Family Ties

Finding a Fix: Son's life saved by treatment � and love

I wait in my car, sipping a fresh cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee. The young man I transport each day is my son. He is inside the methadone clinic getting his daily dose, undergoing a weekly urine test and receiving counseling services. This is a regular routine for him and for countless others like him who come here for help in managing their opiate addictions. I try not to stare at the others, but as often as I have seen them, I am always compassionately curious. I study their faces and try to understand, often feeling that I have stepped into their diaries to read a sad chapter in their lives.

They are drug addicts, like my son, and for that, my heart is very heavy. Was it a street drug or did a physician prescribe pain medication that lasted too long. Did they experiment just a few times or was it a long series of bad decisions. Whatever the case, each of them ultimately became a drug addict, and each of them attends the clinic in desperate need of intervention to break the cycle of out-of-control illegal drug use.

The people attending this clinic are of different ages, and, clearly from very different circumstance. Some appear to be career professionals, impeccably well groomed, while others are unkempt and in ragged clothes. Some are just kids with baseball caps and droopy jeans. Some have families. Some are totally alone. As different as they are, they share the common condition of addiction.

An automobile pulls up beside my car. An attractive young woman looks in her mirror and brushes her long hair into a clip. She steps out of her car, clutching a small locked box in her hands ' a symbol of having earned the privilege of take-home doses. Her anxious dachshund whines as she disappears inside. Clearly, they are constant companions. She returns 10 minutes later with several days, worth of doses in the box. Her treatment does not make her high; it keeps her stable. She is safe for another day.

A taxi driver waits off to the side of the building. He naps in a reclined seat.

A "volunteer driver" sign is taped in the window of a shiny new silver van in front of me where an equally silver-haired man waits. He sifts through paperwork, probably arranging the pick-up of others he has volunteered to transport that day. He greets his rider when he returns to the vehicle. The rider looks barely 20, with wavy hair and a broad, friendly smile. He looks like a typical college kid.

They leave, talking like old friends and I feel great appreciation for the driver's willingness to help.

The car next to me is an older Cadillac with a ticking engine. The middle-aged man who steps out of it must be a salesman, wearing a bright white shirt and blue tie. He flings his sports jacket over his shoulder. I am not sure about his reason for being there until I spot the lockbox under his arm.

In other cars, mothers and fathers wait, some unwilling to make eye contact. Some just smile knowingly. We are all there for those we fear we are losing, fighting for their lives, keeping them off the streets so they can regain some degree of normalcy. I am sure that our prayers are much alike.

One after another, they come and go. Men and women dressed for the workday with tool belts, hard hats, insulated jackets, uniforms and dress suits. There are women with babies and women who are pregnant. One young father arrives on his bicycle with his toddler bundled in a snowsuit and wearing a bright purple bike helmet. Another family comes together in a new truck, their child safely restrained in a car seat. They take the little girl with them into the clinic, and when they prepare to leave just moments later, I respect how carefully they tighten the safety belts around her. Some arrive, still half-asleep, in outfits that look like old pajamas, their hair in disarray. They have nowhere to go this day, I presume, except for here.

It is so easy for people to look on this sad state of affairs with condemnation. After all, aren't addicts low-class or from really bad families. In truth, most addicts in today's world, and many of the clients seeking help at the methadone clinic, are neither. They are someone's son or daughter, a brother, a mom, a neighbor, the captain of the basketball team, the paperboy or, but for chance or the grace of God, any one of us. They are people who made terrible mistakes and who are paying a very dear price. Getting addicted is not difficult, but once hooked, recovery is not so easy.

Of course, the ultimate solution to drug treatment is always prevention. Methadone is simply a tool that some addicts use to get clean. But like anything, it is only as effective as the user's intentions, diligence and commitment. It is not easy to get to the clinic every single day, bumming rides, hitchhiking, sometimes walking for miles, fitting it in around work and day-care schedules. An occasional day of take-home privilege can provide such relief.

In spite of much that is lacking in methadone programs, I am convinced that this treatment has saved many lives, including my son's. Battling his addiction with a decreasing daily dose, he is no longer using illegal drugs. He is alive, and has regained the 40 pounds he lost. He receives counseling regularly and is committed to eventually being free of methadone, too.

Every community in our state faces a drug crisis of some kind, especially among its youth. A big surprise to many is that the preferred drug is no longer marijuana. It is now heroin, crack cocaine or something else, a whole menu of drugs that most of us cannot even spell, and getting high is cheaper than buying a six-pack of beer. The sad reality, whether we want to hear it or not, is that while a large number of Maine kids are smoking weed and drinking alcohol, many are also using hard drugs daily.

This is not everyone else's problem and these are not everyone else's children. They are our kids, all of ours, they are at terrible risk, and we need to care about each of them.

Our involvement, constant encouragement and watchful support are vital to keeping kids off drugs, and to keeping addicts in recovery. Their progress often requires moving ahead a day at a time, and looking back only to remember that they don't want to go back to where they came from. It is a tough road to travel, and I cannot imagine any young person successfully walking it alone.

There are so many people out there who want to free themselves from drug addiction, but do not know where to start, or how to restart their lives after they quit using. They desperately need supporters who say "good job" when they deserve it, who provide direction when they lose their way, and who simply offer a ride to get the help they so desperately need. A strong and caring adult can make a life-altering difference for a young person.

We can win this battle, but it is going to take all of us together. In the absence of a dedicated and concerted effort, we will lose it , and this is not a battle we can afford to lose.

Bonnie Titcomb Lewis
 7 December 2006

Bonnie Titcomb Lewis is the mother of two sons and a daughter, a former secondary school teacher and a former state legislator who currently works to provide college scholarships for Maine students. She wrote this essay two years ago; her son has since weaned himself off methadone and has resumed normal life activities.

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