family, I began to worry. Beyond believing this was merely a stage that every young person goes through, and it will pass, my worry turned to fear and I suggested he attend a month-long rehab facility known for its success. Surprisingly, he agreed. He knew he had a problem. A portion of his time at the rehab facility was a two-day period during which parents were invited to meet the staff, tour the facility, and have a one-to-one meeting with the addicted family member to have them personally tell their parents just how involved with alcohol and drugs they were.

It was during the “one to one” meeting when my son described every drug he had used or experimented with, some familiar, most foreign to me. Hearing the range of drugs used at his young age was overpowering. More important and most alarming, it happened right under my nose. I was stunned.

My first thought, common to most parents, was to take blame. If only I had stayed in Colorado and not separated him from his family, familiar surroundings, and school friends from the first grade, none of this would have happened. It took years of therapy to finally believe he was a wonderful human being who suffered from a disease, not unlike cancer, and it wasn’t my fault. I had high hopes that this visit to a proven long-term rehab facility would help him straighten out, having no idea it was but the beginning of a 28-year struggle with alcoholism and drug addiction.

Somehow, my son finished high school, but the dream of an Ivy League education, studying law, was over. He’d settle for Colorado State University, if he could get in. The college years were a continuation of high school years, but worse. He escaped prosecution for stealing money from a professor’s purse. His drug habit drove him to steal money from the cash register when he worked part time in my business. The drug and alcohol abuse never stopped. How he graduated college I’ll never know, maybe a testament to his drive to succeed.

In college, he met a beautiful young woman from a prominent Denver family, also an addict. They fell in love. Wanting to avoid all the problems they saw arranging a wedding with family and friends, they chose to marry in Bali, just them, a minister, and the South Pacific. Both were adventuresome and dreamed of travelling the world before having children. Despite the drinking and drugs, they saved enough money for a six-month adventure in central and South America, only to be interrupted by a plane crash in the Costa Rican jungle.

After recuperating from the plane crash, they settled in Southern California. His wife, Brandy, found a job as a nurse and Brandon found one through his uncle. Wanting to be near her family when having children, they returned to Denver. Brandon found a job that held his interest but failed to keep him away from drugs and alcohol.

Even with a stunning wife and two beautiful children to love and care for, his substance abuse worsened. Their marriage suffered and ended in divorce. That was the beginning of a long, ugly, downward, spiral. I had no idea how bad things would become.

At first it was a brief stay in one of the many detox centers offered to addicts when police would pick them up off the street. The center would provide the safety and time for the addict to sober up just enough to blow a certain number on a gauge, and then turn the addict loose on the street once again, broke and homeless. The sobering up time may be few hours or overnight, depending on how much the addict drank. In Brandon’s case, he was always there longer than most because of the volume he drank, taking him longer to sober up. It was routine to have the center tell him they didn’t know how he was still alive.

There were street confrontations where Brandon got in trouble and was sentenced to jail time, only to walk to the nearest liquor store upon release, get high or drunk, and be picked up by the police, once again, to be sent to detox until he sobered up. For him and most alcoholics, detox became a familiar revolving door.

As a family, we were devastated, helpless, terrified, and desperate for answers the so-called experts didn’t have, and still don’t. Countless sleepless nights, mountains of worry, and a flood of tears shed by each of us, took their toll. Brandon’s mother spent time in a psychiatric hospital.

Through the turmoil, countless trips to a therapist, a hundred trips through detox centers, more than one jail term, several periods in long term rehab centers, and more than $100,000 dollars invested, I learned to take the advice of Brandon’s long-term drug counselor who became a family friend and confidant, also 38 years sober.

One day, I called her for advice, again. In her patient loving voice she quietly said, “Bruce, I’ll tell you now what I’ve told you a hundred times before. All you can do is tell him you love him, no matter.” I thanked her and knew I had reached a turning point. The turning point was mine. I knew I could do nothing to help my son except love him and be there for him. The next time he and I talked, all I could say was, “son, I love you, no matter.” He responded, “I love you, too, dad.” At the time, I still felt inadequate, feeling I should say more. In retrospect, he heard me, maybe for the first time.

His addiction continued until he was finally living on the street, sharing a foul-smelling, discarded, filthy couch with several other addicts, jobless and homeless, eating from a dumpster behind a 7-Eleven. His mother and sister knew where he hung out and occasionally would drop off hot food and exchanged clean clothes for his soiled ones.

Addiction steals everything, especially your dignity. Why bother to open your fly when you can simply piss in your pants. Addiction is thorough. Addiction is fair. It doesn’t discriminate. It destroys anyone it touches regardless of race, color, or ethnicity. Addicts don’t care about themselves, their children, or you, period.

One cold winter morning after the snow stopped falling, he found his dumpster buddy frozen in the snow behind the 7-Eleven. Brandon and his deceased addict friend had something in common—both had lost hope. His friend lost his life.

Brandon’s journey through addiction began at 14. I was 50. Alcohol stole his youth. Alcohol stole our lives together. On Oct. 10 he turned 42; I was 77. He’s been sober for over a year, his longest time sober in 27 years.

For what it’s worth, don’t attempt to understand addiction rationally; it’s an irrational disease. Don’t give an addict money; it makes things worse. Don’t give advice; they’re deaf to it. Don’t try to make things right; right doesn’t matter. Try to understand one simple fact: It’s nothing personal, addicts care about nothing but the next fix or next drink. Learn to love them and tell them so. Until they choose to change, it’s all they have.

Brandon is sober today for reasons I’ll never know or understand. What I do understand is that his sobriety didn’t come from “words of wisdom” from Dad. As close as we are, someday he may tell me, if even he understands why. There’s a woman in his life he loves, and who loves him. He has a surprisingly good job with a future, a loving relationship with his children and his family, and, for the first time in years—hope. For me, “one day at a time,” is not a cliché; it has meaning. It’s all we have. The reality is, Brandon may drink again.

I’ve lived for years with anguish and a head full of questions. I have fewer now since I understand two things: Love works and never give up.