By Lillian Rosengarten
My son, Philip, was 36 years old when he died of a drug overdose. That was 1996; he would be 62 now. He died shortly after leaving a rehab facility where he had lived for nine months.
Much later, I learned that, just when things were starting to look up, Phil would find a way to sabotage himself. He died alone in a fleabag hotel. He had money in the bank, a loving family, friends and counselors who wanted to help him. He was a charming, caring man, a talented musician, a son, a brother, nephew, cousin and an addict.
His addiction started at age 14. In his last two years of high school, he smoked pot and used uppers. He barely graduated and somehow managed to get accepted by a small college. He promised to not use more drugs, but during his first (and last) semester, he used LSD. This pushed him over the edge and began a series of hospitalizations. He was bipolar but, unknown to me, this could not be treated until he was clean. Psychiatrists and therapists tried but it did nothing.
While Phil was off drugs, I bought him an apartment in Greenwich Village. He loved the church down the street and converted to Catholicism. Christ became an important figure for Phil. After he began to use again, he would bring friends who were also addicted into the building. Water flooded the apartment and, eventually, he was told he had to leave. The only way I could get him out was to change the locks. That put him on the streets.
In desperation, I joined Families Anonymous. Everyone’s children were adults. Tough love was used. I had a sponsor, but I didn’t know what I was doing. There were success stories in the group, but Phil got worse. He used more and more. He became a shadow of how I remembered him. One day I agreed to meet him at a restaurant. He begged to come home, but I followed the protocol and refused. As I left, he screamed that I had abandoned him. To this day, I still feel guilt at times.
I do not believe there is any one way, any one answer to handle an addicted child. I miss Phil every day. I did the best I could but I didn’t know how. After Phil’s death, I grieved for close to a year but finally accepted how powerless I was. The disease of addiction has its own life and nothing — not my education, my sensitivity, my love, my caring, Families Anonymous, tough love, psychiatrists — helps until the addict is willing, in some way, to stop using. It is then that a parent can, with luck, find a decent rehab and the psychiatric problem can be dealt with.
Phil’s death taught me a lot about myself. I learned that I am not a bad mother and that I did not cause my child to use drugs. I will never stop missing Phil, but in time the pain softens and the heart opens. Confronting the death of my beloved son has been a confrontation with life. Allowing myself to feel the emotions that come up without self-criticism is a difficult road to walk.
Lillian Rosengarten is a therapist who lives in Philipstown.