Last fall, my 17 year-old son spent three months recovering from a weed addiction while going to high school online from home. This was before remote learning was ubiquitous. We thought spring 2020 would be better. Life would go back to normal. He’d be back in school where he belonged, and my husband and I could get on with our work and our lives, maybe pay more attention to our other two children.
The oldest child has always been the planet around which our family orbits, a picky eater, challenged learner, someone with a sensitive nature. For years, we worried that his minor sensory and temperament issues would grow, but even through middle school they remained fairly stable, hovering just below the red zone. He functioned successfully enough. In high school, he spared us the full extent of his procrastination and denial, and the depth of his drug use, even if we suspected it and sensed it building, like a mess piling up behind a closed bedroom door.
“I’m only smoking on weekends,” he said when we found a small tin of weed in his room. “And I’m not vaping anymore. That would be stupid.” This was back in September, 2019, when the only lung disease making headlines was a vaping illness.
We chose to let it go, not because we believed him. We knew he was probably downplaying his use, but we participated in the deception because it was easier than forcing a next step he would resist. Teens smoke weed all the time. It doesn’t always lead to disaster.
Then, one Friday morning in October, his school called. A student had been busted getting high on campus. Under questioning, he’d volunteered the names of twenty kids who used weed at school, our son among them.
They pulled him out of class to be interviewed. He admitted to vaping on campus, not once in a while but every single day, and every morning at home before school, too. I cringed when I heard this—he was honest to a fault. The school said he was required to seek addiction treatment and provide proof of progress in order to return for the second semester. It was a miracle that he wasn’t expelled.
I sat at our battered kitchen table and cried, out of sadness for our son and for myself. Because it seemed so inevitable. The concern that had been hovering at the edges for years, the problems we had kept at the doorstep, were about to engulf me. I saw a long, painful fight ahead, endless battles to get him to follow a homeschooling regimen, to stay clean. I would lose my own life to his recovery, only to face more denial, more deception. It would never end.
The first few weeks were difficult. He was jittery and moody, and he experienced powerful cravings. He was ashamed of how much he had lied to us, and embarrassed about being home.
“The neighbors must know that I did something wrong,” he said, before he ducked inside the house after an errand.
He lost a lot of weight. I watched his jawline sharpen, his stomach hollow out, the flesh of his rear end melt away. It was frightening to see him disappear. He and I drove forty minutes each way to his bi-weekly therapy appointments. Trapped with the odor of his detoxifying cells and sour moods, I pressed my foot to the gas pedal and kept the faith. He seemed as alarmed by his situation as we were, a good sign.
After a few weeks, his appetite began to return. He cooked egg and bacon sandwiches for breakfast. He started doing his laundry. I took the passenger seat and let him drive to therapy, building hours towards his road test. The possibility of his getting his license provided motivation to stay clean. He continued to attend his driver’s ed class in person, where classmates snuck hits off their vape pens when the teacher wasn’t looking. He started a new high school online. He had to redo the entire semester in two and a half months if he wanted to graduate on time.
To some of my friends, our situation was a worst-case scenario. Graduation in jeopardy! Their high school juniors were following the script. They were preparing to take the SATs and the ACTs, and starting to think about which colleges to visit. They were grinding away for their AP credits because, in the words of one mother, “the top tier schools won’t even consider you without AP’s.”
“I’m so sorry,” they told me, “I can’t even imagine.” To my surprise, I was happier than I had been in a while. The reality of his recovery was a relief after years spent suppressing suspicions of deeper trouble. We were done with the performance of normalcy. Not that anyone had been convinced. His academic advisor, his teachers, even his therapist confessed after the fact that they had known he was high every time he showed up in their offices with a loose grin and bloodshot eyes.
As I came to terms with the disappointing reality of his life, something unexpected happened: my anxiety lifted. I no longer woke at two in the morning with the looming shadow of his future hanging over the bed. I wasn’t afraid. I knew exactly what we were dealing with. Our problem now had discernible shape and features. I could almost see its edges—it was weed, and occasionally, alcohol but, thank god, not heroin or pills.
When my friends said, “I can’t even imagine,” I felt lucky. Not only could I imagine it, but we were already moving through the crisis. Maybe we were even preventing the kind of disaster that happens to so many college freshmen when they leave home unprepared to take care of themselves. Whatever else came out of this process, our son was learning to do that.
He ate well and slept a lot. He worked out with a personal trainer. We drove to the gym together, and to more therapy. We logged a lot of hours one-on-one and our relationship deepened.
“It feels good to be honest with you and Dad,” he told me. “I don’t want to lie to you guys.”
He played music for me that he loved, mostly by male rappers.
“What about female rappers?” I said. “What about Lauryn Hill?”
I illuminated for him the virtues of 90s hip hop. He introduced me to the podcast, H3.
I nurtured the shit out of him, bought foods that he loved, detoured to his favorite pizza restaurant after therapy, tried to be supportive, to focus on the gifts of the person next to me, his optimism and openness.
By late January, when it was time to go back to school, after a lot of hard work, he was fit and ready. His eyes were so much clearer. He was keeping up with his therapy without being nagged. He was excited to go back, to be a high school student again, to see his friends, to sit next to his girlfriend in Latin class.
And then: coronavirus, the crisis with no apparent end date. No benchmark he could work towards.
By mid-March he was home, learning online again, meeting with his therapist by phone. All the things that made his autumn isolation bearable were gone: he couldn’t see his girlfriend in person; the DMV was closed until further notice; he couldn’t work out at the gym. He tried to ease his anxiety with vanilla ice cream.
“I’m gaining weight, I can see it,” he said, curled into the corner of an armchair.
My husband said, “We all are.”
“I think I might be depressed,” he said, “but at least I’m not at risk of using weed…I can’t go out to buy it!” He laughed.
I started to notice that wine was missing from our dining room cabinet. We decided to lock up the alcohol.
This was not a kid worried about seeing his GPA drop, or when he would be able to take the cancelled SATs. This was a kid who worked his way back from indifference and despair to believing in himself.
Despite everything, he’s mostly upbeat in quarantine, kind to his siblings, thoughtful to us. We grill burgers and watch “The Mandalorian” after dinner. Sometimes, I persuade him to take a walk with me and the dog. Other times, he just wants to lie outside in the hammock.
I could go on like this indefinitely, keeping my children home, nurtured and safe. House arrest is the easy part. It’s what follows that worries me. As restrictions are lifted and my son is set free to come and go, to ride out the long days of summer with his friends, we’ll find out whether his recovery is for real. When he emerges from the prolonged isolation of the pandemic, will he be more careful with his hard-fought health and freedom, or more carefree?
In late April, he interviewed for a summer job with a day camp.
“It went really well!” he said.
But will there even be camps this summer? We don’t know.
E. Harvey is a New York-based writer, mother, athlete, and volunteer. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction and writes about the complexities of raising kids, tense friendships, and living with anxiety.