"The Addict's Mom:" What Do You Do When Your Child Is an Addict?
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[In a tragic update, Barbara Theodosiou’s son Daniel Montalbano left rehab soon after this interview was published. After going missing for a week, his body was found in a morgue in South Florida. On April 7, The Addict’s Mom held a candlelight vigil on Facebook in his memory, Lights of Love: Remembering Daniel Francis Montalbano (1991-2015).]
In 2008, Barbara Theodosiou, a South Florida mother of four, found out that two of her sons were addicted to drugs. Overwhelmed by the pain, not knowing where to turn, she almost succumbed to every mother’s nightmare. Lying in the pit of her bed, despair swallowed her every waking hour.
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Rather than drowning in her own brokenness, Barbara got out of bed, stood up, and decided to take action. If the true story of the American dream is a fight against incredible odds, facing adversity with courage and hope, then Barbara’s story is a modern realization. Not of a dream because the suffering continues, but of the transformation of a nightmare into a supportive reality of consolation and solidarity.
By taking that first step and starting The Addict’s Mom as a Facebook page, Barbara Theodosiou began a movement that has grown to help countless thousands across the country. United behind the credos of “Sharing without Shame,” and “Together We Really Are Stronger,” thousands of mothers have joined The Addict’s Mom group fan pages on Facebook. The Addict's Mom launched a free membership site, giving mothers support, valuable low-cost resources to help their addicted children and a place to share with other mothers.
Today, with over 25,000 members and chapters in every state of the country, the website and forums of The Addict’s Mom have proven to be an invaluable support network and a lightning rod for progressive advocacy. Representing a true symbol of the ongoing fight against the disease of addiction and each addict’s prospect for long-term recovery, The Fix is honored to interview Barbara Theodosiou.
Barbara, let’s start at the beginning with a look at the microcosm of your own experience that led to the founding of The Addict’s Mom (TAM). I know it’s difficult, but can you tell us about the onset of your experience with addiction?
I discovered within a six-month period that two of my sons were addicts. My first reaction was that I became physically sick. I was completely lost in the sadness of addiction. On the outside, to the world, I appeared to be doing well. I was a woman of great personal and professional success. I had a nice house, a nice job, and I was the founder of a women’s business organization so I guess it appeared like I had it all. But, on the inside, I was broken and I honestly felt like I shattered into a million pieces. It was through my own brokenness that The Addict’s Mom was born.
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I knew deep inside that there was no way in this world that I was the only mom who was suffering like this. I knew there had to be so many other moms going through the same horror that I was experiencing. I wanted to connect with those moms and create a place where their pain and feelings could be shared; a safe place where moms could share without shame.
Barbara, I know this is a horribly difficult question, but you told me about one of your sons recently relapsing. If it’s okay, can you give us a play-by-play of what happened for the benefit of other mothers that might now be experiencing the same terrible reality?
This relapse was pretty horrific. I have been going through this for the past eight years, and it never gets any easier. But this was a very horrific relapse. My son was once again in treatment at the time. When a child is in treatment, it gives you a sense of hope. A relapse destroys that hope.
I received a call that my son had left treatment, and they did not know where he had gone, although he had mentioned something about going to this one local area, probably to get drugs. I then received a phone call from him, and I decided to pick up the phone. It’s a big struggle for mothers, whether or not we should pick up the phone. Should we do tough love and let them fall even when every maternal instinct is telling you to never let them fall because this is your child and everything inside cries out for you to help them.
This time I picked up the phone and Daniel could barely say a single word. He was smashed. From past experience, I knew by the way he was talking that he was going to be unconscious very, very shortly. I kept saying desperately, “Daniel, Daniel, Daniel, stay on the phone, stay on the phone!” I grabbed my other phone and I called the police. I kept asking him, “Daniel, what’s in front of you? What are you looking at? Where are you? Do you see anything around you that you recognize?”
But he could barely say a word. He did mumble that he was in West Palm Beach, and I knew he had mentioned going to Riverside Drive. The police began actively searching for him while I tried to keep him on the phone. Every five or 10 minutes, he would garble something into the receiver so I did know he was still there, but he couldn’t utter an intelligible sentence. And I knew he was passing out and the police still could not find him; they tried to trace his phone but that didn’t work. Then, within about 45 minutes to an hour, as I am sitting there screaming in the phone, trying to do anything I can to keep my son from going unconscious, begging him to talk to me—“Please pick up the phone, Daniel, please just talk to me, Daniel, just stay on the phone...”—he was found and taken to a hospital.
After the hospital, he was sent to a psychiatric hospital because he had fallen into a drug-induced psychosis. Daniel was placed on a 72-hour involuntary emergency commitment that in Florida is known as the Baker Act and is designed keep someone from harming themselves or others. When it happens, it is referred to as being Baker Acted. For the last couple of days, my singular focus has been to find a mental health track dual diagnosis treatment program for him. I want to get him the treatment he needs.
But my world has stopped. It just stops when this happens. No matter what is happening, everything else gets thrown aside. That’s why, John, I even called you and I said, “Can I please move the interview back?” and I appreciated how supportive and understanding you were when we spoke. I was running back and forth to the hospital, gathering all the things he had left at the rehab, trying to clean up this horrific mess. No matter how many times this happens, you never really get that used to it no matter how many times it happens. I mean, you do, but you don’t. And I just thought for sure this time, “He’s dead.” You always play out the worst scenarios in your head. It is so awful.
As mothers of addicts, we become traumatized. Do you know that I turn off my phone at night? It has become a habit. I just shut it. From 10 at night until the morning, I leave it off because I can’t bear anymore of those phone calls. I trust in God, but it is what it is. I just can’t pick it up. As many years as I have been doing this—eight long years—this relapse was just terrifying.
I am so sorry. It must be really hard.
No, it’s okay. But it is. It’s so very hard.
Were you surprised by the lack of resources offered to the families of children with substance abuse disorders?
I found out about both of my sons in less than six months. I first found out about my youngest son because the school had called me. He was bouncing off the walls and they said he was on drugs. My first reaction was, “No, you’re wrong! That can’t be. He doesn’t do drugs. He knows better.” I mean, I spent my life telling my children about my brother’s struggles as a heroin addict. I couldn’t believe my son would do such a thing, but then I went to the school and it turned out to be true. Then, a few months later, I found out my other son was addicted to heroin. And that was just devastating. My husband went to his apartment and found needles all over the place.
But I was one of the fortunate ones. At the time this happened, eight years ago, I was upper middle class and my husband made a very good living. Those resources actually enabled me to help start The Addict’s Mom and get it off the ground. I was blessed to be able to have those resources. Over the years, however, and in my own life as the economy shifted and business changed, I discovered challenges that I did not expect early on. I found that society itself really stigmatizes addicts and the mentally ill.
Addiction is not a glamorous cause. Our addicted children are very taboo and very frightening. People think that they have a choice. Society believes they are choosing to destroy themselves and cause such wreckage. Society looks at them like this is a problem that they’ve created. In response, society just washes its hands of the whole matter. It doesn’t want to deal with it.
As a result, to get treatment for your children when they are facing this life-threatening disease is incredibly difficult. So many families out there lack the resources that someone like myself had. It requires money. It requires time and effort and money that the vast majority of the people simply do not have. Over the last eight years, I found as I worked with The Addict’s Mom that so many people simply do not have those resources.
In my case, even when you do have the resources to get them the best treatment available, it doesn’t always work and they don’t always stop. In fact, it fails to work in most cases the first time around. The statistics are truly grim. In addition, my position has changed financially. Things have become very difficult for me. Like almost every other mother in the beginning, I thought when this started that I would send my sons to treatment and that would be it. I thought the problem could be fixed. I thought that if you had enough money and paid the right experts, you could fix the addiction. Even with my past experience with my brother, I still felt this way at first when it came to my children. Children and wishful thinking have a tendency to go hand-in-hand.
It shocks me to realize today how wrong I was. I never realized at that time, in the beginning, that it would never be over. I also didn’t know that no treatment and no expert would work until my sons actually decided to take part. They had to be willing to do the work. At the time, of course, I thought they would be willing. I thought if I reached out they would be so happy to receive the help that my husband and I knew they needed. That did not turn out to be the case. It is so very far from what actually has happened. It has been, and continues to be, a much harder road than I ever imagined.
And it has been hard in terms of feeling like everyone is judging me. Not everyone really, but by so many that it comes to feel like everyone. This is a major reason why I started The Addict’s Mom. Society views addicts as horrible people. Society does not believe that addiction is a disease so there’s a staggering lack of resources available for both addicts and the families of addicts. It’s not like a child with cancer or, God forbid, a child who gets sick, because then the community rallies around the family.
Our position at The Addict’s Mom is that addiction is a disease. By viewing addiction as a disease, the stigma can be removed. Why should an addict’s mother have to go through something worse with such stigma added? It’s already the worst time of her life when she discovers that her child has the disease of addiction. It’s astounding the lack of resources available for these mothers and their families.
You hold a Master of Marriage and Family Therapy degree, and you understand the value of therapy. In the stark face of addiction, the therapeutic process often proves to be ineffective like a single leg of a table that needs more than one to stay upright.
Were you surprised by this outcome? Do you believe long-term recovery from substance abuse disorders requires more than therapy can offer on its own?
There is no question that therapy can be a very long and difficult process. I also know that therapy will only have a chance to work when the addict and the family are ready to embrace the process. But I do believe that therapy is essential for family members of addicts. Therapy can help them develop the resources they need to survive; coping mechanisms, communication skills, stress relief techniques, resiliency skills and more.
At The Addict’s Mom, we support the process of therapy for the whole family. Many of our moms go to therapy to access a safe environment with a professional where they can unload and heal and deal with the guilt. Many times I will have a mom say to me, “I am stepping out today and taking some time to talk about myself and go to therapy. I need a break from worrying about my child and I need to take care of myself. I’m going to get healthy.” Self-care is so important during such difficult times. By incorporating therapy into the recovery process, they learn a lot about self-care and grow stronger.
But I don’t think therapy is the answer on its own. Finding long-term recovery is really a difficult thing. There are many, many other avenues that need to be used in conjunction with therapy. Support groups like The Addict’s Mom and Al-Anon plus healthy eating, exercise and spiritual practices are all avenues that can be taken. The main part needs to be a readiness and a willingness to get well.
For example, the main reason I chose to go to therapy is because I started to have the smallest belief that I was important and that I mattered. Whether my children got well or not, I had to take care of myself, particularly for the rest of my family. Mind you, this perspective definitely was not present in the beginning. Down the line, therapy really helped me to talk out my issues.
I also need to point out how The Addict’s Mom is almost like a therapy group because our online chat sessions are similar to group therapy. Mothers are posting on the site all day long and speaking with other mothers from across the country. It is a resource that they can access at any time and this is what I really hoped to create when I first came up with the idea for The Addict’s Mom. I wanted to create it because I knew that I myself needed it.
You just mentioned Al-Anon. As a person in long-term recovery, I have worked both a 12-step substance abuse-oriented program and an Al-Anon program as well. Did you try working an Al-Anon program and why was that not enough?
I did work an Al-Anon program when I was younger. I strongly believe in the genetic component of addiction, and my brother was a heroin addict. In my early 20s, I went to Al-Anon for support. And I really liked it and it helped me a great deal. Since my brother was my best friend at the time, the pain was enormous and Al-Anon really helped. Al-Anon is great, and I fully support their mission.
When I became a mother, however, I revisited Al-Anon when I found out that my children were addicted, but I did not experience the same sense of comfort. I just did not feel the same sense of support and relief. It was very difficult, and I think this was because of a positive of Al-Anon that turned out to be a difficulty for me. There’s a big diversity in Al-Anon, a wide range of people from the 20-year-old girl whose boyfriend is an addict to young people with alcoholic parents and on and on. When I was sitting there and hearing these stories, I just didn’t find what I needed.
I almost felt like the person sitting next to me in the Al-Anon meetings really couldn’t understand what I was going through. I wanted to speak to another mother. I felt like I needed to connect with those mothers who were going through the same pain and trauma that I was going through. When I first went to Al-Anon in relation to my brother’s heroin addiction, I would have done quite a lot to help him. But I also had my own life. When it came to my children, I was willing to do anything; I was willing as a mother to do anything I could if it would possibly save them.
Yes, I had a husband and a family and two other children that also needed me and deserved my time and attention and love, but I still would have given my life to save my two boys. It was that intense. I needed to talk to somebody who was going through almost exactly what I was going through. I needed to connect with the primal emotion of a mother’s love and the desperation felt when that love is put under siege by the horror of a child’s addiction.
But let me be perfectly clear: I think Al-Anon is amazing and I am so grateful that it exists. But for me, I needed something a little different than what it could offer and that’s why I decided to start The Addict’s Mom.
How does TAM help? What does The Addict’s Mom provide that wasn’t accessible to mothers facing such a crisis in the past?
I just spoke at an honorary dinner where I was given a Lifetime Achievement Award for starting The Addict’s Mom. I was so grateful for the support for TAM at the event. They raised over $250,000 in scholarships from treatment centers.
At the dinner, we asked our members to contribute so we could share with people the “Voices of The Addict’s Mom.” The first question we asked them was, “What is The Addict’s Mom to you and what does TAM provide for you?” And these are some of their answers:
- “TAM provides a comfort zone.”
- “A safe, open, loving, caring, wonderful place.”
- “Home to so many genuinely strong, hurt, yet caring women.”
- “The most helpful group ever.”
- “My second family.”
Then we asked them to finish this sentence - “TAM is a place…” and their answers included:
- “TAM is a place to share without shame or blame.”
- “TAM is a place to vent, to cry, and to bond, and sometimes even laugh.”
- “TAM offers me understanding, education and advice.”
- “TAM is a place of unconditional love and support.”
- “TAM is a place where we can find support and healing for the addict and with each other.”
And then we asked them to finish another sentence – “TAM allows me to…” and their answers included:
- “Find my inner strength and courage.”
- “Become an advocate for change.”
- “Fight for the addict and not with my addict.”
- “Begin the process of forgiving myself and my son.”
- “TAM gives me hope.”
Thank you for sharing those words because that was absolutely beautiful and means so much to me as an addict in recovery. Can you tell us about the early days of The Addict’s Mom and how you got the idea to start the group? Can you illuminate the initial struggles to get such a group going?
My background was in public relations and I ran a women’s business group. With that group, I had tried to create something that would fit into a busy woman’s schedule with the demands of kids and work. We met from 11:30 to 1:30 so the meetings could be held when the kids were in school and a lunch break could be taken. I was very proactive with that group and it grew rapidly.
But when I found out my sons were addicts, I stopped going to groups, I stopped doing almost everything. I honestly collapsed into my bed.
Finding out that two of my sons were addicts within six months, was overwhelming—I began to unravel. To be candidly honest, and it’s painful to recall, but I suddenly found myself drinking a couple of glasses of wine every night. This is from a person who had barely ever drank alcohol before.
I had never done that in my life. I started eating junk food and I was just really falling apart. I was doing anything I could to escape the painful reality of what was happening.
You have to understand that since my brother had been an addict, and since I had gone to Al-Anon meetings when I was younger, I knew what came along with being an addict. I knew that there was no turning back and our life would never be the same. I knew the only one who could find help for me was myself. Faced with that knowledge, I pulled myself together and corked the wine.
For some addicts' mothers, they, too, find themselves in similar situations. Luckily, I’m not an addict or an alcoholic. Sadly, some addicts' moms cannot bear the stress that comes with having an addicted child. They may become unglued, and find themselves desiring to escape the reality of their situation through the use drugs and alcohol. Doctors in such a situation may prescribe the problem away with Xanax and Valium and pain medication. It’s just awful because as an addict’s mom, it can become very difficult to live in your own skin.
I was lucky enough to stop before it became a problem, but I was not going to sit by and do nothing. As my younger son kept overdosing again and again, I decided his life was not all going to be in vain. I started a small little Facebook group called The Addict’s Mom and it was about 50 or 60 moms in the beginning. But, I went on it every single day and it began to grow. More and more mothers kept joining as word spread about us.
Now, TAM has chapters in every state in the country and over 25,000 members. We have volunteer admins that work behind the scenes and monitor TAM. The hardest thing about TAM is keeping it safe. As a 24-hour support group, it demands a lot of time and effort. The difficulty with TAM is that I can go to sleep one night and wake up in the morning to find that one mom said something that really hurt another mom, and it wasn’t caught by one of our volunteer admins. Keeping TAM a safe place to share without shame is probably the most difficult thing that I have faced.
Still, the volunteer partners and the friendships that have evolved are amazing. I am absolutely blessed by people like you and The Fix, and the greater addiction and recovery community that have shown so much support. It means so much to me and to our members that people recognize the needs of mothers with addicted children. I have gotten more help than I ever imagined in the beginning and I am truly grateful for that help.
The tagline of The Addict’s Mom is “Share Without Shame,” a message that highlights the stigma of addiction in our society. Is stigma the biggest obstacle for these families when it comes to accessing the help they need? How can such shame be overcome?
Stigma is a huge part of the problem for families that are trying to access help. Years ago, the shame was much greater, but families are still scared to come forward because of the stigma associated with addiction. Still today, we find more and more families are coming forward to help their children.
As we discussed earlier, society views addicts as dirty and ugly. It is not surprising that people are scared of and do not like addicts. Our addicted children are often in jails or living on the street or institutionalized. Quite often they don’t work and they can be remarkably unproductive. Even if they do work, they often don’t stay at jobs for very long because they quit, or more likely, have been fired. Often unemployed, they collect disability, particularly the mentally ill addicts. It is not surprising that they are looked on as a burden to our society.
A second obstacle for families of addicts, that is also related to the stigma, is the difficulty for so many of them to access treatment. It’s just extraordinarily expensive and places another weight on already beleaguered families. Insurance will offer five to 10 days of treatment, and that isn’t nearly enough to address such an entrenched disease. Even to get another couple of days added is a painstaking process. Unless you have a lot of money, you find yourself between a rock and a hard place. In the rural areas, it’s even harder. There are even fewer places to find help.
In terms of your question, when it comes to overcoming the shame, organizations like The Addict’s Mom can play a big role. I have seen women over the past eight years who would not utter a word in the beginning, come out of their shells of shame and share their stories in moving and courageous ways. Recently, a woman who would never have uttered a word in the beginning about the overdose of her son was on the cover of a national magazine. She found the strength after her son’s death to share her story to help other mothers facing the same pain. As The Addict’s Mom continues to attract national attention, our goal is to change the misperceptions of society by advocating, educating, and offering treatment options to families in need. By being proactive, we hope to help prevent. or at least, reduce drug abuse in future generations.
The Addict’s Mom focuses on the mothers of addicted children with the belief that the relationship between the mother and addicted child is unique. Although not diminishing the experiences of other family members, TAM is dedicated to addressing the mother’s pain and the commonalities of her experiences, thus illustrating to the grieving mother that she is not alone nor is she unique in this respect.
How is the mom’s experience different from the father’s experience?
I don’t believe the father’s perspective is really that different from the mother’s, but culturally and historically, society holds the mother responsible for her children. When a child does something wrong, society as a whole tends to blame the mothers. If your child becomes an addict, it often seems like society is pointing a finger at the mother —“Why didn’t you do something to prevent this? Why didn’t you get them the help they needed? Didn’t you know this sooner?”
Sadly, many of the mothers in The Addict’s Mom, including myself, feel the guilt along with the shame. We have to work very, very hard to overcome those negative feelings. We feel responsible for the problems of our children. We feel like failures.
Through advocacy, the leaders of The Addict’s Mom now act as liaisons between policy makers, mental health professionals, and those suffering from the disease of addiction. What has your response been from policy makers? Do politicians do more than offer a shoulder to cry on while simply consoling you? Do the movers and shakers actually listen to your policy suggestions and have any been implemented?
My favorite quote in the entire world is by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
Honestly, there is nothing quite like a group of mothers when it comes to evoking actual change. I want to give a few concrete examples of our members who have evoked change. Three great examples are as follows:
1. Sharon Blair was instrumental in the passing of The Jennifer Act in Florida. She built a cohesive plan between the different branches of local government to help save the lives of addicts. The Jennifer Act reduces the filing fees for the Baker Act, increases the length of drug detox, and funds new facilities to help addicts.
2. In Kentucky, Charlotte Wethington got Casey’s Law passed. Named after her son who died of a heroin overdose, the law allows for involuntary treatment so families can force their addicted children to get the help they need by petitioning the court. Studies have shown that involuntary treatment can be just as successful as voluntary treatment.
3. Finally, across the country, mothers from TAM have helped to advocate for the heroin overdose prevention drug naloxone to be carried by emergency medical providers. If an addict is overdosing from heroin or another opiate like a prescription painkiller, a shot of this drug can save their life. Not only did advocates from TAM lobby for giving access to naloxone to emergency workers across the country, they also lobbied for hospitals, regular medical practitioners, and even parents of addicts to be allowed to carry the drug and be trained in its administration if faced with an overdose.
And those three examples are just the beginning. TAM moms are working together to close the drug paraphernalia shops that sell bath salts and spice and they are working together to shut down the prescription painkiller pill mills in Florida—many have been closed. Also, TAM moms are fighting for increased legislation against all the new synthetic drugs. For myself, one of the main issues that I am focused on right now, because it makes me so sad, is trying to help addicts with mental health issues. There are not enough co-occurring disorders treatment options out there. The research supports an integrated treatment model for those with both a mental illness and a substance use disorder. Jail has become the new home for the mentally ill and that’s just wrong. I am starting a new campaign to raise awareness and to advocate for the rights of these people. They may be addicts, they may be mentally ill, but they are also human beings. I believe 100% in treatment and not jail.
How are your two sons doing today? How has the disease of addiction in your family unit affected your two other children; another son and a daughter? Is there any resentment that the addictions of your two sons have dominated the family and prevented them from receiving the attention that they desire?
Absolutely. My God, that’s one of the most painful issues in my life. One of my sons is a recovering heroin addict who has close to three years in recovery. I am so proud of him. My younger son has suffered severely with mental illness, and he’s on probation right now. But I’ll tell you the judicial system is such a horrible system for the mentally ill. My son is Baker Acted (Florida’s 3-day involuntary psychiatric hold) approximately 15 to 20 times a year, and every time he is charged with breaking his probation. It doesn’t make sense because it makes a bad problem even worse.
As far as the rest of my family is concerned, my daughter is like the perfect child and my youngest son has grown up surrounded by this chaos. All of the members of my family, including my husband, resent my addicted children, especially my younger son who has never really stopped using and is constantly in trouble. He has caused so much havoc over the last eight years. When I have gotten sick, they blame him. They say it’s his fault that I’m not present, but really it’s my own fault. But they have gone full circle and they don’t like him and they are really mad at him. I never know quite what to do in the face of that anger.
If there is a mother out there reading this interview that suspects her child is succumbing to the disease of addiction, even if only in the first stages of initial abuse, what would you recommend she do?
She needs to be proactive. She needs to get informed by getting educated. She should learn everything she can about addiction because real knowledge really helps. We all need to learn the various components of addiction like enabling, relapse and recovery. Going to meetings can really be helpful as well. Therapy can help her learn the coping and resiliency skills she needs to survive and get through this very difficult process. It’s important to communicate with the other members of her family who also will most likely need therapy as well.
But, the most important thing is to remember that you have to take care of yourself first in order to help anyone else, even a loved one. I wish I would have known that from the beginning. She has to believe that her life in and of itself is very, very important; that she matters. Her own life is important not only to herself, her community and her world, but, most importantly, to her other children and spouse as well. She needs to take care of herself mentally, physically and emotionally.
I also would hope that she would join a support group like The Addict’s Mom or Al-Anon or any support network where she can share her story and find the empathy and the commonality of experience that she needs. Such support needs to be embraced early on in this incredibly difficult and painful process. I hope that she knows that she’s not alone. There are so many more mothers out there, just like her, that are struggling with the same problems and that are waiting to accept her with open arms. I know from my experience with The Addict’s Mom that she’ll find much needed love and support if she reaches out and is willing to take that first step.
Perhaps, the most important thing for the addict’s mom is to realize that regardless of whether or not her children get well, her life is extremely important in and of itself. She has value and in the depths of such a painful crisis, she needs to be reminded of this loving truth on an almost daily basis.