Due to the sensitive and personal nature of this true story, the names and locations have been changed to protect the privacy of the author and her family.
TWO AND A HALF YEARS AGO, I sat at the dining room table in my Larkspur home and had a conversation with my 21-year-old daughter I could never have imagined when she was still playing with blocks at preschool. It was after lunchtime and I’d just pulled her out of bed. She sat, slumped in her chair. Uncombed hair fell across her face. She stared at me with eyes I did not recognize, those of a young woman whose light — or spirit — had gone out.
“You have to leave,” I said.
Charlotte looked at me as if she didn’t understand.
“You have two choices,” I said. “You can go to rehab or find somewhere else to live.”
I waited nervously as several minutes passed. Charlotte had just been expelled from the elite East Coast college where she’d been a sophomore, and she had nowhere else to go. I was taking an enormous risk, turning her away from my home. I was also going against all my natural instincts as a mother. What I really wanted was to hold Charlotte in my arms, run my hands through her hair — half of which had fallen out, from stress — and soothe her until the boo-boo went away, like I’d done when she was little. But I’d been trying to get her help for years, even while I didn’t entirely know what was wrong, and she’d refused every attempt. This gamble was my only hope.
In my worst moments, I imagined what might happen if she ended up living on the streets. I was done, though, wrestling with the disease that had stolen my beautiful child. As she struggled with drugs and alcohol, I had grown stronger, more fierce. And I was clear about my goal: I wanted my daughter back.
CHARLOTTE ARRIVED IN this world ready to take it over. She came three weeks early as if she’d had enough of the womb and had places to go. She did. She was a vibrant, intellectually curious child who started reading Harry Potter — obsessively — in the first grade. By the third grade, she was reading The New York Times between her races at swim meets. She grew into a political activist, traveling to Nevada to campaign for Barack Obama while still in high school. And she waged a public campaign — featured in the Marin Independent Journal — to bring more organic food into her school. She pursued all this while also having a witty, wicked sense of humor and a laugh so full and genuine it is still the sweetest sound I have ever heard.
Her brother, Peter, arrived two years after Charlotte, as joyous as his sister was driven. Peter’s smile was luminous and was matched only by his energy, which often drew comparisons — when he was a 2-year-old — to The Flintstones’ Bam-Bam. He morphed into a quirky kid, who got his ham radio operator’s license at age 10 and his pilot’s license at 17. Always a foot taller than his classmates, he was a gentle giant, levelheaded and happy. I used to say to my husband, “He is such a golden child, it seems like he’ll float gently upon the surface of life.”
Of course, no one — and no family — gets to float gently upon the surface of life. Even though I loved my kids and husband and thought we were a happy family, we were no exception.
For all their gifts, my children came into this world with a loaded family tree, teeming with alcoholics, many remarkably successful in their careers. I thought that if I gave my kids enough education about this family disease — which I did often, starting when Charlotte was 5 and Peter was 3 — that somehow they would escape it. But you know what? It doesn’t matter how good a parent you are. It doesn’t matter how much you love your children. Addiction is an equal opportunity disease. Trust me, I know. In the past five years, I have watched both of my children succumb to it.
AMAZINGLY, I NEVER succumbed to addiction myself. I say “amazingly,” because, in college, I tried pretty much everything except what you had to inject. Alcohol. Pot. Hash. Cocaine. Quaaludes. Acid. Mushrooms. I have no excuse except to say that it was the ’80s. Yet I seemed not to have the gene, and the dark angel of addiction passed me by. By my early 20s, I lost interest. After having children, I rarely drank more than two glasses of wine a week. My husband usually had a glass of wine with dinner each night, but nothing appeared out of control.
Like most Marin kids, Charlotte and Peter took Life Skills in their public middle school, learning the importance of safe sex and to say no to drugs. At home, I tried not to apply pressure on them to succeed. I knew that overwhelming academic pressure could lead kids to drink. But I’m guessing that that pressure is in the air, as inescapable in Marin as organic food and yoga.
As Charlotte entered high school, I made it clear that I was not going to be the “cool parent,” that I would not allow drinking in our home. She would tell me about other kids who were drinking, intimating that she was not. I listened but remained a realist. I was in high school once too. I had fudged the truth with my own mom.
I don’t know exactly when Charlotte started drinking but I do know that we hosted a slumber party when she was 16 for a bunch of girls who managed to sneak out to a local park and get so drunk that several had to be taken to the emergency room. That was a proud parenting moment, and one my husband had to smooth over by talking to both the police and the other parents.
Even with my diligence, there were so many ways I could not protect my children. On the day before Charlotte started senior year of high school and Peter started freshman year, our family exploded: without any warning, my marriage suddenly ended in the most painful possible way. A devastating divorce followed, leaving the kids and me reeling.
Even though Charlotte and Peter started therapy immediately, they struggled. Charlotte focused all her energy on getting into the best colleges. Peter simply missed his dad.
I did everything I could to make sure my kids were OK, even as I went through divorce mediation and experienced the deepest grief myself. Life moved forward: Charlotte got into an excellent college, and I went with her to New York to help set up her dorm room.
A year and a half later, near the end of her fall sophomore term, I received a call from a college dean, telling me she was at risk of failing most of her classes. I was stunned. I knew she was struggling but had no idea how badly. I guessed it was because of the divorce.
When I picked Charlotte up at SFO for Christmas break, I was alarmed. She had not bathed in days. Half her hair had fallen out. She was wrapped in a dirty blanket, looking like a homeless person.
After Charlotte was placed on academic probation, she moved back home with me. I got her into therapy again, hoping things would straighten out. They grew worse. She slept 16 to 20 hours a day and we’d fight when I rousted her from bed for therapy. She complained of allergies and often asked for money to buy Benzedrex, an allergy inhaler. She snuck out at night. I often woke at 2 or 3 a.m. to discover her gone. When I texted around to find her, sometimes there was no reply. I rarely fell back to sleep and had trouble working the next day. I was terrified. I was a single mother and struggling to support our family.
Even worse, Charlotte had turned on me. She wanted to return to college, acting as if nothing was wrong, and I was hesitant in my support. I thought she needed to take time to deal with whatever was going on. She became verbally abusive and made it clear — often — that she thought I was a terrible mother. Her words were so nasty, so personal that I have blocked them from my memory. But she shared her thoughts with her therapists and doctors, convincing them I was the problem. It was more than I could bear. I had already lost a husband I loved. Now, it felt like I was losing my daughter.
Finally, Charlotte told me what was going on: she had been raped in her freshman year at college. I swung into high gear, showing her a lot of love and trying to find the help she needed. But when she started driving drunk, I realized all the love in the world wouldn’t heal my daughter. Whether she suffered from PTSD or addiction — I wasn’t sure — I knew she needed serious help.
One of the most important things I did during this time was get help for myself. I worked with an amazing therapist and joined a support group for people affected by family members’ addictions. I also put clues together. I went through Charlotte’s room and found about 50 vials of Benzedrex, cracked open. With a bit of research, I learned that kids used the inhaler to mimic Adderall. I called Charlotte’s therapists (on both coasts) and her doctor and said, “I think there may be a substance abuse problem here.” They dismissed my concerns. I was Satan Mom. Charlotte had told them so.
Finally, I went to an outstanding interventionist in Marin and she — along with my therapist — helped me understand I needed to stop Charlotte’s verbal abuse, ending conversations in which she was disrespectful. I also had to cut her off from most of the money. She was over 18, so I couldn’t force her to go to rehab. But I could do everything possible not to “enable” the disease. And I understood very clearly that she was suffering from a disease. Even when Charlotte was her most abusive, I never thought, “Oh, this is Charlotte talking to me.” I thought, “This is the addiction and trauma talking.”
I knew that somewhere beneath all that, my daughter was in there. At times I felt like she was crying out to me, “Help me, Mama, I’m so scared and out of control.” But she wouldn’t let me near her, wouldn’t let me help. And while all this conflict played out in our home, Peter turned to alcohol and marijuana to cope. One day, I walked into his room to find an enormous bag of pot brownies lying on his bed. I threw them out, and let him know once again that I was not “cool.” I redoubled my efforts to spend time with him, letting him know how precious he was to me.
Charlotte went back to college several more times, and she found other ways to get money. And she continued to think I was evil. There was a three-month stretch when we did not talk at all. I worried. I prayed. I didn’t know what else to do.
Except I did: with the interventionist’s guidance, I researched residential rehab centers that treated both trauma and addiction. I didn’t care what the therapists and doctors thought. I knew this kid needed treatment. I wasn’t stopping until she got it.
When she arrived home the final time, I presented her with a list of four rehab facilities and a choice: pick one or move out. Within five days, she checked into a young adult program at an Arizona treatment center renowned for its trauma care. A week later, she told me she was an alcoholic. She stayed for 45 days, at a cost — which we had to pay upfront — of $54,000. After this, she moved to a six-month aftercare program, which was for women only and where she began her true healing. She lived with a group of women, most of whom had also suffered sexual trauma (the link between trauma and addiction is strong, and startling). There, she learned to live life sober.
When Peter and I flew out to attend the aftercare center’s “family program,” he came to me and said, “Mom, I think I need treatment too.” This is how crazy this disease is: I knew he was using but didn’t realize it had reached this point. He then told me he’d been bombed at Thanksgiving a few months earlier, having consumed eight drinks in the basement alone. I had sat across from him and detected nothing. Neither had any of my family members. When he confessed he’d hidden his addiction because of the toll that Charlotte’s struggles had taken on me, I thought my heart might shatter. My child had suffered in silence. To protect me.
So I found him help too. After one false start at an outpatient program in Arizona (where the trauma care was inadequate), he landed at an amazing three-month inpatient/ wilderness program just for young men in North Carolina. That was followed by three months of aftercare in San Diego. The costs — and the toll on our family — were staggering. Even though insurance helped us with some of the expenses, I’d estimate that my ex-husband and I, together, shelled out at least $80,000 on our own.
But what an amazing way to spend our money. Our kids are back in college now. Charlotte just celebrated two years sober and Peter 18 months. Both are active in 12-step programs.
Charlotte recently drove home from the southwestern college she attends, and stayed a week. While she was here, she and Peter laughed, bantering about the current political climate in D.C. We ate meals together, lingering over the conversation. It was such a relief to be a loving family again. I’m aware of how lucky we are, and how tenuous this luck is. I hang out in recovery circles now and I hear stories of other kids relapsing, some for the final time. I never take a healthy day for granted.
When our week together ended and Charlotte needed to go back to college, she did not want to go. She wanted to stay and be near me. I told her it was time, that she had a life now. And as I watched her car fade into the distance, it didn’t feel like she was leaving. It felt like she — and Peter — had returned.
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition with the headline: “Getting My Child Back”.–