My 15-year-old daughter Hannah threatened to cut off my thumbs, kill me in my sleep, and burn down the house with our family inside. Such was the power of her addiction, turning her from moody to malicious in a few short months.
“Let me go,” she screamed. “I don’t want to live with you people.” She fought us as we did everything we could think of to stop the drinking, the variety of drugs, the cutting. But we failed.
It could have been the pressure of starting a new school, I suppose. Or it could have been the people she met there. A long time later I learned it’s not useful to blame bad choices on others. But still, I wish there was a reason for my addicted daughter’s fury that didn’t reflect badly on our family, on her upbringing.
There were signs that she was in trouble, but if you’re not looking for them they can escape detection ― tucked in a zip-lock baggie in the bottom of a purse, hidden under a bed or folded into the pages of a journal. If I had looked harder, maybe I would have understood the changes in her beautiful artwork, from peaceful landscapes and placid figures to darkly wrought canvases full of torment and terror; frightened men with cages for heads, babies greedy and grasping with octopus arms. Maybe if I had held her more I could have felt the scabs on her arms, the cuts and burns hidden with long sleeves. I would have smelled it, too ― the miasma of smoke, alcohol and hopelessness drifting around her. I could have known. I should have known.
By the time I had worked out that Hannah was in trouble, it was too late for partial measures. The school and their toolbox of punishments were woefully inadequate to stop the crumbling of my daughter’s world. One therapist after another fell victim to her scorn, her beautiful vocabulary now a tool to eviscerate the people who were trying to help her.
Hannah’s weapon of choice against her father was words. She gleefully shared her drug use, her exploits, her promiscuity. ‘Can you imagine it?’ she smiled while he squirmed.
Hannah’s little sister Camilla endured the most abuse. Hannah took the opportunity to bait her at every turn. “You little beast, do you think you’re better than me?” Stinging slaps and beheaded dolls fueled Camilla’s withdrawal, silence her only protection against her sister’s raging assaults.
Hannah’s weapon of choice against her father was words. She gleefully shared her drug use, her exploits, her promiscuity. “Can you imagine it?” she smiled while he squirmed.
And me? Hannah shattered my beloved family heirlooms, my mother’s vases splintering against the stone of the fireplace. She spat in my food as I ate. She screamed in my face every day, her foul language and gestures assaulting me even as she demanded rides, money and freedom.
Hannah suffered, too. She destroyed the soulful art she had created over the years with spray paint and brute force. The sound of canvas ripping, the angry hiss of the spray can and her wild, pained, screaming escaping the confines of her room. I tried to stop her, wrenching open her door to be assaulted by the stench of decay. Hannah spun and glared at me, eyes flaming, fists clenched, “What the fuck do you want?”
I backed away.
Hannah terrorized us for months, until a drug overdose sent her to what she called “the loony bin.” We visited her every day, fearful, shamed and exhausted. We drove an hour to the behavioral hospital each morning, but she refused to see us, her shrieks cutting through the antiseptic smell of the corridor from beyond locked, gray metal doors: “I won’t see them, I don’t need them. Tell them to go away, and not to come back.”
After months of failed therapy, running away, threats and self-harm, we finally sent Hannah to a wilderness program, hoping people we didn’t know could save her. After three months of living in the snow on the deserted plains of the Utah high desert, we sent her to a locked-down residential treatment center so that she could have the therapeutic support she needed. Finally, we placed her in a group home to finish high school, afraid to bring her back to our city. We emptied our souls ― and yes, our wallets ― to give her a chance. After a year and a half of living apart, we brought her home to us.
We realized that we had done the unthinkable to her, given her over, stepped away, taken a chance with her life. We knew she had a right to be angry with us, and to read our desperation as betrayal.
We didn’t know what to anticipate, our expectations blurred by fear and hope. Who would come home to us? Was our Hannah still in there? Had she escaped the assault of the monster ― addiction ― or had it eaten our girl, leaving only the shell?
I was terrified that we would we be separated from her forever by the well-intentioned actions that had put her in the harshest of conditions. We realized that we had done the unthinkable to her, given her over, stepped away, taken a chance with her life. We knew she had a right to be angry with us, and to read our desperation as betrayal.
She arrived, hesitating at the threshold, a stranger in her own home. She wandered silently through rooms, looking for her new self, trying to work out her feelings and her future. She spoke little about her experiences, and I waited. Anger, fear and sadness were forgotten, replaced by hope.
Forgiveness is the fruit of love, a rare and delicate taste of grace. We set the table for a feast, after our long and desperate famine. We let the past go, and wrapped our forgiveness tightly around her throughout the short sweet summer before college, trying to squeeze out the shame and regret before she left again, wanting to make room to start over. Welcome home, Hannah, baby bird. We will try not to grip you too hard and we will try to keep you from falling. She was so fragile, and we so clumsy but we managed to not crush her. She trusted us to hold her for just a little while.
Our family will never be the same. In some ways, we are worse off. We are judged every day by those who have never felt the pain of sending a child away. We will always carry the guilt of it, especially as our daughter’s feelings about that time shift and evolve. Of course, we are worried about relapse every day, even though Hannah is strong, smart and healthy.
In some ways, we are better off. We are careful with each other now. We communicate thoughtfully and respectfully, not wanting to risk losing each other after fighting so hard to save our family and coming so close to the point of no return. That gift has helped us grow as a family and as individuals.
Four months after coming home, Hannah gave me a piece of her art for the first time, handing it over to me with a fierce hug. I tore the brown paper to reveal a piece titled “The Paths We Walk.” I recognized the path Hannah and I used to walk along the ocean, her depiction more twisted and complex than it was. On the back was taped a letter. “Thank you Momma, for saving my life. I love you.” That was the moment I knew she had forgiven me, too.
Susan Burrowes is the author of Off the Rails: One Family’s Journey Through Teen Addiction. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Facebook.