Drugs: Our 20-year Journey

minister tells how he and his family have handled his daughter's drug addiction

* Amos Slater is a pseudonym.

Our 20-year journey with drugs is a continuing part of our lives. The nightmare is not so old that we can forget the pain. It is always close by, especially when we reach out to others as bewildered and frightened as we have been.

Seminary taught me how to minister. Experience led to departmental and other leadership opportunities. But nothing prepared us for our unexpected ordeal with drugs and the tremendous pain it would bring to our lives. When the editor of Ministry asked me to share my experience of dealing with a druggie child, I felt motivated to say yes. I would like to tell my peers, my fellow pastors, and other Christian parents what my ordeal has been like, and how my family is doing today. While my family embraces the opportunity to share our story, we recognize that in doing so, we might appear to be airing our dirty laundry. I will try to avoid doing that.

Trying to be the perfect family

We were trying to be the perfect Christian family. Our fourth-generation-SDA kids would have every opportunity we had, and then some: Pathfinders, summer camp, VBS, and church school. Our credo was work hard and pray hard and everything will be fine—academy, college, and careers would follow. Young Amy, after all, was the brightest and most promising child ever. But Jane was more challenging to raise. We thought that by trying harder everything would be fine.

We didn't realize the changes that slowly but steadily led us into new patterns of behavior. Conflicts began at home, then at school, and finally with the law. We didn't trust Jane's friends. There were lies and out bursts of anger. Some of the most embarrassing times took place in front of my colleagues. We attempted counseling, and it just didn't work. Eventually there weren't any schools left to get kicked out of. We'd get advice from well-meaning friends and criticism from others. It was a time of total frustration for me and for my wife, Mavis.

The pressure of not having an instant solution for our problem was overwhelming. Mavis and I would argue about how to discipline our daughter. I found myself escaping the stress at home by becoming a workaholic. I probably accepted more preaching invitations than I wanted to be cause it got me out of the house.

I don't believe that the tension between Mavis and me would have led to divorce. But my marriage was never more strained than before my family entered treatment. Not only do the druggie children inflict an inward wounding of themselves; the pain is keenly felt by anyone who cares for them. The same painful inclusiveness carries over the moment a family enters drug treatment. It is true also, however, that when the whole family participates in getting help, the rewards for making progress are felt by everyone.

When we visited the homes of our friends, Jane acted like the perfect child. It was difficult for people to believe that we had any kind of problem going on in our family. We weren't sure what to do with our problem child. In our search to find solutions, we began to change the way we did our parenting. Mavis and I thought that if we could just try harder, things would be better. Instead of becoming the super parents that we thought we could be, we ended up becoming super "overenablers" for our daughter. We made excuses for her odd behavior. We thought that her teachers just didn't understand her. We said to ourselves This is her rebellion phase or She'll grow out of it. Even when we had evidence of drug use we would say It must be something else.

Attempts to fix the problem

I became jealous of our friends who had normal children who were well behaved. Thus I soon became so preoccupied with fixing Jane's drug problem that I didn't realize my older daughter was feeling the impact of her sibling's behavior. Without our realizing it, Amy retreated into bulemia and when several years later she sought treatment for herself, she was able to piece together the mystery of why she fell into it—she wanted to feel in control of some thing ... anything.

At the same time, Mavis and I thought that there must be something wrong with us. We didn't really have a source of help within the church. There weren't any treatment programs or places to go within the Adventist system. So we ended up at a drug rehabilitation center that is successful yet controversial in their methods of treatment.

We tricked Jane into taking a trip with us to a place that would enable her to get a better job. She was angry with us for deceiving her, but she signed herself into the treatment center. When I thought about all the endless lies and con games that Jane had put over on Mavis and me, I did not feel so bad about telling one lie that could help save my daughter's life.

Going through a rehabilitation center wasn't easy. My family had to relive some of the most painful moments in our lives. Many tears were shed while we sorted out our "laundry." Our 12-step program took almost two years to complete. Getting treatment wasn't exactly smooth sailing. Jane ran away twice, and we had to start the program all over from scratch. Then again, in our desperate struggle to help Jane, Amy would sometimes be over looked. Because most of our attention was aimed at the problem, we inadvertently ignored the good kid. I don't think either of our children ever felt unloved, but during the most drastic moments almost all our time and energy went into getting help for Jane.

Amy seemed to have the easiest time at the rehabilitation center. She would say, "Dad, I love Jane, but I hate her too. I guess it's her actions I hate, but if you could just hate her a little, it would really make things easier for you and Mom." I felt that I would be willing to do whatever was necessary to help my child stop doing drugs. Yet because I believed that I was entering the program for Jane, it took me a long time to realize that I was entering the program for myself. I was the last to admit I had changes to make.

Seeing some light

Once the family began to pay attention to each person's individual recovery, we began to make lifelong changes. I know, for example, that some of the reason for Amy choosing never to use alcohol or drugs is that she saw the damage it did to her younger sister.

We learned to take it easy. "Take baby steps," they would say in the program. "Take it one day at a time. Easy does it. First things first." These guidelines sound simple, yet they are profoundly helpful. The lightbulb was suddenly coming on for me. I was getting it. God had been very patient with me. Why shouldn't I be patient with my family as well?

My own recovery was slow. Actually it is a continuous life-renewing experience for me and my family. I've seen a bumper sticker that says "Recovery is not a goal; it is a process." That also is true indeed. I've come a long way, and I still have a long way to go. Mavis has learned to talk about our concerns more openly with her family, but she still has the strongest reaction to airing our struggles too publicly. The hurtful experience of dealing with critical church members who could not relate to our situation is still fresh for her. She's never gotten over the experience of Jane being expelled from one of our church schools.

Mavis feels that Jane's whole life experience might have been drastically different if the people who judged our child could have shown more empathy. The guilt can be consuming when a parent feels they have not defended their child properly, or taken appropriate action in one situation or an other. It is not difficult for Mavis to convince herself that Jane's experience with drugs is entirely her (Mavis's) fault. I have discovered that I was so overwhelmed with my own grief and my worry about what my peers would think of me that I didn't take a clear stand on the side of my wife or the school.

Mavis carries the wounds of comments from those who didn't understand what was happening in our family. But she has never been critical of other parents. Mavis's work puts her in contact with youth who have substance abuse problems. Having to watch the attitudes of other children who aren't ready for help can be a reminder to her of what our family experienced. Mavis is a strong support to any parent or family member who is suffering the pain of having a drug user in the family.

We all have opportunities to help people who are affected by a loved one who is into drugs. Many church members embrace me in public when I admit that our family had a problem. It is also true that sometimes I get a nasty look from a church member who feels I have no right discussing something so shameful in public. Yet if more people would take the risk to ask for help, we wouldn't have to feel so isolated in moments of terrible pain. No member of God's family should have to suffer alone. Mavis and I have helped convince other parents that asking for help is not a sign of weakness.

Our daughter Amy has it together. Her career in church work and her positive attitude is a constant reassurance to us that God continues to lead in our lives.

Jane is a mother now, and we have our first grandchild. Just in case you think this is one of those storybook endings, let me give you the rest of the story.

No, Jane isn't doing drugs anymore. She completed high school and worked hard.

She's even fun to be with again. But she's not serving the Lord. She says to me, "Dad, God doesn't seem real to me." Of course it hurts Mavis and me to hear one of our children say something like that.

Recently, while visiting with Jane, Mavis and I dropped in with our grandchild to a nearby Sabbath school. No one greeted us as we entered, or made us feel welcome. No one had any idea about our fear that our grandchild might grow up thinking that God does not exist.

It is difficult for a baby to stay quiet during a church service, and so we were prob ably viewed that morning as an inconvenience to the congregation. We wanted to be seen as an approachable family who wanted to share with our new friends.

A hopeful future

Jane and I recently stood in her driveway, looking up at the star-filled night sky. We talked about the future—the choices she's making and where they are taking her. We stood there with our hands on each other's shoulders. She didn't say anything. She didn't have to. I don't preach at her anymore. I don't need to. We brought her to a treatment pro gram and placed her in God's hands. She knows what she has been taught, and we have to trust that God is looking after her.

Mavis and I are patiently waiting for Jane to accept God into her life again. Amy is hopeful too. We have scores of prayer partners all across America. The people who have been touched by our story have been very supportive of our family.

The changes we have made so far seem to have been good ones. We wait with the Lord, ready to rejoice as we all continue to grow. Meanwhile, we're hoping that by airing our story we will bring hope to some families while we perhaps motivate other families to get help. The journey toward healing is never easy. However, once you realize that you need help, there are places to which you can turn.

Schools have improved in their discipline methods. Now most have an intervention program. Awareness training is available for teachers and faculty. Live-in treatment pro grams such as The Bridge, for college-age students, and Advent Home and Miracle Meadows, for teens and adolescents, are a few of the Adventist resources available.

Besides this, most Adventist health-care facilities in North America have outpatient facilities. Adventist support groups such as Regeneration are good places to start. And, of course, there are many appropriate facilities not connected with the church.

Our experience with substance abuse has taught me some valuable lessons. I have always been skilled at knowing how to minister to those in need. Sometimes those who need my help the most are right under my own roof. I've come to understand what Paul meant when in 2 Corinthians he talks about being able to thank God for our difficulties. When we are weak, God can be strong. I've learned that it is better to face problems early than to wait until the laundry pile is so high that dealing with it is all but impossible. I'm looking forward to the next 20 years of the journey being filled with joy.

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* Amos Slater is a pseudonym.

July 1997

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