Editor’s Note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She is a mom of two girls. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.
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Seven years ago, Barbara Theodosiou, then a successful entrepreneur building a women’s business mentoring group, stopped going to meetings, leaving the house and taking care of herself. She grew increasingly distraught.
“You almost wake up and get this haunting feeling, this horrible feeling that my God, I just wish I wasn’t going to live today,” said Theodosiou, a mother of four from Davie, Florida. “Not that you would take your life but you’re so scared.”
Petrified, really, but not for herself. For her children.
Theodosiou learned two of her four kids were addicted to drugs.
“I found out within six months that both my sons were addicts and like every other mother, I just wanted to go into bed and never get out.”
Her older son, Peter, now 25, took prescription drugs and then escalated to heroin. Her younger son, Daniel, now 22, started what’s called robotripping, where he would take large quantities of cough medicine to get high.
She says she first noticed signs of problems when her younger son was 16.
“I was taking Daniel to school one day and he was just like almost choking. I thought he was having a panic attack,” she said. A short time later, the school called and said staff members thought Daniel was on drugs.
“I was like, ‘There’s no way.’ … I have talked to my children my whole life about drugs.”
Within just months, after a call from her son Peter’s roommate, her husband went to his house and found needles all over the place.
“If you know about addiction then when you find this out, you realize not only are you in for the fight of your life, but this is not something that gets fixed in six months. This could go on,” she said.
“It’s like having someone punch you in the stomach. … You’re never the same from the second you find out.”
How does the mother of an addict cope? How does she juggle the incomprehensible challenge between supporting a loved one and not enabling their habit? And how does she deal with the stigma of having a child who is an addict?
In my in-depth interviews with Theodosiou and other mothers of addicts across the country, they made it very clear that being the mother of an addict is an incredibly lonely and isolating place, and that often the only people who understand what they’re going through are other mothers who are going through it themselves.
The fear of getting the call
Theodosiou’s son Daniel overdosed three times that first year she realized he was using and nearly died each time.
One day, she returned to her house and saw police officers out front. “I remember pulling up and my heart was beating … I was just going to faint right there.”
The police officer asked if she was Daniel’s mother. “For sure, I thought he was going to tell me Daniel was dead, and it ended up Daniel overdosed again, and again he was in the hospital.”
Melva Sherwood of Vermilion, Ohio, got that unimaginable call on October 3, 2012. Her son Andrew, 27 at the time, died of an overdose of heroin. It was his son’s fifth birthday.
“It was 11:30 at night. I was sound asleep and it was October. All the windows were open, and the entire neighborhood knew what had happened,” said Sherwood, who says she screamed “at the reality of it, that it was over, that it was done.”
“I have a friend who lives down the street, and she said it was horrifying to hear.”
The blame game
Many mothers immediately beat up on themselves when they learn their children are battling addiction.
Brenda Stewart of Worthington, Ohio, says it was heartbreaking realizing two of her three kids were addicts. Her son Jeremy, now 29, used prescription drugs and then heroin, and the drug of choice for Richard, now 31, was crystal meth, she said.
“I’ve been going to counseling for years to figure out what I did wrong. It’s just like, ‘What did I do?’” said Stewart, who has adopted Jeremy’s two children, ages 5 and 7.
“And then you come to find out through tons of counseling and parents’ groups and everything else that this is something you didn’t do to your children. And that’s the hardest thing to get away from because you always feel responsible.”
Debbie Gross Longo, whose son started using drugs at 13 and taking prescription drugs at 15, says the powerlessness of being an addict’s mom is worse than people might imagine.
“As a mother, it’s been hell,” said the mom of four in Stony Brook, New York. “It’s like having a child that you cannot help and sitting on the edge of your seat all at the time because you know something might happen.”
Viewing addiction as a disease was instrumental, many mothers say, in helping understand they didn’t cause their child’s addiction and couldn’t fix it either.
“When you really start to understand that it is a disease … you can start looking at your child in a different way, loving them for who they are and hating the disease,” said Stewart.
Sadly, the stigma of having a child with addiction is all too real and incredibly painful. Announce to your community your child has a disease like cancer and people will jump to help, said mothers I interviewed. Not so when you tell them your child is an addict.
“There are no little girls selling cookies for addiction. Nobody has bumper stickers on their car,” said Theodosiou.
Her son Daniel was in the church group. “When they found out he was an addict, the entire church shunned him. He was completely not invited anywhere.”
‘The hardest thing in the entire world’
Every mom I spoke with talked about the intense struggle between supporting their addicted child or children and not enabling their destructive habit.
It is “the hardest thing in the entire world,” said Theodosiou, who said it was only after seven years and 30-plus stints in rehab that she knew she had to make a drastic change.
“All of these people were telling me you have to stop enabling Daniel. You need to let Daniel go. You need to just stop. … I had to actually face leaving Daniel on the street,” she said.
“I finally spoke to a pastor and an addiction specialist who told me that … the last person in the world who could ever help Daniel is me.”
Sherwood, who lost one son to a drug overdose and has another son who battled drug addiction, said she was never able to cut off her children completely, but she set limits.