Lea Minalga’s Story of Hope
Years ago when I held my child for the first time I had great expectations and prayed blessings to follow him all the days of his life. As he grew older it was obvious to me that Justin could be anything he wanted, he was my golden haired, blue eyed boy. Justin was raised with lots of love, attention and good values. He adored animals and throughout the years we had a wide assortment of creatures wandering around the house. We delighted in Justin's antics and while he might have been a strong willed child, he was not a behavioral problem at home or in school. I could not have been more proud of him.
We live in an upscale suburb of Chicago, a quaint and charming community....the perfect place to bring up a child. I had a false sense of security I suppose as I look back. I knew all of Justin's friends and they came from good homes too. Tragically, many of those kids are now dead or in prison because heroin hit our lovely area like a tsunami.
When Justin was young I worried over kidnappers, pedophiles, bullies and illnesses. When he got older I warned him about drugs and alcohol. I felt very confident that Justin would not use drugs. Why? He told me so. He was into fitness and all things healthy so that reassured me that he would not use any substances that might harm him. I probably uttered the most dangerous words a parent could back then when I was in La-La Land...."Not my kid! He is too sensible to get involved in alcohol or other drugs."
Back then I knew nothing about how the teen brain is not fully mature until age 24 or 25. The last part of the young brain to develop is the "executive center" or pre-frontal cortex where logic and reasoning reside. This of course leaves kids at risk for making poor choices at times. Adolescents are by nature just not very sensible. That is why they have parents; to help direct, protect and guide them to adulthood.
When Justin was 16 I discovered that he was shooting up heroin and doing so on a daily basis. Lots of heroin (10-15 bags a day). I remember collapsing to the floor in a heap of despair, anguish and terrifying fear. Our world dramatically changed that day and nothing would ever be the same again.
Those mother prayers of great expectations were reduced to one...please let him live. Just let him live! I went into that fierce lioness mode of rescuing, enabling, and obsessing over how to fix him. I felt guilt ridden, ashamed, isolated and alone. How could I have missed the signs?
He began doing very bad things. He stole and lied to me constantly. I kept my wallet under my pillow and slept with my car keys in my bra. In spite of my feeble safeguards he managed to outsmart me most of the time. NO...all of the time!
I became hyper-vigilant and when the phone would ring I would assume the worst. I was sleep deprived, joyless, tearful and scared almost to insanity. I think I had Present - not Post - Traumatic Stress Disorder because the chaos and mayhem never let up. Fight or Flight was the norm in those days for me. I stopped caring for myself and everything revolved around Justin.
25 treatment centers, hundreds of thousands of dollars later, countless relapses, jail stints and several near death overdoses, I am happy to report that Justin is clean today and doing well. Still there are consequences and an aftermath of emotional upheavals and legal ramifications that follow him. When toxic chemicals are poured into a precious, developing teen brain, this is what happens.
In 2002 I had the good fortune to meet some of the executives with The Partnership at Drugfree.org. Back then they were called The Partnership for a Drug-Free America. They took me under their wing and were kind, compassionate and understanding. They were angels of light to me - and enlightenment. They always had time to lend a listening ear, an empathetic heart, and a spirit of wanting to help.
They allowed me to join them, turning my pain into my passion; as part of their Parent Advisory Board. I am so proud to know them and to be able to call them my friends. They are my little Support Group in NYC - if I am having a rough day I can count on them for strength and gentle, non-judgemental advice. The team encourages and cares about Justin and my welfare. They listen to us, the parents; and learn from our experiences.
I pillage and plunder the Partnership's web site all the time gathering knowledge and wisdom so as to come along side hurt families in my own work as a director of a non-profit organization known as Hearts of Hope. I often wonder how I might have averted disaster with my own son had there been such an incredible source of materials back then when I needed it. I was naive to the dangers of drugs and certainly never had a clue about heroin other than skinny, old junkies in the inner cities who used it. Not fresh faced children.
As parents it is our obligation to learn as much as we can about what our kids are facing in this world today.
Teens have many pressures, temptations and stressors, and we must be there to help steer them into adulthood safe, intact and drug free! We cannot hide our heads in the sand and assume that kids will experiment or that they are just going through a phase or will outgrow whatever is going on. Trust your gut and if you feel something is wrong with your child, investigate further, for you probably are right. Reach out and get help.
Parents want to do the right thing for their children but sometimes they simply don't know what that right thing is. Please do your homework and find out as much as you can about your kids' world. They need you! We parents matter and we have great persuasion and influence over our kids.
When Justin was in the depths of his addiction and things looked so bleak, I never gave up hope. Never! And remember that it is always darkest before the dawn. Hope is new each morning.
I am thankful to Justin for his courage and to all those who helped us along the way.