My Testimonial

On March 21, I provided the following testimony before the NJ Assembly Budget Committee.

I’m a mother and an NCADD advocacy leader. For me, “recovery” means holding onto the hope that my son will outlive his addiction. With God’s grace, he will turn 20 in a matter of weeks and today, has 6 months and 1 week without alcohol or drugs, proving that recovery is real.

My horror began 4-years ago; he was 16. We know that people suffering from addiction are stigmatized, but so are the parents. At the time, friends that associated with me – those not afraid of catching what I carried  – reassured me that I was doing the “right thing” by getting him help early. But, they were few and far between.

Most parents avoided me in public. I now know that it wasn’t because they didn’t know what to say, but more often because I mirrored a reflection of themself; the self they didn’t want to see because their truth was that my son was hanging out with their son or daughter. As a form of self-protection, they needed to believe that I over-reacted by pulling my kid out of private school and sending him to wilderness therapy. After all, it was only alcohol and marijuana; boys will be boys; it was a phase.

My son’s “phase” outlasted 14-months of the forced sobriety – a.k.a. treatment – and spanned the miles from New Jersey to Utah, and back again, at an astronomical financial cost, and an opportunity cost of a family. He was back home only a few weeks before the first ticket was issued; passenger in a parked car; marijuana possession; paraphernalia. Before long, he was placed on juvenile probation; more treatment. Despite it all, at 19, he was ticketed; this time, driver of the vehicle; DUI; arrested on felony possession of heroin. 

Until that point, he had no “skin in the game.” He was young, immature, fearless. Only after his arrest and near heroin overdose on two separate occasions was he truly scared. His “friends” left him for dead on both occasions. His last 6 months have been spent in non-private residential treatment. Last week he entered an Oxford House. I have hope.

The problem – for this talented, intelligent, likeable kid – has been that addiction is a disease; not a phase. We know drug use for young people, especially with prescription drugs and heroin, is a serious situation. Two of the kids whose parents snubbed me years ago, today, mourn the loss of their own children. My way of handling the disease wasn’t better than theirs; I know that I’ve been lucky. Too many families have lost loved ones due to drug and alcohol use.

The disease of addiction doesn’t discriminate across socio-economic lines. It doesn’t have a cure but can be treated and young people like my son can find recovery if resources are provided. It can’t be loved away. Punishment, shaming and stigmatizing won’t improve low self-esteem, anxiety, or depression that all-to-often lead to the drugs and alcohol in the first place. We have to do better.

Addiction is a mental health disease that robs our communities of time, talent and treasure. I ask that the $2M be allocated to re-open Mid-State Correctional Center as a dedicated treatment facility to help inmates focus on re-entry and maintain their recovery. Treat addiction like a health issue as opposed to a criminal act because hope leads to recovery and recovery is real.

Pride and Discipline

It was still morning when my co-worker informed me that my cell phone was ringing – albeit on vibrate – for the 3rd time in succession. His words hung in the air as I did the mental math: James was in school; Kinsey worked late and was probably sleeping; Jon was in rehab, his discharge date and entry into an Oxford House imminent. Who could be calling? 

I recognize the area code and know it was Jon. I saw him less than a week ago, we met with his therapist and discussed plans for his transfer. He was 6 months sober. I hope he didn’t get high. Two of his roommates got the boot just days ago after smoking K2.

It wasn’t long before call #4 came through. He had to leave rehab; ASAP; not his choice. Did the reason really matter? I ask anyway. His story had my head spinning as my customer walked in the door. Jon needed a ride; curse this job! I told him to call someone else and I’d reimburse them. Of course, he could come stay with me; for 1 week; firm boundary.

Throughout the day, my mind remained stuck in a place I thought it had left; the space where Jon is manipulative.Why was this happening? I said a prayer that wasn’t for Jon. Instead, I thanked God for giving me the job that was preventing my world from being swallowed by his.

I heard his version of the story; how he, the most senior member of the house got kicked out – on a FRIDAY! – for cursing at the program director. Believable? Well…not really. I visited him every week and knew that cursing was not a violation in that program. He had made it to the elusive “A” Group. He was due to depart the next week. He didn’t get high; no drug test was failed. It didn’t make sense.

The reality of non-private residential treatment is that if a patient is not admitted via drug court and has a paying insurance company, he will have his bed for as long as they can keep him there. Unless…he curses at the newly appointed, was your therapist but doesn’t know your name, and refers to you as “Bieber,” who is having a hard time and needs to make an example of someone, program director. Which is what she did.

For the first time in years, Jon was actually the victim. In the end, he was with me for 10 days; 5 used to prove that he wasn’t lying, followed by the work of a small army of professionals, smoothing the path that lead to placement.

We talked as I drove him to the gym for the last time. Actually, he talked. He thanked me for answering his call and, despite everything, providing him a place to call home. Then, he told me how proud he was of himself. He had’t done anything wrong; the rehab was wrong. He was home for over a week and didn’t get high. He didn’t take money that was left out or any of his brother’s clothes. He told me that it all boiled down to self-discipline, which he believed he finally possessed.

As he got out of the car he asked, “Can you imagine who I’ll be if I stay clean for another 6 months?” He laughed. “Imagine me clean 3 years from now…I don’t ever need that shit in my life again.”

Another chapter in another house with another new group of men of varying ages in recovery begins. This time, I anticipate a bright future because finally his validation comes from within himself.

If slow and steady win the race, Jon’s a decent bet.

Calm Before the Storm – A New Chapter

It’s been a peaceful fall and winter.  Anyone living with addiction knows there is no sleep  comparable to when your loved one is safe within the walls of rehab.

As a selfish reward, this time when my son entered rehab, I took a break from thinking about, talking about, and writing about addiction.

I spent the last 5 months engaging in life while Jon practiced sobriety and returned, in both mind and body, to the person I recognize as my son. In the next few weeks, he will leave the confines of rehab and enter a sober living community; a 3/4 or 1/2-way house. As his discharge day draws closer, my stomach knots when my mind wanders and I contemplate whether a storm will follow this calm.

The above was written one year ago; September 2015. Unfortunately, it was the calm before the storm. Within weeks of entering sober living housing, he relapsed. He spent most of this summer (2016) in rehab in California. He enters sober living in the middle of this week, the same day I start a writing class in which I hope to broaden the use of my Recovery Coach Certification.

As we begin Recovery Awareness Month, Jon and I simultaneously start new chapters. I know that recovery is real. I know everyone deserves it. I hope he remains true to himself.

Unlikely Friends

IMG_0911The tinging indicating the voicemail startled me. The missed call was placed from Jon’s phone, forcing me to remember the scene from earlier in the day. Reluctantly, I listen. The call wasn’t from Jon.

“Hello. This is B.’s father,” he pauses. “Given our sons’ history together, you’re the last person I want to exchange pleasantries with. I’ll get to the point…your kids are on my driveway demanding $100. After hearing 4 versions of the story, I actually do owe you $100. For obvious reasons, I don’t want to hand cash to your kids and would like to talk to you.”

Back when they were high school sophomores, Jon and B. became acquainted, more likely than not through their shared love for marijuana. It wasn’t until senior year, after Jon returned from treatment, that B. stood before me. Immediately, I knew – he was trouble. He looked, talked and acted just like Jon used to…16 months prior…not the healthy Jon living with me.

Despite my threats of punishment, followed by actual punishment, for hanging around with B., the boys remained joined at the hip; I would run into them in the unlikeliest places. Eventually, I gave up the futile effort of keeping them apart and pretending that a relapse would be anyone’s fault other than Jon’s.

The dynamic duo’s friendship over the next year would include lots of mischief, starting with the physical loss of a new MacBook Pro; it was used as “collateral” to score MDMA; they never got the drugs or the computer; at least they realized “dealing” wasn’t their “calling.” Next, was the arrest for possession and paraphernalia; B. took the rap that first time – in exchange for my paying his court fines. They graduated to forging blank checks. There would be many more tickets, another arrest, damaged cars…etc. When we met in court, B.’s family didn’t approach me. Instead, they glared from across the room; clearly I was the “bad” parent and my son was the “problem.”

Although I didn’t like the tone of his message, Mr. B.’s desire to reimburse me was welcome, so I returned his call. He asked if I’d heard what happened.

“Mr. B., my kids came to my office asking for money. I gave it to them. They tried to tell me why they needed it, but honestly, I don’t have time for stories that end up being lies. My son has an illness. I chose not to negotiate with irrational people.”

“Well, the short of it is that B. tried to pay a dealer with counterfeit money. Your kids used the money to save him from a beating. Your kids were on my driveway when I got home from work. Your daughter refused to leave until I promised to make you whole.” People in the community know my daughter was estranged from me for 2 years, so it was nice when he added, “Despite what you may think, your daughter’s words and actions show a deep love and concern for you. She wasn’t taking “no” for an answer.”

“Mr. B.,” I continued, “thank you for that. And, in a way, I’m actually proud of them. Jon’s drug use has caused many problems and although I fear he may forever remain the emotional equivalent of a 15-year old, he also manages to hold onto his inherent kindness. He and his sister are friends again and it’s good to see them unite in a cause [even if it isn’t a cause I approve of] doing what they think is right.”

Mr. B. added, “I can’t imagine what you’ve been through, are going through, and how you survive, let alone sound healthy. I’m hostage in my own house. I don’t know what to do about B.. I can’t keep living like this. It’s killing me and destroying my family.”

The door is open and I walk in, pressing on, pleasantries aside, telling him that recognizing his son has a problem is his first victory. Furthermore, he doesn’t have to live while a 20-year old destroys his home; literally or figuratively. I give him the name of an organization that can help. He is appreciative.

After another 10 minutes, he ends the call stating that if we had met under different circumstances, we might’ve been friends. Along with Mr. B., I hope our sons find recovery. We need to provide hope for our sons while we support one another. At the end of the day, Mr. B., when you are truly ready to see you will recognize that I have been and will remain your friend.

Addiction Impacts Everyone in the Family

Jon is anxious. He wants to resolve the legal matters weighing upon him. The fact that he will more likely than not go to jail for suffering from a mental illness remains incomprehensible to me. His attorney hopes the judge will show leniency;  Jon has never hurt anyone other than himself. Clearly, he knows nothing about addiction – addiction hurts everyone who loves the victim.

Last Saturday, all three of my kids slept under my roof for the second time in the last 3 years. For a fee, my daughter agreed to watch her younger brother for the night, and at some point decided – despite the fact that he’s banned from the premises – to have Jon tag along. I didn’t have the heart, or energy, to argue and proceeded to hide whatever I could inside my safe.

This summer, the Bruno siblings became tolerant of one other, going as far as re-forming the abandoned “triangle of awesomeness.” It seems like yesterday – not the summer of 2012 – when Jon’s “friends” harrassed my daughter for “ratting” and “getting” him sent away. When he didn’t return for junior year, they made school difficult for her in a special way that only teenage boys can. Then, there was the matter of the divorce; not Jon’s fault by any stretch of the imagination, but in the minds of the 11- and 15-year old, his “situation” certainly didn’t help matters.

While he was gone there were letters, monitored calls, and a few visits. Not only didn’t my daughter participate in any of these, she wouldn’t even sign a generic Christmas card for the brother who had been her faithful companion for much of her young life. Instead, she continued to distance herself.

James, on the other hand, was supportive of his older brother during the first 1 1/2 years. If Jon was on the phone, he came running. When the opportunity came to visit, despite hours of therapy and instructions he’d have to endure, James went. He held onto the hope that Jon would be his brother again. Hope turned to anger once Jon returned home and, within weeks, relapsed.

Last Sunday, my quiet house became increasingly loud as they each woke up, in turn, from oldest to youngest. I overheard them making plans. Then, “the girl” – as my father used to affectionately refer to her – yelled to her brothers to “hold up” while she asks mom. She finds me on my patio and invites me to breakfast – her treat, she adds, with my money. I decline. She is hurt.

“Really?” she asks. I shoo her away with a gesture of my hand so as not to make the critical error of eye contact. I go on to explain that I have to finish my landscaping; no one else is going to do it for me; plus, I’m tired; just go; leave me alone.

The truth is…I know the pain that she is trying to protect herself against – we are all losing Jon, again, and I can’t make it any easier for anyone. The major difference between her and me is that Jon and I made our peace weeks ago. I am prepared for what comes next. James and Kinsey need to do it, too, and my heart breaks for them. They have finally found a way to be their own little family and it isn’t fair that just when they arrived in this space, the sand rapidly exits the hourglass. Jon will be going somewhere. Another holiday season and round of birthdays won’t be the same because of an empty seat at the table.

Like much of the neighborhood, I hear them return from breakfast; FloRida, I think? They get the dog and sit on my front porch, talking and laughing, two of them casually smoking cigarettes. This is when I join them. They seem to genuinely care if I enjoyed the party last night, and while we are talking about my life, they allow me to take their picture. They know it’s important. “The girl” says that she “really likes my front porch.”

To “the girl” and boys, I offer this; the porch is only nice when you are on it. As I think this, I realize that this moment is my Christmas 2015. We are together. They are in a good place. My hope is that wherever Jon ends up, his siblings accept his phone calls, answer his letters, and maybe even drive that new, old,

The Bruno's "Chill'in"

The Bruno’s “Chill’in”

BMW to visit him. They will surely run into me if they do. He will always be my son and I will remain proud of his good nature and kindness, as much as I appreciate “the girl” for her humor, athletiscism, and artistic traits, and James for his understanding of the world and his place in it. Jon’s addiction has hurt many people; more than just himself… and I have the pictures to prove it.

How Can You Help Me?

I didn’t read the write-up about Jon in the local paper. The citations were mailed to my house but I didn’t open them. I did get a call 2 weeks ago from some dude informing me that a car registered to and insured by me had been impounded. I could’ve called Jon, but didn’t; what’s the use?; it’d be lies anyway. So, when I received your texts about how bad you felt when you read the news, you actually had more information than me. I spent 2 weeks avoiding knowing the truth. I knew it was bad, but did I need to know how bad?

One text I received was from someone fairly new in my life. The message – innocent enough – took me to a place of defensiveness. Unfortunately, I lashed out at this person, who is someone I don’t want to hurt. To avoid the same circumstance in the future, I’d like to take several hundred words to explain how you can help me.

First off, let’s raise awareness: this isn’t actually happening to me nor is it because of me. I don’t control my child’s decisions. So, I’m not going to lie in bed with the covers pulled over my head. I’m not going to feel sorry for myself. I’m definitely not going to feel sorry for Jon. It just is!

Secondly, to the certain someone disappointed to hear the news through a friend, I ask -where have you been the last 4 years? The last 6 years? As a matter of fact, Jon’s entire life? Here’s a news flash: he’s the same kid that made a mess in your precious basement on Christmas Eve circa 2008 and has seldom been invited back because of it! Guess what? Jon’s still making messes!  If you don’t like what I write – I’m sure someone is going to tell you about it – I have 11 words for you; you should’ve been nicer to me when you had the chance. It’s my life and I’m free to tell it.

Next, to those of you who deeply care for me, I appreciate having each and every one of you in my life regardless of the fact that I’m bad at returning calls and accepting invitations. I know that you want to help but I don’t want to talk about it! EVER!!!! I know you are there for me. Here’s what you can do to help in 5 easy-to-follow steps:

1.  When I show up to work on my day off, please don’t ask why I’m here, or whether or not I’ve “clocked-in.” Do just like you did yesterday and thank me for helping; it’s a 2-way street.

2.  When I’ve clearly been up all night engaging in that totally useless activity called crying, talk about how bad your allergies are too, then complement my weight loss – by choice; I’m NOT sick – or my hair or dress or shoes…because we all know, even on my worst day, they’re always good!

3.  Don’t ask me about how my writing is going! Writing memoir sucks, particulary so if it’s being used as a form of therapy. Just know that I have clear goals and I work towards them every day…beginnning at 5:15 a.m….when it’s still dark…even in summer. My hope is you’ll be reading some “happy” work in Modern Love at some point in the next couple of years; I’m not worried about Dan Jones; I’m more concerned about getting permission from the 5 guys featured in the essay that, combined, were the “perfect” husband. No, gentlemen…you won’t get a “cut;” I’ve already given you more than money can buy!

4.  When you say we are going to get together at a certain place, at a specific time… unless you or an immediate family member has been maimed (and you have proof of said maiming), you need to be there!

5.  When I give you my lunch order and then forget that I don’t actually have money to pay for said lunch, just friggin’ pay for it, for crying out loud!

That concludes my clearly selfish list. Aside from all that, I need one more thing – I ask that you radically accept the fact that I’ve accepted whatever happens next and I’m good with it…even if it’s the worst possible outcome…and so is Jon!

I spoke to him this morning and hung up with a sinking feeling that it may be the last time I ever hear his voice. His path has been difficult. The fact is that there has been the “mark” and he has “fallen short” too many times to count. That’s as hard for him to live as it is to watch. I believe that God put him on this Earth because he is destined for greater things. He is kind. He is funny. He remains “untapped potential.” He is a good person. He is an old soul. I believe that he can live with and manage his addiction. But, I’m not the one that needs to believe. The motivation to persevere has to come from within him.

I knew I would regret it if the conversation we had this morning was our last, so I called him a second time and, now, if his story ends badly, Jon and I are truly okay. We are tired, but are on good terms; even when I’m kicking him out, I still love him. I will forever be proud that he is my son. I will cherish every moment we spent together – okay, with the exception of 2 Steelers vs. Cowboys games; my “Boyz” came way before my boy. He is forever my Angel Baby and we are still dancing, just the two of us, in a family room in Pittstown.

He is not mad at me. I am not mad at him. We are at peace. So, please, save your tears for someone who needs them while I work to save any one of the thousands that are suffering and may actually hear my voice because I’m not their mother.

Addiction: Not the Result of Bad Parenting

I like cashier at Barnes and Noble. I admire her ability to make polite, intelligent conversation with each new customer based upon their book selection. She clearly is well-read and suited for this job. I have a respect for her.

“Hi,” she says. “And how are you today?”

“Good, thanks.”

“Let’s see what you have here.” She examines the cover. “Danielle Steel…isn’t she that romance writer…the one with all those kids.”

“I think so,” I say.

She looks at the cover again. In addition to His Brigt Light – The Story of Nick Traina, my purchases include the latest issue of In Recovery magazine and Clean by David Sheff; there is clearly a theme, but she doesn’t see it. I decide to educate her.

“This book isn’t romantic; it’s real; her life; the pain of losing her son to mental illness and addiction.”

Without even a second of hesitation she says, “Well…maybe if she had spent more time with him instead of cranking out 30 trashy books a year things would’ve been different. Or, maybe, as women, we need to make better choices; it’s either career or family. No career-oriented woman should think she’s going to be able to juggle her job while raising 10 kids. Maybe she should’ve been more responsible when having sex. How many men was she with?”

I’m dumbfounded. When will we “get” it? Most troubling is that this woman is intelligent; well read, well traveled, in possession of the wisdom that only a woman with 50+ years on this planet can have. And, she believes that the disease of addiction is the result of bad parenting.

Danielle Steel won’t know she was judged by a stranger 3,000 miles away. Writing means sharing your soul with strangers, something she has done many times, so she’s probably numb to it. But, when I go out, I’m still not used to the “tsks” that I hear. I see the looks. When someone asks me how I’m doing, I take pause. Even with my closest friends, I have a decision to make; do they really want to know? Do I underburden myself or protect them from a truth that they most likely don’t want to hear. What they will never understand is that my other children are struggling too. They are scared. They look to me to be their brother’s life-line and want me to help Jon this one last time. Let him just stay one night. They are afraid that he’s going to kill himself.

My kids don’t have the maturity to understand that I can’t “fix” this and I’m scared, too. I’ve been chasing my tail, spinning in circles, for 20 years trying to fix a problem that was never mine. The only way he’s going to change when he’s internally motivated to do so. His life is in his own hands. He has the pen and will write the ending.

I am getting better at radically accepting most things that are outside my control. Your judgement of me doesn’t interest me. You can think I’m a good parent or be disappointed by the way I’ve handled things. All I can say is that more often than not, I’ve done the best I could in the moment that I made any decision. And, the disease of addiction is not “caught” from bad parenting.