Finding His Way

The lost-and-found story of a beloved son's return from addiction

"Please remember to tell Mom."

The cryptic memo on John B.'s unauthorized withdrawal from Susan B.'s checking account became a son's cry for help—and a mother's wake-up call.

Susan saw the notation after being alerted to a series of suspicious withdrawals from her bank account.

"I looked at the transaction history: $350 went out here, then $250 went out there and so on until I came across the transaction with John's note," Susan recalls.

John was 900 miles away attending community college, working part-time and living alone. He hadn't returned Susan's phone calls or emails for three days.

Susan's mind raced back to the frantic night of John's high school prom. He had chugged enough Everclear during the 20-minute limo ride to wind up at the hospital instead of the dance—with a blood alcohol concentration of .33, unconscious for eight hours and intubated to keep breathing.

Once again, John was unreachable. His only communication—and Susan's only sign that he was alive—was the bank withdrawal memo.

Some things she needed to know

Finally, at midnight on the third day, John picked up his phone. Susan was unbelievably relieved just to hear his voice. Then her son said the words that would change his life: "Mom, I really need help."

Based on recommendations from friends and professionals, Susan decided Hazelden's inpatient rehab program in Center City, Minnesota, would be the best fit for John. She arranged an intake phone interview for John, who insisted that his mother join the conference call. There were some things she needed to know, he said.

In order to determine whether treatment would be appropriate, the Hazelden counselor asked John to describe the types and quantities of substances he was using, Susan relays.

"So, John starts telling the intake counselor—and I'm listening in a state of absolute shock. He was on everything. He snorted OxyContin. He snorted Adderall. He used cocaine and heroin. He would stay up for three days at a time gambling online. Then he would take tranquilizers and smoke marijuana and sleep for two days straight. This was his life!"

Susan's heart sank with each new revelation from John as he chronicled his seven years of active addiction.

"'How did I miss this? What kind of parent am I? Why didn't I prevent this? What did I do wrong?'" she remembers thinking. "That was my first glimpse at how serious his illness was. I was terrified."

Where he needed to be

John was frightened, too. He flew home from college, and—fortified by a cocktail of Xanax and beer—boarded a flight with Susan to Minnesota. At Hazelden, John was admitted to the medical unit to begin the detox process and Susan was sent home, without her son.

"I don't know what I was thinking, but I wasn't prepared to just walk away from John at that moment," Susan recalls. "It felt wrong—knowing how ill my son was, worried about how difficult detox would be, wanting to comfort him, and having to leave."

John soon had his own doubts about treatment. A few days in, he called Susan and told her he wanted out. He was a mess—shaking and sweating and unable to sleep at night. Susan asked him to stick with the program a little longer, and John agreed over the phone—but inside, he'd made up his mind. Treatment was not for him. When John told a few guys on his unit he was leaving, one suggested that he take a walk and pray about it.

"I'm thinking, 'pray?' I don't really do that," John laughs now. "But a walk sounded okay." So he grabbed his earbuds and went out to the trails.

"I was listening to Eric Clapton, walking along, with my head down and my heart set on leaving. And I just kind of asked God to help me."

When John looked up from the trail, he practically bumped into two deer standing on the path in front of him. One ran away, but the other stood unflinching.

"The deer was breathing so steadily and calmly, just looking at me. I was mesmerized. And my whole demeanor changed as my breathing started to match his breathing. I don't know how long we stood like that, but the message was unmistakable: 'Don't be afraid. This is where you need to be. It's a safe place. God's got you.'"

John decided he wouldn't give up on himself.

She couldn't love addiction away

A week or so later, Susan would experience her own awakening—when she returned to Center City to attend the Family Program. Her main motivation was the chance to be on the same campus as John for four days.

"I had no idea what I was getting into with the Family Program," Susan recalls. "I walked into a roomful of strangers and looked around and thought: 'I don't know these people. They're not like me. John came from a loving home.' Within an hour, all of those fences were down, and I realized they were just like me and we were all going through the same hell."

Through the Family Program, loved ones are taught the "three Cs" of addiction: They didn't cause it, they can't control it and they can't cure it. What family members can do is take responsibility for their own health and well-being.

Easier said than done, for Susan.

"As a parent, you feel like you need to fix everything for your kids," she explains. "But in the Family Program, I was told that Hazelden and the Twelve Steps would provide my son with the tools he needed in recovery—and that I wasn't in his toolbox."

It wasn't until she volunteered for a roleplay exercise that Susan recognized how profoundly her behavior was shaped by the fear and chaos of addiction. In the scenario, Susan was asked to play the part of a mom whose daughter hit a roadblock in early recovery. A Hazelden patient who was anxious about this very scenario in her own life played the daughter's role.

"I got the conversation started by asking her some questions," Susan remembers. "'What's going on? Did you have a drink or something? Are you okay? Do you need to talk? Should I come over? Did you call your sponsor? Should I drive you to a meeting?' Those kinds of questions," Susan relays. "The young woman looked at me, stunned, and told me, 'You're worse than my mom.'"

Susan laughs in retelling the story, but the revelation was devastating: She couldn't love her son's addiction away. It was a lesson Susan would soon put to the test.

The Family Program also played a role in opening John's eyes to the suffering his addiction was causing his loved ones.

"I could see why addiction is called a family disease. Everyone you love gets hurt."

Straight talk about early recovery

As John completed his fourth week of treatment, he wanted to be discharged—against staff advice. He called his mom to make his case.

"I said, 'John, it's your road. It's not my road,'" Susan remembers telling him. "That is not what I wanted to say: I wanted to shout, 'Stay!'"

As calmly as she could, Susan suggested that John take some time, use the resources available to him at Hazelden, and talk with his peers.

"That's when I realized it needed to be like this from now on; I couldn't make decisions for John anymore," Susan shares.

Hours later, John called to say he decided to stay.

When John did complete treatment, he took advantage of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation's Connection services for extra support and accountability. A Connection coach stayed in close contact with both John and Susan for 18 months, helping them navigate the twists and turns of early recovery.

John valued the weekly check-ins and heart-to-heart conversations he had with his Connection coach, and Susan appreciated the straight talk she received about early recovery.

"The Connection counselor cautioned me about expecting smooth sailing," says Susan. "He reminded me that John was an addict for seven years. Physically, it would take a year for him to get healthy—just to work through the neurotoxicity of all the drugs. John had a lot of healing ahead of him."

Today, John's life is filled with new purpose and promise in every respect—and a Twelve Step path that keeps him moving forward.

"This has been John's road to travel," says Susan, "but Hazelden gave him the map to find his way and the support he needed at every turn. I am forever grateful."

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