INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS, ARTICLES
April 30, 2018 | Interview
Exclusive Interview with Author Katherine Ketcham
A new memoir by author Katherine Ketcham tells the story of her journey of transformation, understanding, and healing, in the face of her son’s addiction and eventual path to recovery.
The Recovery Research Institute sat down with Author Katherine Ketcham to talk about her new book, The Only Life I Could Save, and what advice she would give to family members caught in a similar struggle to help save a loved one from addiction.
“There are two pathways before you – one is the road to addiction and the other is the path to recovery. If you choose to go down the addiction road, I cannot go with you for that journey will destroy us all. But if you choose the recovery pathway, I will walk with you to the ends of the earth.” – Katherine Ketcham
What inspired you to write this book?
When my son, Ben, started using drugs at age 12, I had coauthored half a dozen books on addiction. I worked with teens and parents at the Juvenile Justice Center and I was starting to write a book about adolescent addiction (“Teens Under the Influence”). I was an “expert” and yet when the disease walked through my front door, I became the parent I was talking to in my books. I was struck dumb – deeply confused about what to do and where to turn for help, paralyzed with fear, consumed with guilt and shame about my inability to prevent or stop the disease from threatening my child’s life.
Who is this book dedicated to?
From a different perspective, The Only Life I Could Save is a love letter to my son, my husband and daughters, to all the people I met along the way who helped us with their courage and compassion, especially the mothers, fathers, and siblings I met in treatment and in recovery groups. A group of strangers became my most trusted friends, for with them I could share my deepest emotions, my shame and my guilt, and know that they understood and would not judge.
In the end, I think this book is testament to forgiveness as I honor the flaws and frailties that define what it means to be human. A close friend who lost her son to an opioid overdose recently said, “I have soft eyes.” We cry together, knowing that our experiences with our children have changed the way we look at the world. Our experiences allow us to see deeper, beneath the surface, knowing that every person on this earth has experienced suffering and loss. Looking at others with soft eyes, we work hard every day to avoid judgments and instead offer empathy, kindness, and understanding to friends and strangers alike.
Who is the intended audience for the book?
I wrote the book as a mother, not as an expert, and I wrote it for other mothers and father who, like me, are confused, hoping the problem will fade away, who feel alone, afraid, and judged by others. Even unconditional love cannot pull a child back from the abyss of addiction. By telling my story honestly and openly, exposing my deepest fears and most agonizing struggles, I hope that other family members will see themselves in the mirror of my story and realize they are not alone.
What is the meaning behind the title, The Only Life I Could Save?
I couldn’t save my son Ben – I could only save myself. I wrestled for a long time with the concept of “letting go,” believing that if I fought hard enough and loved deeply enough, I could make miracles happen. I lived under the illusion that I could keep Ben safe, protect him from harm, just as I did when he was a child. The parental instinct to protect and defend your child at all costs is deeply embedded, part of our DNA. I had to fight that instinct, and it was a tooth-and-nail battle with myself to let go and accept the fact that I did not have the power to save Ben’s life. That was his task, his challenge, his fate.
Letting go of the belief that I could change another person’s life allowed me to understand and accept that the only life I could save was my own. I had to come back to myself, and in that process I was changed, humbled, radically transformed as I found courage and strength in a circle of strangers who were struggling, like me, to deal with their fear, pain, and helplessness. After so many tears, I discovered laughter again. After so much anguish, I found hope again.
What is one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned throughout your journey, that you were able to share in the book?
Let go. But letting go, as I came to realize, is not the same as abandonment. I never abandoned my son or my unconditional love for him, and I never let go of the hope that he would find his way home to recovery. Instead, I let go of the illusion that I could control his life. I was able to let go when I asked for help and discovered a community of fellow human beings who were also hurting and afraid. We shared our stories, and in joining my story with others on the same journey, I discovered that I was not alone.
What advice would you give to parents going through something similar?
Tell your story. Listen to other people’s stories. Create a community where it is safe to tell your stories, where you can open your heart and soul to others who are also suffering and struggling with a child’s drug use or substance use disorder. Walking into a room of strangers is not easy but as one father recently told me, “it was one of the best things we ever did.”
“It was hard to tell people about our experience but after telling our stories, my wife and I both felt as if a weight was lifted off our shoulders. It was a welcome feeling and very humbling to be part of a group that exists only to support each other, share their stories, and give each other the best advice they can to help each other out. No promises, no guarantees, we just offered each other love, hope and support with complete honesty, without any fear of judgment.”
Also, always remember that there is no amount of knowledge that can protect you from the pain and trauma of this disease, and nothing you have said or done caused it. I keep going back to the 3 C’s:
- You didn’t Cause it
- You can’t Control it
- You can’t Cure it.
Katherine Ketcham is the author of 17 books on addiction. Her books have been published in more than 15 different languages, and have sold over 1.8 million copies worldwide.
Publisher: Sounds True, 2018
July 8, 2018
Judith Newman’s Help Desk column
The subject of Katherine Ketcham’s THE ONLY LIFE I COULD SAVE (Sounds True, $21.95) isn’t explicitly trauma, but at the heart of all trauma is helplessness — and I can think of few things more traumatic than watching the personality of the child you love vanish in the face of drug addiction. Ketcham had written several popular books about addiction (her son, Ben, was forced to read one of them in rehab), and she had led counseling groups for addicted teenagers. You might assume this expertise would have prepared her for her own son’s battle. Quite the opposite. “I know how to talk and listen to other people’s children,” she confesses. “But I don’t know how to listen or talk to my own child.” Treating addiction involves a great deal of rinse-and-repeat behavior; at heart, it’s drudgery. But there’s repeated, brutal battering at the heart of any story of a mother trying to save her child, particularly when you know that nothing you say or do will make a difference until he or she is ready. It’s like watching a game of Frogger — only the frog that might be roadkill is your kid, and the cars are real.
MY THOUGHTS ON THIS REVIEW: How to express the emotions that somersault and handspring when reading a review in the NYTBR of a book in which you have poured out your heart and soul? Of course I wish as all authors do for a review sprinkled with superlatives but 197 words in what a great friend of mine calls "THE, as in THE, most important review of books in which an author can be mentioned" is good enough. No, much, much better than that, it is an honor for which I am deeply, profoundly grateful.
When I read the last line in Judith's column, the reference to the video game Frogger and the image of dead frogs who try and fail, to cross the road to safety hit me hard. A video game gets the adrenaline flowing and there are always new frogs to replace the squashed ones with no blood shed, but a real-life child with a serious drug problem taps into a parent's deepest well of terror and helplessness. Kids who use drugs die -- from overdoses, falling off porches or down stairs, vomiting in their sleep, and from suicides caused by their own feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and despair. I know too many people who have lost their children to drugs and addiction. One of my friends lost her son to an overdose; clean and sober for more than a year, he moved to New York City. A friend at work offered him some heroin and with the thought that "this is the last time" -- at least this is what I believe -- he went home to his tiny apartment where he overdosed and died that night. Bobby's death was all too real and horrifying. He was a much-loved child whose parents and sister will grieve for him every day for the rest of their lives. "You are one of the lucky ones," Bobby's mother told me one day. She is right. I did not love my son more than she did, I did not do more to try to help him than she did but my son made it to the other side of the road while hers did not. And there are no more Bobby's waiting by the side of the road who can take his place.
I was deeply honored to be included in the Summer 2018 issue of the astonishingly wonderful quarterly magazine Parabola: The Search for Meani. The issue includes poems, meditations, and articles by Thich Nhat Hahn,C.S. Lewis, Jeanne de Salzmann, Ramana Maharshi, and Jane Yolen. My article, "The Circle," tells the story of walking the beach with my husband and stumbling across a huge piece of driftwood that taught me a profound life lesson about everyday miracles. (The article is included below.) As Parabola's editorial director Tracy Cochran writes in her introduction to the Summer issue's focus on the miraculous: "It is by leaving the known, the well-traveled road, the deep grooves of habit, that we find our true path. And on that path, we may glimpse and sense that our true life does indeed share in the miraculous."
We’re at the beach in a rental house, just my husband, Pat, and I and Sophie and Murphy, our two springer spaniels. One night after dinner, we walk to the cliff at the end of the beach. The sun is setting, and the sky is pink and purple, with just a touch of blue. The ocean is silver, the white-capped waves relentless. Sophie and Murphy bound ahead of us, chasing the snowy plovers into the frigid water. We whistle them back, afraid they will follow the birds’ flight path and get carried off into the deep, darkening sea.
I wonder for a moment: What would I do if a wave took one of them? Would I go after her? Instantly, I know I would, even dressed in my winter coat and fleece pants. I’m a strong swimmer, but I imagine her sinking under the waves and me waiting for her to surface, the ice cold water moving into and through me, draining my energy, threatening to pull me down. Would I be able to save myself and return to shore?
With a grateful heart, I watch them running back toward us, big ears flopping and what looks like a grin on their faces as the wind pushes against them. We laugh as we put their leashes on and start back toward the house. We’re almost to the pathway leading up through the rocks when Pat stops suddenly.
“Look at that,” he says in a hushed voice. Resting on the beach is a branch, big as a small tree, washed up close to the dunes.
“It’s a perfect circle,” he says, raising his voice above the crash of the waves. I look and see what I had not seen before. Traced around the branch is a circle. A nearly perfect circle.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” Pat says, pointing to the center of the circle, where the heaviest part of the tree branch rests. “There’s the pivot point. See, the branch is shaped so it has a bend at the heavy end—that’s the pivot point. And here,” he points to the tapered end of the branch where it touches the sand, “it’s lighter than the pivot point. When the tide came up, the water must have been just deep enough to float the lighter end, and the heavier center stayed grounded. The waves somehow managed to move the tree branch around in a circle until the tide went out again.”
He’s quiet for a moment, looking at the circle in something approaching wonder. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. It must have happened right when the tide was dropping. The branch had to have been pushed around in a circle precisely when the tide dropped enough to ground both ends because otherwise the waves would have washed the sand smooth again.”
I can’t take my eyes off the circle carved in the sand by a large piece of wood that happened to be washed ashore at precisely the right time. If Pat hadn’t been with me, I would have never seen that circle. I might have stepped around it or straight into it, ruining its near perfection. Most likely I would have considered it an obstacle in my way.
“Chaos produces order,” Pat says as he stares out at the sea and then back at the circle.
“What do you mean?” I want—I need—to understand how disorder and disarray can lead to stability and harmony.
“The tide must have been really high to reach this point, so close to the dunes. Imagine it—the waves are coming in all over the place, they’re bouncing off the rocks. And this huge piece of driftwood is turning, swiveling, standing its ground but tossed about by the waves. It’s chaotic. But out of that chaos, this circle was created.”
The dogs are tired and lay down in the sand, curling up next to each other to stay warm.
“Chaos often produces very regular stuff,” Pat says. He is usually so quiet, a man of few words, except when he’s talking to his students. Then he’s animated, full of energy and enthusiasm about the earth and its history. I don’t have a long attention span when it comes to science, but I tend to ask lots of questions. In his kindness, knowing the way my mind works, he’s careful to keep his explanations short and to the point. But order emerging out of chaos, stability and harmony arising from turbulence and confusion? I’m entranced.
“Tell me how that happens,” I say in a near whisper.
“Well, think about the wind blowing across a sandy beach. It produces a whole field of symmetrical ripples. But the way the wind produces a ripple is by chaotic turbulence in its flow. If you look at the air flow in the winds generating a ripple, it’s all over the place, spinning, and interfering, but the result is a nearly perfect train of ripples across the surface.”
I imagine the wind moving across a lake. I picture the breeze moving through the wheat fields near our home. I see the wind gust on the ocean as it pushes and pulls at the surface to create waves. I think about what my dear friend Ernie Kurtz said about the wind as a metaphor for spirituality. We know the wind is there by its effect on things—leaves in the trees, blowing sand, ocean waves. We experience it, feel it, encounter it, but we can’t see it except in its influence on the world around us. Like so much that takes place in our world, we cannot control or command it.
“It’s such a delicate balance,” Pat is saying, “between the tides and the waves and the weight of the log—just enough buoyancy to float one end of the tree branch and push it around in circles, but not enough wave activity to pull it back into the sea and wash away the evidence that it ever existed. You could scour beaches for the rest of your life and never find something like this again.”
“So what does all this mean? What does it mean in human terms?” I’m shivering with the cold. The dogs look at us with impatient perplexity as if to say, What are you talking about? What’s so important that we can’t go home and lie down in our warm beds?
Pat stares at the circle. “I think it means we are just where we’re supposed to be. If one thing had been changed in our lives, everything else would have gone an entirely different direction. I wouldn’t have met you in the tavern playing pool that Friday night, we wouldn’t have our children, we would be living an entirely altered existence. Or we might not be alive at all.”
We’re both thinking about the same thing—our son and his battle with addiction.
“Like Ben,” Pat says after a moment. “It would be impossible to determine what event was the turning point in his life. Was it the bullying? Losing his best friend at such a pivotal age? Genetics? I don’t think we can point to one cause with any certainty. I believe it’s just the way things happened. His set of chances ended up with him where he is, at this point in time, and my set of chances ended up with me where I am. It’s the way things are.”
“So, there’s no changing it or wishing it were different,” I say, knowing the answer.
“If you change one thing, you change the whole thing.”
“Is it all chance, then?”
“That’s what I believe. It’s all chance.”
As chaotic as that seems, I am consoled. Chance. Chance events can create order out of chaos. That seems to me a sort of miracle.
We walk over the dunes toward the house. I look back at the circle one more time. It is almost but not quite perfect. When the tide returns, it will be gone. It exists only for this small period of time, and then it will vanish.
We have only this moment.
Adapted excerpt from THE ONLY LIFE I COULD SAVE: A Memoir, by Katherine Ketcham. Sounds True, April 2018.
Reprinted with permission.