A beautiful and fun-loving boy transformed when he began to experiment with substances. His father, Stephen, could hardly recognize him: he became "nasty and combative," and their home life was marred by conflict. Willing to do anything, Stephen retired from Wall Street to learn everything he could about parenting an addicted child. Now he joins host William C. Moyers to share some essential life lessons and tools for other families who still hurt.
0:00:13 William Moyers
National advocate, intimate author. Today on Let's Talk, our podcast features Stephen D., who has turned his deeply personal experience with a son's struggle with substances into a passion and a focus to help other young people like his son and other families like his. I'm your host, William C. Moyers at Hazelden Betty Ford. Thanks for joining us. And with me, Stephen D., the author of Love the Kid, Hate the Disease: Lessons Learned from a Dad Dealing with His Son's Addiction. Welcome, Stephen.
0:00:47 Stephen D.
Thank you, William. It was a kind introduction. It's great to be here today.
0:00:52 William Moyers
Well and in the interest of full disclosure, I think we owe it to our audience to say that we actually know each other from high school 45 plus hears ago and we didn't discover that until just before we went on the air. So we go way back. [smiles]
0:01:05 Stephen D.
0:01:07 William Moyers
Small world indeed. Made smaller by what we're here to talk about it. But before we talk about your son, tell us about yourself.
0:01:14 Stephen D.
So yeah, so just I would say I'm a dad of five children. And, you know, things were clipping along. I had a nice career working on Wall street. And then an unwelcome guest joined the family. Active addiction with the youngest of my five kids. And it turned my entire world upside down. I had no idea how to handle it. And, you know, it really—it changed a lot of things. One of the things that it changed was I could no longer do the job I was doing. Because it required me to travel around the world, it required me to, you know, go out with clients, be a hundred percent committed. And with my son in the condition that he was in, I just felt like I just—I couldn't continue doing that. And so, I ended up retiring six years ago. It's been awesome. 'Cause I feel like I have a second career. And that is learning about addiction. And I've done lots of different things in this space. And I have to say, I wish that I didn't have to go through it but it is more interesting and I think more compelling as work that I'm doing than working on Wall Street.
0:02:30 William Moyers
From adversity comes opportunity. And we're gonna come back to that in a minute to talk about how you've turned that adversity into the opportunity to help others. But tell us a little bit about your son.
0:02:40 Stephen D.
Yeah so my son like I said he's the youngest of five. Stevie. You know, as a kid, as a really young kid, I would describe him as just really fun. He—you know he's the kinda fun where if you're having a baseball catch with him, you couldn't just have a catch. You had to pretend that he was robbing a homerun in the fence and you had to throw the ball that he could dive for. Even if you threw it right at him, he would dive for it. And everybody got a kick out of him. His four older siblings, his oldest siblings' friends, you know, he was just really fun. Then, you know, he probably had a lot of insecurities. At 14 he got introduced to alcohol. And it just took over his life. And, you know, it turned this really fun-loving, beautiful kid into I'll say it, he was nasty, he was extremely difficult to deal with, he was combative, and he got very, very depressed. And it was bedlam in the house. It was really difficult to deal with him. And what I would say is now after he's gone through—he went through a couple of years of treatment and, you know, got into recovery. Today he's 25, he's back to being that fun-loving, amazing kid. He's grown up, he's a lot more mature. And you know he's what I thought he would become, you know, when he was a little kid, and that is you know someone you can count on, someone who's honest, and he's still fun-loving as hell. He's really—he's really fun to be around.
0:04:15 William Moyers
And part of your reason for carrying the message the way you do is that you wanna help others but you do it not using your last name for this interview. And tell us why that is.
0:04:28 Stephen D.
So, yeah, it's a good question. You know, I don't care. If people know who I am. I'm not embarrassed. I don't have—I don't feel any stigma around addiction whatsoever. I feel like my kid had a disease and I feel like, you know, he's—he's very heroic in getting to where he's gotten to. It is as you know, William, it's a battle. And so I could not be more proud of my son. And, you know, I'm proud of my family. But what I was told by a family therapist was that he's young, he's got a long life ahead of him. And some of the stories are very gritty. And even though he doesn't care, he's told me straight up that it's okay if I share. Because I asked him beforehand, you know. And every time that I'm doing something, I feel like as his dad I wanna have some level of protection on who he is.
0:05:24 William Moyers
[nods] Understandable. And so, the story that you tell really is your story. What have you learned, Stephen, through your son's experience?
0:05:3 Stephen D.
[laughs] That's such a big question, William, as you know. I have learned so many things. I've learned a lot of things about myself. And so, you know, some of the things that I've learned is that I really had a problem with vulnerability and asking for help. And if you're a parent and you're dealing with this problem and you think that you have the answers, like I did, you know, it's—this is a disease that will humble you. And so, it humbled me in a very big way. Where, you know, I recognized after I was deep in it that I needed help, my son needed help, and so, there were lots of things that I learned there. But, you know, going through the process, there were just so many things that you learn. The first and most important thing that I learned was that there was hope. You know when I first started in this process, I felt like there was no path. There was no way that my kid is ever going to be able to live a normal or healthy life. And I could not have been more wrong. And it's not just him. There's millions of people living beautiful lives in sobriety. So I learned that. You learn a lot of things about how addiction manifests itself and, you know, really becomes quite a foe in a household. And I learned a bunch of tools. For dealing with those symptoms. Things like lying, manipulation, confrontation, all of those things that were present in my household, I learned tools on how to deal with that. And probably the biggest thing I learned was what my job was and what my job wasn't.
0:07:19 William Moyers
[chuckles] And what is your job and what isn't your job? [grins]
0:07:24 Stephen D.
So, my job wasn't being my kid's best friend. And, you know, really understanding what he was going through and enabling him to continue with the destructive behaviors. Because I wanted him to love me, I wanted to have a relationship with him. My job was to do everything I could to not stand in the way of him becoming healthy. And so what that meant was that I had to be—I had to stop putting out the fires, covering up for his mistakes, making life easy for him. And, you know, really trying to fix all the things that he had broken. My job really was to have him see those things, deal with the consequences, and learn that he really needed help. And he had to get serious about recovery. Some of the tools that were really difficult to use were setting boundaries and inflicting consequences. And, you know, to me, that was one of the toughest things that I had to do. Because I was a softie. You know, even though I worked on Wall Street, and I wasn't a softie on Wall Street, I was a softie in my house. And, you know, setting boundaries and then being really tough about, you know, making sure that the consequences were leveled on him if he broke the boundaries, that was really hard for me. But that was my job. My job was to help him become the person that he could become. And not be his best friend.
0:09:05 William Moyers
So I've gotta ask you. How is your relationship with your son Stevie now?
0:09:11 Stephen D.
So, I would say that it's amazing. But I didn't—I didn't know it was gonna end up there. I mean, when we were in the throes of this, when I was first laid down the boundary that if you had one more drink, we were gonna rip him out of high school and we were gonna send him away to residential treatment, he disowned me. He said you now have four children. If you do this, you will have four children and not five. And, you know, that was a moment where I said okay, you're doing your job, but you lost your kid as a relationship. And it wasn't until two years later when he had a full year of recovery under his belt that he wrote me a letter. And it was a letter that I didn't wanna read 'cause I didn't know what it was gonna say. And when I opened the letter up, I actually opened it the next day. I didn't wanna open it the day he gave it to me. And I opened it the next day and in the letter, he said that I was his hero, that I was one of the reasons why he was still alive. And that he was so thankful. And I have to tell you William, I sobbed like a baby. Because I didn't know until that moment that my relationship wasn't irreparably broken.
And so, one of the things that I've learned as I have participated in these parent support group meetings for years and years, is that that's more the rule than the exception. That when the kid gets healthy, the relationships that were broken mend. And so, you know, I'm grateful for that being part of the whole recovery process. And what I'll say now is, you know, we have a lot of common interests like sports and we'll play golf or if the Mets are on, we'll be texting back and forth with what's happening in the game. We have a really, really good relationship.
0:11:10 William Moyers
I've just gotta ask before we get to what you're doing now. How did your youngest child's substance use issues affect his siblings, your other children?
0:11:23 Stephen D.
Great question. So, I thought it wasn't gonna affect them at all. Because when his addiction became clear he was a junior in high school, three of his older siblings were in college. One was out of college and living on his own in New York City. I felt like they were out of the house and it was no big deal. But, given, you know the overlap on holidays and all the bedlam that was going on, and the impact that it was having on my wife and me and our marriage, and the fear that they had, we ended up going to a family education program over a weekend. And during that weekend, it all came out. And, you know, it came out that one of my kids had huge guilt about supplying him with alcohol, you know, when he was a sophomore in high school. And the broken relationships. And it was guilt, there was anger, there were so many things that came up! I was just shocked at how big of an impact. When in a lot of ways, they were protected because they were away. So, it made me feel like wow, if these kids were younger, the impact could have been so much bigger and so much more negative and powerful. And so, it really was a marker for me in kind of understanding how big this problem is inside of a family.
0:12:48 William Moyers
So your family has clearly turned the adversity into opportunity and recovered. Tell us, Stephen, about your book.
0:12:57 Stephen D.
Yeah, so it's actually it's more of a website. What it is is it's twelve short stories that lay out the things that I wish that I had when I started in the process. So as you know, as parents are going through this, it's really hard to get your arms around the problem. There are so many—so many elements. And so, what I did was I wrote stories and the first story is about hope. Because everybody that I meet has so little hope. And so, each of the stories lays out either information or concepts or tools that parents need to know. And it's a short read. It's about 35 or 40 minutes. It's twelve stories. And it's meant to be relatable because what I do is I share really gritty things that happened in our family. Nasty stories. Big fights. Confrontations. You know, my son disowning me. All of those things. And what's happened is the people who have read it feel connected. Because the same things are going on. While every story is different, there are a lot of themes that are completely similar across all families. And so, it's very conversational writing and it just leads people through things like understanding what the process is.
So as you know, the Stages of Change is so important. I didn't know about the Stages of Change until many years later. It would have been so helpful to know where my son was in the process. Things like detachment and why it's a parent's superpower. Right? If you're a parent and you're letting your child, you know, manipulate you or make you feel really bad or get into an argument, you're missing the point. You lost the plot. Your job is to move them forward. And so, if you don't understand that it's addiction talking to you and not your child, you have no chance. So, all of the things are laid out. And I have to say, look, I'm not bragging but I have to say when Kyle McClellan, who is one of the great researchers ever in the space, wrote to me that when his sons became addicted, he had no idea what to do and he wished that he had these stories, I couldn't believe it. And so, it said to me, if Kyle McClellan didn't know what the hell to do, then nobody does.
0:15:36 William Moyers
[grins] Mmm-hmm. So where can our audience find those short stories?
0:15:42 Stephen D.
0:15:46 William Moyers
So that's part of what you're doing but that's not all you're doing! Tell us about the other things that you're doing to sort of carry the message beyond your own experience.
0:15:57 Stephen D.
Yeah, so, it's been really interesting. I have to say. There's so much to learn and I wanna be clear to the audience—I'm not a professional. I'm not. I'm a dad who's gone all in. You know, you're a professional, the people that work at Hazelden Betty Ford are professionals, that's a different level, right? I'm just a dad and maybe I'm a translator, you know, for parents. But what have I done? I got trained as a parent coach by Jeffrey Foote who I'm sure you know. He wrote Beyond Addiction. What a treat that was and I served as a parent coach. For the Partnership to End Addiction for a while. Northwell Health created a parent peer position for me. To work with the social workers and parents that are dealing with adolescents that have addiction. And I've been doing that for six years and that is, you know, just an incredible mission for me and it just keeps my stories fresh. Because every time they come in, I see what happened to me in them. So that's been really important. I partnered with two other dads and Caron Treatment Center to create a podcast called My Child & Addiction. Which is a recreation of parent support group meetings with eight experienced parents like me and a clinician, a professional, and it's all the topics that come up as parents. Impact on family. The emotional rollercoaster. Dealing with shame and blame. Co-occurring disorders. All of those things. And so that podcast series you know we've got about 125,000 downloads. Not quite Let's Talk. [smiles] But not bad. And so that's been great.
I work at a national nonprofit creating educational materials for adults. And I'm proud to say that Hazelden Betty Ford is using one of them called Just Five. For families, to educate them. And that partnership—you know, very proud of having the partnership with Hazelden Betty Ford. And then the last thing that I'm doing is I'm trying to get involved with primary research. And so, I have a clinical trial that just began that I've helped fund. And I brought the idea to Caron Treatment Center. And that's using transcranial magnetic stimulation to aid in the recovery process to do two things. One, to get rid of the cravings that people have. So the behavioral health modifications can take hold early in the process. And also what they're hoping to do is to have an impact on the prefrontal cortex which is the decision-making part of the brain. To hopefully aid in the whole recovery process. So it's been a whirlwind. It's been incredibly cool. And I feel grateful that I've had this opportunity.
0:19:00 William Moyers
Yes, you are all in, my friend. We've got a minute left and I know that most of the audience today will include parents. Either parents like you or like me who have experienced addiction up close. But also experienced the power of recovery. Or parents who have experienced addiction up close and don't know what to do. What is your message to parents who are hurting right now?
0:19:34 Stephen D.
That's a great question. And people come in to the Northwell meetings and it's usually the same thing. They feel alone, they feel overwhelmed, they feel like their situation is unique. And they feel hopeless. And so, there's really four things you can do. One is to get educated. Which is really important. The second one is to get professional help. You know, you guys are amazing. What you do, what you know, and the way you handle situations that feel impossible to handle is incredible. And I have so much gratitude for the professionals that have helped us along the way. And then the third thing is to get support. So probably the biggest revelation for me and the thing that I was least likely to do was to join a parent support group. I am an incredibly independent person. You know, I'm a guy who analyzes things, figures it out, and then goes for it. But the truth is that those groups are critical. And when people join them, within two or three weeks, they don't feel alone. They feel supported. They start to learn. And things change in their household. So it's a really, really big deal. And then the last one is one that I have to say I did a lousy job of. And that was to take care of yourself 'cause it's a marathon and not a sprint. I am not the example of that. I was terrible. You know? I had the view that if my son is hurting, I can't do anything to benefit myself. But the truth is, at the moments where I had to be strong, I probably was weaker because I didn't take care of myself. So that's the fourth thing that I think any clinician would say and I would agree with. That those are the four things that you can do.
0:21:40 William Moyers
And Stephen, I've just gotta ask you, although we're a little over for time. But it fits importantly with what you just said. There are also a lot of parents and a lot of families out there who have been ravaged by addiction. And whose loved one is dead. But they're still living! And they—they've got to move on. What is your message for families who have lost a child to addiction?
0:22:10 Stephen D.
So, thank God that I am not in that place. I could have easily been in that place. We almost lost Stevie four times. By the time he was 17. What I have seen people do is one, get support because unfortunately, there are other people who are in that place. And it is important to get support and to get help. And the other thing that people do is they get involved. And they find meaning by doing work to prevent this from happening for other families. And so, I field a lot of phone calls at the nonprofit that I work at. As a volunteer, by the way. But that I work at. And they just wanna do something. They want to bring education. They want to share. They wanna do whatever they can to have other people avoid that ultimate pain. And so, I think that that's right. And that's what I've seen people do. And I think they get some comfort out of that.
0:23:24 William Moyers
Indeed. I know that there'll be many people who will find great comfort, inspiration, and insight from your presence with us today. Stephen D., thank you for joining us on this Let's Talk podcast.
0:23:37 Stephen D.
Thank you, William. It's an honor to be here.
0:23:39 William Moyers
Yours is indeed a story of transparency and perseverance, love and hope, a reminder that the stakes are high. But so too are the rewards with this illness. So we invite you, our viewers, to find inspiration in Stevie D.'s story. And remember that treatment works and recovery is real. Don't wait to ask for help. Help is out there. Ask for it now. We'll see ya again soon.