Wishing For a Different Ending


The headline and the story that followed broke my heart. The story could have had a different ending. The key is in the first sentence, just above the photograph of a three-generation family, smiling widely, arms pulling each other close, Christmas tree and stockings on the hearth framing the background.

“We never had an honest conversation about the disease that killed her.”

I know why the O’Connors never had that conversation.  As the mother of a child who struggled with addiction for eight long years, I know that keeping silent is so much safer, so much easier, so much less traumatic than bringing up the dreaded talk about drugs. 

Like Kelly O’Connor, who wrote about her sister Jenny’s life and death, I knew something was wrong with my son. Like Kelly, I rationalized his behavior – maybe it was just adolescence, a stage or phase, something he would grow out of as he matured. 

Like so many of us who find it easier to be deaf, dumb, and blind to this disease – because it is just too darn scary, too difficult to pin down, too damn manipulative, too impossible to destroy -- I accepted his excuses and rationalizations.

Why, when the truth was so obvious? Because I love him with all my heart.  Because I wanted him to love me. Because I did not want to destroy, with my words, the trust and respect we still shared.

The time came when I could not stay silent.  I practiced the words I would say, repeated the Serenity Prayer again and again in my mind (so fast at times that the words were all jumbled together, tumbling all over each other in a rush to be heard), steeled myself for the encounter. Always, inevitably I ended up as the bad guy.

Sometimes all hell broke loose, as I describe in this scene from my book The Only Life I Could Save.

One afternoon, when Ben comes home from school, I ask him if we can talk. He glares at me but sits down at the dining room table.

“Something is wrong, honey,” I say. “I don’t know what it is, but Dad and I are concerned about you. We want to help.”

“Why do you always think something is wrong? Nothing’s wrong.”

I take a deep breath. “We’ve got holes in our walls, you seem angry all the time, and you don’t want to be anywhere near us. It’s as if we’re your enemy, and you can’t even stand to look at us.”

“I’m sick of you,” he says through clenched teeth. “I’m sick of all your questions. I’m sick of your attitude, the way you act as if you know everything. You’re always criticizing me; you’re always on my back.”

“If I’m on your back, it’s because I love you and something is wrong,” I say, willing myself to stay calm. “You’re not happy. You’re not yourself.”

“What does that mean? Who do you think I am?”

I ignore the question. “We think you’re using again,” I say, stating it as fact.

He stands up, red-faced and furious. “It’s always drugs with you, isn’t it? You always assume the worst. You lump me with your Juvies. You think I’m an addict just like you think everyone else is an addict. Who made you God to make that conclusion about everybody?”

And then he’s out the door with a slam that shakes the windows.

I knew Ben was in trouble. I knew I could not wait until he hit rock bottom, because I knew what rock bottom looks like. Sometimes it’s a prison cell. Sometimes it’s a car wreck, or an overdose, or a brain that is permanently altered by drugs. As so many stories like Kelly O’Connor’s reveal, sometimes it is death.

I knew the facts about addiction because, at the time, I’d been writing books about the subject for nearly thirty years. I thought all those books I wrote, teaming up with doctors, psychologists, addiction specialists, and people in long-term recovery, would somehow protect my family from addiction. 

I was wrong. Addiction didn’t care how much I knew about its devastating impact on the body, mind, and spirit. Addiction was smarter than me. Addiction turned me upside down and inside out. Addiction brought me to my knees, enshrouded me in silence and fear of judgment from the outside world, consigning me to a place of helplessness and hopelessness where I felt alone, confused, and despairing.

In that lonely, painful place I discovered that silence is addiction’s best friend. Silence destroys us all for it colludes with the addiction, helping it gain power, threatening the lives of those we love, and leading us to question our own sanity. Knowing this, understanding its terrifying truth, I picked myself up, shrugged off the heavy shrouds of denial and rationalization, and forced myself to keep having those difficult conversations, to continue talking with my son about my fears, hopes, and dreams, to seek out the company of other mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, children and cousins whose story was also my story and who helped me understand that I was not alone.

The O’Connors are not alone.  They join the ranks of hundreds of thousands of people who have struggled – who are struggling at this moment -- to understand how and why addiction entered their lives.

I only wish they had received the help they needed to confront the addiction head-on and wrest Jenny from its deadly grip. I wish that this year’s Christmas photograph showed all of them, including Jenny, with smiles on their face, celebrating not just the season but the reality of recovery.

I wish for a greater depth of understanding and compassion for families like the O’Connor’s. I wish for more doctors, lawyers, judges, social workers, clergy, counselors, and teachers who understand addiction and who know how to offer individuals and families the help they so desperately need and so deeply deserve.

I wish for that knowledge to be spread far and wide, so every man, woman, and child accepts the fact that addiction is a physiological disease, a chronic, relapsing brain disease -- not a moral failing, or a character flaw, or a symptom of loneliness, rebelliousness, depression, or disaffection.

I wish community leaders would acknowledge the immediate and desperate need to provide access to intervention, treatment, and recovery support for people with addictions and their family members.

I wish that acknowledgment would then be accompanied by the moral resolve and financial commitment to do what needs to be done about that need.

I wish, finally, for more talk and less silence about the disease of addiction. Because Jenny O’Connor’s death could have been prevented. A life has been lost and a family is left with great sorrow, the depth of which cannot be measured in words. 

I wish, with all my heart, for a different ending.