After the Storm, Sun, Kinda

Birds flying by Angelo DeSantis Nine_birds_flying_over_the_waves_(7681834848)_(2)Slowly, since my last post, my son and I have been working through the hurt and pain of our last encounter. I still feel a little soreness, a little trepidation, around my heart. I’m still half-holding my breath. But things are working themselves out.

He and his girlfriend have made up and are back together, stronger than ever, so they say. They are planning to move in together and looking for transitional housing that takes families.

He and his ex (his daughter’s mother) have renewed their relationship too, as friends, and co-parents. For the first time since she was ten months old I’ve been able to visit with my sweet granddaughter again. She’s two now.

I had both my “grand-babies” visiting this weekend, my granddaughter and my adopted “grandson,” the one who was supposed to have spent Christmas with us. He was able to open all the presents I had saved for him. Child laughter in my home, the two chasing each other around, all gathered in my son’s lap as he reads them “Cat in the Hat.” Kisses and hugs from the little ones. Heaven on earth.

So things are looking up. I should be so happy. But I feel like I’m waiting for the other shoe to fall. I feel like the storm clouds are still waiting over the horizon. Waiting for me to turn to full-blown joy before crashing down again, like they like to do.

My son will be 9 months clean, heroin-free, next week. But his work situation is dire, housing unstable, and he’s drinking beer now openly. For all the joy in his life again–the woman he loves recommitted to him, the daughter he loves back in his life, the mother he loves having forgiven him–he still seems tense, on edge, anxious. We both are.

Maybe that’s good. Maybe that will keep us on our toes. Maybe full-blown joy is too much to ask for at this stage of recovery.

Joy without doubt? Without fear? Without reservation? Is such a thing possible for the mother of an addict? Maybe joy in small doses is enough. A child’s kiss. A son’s smile. A mother’s forgiveness.

Baby steps–why do I always forget that?

Yet when I remember where he was last year at this time, having OD’d three times in 4 months, strung out on heroin, lost on the street. When I see how far he’s come. When I read of other mothers whose son’s and daughters are where my son was then–I have to drop my head in gratitude, and pray that all our children come home safely to their rightful place. That all of us, some day, will experience that full-blown joy we yearn for.

Six Months Strong and Bulking Up

body building bicep_curl“You’re getting fat,” I tease my son, pinching the roll that is starting to form around his waistline.

“On purpose, Mom,” he tells me. “I’m bulking up. This will all be muscle. You’ll see.”

I don’t doubt him. Already his biceps bulge like barbells. He can bench press 240 now.

He works out every day at the gym. But he doesn’t have the budget that will support the kind of high quality diet that most body builders use when they are trying to put on muscle. Bread, rice, and beans are his stables. He’s not complaining.

A year ago he was lying unconscious on my bathroom floor from a heroin overdose.

Seven months ago, fresh off the streets, he was so skinny you could count every bone in his body.

But now, after six months clean, he’s starting to look like The Hulk. In a good way.

The thing is, the way it was before never seemed real, always seemed like a bad dream. It wasn’t who he really is.

And now I have my son back.

I feel so blessed. I hope every grieving mother who reads this, knows there’s hope for their sons and daughters too. Six months clean can make a world of difference.

There’s much to celebrate this Thanksgiving.

 

A Step Up, A Step Down – The Wobbly Road to Recovery

Step-ladder_stile_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1208202 by Kate Jewell

Step-ladder stile by Kate Jewell WikiCommons

My son is five and a half months clean, still going strong in recovery, but still struggling to acquire the basics in life, what so many of us take for granted: stable housing, stable income, stable relationships.

He lives in a metal shed, what his friend calls “his guest house.” It has a bed, a chair, a table, a refrigerator, and even a TV that plays two channels. Pretty comfy for a metal shed. But there’s no plumbing. No kitchen. No insulation. No heat or air conditioning.

He showers at a local gym. He cooks on a hot plate and microwave oven. He has a portable heater and fan.

It’s a step up, or a step down, depending on how you look at it. Before he moved here he was living in a motel room for $1350 a month. His shed is free, so he’s able to start saving money again, and get caught up in child support payments. So that’s a step up.

It’s a step down because—well—it’s a shed. And his girlfriend and son are no longer living with him. They’ve moved back to the shelter.

But he’s still working, still going to AA meetings with his sponsor, still going to the counseling required by his Prop 36 program, still taking Methadone, and still dating his new girlfriend. He even has been able to see his daughter a couple of times since I last posted here. He’s talked to a lawyer about getting visiting rights.

Life is good, considering he was at death’s door only seven months ago when I started this blog: having been kicked out of rehab, living on the street, two overdoses within a week of each other, and another on my bathroom floor around this time last year.

So I’m happy and hopeful, and more importantly, so is he.

Life is good on the wobbly road to recovery.

Is Addiction a Disease? Or a Moral, Social, & Spiritual Failing?

Brain addictionAddiction as a Disease

The latest scientific, evidence based thinking refers to addiction as a brain disease. People who become addicted have a brain-based disease, or a chemical-based predisposition to becoming addicted to alcohol or drugs. Some of us can drink alcohol and indulge in narcotics without becoming addicted. Others can’t.

When my husband and I were young, we indulged in the common recreational drugs that were available at the time. Occasionally while we were dating, we smoked pot, or took speed, or dropped acid. It seemed harmless at the time. Neither of us became addicted. By the time we got married, we weren’t using narcotics, except for a few puffs on an occasional joint. By the time we had kids, we didn’t do that either. It just wasn’t part of our lifestyle anymore. We continued to drink occasionally. And we still do–mostly beer (him) and wine (me). We might even drink something harder, a cocktail for instance, during special outings or at a back-yard BBQ.

But we don’t worry that we may come addicted. It’s just not an issue.

For our son though, it is an issue. His initial use of alcohol and narcotics led to an addiction that his father and I never got. We weren’t physically or chemically inclined to become addicted. He was.

Was the fact that his narcotic use led to addiction because he was morally weak? Because he was too stupid or weak-minded or self-indulgent that he could not use narcotics moderately for recreational purposes only, as his parents had?

No. My husband and I never struggled with trying to “resist” drugs or alcohol. We could use it or not use it whenever we wanted. We weren’t morally superior because we used in moderation and eventually stopped using because it no longer interested us and wasn’t desired.

Yet because his early drug use led to a severe addiction that lasted years, and our early drug use didn’t, he is considered a social pariah, and we are considered upstanding citizens.

Our drug use never created an overwhelming desire to use more and more. We never had to use “will-power” to stop using. We never had to pray to stop using. We never had to go to rehab or 12-step. It never tried to take over our lives. It never affected us the way it affected our son. We weren’t better than him. Our brain chemistry was just different, so it was never a problem for us.

Believe it or not, some people who use heroin do not become addicted. They just don’t. It is considered one of the most powerful drugs there is, yet if I used it, I know I would not become addicted. Not because I’m stronger than other people who become addicted to it. But because I’m not chemically inclined to do so.

Yet, as a society, we still claim moral and spiritual superiority to people who become addicted. We still blame them for their addiction. We still think they are weak or immoral or bad. We still think it’s their fault. Even those who “know” addiction is a disease, treat addiction like a social or moral or spiritual failing. We’ve become conditioned to think that way.

Even addicts buy into this thinking. Even mothers of addicts.

Addiction as a Moral Failing

I’ve been participating in a movement by mother’s of addicts, where we try to help each other cope with the difficult work we have to do in trying to help our sick children. And we’re also trying to help society understand addiction as a disease, to blaming the victim of addiction for the disease, and to erase the stigma attached to it. Yet even within that forum, I still hear mothers blaming their children for their addiction.

Here’s what one mother wrote recently, a mother who had been an addict herself once. She starts off comparing the abuse of the welfare system to the abuse of drugs:

“Welfare has gotten a bad rap by people who manipulate the system and do nothing to better their situation. Sort of like the addict who continually relapses after they have the tools and are just to hard-headed to use them because they know how to manipulate their addictions right back into a worse situation than they started in.”

This same mother earlier called addiction a disease. Yet she goes on to say that relapse happens not because the disease that went into remission has now returned (as we do with cancer patients), but because they are “too hard-headed” to do what the doctors told them to do. Then she goes on to say that the depression and other mental issues that are produced by the disease are “self-inflicted.” As if they brought this on themselves by becoming addicted in the first place: It’s their fault.

Addiction as a Social Failing

Here’s another statement from a mother, quoting from a drug counseling textbook that she agrees with:

“Addiction is a disease of isolation; addiction is the solution to [that isolation] and the consequence of [that isolation], the addict’s impaired ability to develop and maintain relationships”.

The book admits that addiction is a disease, but then goes on to blame the disease on the “addict’s impaired ability to develop and maintain relationships.” Really?  So people with good relationships and social skills never become addicted? Only socially impaired people become addicted? Only people with “isolation” issues?

These statements are another way of blaming the victim of addiction. He’s inferior, socially impaired, isolated. Therefore he becomes addicted to alleviate the isolation and feel “normal.” This stigmatizes the addict.

The fact is, so-called normal people with healthy relationships and good social skills become addicted. Doctors, lawyers, politicians, actors, musicians, plumbers, teachers, and preachers become addicted. Not just social misfits.

Addiction as a Spiritual Failing

Another mother goes on to say that 12-Step programs are so important for addicts, because they help them discover their “true selves” rather than hiding behind a false “social” self. In other words, people who become addicted weren’t as spiritually evolved or as in touch with their “true selves” as the rest of us. That’s why they need 12-step programs and we don’t.

Again, this is placing a stigma on addicts: People who use drugs are spiritually inferior, less evolved, than people who don’t use drugs.

This is perhaps my biggest gripe with 12-Step programs—the belief that you and I don’t need them. Just the poor, weak addict. The rest of us are already in touch with our “higher selves.”

To be clear: 12-Step programs, which are spiritually based, are wonderful programs for anyone who wants to acquire a spiritual practice, whether they are addicts or not. But to assume that people who are addicts need them more than the rest of us, is to assume that addiction is a sign of spiritual failing rather than a chemical imbalance: If only they had been more spiritually evolved, they never would have become addicted. Do we say this about cancer victims? People with heart disease?

Some addicts may find that 12-steps programs help them to cope better deal better with their disease. It may help them to recover, to keep the disease in remission, to abstain from the alcohol or drugs that will cause a relapse.

Spiritual programs help cancer victims too. It helps them to have hope, it calms and comforts them, it lowers blood pressure, it builds the immune system, it helps them to heal. It may even help them to become in touch with their truer selves. But we don’t assume cancer patients are less in touch with their truer selves than the rest of us.

Just the addict deserves that stigma, it appears.

Breaking the Stigmas of Addiction

The acceptance of addiction as a disease is only now becoming the norm. But there are so many assumptions about addiction still circulating, consciously and unconsciously, that even doctors, addiction counselors, and rehab programs still blame the addict for the addiction, still treat these patients as if they are morally, socially, and spiritually impaired.

Even those whose loved ones are suffering from addiction slip into this mode of thinking.

We need to call them on it when they do. We need to be alert, and dismantle the stigmas wherever they appear.

Addiction and “Turning Pro”

Hero Carlo_Crivelli_-_Saint_George_Slaying_the_Dragon,_1470I just discovered the book “Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work” by Steven Pressfield. It’s been around for a long time, and it’s meant for writers or people who want to create something worthwhile in their lives.

But it’s perfect for addicts, too, because it compares the struggle to live our passion with the struggle to overcome addiction. This could include addictions to drugs, sex,  gambling, money, fame, web-surfing, or even maintaining the perfect house–it’s all the same.

All addictions are mindless or mind-numbing distractions.They are all ways we resist being who we were meant to be, and doing the work we were meant to do.

Let me quote a few things he says about addiction that ring true:

Have you ever noticed that addicts are often extremely interesting people? Addiction itself is excruciatingly boring . . .because it’s predictable–the lies, evasions, the transparent self justifications . . . But the addict himself is often a colorful and fascinating person . . . . [His] story often reads like a novel, packed with drama, conflict, and intrigue.

“Addictions” are not bad. They are simply the shadow forms of a more noble and exalted calling.

Addiction becomes a surrogate for our calling. We enact addiction instead of embracing the calling.

All addictions share, among other things, two prime qualities: (1) They embody repetition without progress; (2) They produce incapacity as a pay-off.

Both addicts and artists are dealing with the same material, which is the pain of being human and the struggle against self-sabotage.

Both artist and addict wrestle with the experience of exile. They share an acute, even excruciating sensitivity to the state of separation and isolation, and both actively seek a way to overcome it, to transcend it, or at least to make the pain go away.

The addict seeks to escape the pain of being human in one of two ways–by transcending it or by anesethitizing it. Borne aloft by powerful enough chemicals, we can almost, if we are lucky, glimpse the face of the Infinite. If that doesn’t work, we can always pass out. Both ways work. The pain goes away.

The artist takes a different tack. She tries to reach the upper realm not by chemicals but by labor and love.

The book is calling all the “amateurs” of the world–those of us stuck in our distracting, mind-numbing “addictions”–to turn “pro.” Turning Pro is changing our mind-set. It’s turning our life around. It’s embracing our higher-self and our higher-calling.

This how-to book starts off by identifying all the ways we avoid being who we were meant to be—through our addictions, our self-doubts, our self-inflicted wounds, and through fear in all its forms. And it identifies what is needed to overcome these, how the “Pro” approaches these very same doubts and fears and resistance in ways that are productive rather than self-sabotaging.

“Turning Pro ” evokes the spiritual in a non-secular way. The author states: “The pain of being human is that we’re all angels imprisoned in vessels of flesh.”  We’re all struggling toward a higher sense of self that we fear we will never reach.

But we can, Pressfield claims: Once we start taking ourselves and our dreams seriously. When we realize it’s worth the hard work to do so, worth the effort to resist anything that would slow our momentum or lower our reach, that’s when we turn our lives around; that’s when we turn Pro.

This is what the struggling addict (in all of us) needs to hear. This book is for those who are tired of the merry-go-round of addiction and want desperately to get off. And it’s also for those who have gotten off the merry-go-round and wonder, now what?

This is what my son needs to hear. And I think he’s ready for it.

Yesterday he told me with such heartfelt conviction: “I’m done with drugs. I’m never going back.” I believe him.

But he also said: “I’m tired of screwing around, working low-wage dead-end jobs. My life is half over. I don’t have time to waste what’s left.”

He’s started to explore a new career choice, something that has always tickled the back of his mind, and he’s excited about pursuing it.  He’s ready for this book.

It ends, appropriately for all struggling addicts, with these inspiring words:

The hero wanders. The hero suffers. The hero returns.

You are that hero

Four Months Clean, and Struggling

Cc photo by Katy Silberger flickr-3503359255-original

Photo by Katy Silberg – Creative Common

I’m so proud of my son. Last night I took him out for dinner and he ordered a beer. When it came, he told the waiter he had changed his mind, and ordered a coke instead. I was so relieved. So was he. We were both relieved that he’d the strength to do that. On such a bad night.

His new girlfriend had just left him.

He came home from work that night and all her stuff was gone. Out of the blue. It was a blow, and he was crushed. They’d been living together with her three-year old son, mostly in motels. But they were looking for an apartment to rent together. She’d sounded so happy the week before when they were visiting us. Her little son, who is such a doll, was calling me “grandma.” I was helping her look for apartments to rent. We had become friends. Then this.

They may be getting back together. He doesn’t know yet, but they are talking.

I hope they don’t. This is the second time she’s left suddenly like that with no explanation, no warning. She doesn’t use drugs or drink, but I think she may have mental issues. She’s very vague about her past. We really know nothing about her. When he met her, she was staying at a homeless shelter. It sounded like she was running away from a bad relationship, someone who had been abusing her. But I think there’s more to it than that. I think she may be someone who is looking for love, and running away from it at the same time.

I feel for her, and for her little son. But I worry about mine. I think he needs to let her go this time. Not try to get her back.

My heart has been aching all day for him.

On top of this, his daughter turns two years old next week and her mother won’t let him see her. She won’t even tell him where they are living. They keep in touch by phone, and he’s trying to stay in her good graces so she won’t sever that contact. But he’s worried. He thinks she using heroin again. She talks crazy sometimes. She berates him for not being in his daughter’s life.

He says, “How can I be, you won’t tell me where you are living!”

She says, “I wouldn’t let that stop me, if I was in your place.” It makes no sense!

He pays child support, but she wants money on the side, and he wires it to her! I tell him he shouldn’t. But he’s afraid if he doesn’t, she’ll disappear for good and he’ll never see his daughter again. At least she sends him photos once in a while.

I tell him he should call Child Supportive Services. But he wants to wait until he has a place to live so if it comes to that he’ll be able to get custody of his daughter. It’s all so complicated.

Just a week ago I was planning this post–how wonderful everything was: four months clean, looking for an apartment with the woman he’s falling in love with, a sweet little boy in his life, being a dad to him. He was happy, hopeful. So much to celebrate, it seemed.

Still, there’s one thing to celebrate: Despite all he’s been struggling with these last few months, he’s stayed clean. That alone is well worth celebrating.

Lighting Candles of Hope

Candles by Andrew Smithson Creative CommonsI created this blog earlier this year at a low point in my life. I’d given up believing my son would survive his addiction. I did not expect him to live much longer. I had lost hope.

When you lose hope, you lose everything.

But in reaching out to others, I found the support I needed to regain that lost hope. I found others struggling just as hard as I was–those who struggled with loved ones still deep in addiction, those whose loved ones had struggled and survived, and those whose loved ones had struggled and lost.

Many I found  here, readers of my blog who left comments and messages of support and understanding, who shared their stories, and their loved ones’ stories. They gave me the strength and encouragement I needed to keep fighting and keep hoping.

Many were recovering and recovered addicts, and they were especially dear to me because I heard my son’s voice in their stories, their struggles, and their triumphs.

Many I found in the movement called “The Addict’s Mom” (TAM), an organization whose members are the mothers of addicts who, like me, are struggling with the terror of addiction and how it tears families apart. I feel such a kinship with these women. They are my sisters-in-arms.

September is National Recovery Month, And TAM is launching a “Lights of Hope” Campaign.  They ask everyone on September 1 to light three candles:

  • One for an addict currently using
  • One for an addict in recovery
  • One for an addict who is gone but forever loved and remembered

I hope you will join me in lighting these candles of hope. For all the moms and their loved ones.

Thank you.

To learn more about TAM and other events planned in September, visit their website at http://addictsmom.com/

Celebrating 90 Days Strong Amid Trials & Tribulation

athlete 450px-JacobyhaieMy son celebrated ninety days clean this week.

I can’t tell you how proud I am of him, especially when the past several weeks have been so rough. Not only had he been picked up on an old warrant, survived ten days in jail, and suffered through methadone withdrawals, but when he was released, he found out he’d lost his housing, his job, and the friendship and trust of his sponsor.

He couldn’t understand it. He hadn’t relapsed. He hadn’t done anything wrong. But here he was jobless and homeless again, and without the support of the sponsor he’d so depended upon. Why was this happening?

The housing problem was especially difficult. The shelter where he’d been staying had promised to help him financially secure permanent housing, but now that was gone. His sponsor was angry that he had returned to the methadone clinic, instead of using his time in jail to get off it completely. And without a job, he didn’t have the means to live at all.

The one bright spot in all this was that a woman who had befriended him before going into jail was still there when he got out, still believing in him, and wanting to help. And during those first few difficult weeks they became closer, became a couple.

I was wary of this at first. Everything I had read and come to believe said that recovering addicts should not become involved in relationships until they had a year or more of sobriety behind them. I could not see this ending well, for her, or for him.

But I seriously wonder now if he would be celebrating 90 days clean if she hadn’t been there to help him through those last few difficult weeks. While it seemed that everyone else had given up on him and pulled the rug out from beneath his feet, she stayed and gave him steady encouragement.

More than that, she helped him through what has been a huge relapse trigger—the kind of devouring  loneliness that eats you alive. Over and over again, he has told me, the loneliness is the worst thing. The thing that gets him every time. That is so unbearable only a needle in his arm gives him release.

So, as unwise as a new relationship may be this early in his recovery, I am grateful to her, and happy for him.

His housing situation is still marginal. He sleeps in cars, or motel rooms when he has money, or at campsites. But his sponsor has returned, and he’s working again. He’s going to meetings, and he’s testing clean. And he and his new friend are looking for a place together.

I still don’t know if this is a good idea. I don’t know if their relationship will last. I don’t know what it might do to him if it doesn’t.

But this is the way it is. This is what he has to work with on his road to recovery. We never know what challenges or gifts life will drop at our feet. We just have to make the most of what we are given.

So I’m hopeful. And so is my son. We’re both extremely grateful, and reassured, that after being severely tested, he’s still 90 days strong.

Untangling the Knots of Addiction – Two Steps Forward, One Back

Knots of addiction Naga182 public domainYou’d think once someone decided, “I’m done with addiction! I’m turning my life around,” it would be all uphill from there. Because that’s the biggie. All of us mothers and lovers of addicts are waiting for that golden moment, when the sun breaks through the darkness, scatters the clouds, and shines down upon us.

But it’s usually not like that. For every two steps forward on the road to recovery, there’s one (or more!) step backward, as our loved one begins to untangle himself from all the knots caused by a life of addiction. It’s not just a matter of giving up his substance of choice and staying clean and sober. It’s that, which is hard enough, and so much more.

It’s about trying to create a new life out of the rubble of the old. A life spent in and out of jails and rehab and living on the streets leaves a trail of destruction behind you, as well as a tangle of legal problems, a pile of debt, bad credit, failing health, and broken relationships. Often you lack a car or a home or a job. And you lack the decent clothes and resume and character references needed to smooth the way toward getting what you lack.

Often there’s outstanding warrants, court fines, and back child support payments to take care of. There’s a mouthful of decay, a diseased liver, and undiagnosed mental issues to deal with. And years of bad habits to undo.

Worst of all is the lack of self-confidence and self-esteem needed to move forward when so much is weighing you down, or dragging you backward.

It takes tremendous courage, willpower, faith, humility and plain old-fashioned guts and grit to even wrap one’s mind around all this, let alone force yourself to walk out on that dance-floor and begin all the contorted moves needed to unravel those tangles. Especially while everyone you know and love, and many who hate you, stand by and wait and watch.

Two days after I wrote my last post about my son’s 60 days clean, he was picked up on an outstanding warrant from a neighboring county and jailed. This time was especially hard because he was taking high daily doses of methadone from the clinic, and withdrawals from that are the worst.

On the other hand, this warrant had been an axe hanging over his head ready to drop. And now he could finally take care of it and put it behind him. And he did. He spent 10 days in jail and then was released back into his Prop 36 program, with the promise to transfer his case to this county. A huge relief.

He managed to hang on to his old job too while he was gone, but he lost his spot in the shelter where he was staying. He’s living in a friend’s van now and saving up to get his own place.

All’s well that ends well, so they say, and this ended better than we’d hoped.

But it’s a reminder that he’s still untangling himself from the mess he created while deep into addiction. And we must all be patient as he slow-dances his way free.

It Could Be Worse: 74 Years Plus Two Life Sentences

JugendstrafvollzugAddiction has destroyed so many lives and families. Whenever I think of how difficult the road to recovery is for my son, and we start to despair, I remind myself and him:

It could be worse. At least he still has this opportunity. Some don’t.

The son of a family friend whose downfall was drugs is now serving 74 years plus two life sentences in federal prison. He spends most of his time in the SHU (Special Holding Unit). If you know anything about the penal system, or have been watching the series “Orange is the New Black,” you know this is the worse place to be incarcerated, reserved for the most dangerous prisoners, in virtual isolation. It destroys minds and bodies. The fact that he has been living there for years is almost unbelievable.

When I knew him he was just a skinny little boy with big brown eyes and a shy sweet smile, a few years younger than my son. I didn’t know him well, but saw him from time to time until his parents divorced and he went to live with his mother and step-dad.

The next time I saw him he was standing on our doorstep at 3 AM in the morning. He wouldn’t tell us what was wrong, but wanted to know if he could come inside and call his father. We were surprised to see him, but of course let him in.

While we were waiting for his father to arrive, we sat on the couch and I made small talk. He was 18 years old, but looked like 14, still skinny, still with the big eyes and shy smile.  It was obvious he was in trouble, but we didn’t pressure him to give us details. He seemed like a sweet kid, and I hoped that whatever the trouble was, he would be okay.

We learned later that day what had happened. Just before arriving on our doorstep, he had shot his mother and step-dad in a dispute over drugs. Apparently his parents were peddling drugs from their home, supplying their son and using him to distribute the goods. Their son was hopped up on meth and when they had a falling out and wouldn’t give him what they owed him, in an angry fit, he grabbed their gun and shot them.  His mother died, the step-dad was paralyzed and would spend the rest of his days in a wheelchair.

Somehow he remembered that we lived close by and came to our house to hide out and to wait for his father to come help him.

His lawyer didn’t want to defame the victims, so the fact that his mother and step-dad were drug dealers who had encouraged and benefited from their son’s drug use was never revealed to the jury. He was sentenced to 74 years in prison.

Not long after he was sent away, he wrote to me and we began exchanging letters. I’m not sure why he sought me out. We didn’t really know each other. But perhaps our brief conversation on the couch that night, my kindness to him, made an impression.

At first I enjoyed his letters. He was very articulate and intelligent. He was doing a lot of reading in prison and clearly enjoying what he was learning. But then the letters began to change. He had been drafted into Aryan Nation Brotherhood, was reading all their literature, and was being brainwashed by it. Now his letters were full of white supremacist propaganda.

I did my best in my letters to refute all his arguments and encourage him to stay away from this group. But it was no use. He was fired up and enthusiastic, and he was trying just as hard to convert me. When his language about Jews became increasingly hateful, I knew I could not longer write to him. I mailed him a “Dear John” letter and ended our correspondence. Fortunately, his father and sister and other family members still wrote him, so I don’t imagine he missed my letters.

What I did not know then, nor did he, was that the Aryan Nation was recruiting this impressionable young man with nothing to lose, who desperately needed something to believe in, to be their trained assassin. Or their orders, he murdered an inmate and a guard, earning two life sentences on top of the 74 years.

At that point he realized that he had been used by the Brotherhood and denounced them. Now he was friendless. The other prison gangs already hated him, and those “unaffiliated” feared him, so he was left pretty much alone when he was not being targeted by members of one gang or another. Perhaps that’s why they put him in the SHU. Perhaps that’s why he slashed both his wrists and sliced up and down his arms and legs.

Much to his surprise, and everyone elses, he survived that violent attack upon his own body.

Not long after, his life took an odd ironic twist. For the better.

Resigning himself to life in solitary confinement, he sought to make the most of it. Seeing as how the kosher food served to Jewish inmates was superior to his own, he decided to convert to Judaism. But in order to convince the prison officials the conversion was genuine, he found a distant Jewish relative and began learning as much about the faith as he could. He was fascinated by their long history, their persecution and suffering, and he began studying their sacred texts. His conversion became real.

His father tells us he now wears a yarmulke on his head and his beard nearly reaches his waist. It almost covers up the swastika tattooed across his chest.

I don’t know what this young man’s life would have been like if he hadn’t become involved in drugs. Perhaps he still would have created violent acts. Perhaps he still would have gone to prison.

But I remember him as that sad, shy kid sitting next to me on the couch that night, chewing his fingernails, and looking like all he really needed was a big hug and lots of love to make things right.

I wish he had had a chance to turn his life around.

When I despair of my son’s challenges, I remember: At least it’s not too late for him. We still have hope.

It could be worse.

[POSTSCRIPT: It occurs to me after writing this that I have taken one man’s life and a family tragedy and turned it into a life lesson for myself and my son. The lesson I extrapolated from his story was that everything is relative, and that what seems nearly hopeless for addicts trying to recover, comparatively, is not nearly so hopeless as other cases may be. Therefore, we should take heart, we should recognize the opportunities we have to improve our situation, and not be overcome with all that seems to work against our recovery.

That said, this story of this young man, tragic as it is, has its own thread of hope weaving through it. While his life took such a horrible turn and then grew even worse upon entering prison, at some point, he had the clarity of mind to see that he had been used and the courage to denounce those who had used him for evil, and to choose to live a life of loneliness rather than to be part of that group and way of thinking.

Although overcome with the hopelessness that led him to try to end his life, miraculously, he survived. And in an ironic twist of fate he found in the faith and life story of a people he had once reviled a sense of purpose, and a spiritual practice. I don’t know how his story will evolve, but truly his life story has evolved for the good, even in an atmosphere and under conditions that would severely test any of us. And that, in itself, should give us hope.]