They closed the airplane door a few minutes ago and here comes an irritated flight attendant for the third time.
“Sir, you need to turn off your phone.”
Sorry. My concerns are somewhere other than the infinitesimal possibility that a cellphone call from my wife might somehow short-circuit the pilot’s instrumentation between the gate area and the runway. Also, I am pretty certain my son is in the throes of a drug relapse.
Josh is missing, or at least he isn’t answering his phone. I think he might be passed out somewhere, drunk or high, or possibly dead. A personal check has been taken from our checkbook and he is the only logical suspect. It was cashed for the odd amount of $70, with “groceries” written on the check’s memo line, because addicts will do anything to protect their addiction — lie, steal, turn away from family and friends, write “groceries” on a check in the belief that nobody will suspect “heroin.”
Jeanne and I have been through this so many times — missing kid, missing money, drugs, alcohol, relapses, having our insides ripped out, sadness, rage, going to bed wondering if our son would be alive the next morning, waking up after little sleep, anticipating more drama, more stress, more anger, more pain ...
“Sir, please hang up the phone ...”
I turn off the phone and go numb.
It is a 75-minute evening flight from Atlanta to Memphis. As a sports columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I am scheduled to cover a Georgia-Ole Miss football game the next day in nearby Oxford. But I expect that when the plane lands, I will phone my wife, hear her crying and learn my son is gone.
Something’s not right
The National Institute of Drug Abuse defines addiction as “a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.”
That was Josh.
He was a student at the University of Georgia majoring in history with a certificate in music business from the school’s business school. He was a member of the fraternity Theta Chi, had friends, loved music, played bass and aspired to be a music promoter. His dream: own property and put on festivals.
But beginning in his junior year at Georgia, it was evident something wasn’t quite right — signs of drug use, a pattern of lies and a strangely depleting bank account. We often got phone calls that he needed a new laptop battery or a shirt or a book. He had a problem, but he was in denial. So was I. Addiction isn’t part of any parent’s blueprint, so when it comes you’re not prepared.
It wasn’t until we got a phone call from one of Josh’s friends telling us he was in an Athens hospital that his house of cards collapsed. He had been in a fight with a friend. The two had been covering up for each other, but a series of lies, mostly over drugs and related issues, were exposed. He went to the hospital. He was cut up and bruised but mostly he looked pale and unhealthy. We saw the condition of his apartment in Athens, drug paraphernalia everywhere.
It was a week before his finals in the spring semester of his senior year. Without telling us, he phoned the school to ask for a medical withdrawal. I was still in denial. I knew he needed treatment but wondered if it couldn’t be delayed a week.
“Take your finals first,” I said.
The dumbest words to ever tumble out of my mouth. He would have had to either detox during finals or keep taking drugs to stay some semblance of balanced. He would’ve been a mess or dead either way.
He went into treatment. It didn’t take. We learned relapse, while a terrifying word, is a common part of recovery. He relapsed at least five times in his first two years after treatment.
“I was fighting this war in my head,” Josh says now. “I told myself, ‘What other addicts are going through is not what I’m going through.’ One of my counselors at Ridgeview used to call it, ‘terminally unique.’ I didn’t think I was like them and I could do it my way.”
A secret life
It starts out small. A kid wants to have a beer. A kid wants to try marijuana. No big deal, everybody does it, they think.
For most, it doesn’t evolve into addiction, or an increasingly dangerous and secret life, or suddenly waking up to find a gun pointed at your head. That was Josh.
He smoked marijuana before he ever drank. He was 14. He didn’t feel the effects the first few times, but that didn’t stop him from buying it. His high wasn’t the residual from drugs; it was the thrill of having a secret life. “That was something I enjoyed doing, even before I actually got high or drunk,” he says.
I sneaked around as a teenager. I did stuff. It worked out for me. Any time I might’ve wondered about Josh, I distracted myself with the things parents focus on: grades, aspirations, friends. There were times he was unreliable, self-centered, moody. But did that make him unique for his age? He was getting drunk in Athens, but his grades were good so how out of control could he be? I largely dismissed the warning signs.
I remember walking with Josh in Athens one night during his junior year. We stopped into a place for a bite to eat.
“I think I want to have a beer,” he said. “But can you watch me to make sure I only have one?”
I was so blind that night that I took the request as a sign of maturity. Yeah, that’s my boy!
You want to believe the best in your kids. This isn’t the stupid, bad-parent narrative: Oh, you just want to be his friend, not his father. My wife and I provided both of our children with structure and discipline. We raised them in the same house with the same values and the same love and support. But our daughter, Sierra, didn’t grow up to be an addict.
Truth is, I was always more worried about Sierra than Josh. She was sweet and funny but too often didn’t seem to take school or anything seriously, except her social life. He had a strong business mind and was career-oriented.
Sierra graduated in four years with no school debt. Today, she’s a paralegal at a large Atlanta law firm. So much for my parental instincts.
Meanwhile, Josh embraced his secret life. His drinking increased. His drug use also increased, escalating from marijuana to highly addictive opiates, specifically OxyContin. But he continued to function. That was the problem. Josh was always a smart kid and his ability to succeed in school despite the drug use fed his ego. He suffered from character traits common to addicts. He wasn’t humble or spiritual and seldom cared about the feelings of others. And while he was often charming and sweet, his ego could be out of control.
Yeah, I know: You got this, Einstein, one of Josh’s counselors used to say to him with sarcasm.
His ego nearly got him killed.
Word had gotten around that Josh had drugs and money in his Athens apartment. One weekday morning some guys broke in looking for both.
“I woke up and a guy was holding a gun to my head, and all I could think about was I had a test in four hours,” Josh says.
No panic. No, What have I done? or I’m going to die, or Please, save me now, God. Just, “I have a test in four hours.”
“You get so wrapped up in your own BS, and you slowly work your way in with these people to the point where these situations are common,” he says. “Alcoholics constantly think we can get out of this stuff.”
Unfortunately, Josh isn’t unique on college campuses. Honor students from nice suburban homes with two-parent upbringings aren’t immune. Josh calls the problem “its own stupid subculture. It’s like a Hollywood gang movie. The only difference is everybody went to good schools and don’t have any real problems. But they believe this is who they are.”
The OxyContin boom fed the problem. Prescriptions jumped from 670,000 in 1997 to 6.2 million in 2002. In 2013, there were 207 million prescriptions written for opioid pain medications, like Oxy and Vicodin. Prescription and over-the-counter drugs are the most commonly abused substances after marijuana by Americans 14 and older.
It has been a particularly bad problem in states like Georgia, where “pain clinics” were allowed to pop up because of weak laws in the area of prescription drugs. Anybody could easily obtain scripts for hundreds of pills, sell most for profit and keep some to support their own habit.
OxyContin isn’t only highly addictive, it’s expensive. That’s why addicts often transition to heroin, which is cheaper. It’s the 1960s all over again.
During my extreme-anger phase after Josh went into treatment, any time I saw “pain management” signs stuck into lawns or on lamp posts, I would stop my car, pull the signs up and toss them into Dumpsters. The way I viewed it, no phony, low-life “pain clinic doctor” would have me arrested for stealing his $2 sign because that might necessitate him stepping into a courtroom to justify all of the scripts he was writing. Truth is, I was hoping to be given that chance.
But in time I also realized that throwing away every sign in the world wouldn’t make a difference when it came to Josh.
Moment of reckoning
Jeanne and I spent thousands of dollars on treatment programs, only to see Josh relapse. We gave him money to help pay bills, which he burned on substances. After a series of traffic tickets and accidents in Athens, we told him to leave his car parked for his own safety and to mitigate skyrocketing insurance rates. He agreed. He lied about that, too. You know how you tell when someone in active addiction is lying? Their lips are moving.
The first time I heard “detach with love,” it made no sense to me. But it’s about detaching from the disease, not the person. Over time, we set boundaries and quit helping Josh dig himself out of his own messes. We began to let him bear all the responsibility for his actions on his own.
We tried not to concern ourselves with where Josh was in his recovery the summer of 2013 because we knew we were powerless over it. But one night that July would be his turnaround moment.
After two years on the relapse roller coaster, he was alone one night in a house he rented in Smyrna with two friends. He had been working as a waiter in an Atlanta steak restaurant and was making pretty good money supporting himself.
But he was struggling with emotions and demons, and he was dealing with it the only way he knew how: isolation, alcohol, drugs. Knowledge of what would happen when he went down this road had never kept him sober. The pain his addiction caused his family and others close to him never kept him clean. Knowing drugs led him to alienate friends and withdraw from college couldn’t make him stop. Here he was again, getting wasted, watching movies, alone. The usual.
But one thing changed on this night: The voices in his head. He started thinking about a guy he went through treatment with. The other young adult eventually “went back out,” the expression for those who relapse. The friend overdosed, as did so many others Josh went through treatment with or had met along the way. He estimates knowing two or three dozen who lost their lives in the last four years.
Josh couldn’t get this kid’s voice out of his head. The friend always suspected Josh wasn’t committed to treatment and just told the counselors what they wanted to hear.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Look at him. He’s dead,’” Josh says. “‘He knew what you were up to. Look at all these people. They died and you’re no different from them. You’re sitting in a house by yourself, getting drunk and high, thinking about this crap but you’re not doing anything about it.’”
Josh was filled with chemicals. But he was conscious and aware of every thought in his head. There is a time in active addiction when the noises don’t stop and the substances don’t work anymore.
He took a hard look at the drugs and empty bottles in front of him.
“I remember thinking, ‘That stuff is why you’re in this situation. You’ve known it for so long, you’ve never looked at it.’ I just remember all these words were getting louder and louder in my head, all while I was in a room by myself, still isolating, doing the same stuff I had been doing for years.”
It was late, probably 1 or 2 in the morning.
“I just stood up at some point and took the rest of the drugs and flushed it all,” he says.
“Of course, 20 minutes later I’m kicking my own ass for ditching the drugs.”
The mind of an addict.
Still, he realized it wasn’t enough to want and need recovery. He had to surrender. Eventually, he lay down and closed his eyes.
“I prayed about it,” he says. “I remember the one thing I asked for was just that I could try to get some sleep and go to work the next day. And I did.”
Off the roller coaster
That plane ride from Atlanta to Memphis in September 2011 was the longest 75 minutes of my life. It was nearly two years before Josh flushed the drugs and truly embraced recovery. When the plane landed, I walked off and told a friend who was on the flight but not sitting near me, “I’m not sure if Josh is alive.”
I felt as helpless that day as I did four months earlier when I’d checked him into Ridgeview Institute. I’d sat on the curb outside crying, something I hadn’t even done at my mother’s funeral. But she had been suffering from cancer and had lived a full life. I felt at peace when she passed. Josh was 21 years old, an entire life ahead of him.
I prayed for a moment. Then I phoned Jeanne.
“They found him,” she said.
He later admitted he stole the money and planned to buy heroin or get drunk. But something stopped him. Instead, he bought crawfish and made dinner for his friends in a halfway house.
Was it an epiphany or turning point? Not really.
“I think at that moment I was accepted by the people in treatment and it didn’t seem like that much of a rush to get high,” he says. “But it wasn’t because I wanted to stay sober. It was still like a twisted half-measure. I still stole money.”
But it was a turning point for me that night. I hit my bottom. I surrendered. I was done trying to help or fix. I would always love him and have hope, but I was off the roller coaster. It didn’t mean I wouldn’t feel something if he went back out, or if he died. But I finally came to realize his actions were out of my control.
Jeanne and I started to say and do things completely counter-intuitive to being a parent. During one relapse when Josh told us he wasn’t sure he wanted to get clean, his mother asked him: “Then I just have one question: If you should die, do you want to be buried or cremated?”
Telling their story
When Josh struggled in early recovery, Jeanne and I went in opposite directions. My reaction: rescue. Her reaction: anger. Both are justified.
They call addiction a family disease for a reason, although parents often don’t realize it at the time. When it was suggested that Jeanne and I start going to meetings and focus on our own recovery, our initial reaction was, “We’re not the addicts.” When we were told we were enablers, our response was, “We didn’t give him the drugs.”
But we were just as sick as Josh. Never mind that we weren’t the ones taking pills. Our lives had become unmanageable because of addiction, just like Josh’s. Our dependence wasn’t tied to chemicals but emotional, impulsive reactions. We helped, we protected, we fixed. We loaned him money for groceries rather than stop and think: “Wait a minute. This kid found ways to buy drugs, he can figure out a way to buy a box of cereal.”
The reason recovery is such a struggle for parents is our desire to help comes from love. It comes from our heart, not our head.
The defining moment in Jeanne’s recovery came when we were awakened by a late-night phone call and learned Josh was in trouble, not life-threatening, but trouble nonetheless. It was at a time when we both believed he was in recovery. I shifted into help mode, got out of bed and began to get dressed.
“I was flabbergasted,” Jeanne says. “I couldn’t believe I had to talk you out of putting your shoes on. My thought was, ‘Here we go again, but I’m not playing.’ The drugs were dragging him down and he was dragging us down.”
When Josh withdrew from the University of Georgia and went into treatment, Jeanne and I initially kept it from Sierra. She was in the midst of final exams at Valdosta State and we saw no need to upset her. But after her last test, she phoned us and we told her what was going on.
“I literally dropped to my knees,” she said.
In strange and unexpected ways, Josh’s addiction changed us all for the better. My wife and I now understood the concept of powerlessness. We learned about the 12 Steps, and they became our road map for life. We started taking care of ourselves more and focused less on Josh. We did what anybody strong in their recovery does: Make decisions based on our needs, not anybody else’s.
We started having a date night. We grew spiritually, praying from a standpoint of gratitude and belief instead of sadness and desperation. We went into every day with goals and aspirations but not expectations. There’s a big difference.
I stopped drinking for a year and a half — not because I had a problem but because I knew it would force me to process things and decompress organically instead of with a glass of wine to take the edge off.
We started to parent our nonaddicted child, Sierra, differently, being up front about anything that bothered us. We let nothing slide, whether it was her grades or our perceptions of her life’s priorities.
Josh’s addiction changed Sierra, too.
“I saw what I shouldn’t do,” she says. “It was like, ‘Hey I really can’t go out and party every night. When I went back to school I had a completely different perspective on drinking. It wasn’t about what my friends were doing or what the cool thing was to do. That was because of Josh.”
Sierra didn’t believe she needed it, but I dragged her to a recovery meeting one afternoon. When she spoke, the dam broke. Tears everywhere.
“Where did that come from?” she asked in the parking lot as we walked out.
A month after Josh went into treatment, Jeanne and Sierra were walking in the park and saw a woman selling lab-golden retriever puppies. That’s how we came to adopt Lilly. She was cheaper than therapy and proved to be a wonderful tonic for all of us. We even took her to Ridgeview so Josh could meet her.
“I didn’t want to face all the tragedy of my son being a drug addict,” Jeanne says. “I wanted to use Lilly as a distraction. That’s when I realized how sick I was.”
We tried to explain addiction to other family members, but it’s a difficult subject to comprehend unless you live through it. We took Jeanne’s parents to visitation weekends a few times. Josh and his grandmother, Agnes, would often stand off to the side smoking cigarettes.
“You know Josh, there’s some cute girls here,” Agnes said.
Josh laughed. “Grandma, everybody’s crazy here,” he said.
Eventually, we learned to laugh again. Jeanne and I began to open up to close friends or some in recovery. The shame and isolation that smothered us diminished. Word got around the recovery community about our story. Suddenly, friends who were struggling with similar issues would seek counsel from us.
Two and a half years ago, a friend in the recovery community asked if I would tell my story to a group of parents as part of a high school drug-education program. I said yes. I wasn’t nervous. To the contrary, it felt natural, even therapeutic. Jeanne and I now speak frequently to parents about our journey. Recovery is a passion, and sharing our experience, strength and hope with others also helps in our own recovery. It’s the final step of any 12-Step program: “Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to others and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”
Out in the open
There is an area in Tate Plaza on the University of Georgia campus where plaques of the annual graduating classes hang on the wall. As 2011 was to be Josh’s graduating class, we paid ahead of time to have his name engraved on a plaque. That was before his derailment.
He recently saw his name on the plaque for the first time and cracked a joke about getting calls from the alumni association asking for donations. Then almost on cue found himself flashing back with regret.
“It’d be nice if life came with an instruction manual,” he says. “You see your name on a plaque that says you should’ve graduated four years ago. I see things that trigger memories on a daily basis. But I’m OK with where my life is going now, and I like the people I have in it. I can stand myself today. You go through all of this terrible stuff, most of which is your own fault, but it’s amazing the power that experience has.”
Josh returned to UGA last year. He changed his career choice from music promoter to advertising.
It didn’t matter that he could have completed his degree quicker with his previous major in history. If you learn anything about the journey, it’s that the time clock in all of our heads — school, career, marriage, family — goes away. It’s about recovery and happiness, and you get there when you get there.
Josh is nearing two years clean. If his series of great days continues, his name will be on another plaque next year.
We see a time when addiction and recovery is out of the closet. An increasing number of celebrities are speaking publicly about sobriety. Bonnaroo, the annual music festival in Tennessee, now advertises Soberoo with daily meetings during the week and a sober viewing tent.
Georgia, like several other universities, now has a Collegiate Recovery Community (CRC). The CRCs from Georgia, Florida, Kennesaw State, Georgia Southern and Alabama got together for a sober tailgate at the Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville last year.
It was the world’s largest Red Bull party.
I can’t begin to understand the difficulties of waking up every morning, knowing sobriety comes first. I can’t begin to understand why when Josh sees Sierra drink a half glass of wine and leave the rest, something in his brain says, “What are you doing?”
“I wouldn’t call it a craving — it’s just the way my brain works,” he says.
“The thing is, it doesn’t go away. People say, ‘I had four years and I went back out.’ Maybe it was because his girlfriend dumped him or her brother took his own life, but the circumstances of life don’t change. Stuff’s going to happen, you’re going to feel different and in the midst of that, if you’re not keeping an eye on your sobriety, you’re going to return to old bad habits. Or you’ll just white-knuckle it and you’ll be miserable to be around.
“The hardest thing is just a good daily commitment,” Josh continues. “Everyday I need to humble myself; prayer is good for that, especially in the morning. I get out of bed and face the window. I like to face the light when I pray.”
Josh was just two months sober when he got into a bad auto accident in September 2013. His car was totaled, his arm broken. When paramedics arrived, they wanted to give him something for the pain, maybe morphine. He said no. They offered again. He said no. “I’m only 60 days sober. I’m not taking anything.”
Even after surgery, he declined pain killers.
“I know what kind of pain your son was in,” the surgeon told us the next day. “He really manned up.”
I nearly dropped to my knees.
None of us could make sense of the accident at the time. But now it makes perfect sense. It was a test he needed to go through.
“Everything’s great now because that happened,” he says.
Josh’s love for the outdoors has led him to a new passion: caving. Every other weekend, he can usually be found exploring a pit near the shared border of Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee, often several hundred feet below the Earth’s surface. He likens caving to recovery.
“They’re both very humbling, very intense and a lot of work,” he says. “Caving requires the same level of discipline that goes into my sobriety. In both cases, everybody looks out for each other. And when I rappel, I usually end up getting down on my knees. It’s a perfect time for me to pray.”
Recently Josh invited Jeanne, Sierra and me to go caving with him. No vertical drops, no ropes, but it was a blast and a great family bonding experience, one of many healing moments. We’ve grown closer from this experience. We work parallel recovery programs, controlling what we can control and turning over the rest to our higher power. Addiction steered us to a new way of living, strangely enriching our lives beyond anything we experienced even before drugs and alcohol pulled us down.
Some things you just don’t see coming.
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Jeff Schultz has worked at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 1989 after previous jobs at the San Jose Mercury News and Los Angeles Daily News. He has written a general sports column for the AJC since 2002 and has been honored as one of the top 10 sports columnists in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors and won awards from the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association and other organizations. He is married and lives in Johns Creek with his wife Jeanne and dog Lilly. They have two children, Josh, 26, and Sierra, 23.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Curtis Compton joined the AJC as a photo editor in 1993 before returning to the field as a staff photographer. Previously he worked for the Gwinnett Daily News, United Press International and the Marietta Daily Journal. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia and won a World Hunger Award for his coverage of the famine in Sudan.
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
When my son Josh developed an addiction to OxyContin during his senior year at the University of Georgia and entered a drug treatment facility in May 2011, it traumatized the family as well as Josh. He had multiple relapses over the first two years but now he is nearing two years of sobriety and has returned to UGA to complete his degree. The experience, while painful, has been a blessing for Josh and me. We both have learned about addiction as a mental illness and work strong parallel recovery programs. My wife Jeanne and I frequently do public speaking on addiction and recovery, hoping to educate others on the disease. Josh and I believe sharing our story publicly can help others who are struggling, whether as an addict, a parent or a loved one.
For loved ones of addicts
Families Anonymous: www.FamiliesAnonymous.org
Al-Anon and Alateen: www.Al-Anon.org
Davis Direction Foundation: www.DavisDirectionFoundation.org
The Addict’s Mom: www.AddictsMom.com
“Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book”
“Today A Better Way” (“Red Book” of Families Anonymous)
“Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption” by William Cope Moyers
“The Protector: A Father’s Insightful and Passionate Journey Through Family Crises” by Richard M. Dressler
“Codependent No More” by Melody Beattie
“The Language of Letting Go” by Melody Beattie
“The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brene Brown
“God of Our Understanding” by Rabbi Shais Taub