I moved to NYC the spring of 1995 and was married and pregnant with my first son by the summer of ‘96. New York City was now my home. I gave up a career to raise my children (there would be 2 more) and became a stay-at-home mom. I loved it. As a wife and mother, I wanted to provide a beautiful, safe and stimulating home for my family. Raising my children on the Upper East Side of Manhattan was a choice. Central Park would supply them oxygen and open space to run and stretch their growing limbs. The Met and Guggenheim would instill in them a love for the arts, and single sex schools would nurture the traditions and old-school ways I valued so much. My husband and I chose carefully for our kids, which is why nothing prepared us for the day our son went missing. It was August 10, 2017 in Bend, Oregon–ten days before the “Great American Eclipse” and one month after his 21st birthday.
My husband and I chose carefully for our kids, which is why nothing prepared us for the day our son went missing.
Sam had just finished his sophomore year at college when he returned home for summer dirty, gaunt, unshaven, wild-eyed and carrying only a grey kitten on his broad shoulder. His blonde, unruly, long hair reminded me of his younger self. Standing in front of me on this day, I saw my boy, but I also saw someone who was in trouble. With barely a hello, he handed me his kitty Taka (after the cheap vodka) and headed towards the door, leaving his brother and I speechless. Rushing after him, I blocked his exit like a little girl chasing after her father, “You just got home! Where are you going?” “Can you hang out a little?” “Where’d you get this cute kitty?” “How long have you had her or him?” I was trying so hard to reach him. But his eyes looked past me and my desperation only annoyed him, “Mom, why are you guilting me?” “I just got home, don’t do this. I’m going to see my friends.“ Heartbroken, I watched his long slender body spring across 96th Street and down Park Avenue until he was out of sight. He’d lose that spring in the months ahead, the spring and buoyancy that seemed to defy gravity, having earned him the nickname Tigger.
I can’t say when he first used marijuana, but I’d guess it was freshman year of high school. By junior year, he was smoking weed on a regular basis. Concerned, I turned to friends who would talk about their own kids who were partying too much, reassuring me that it wasn’t unusual, that we were in this together. I turned to the school therapist who did not seem fazed at all by my son’s weed use. After all, he was the pitcher on the baseball team and was maintaining straight A’s. “I should not worry so much.” I wore my husband out on the subject and he would remind me of what we were doing at his age.
The once sunny-natured boy who loved baking cupcakes and leading our family in prayer had begun to change. He became verbally abusive. He stole money from his siblings. He disobeyed all our rules. By senior year, he was smoking marijuana in his room and staying out till morning. I could see my son becoming reliant on this “non-addictive” substance, and I felt afraid and alone.
Marijuana was becoming an accepted part of our culture. The first two recreational dispensaries opened in Colorado and Oregon, and cannabis was being praised as the new medical marvel. National Weed Day, known as 420, blossomed from small stoner gatherings in the 70’s into festivals throughout the country drawing crowds in the tens of thousands and raking in $1.7 billion. So, while the country fought to legalize marijuana, we were fighting with our son to get his smoking under control.
Now a sophomore in college, his addiction had worsened. I was afraid for my son and what might happen if we did not get him help right away. After days of due diligence I hired a well known interventionist named Paul. Paul reassured me that Sam needed to face the consequences of his marijuana use and that an intervention could be the breakthrough he needed to put him on the path to recovery. Paul suggested a wilderness rehab in Oregon for young men ages 18-25. He could clear his head in the beautiful mountains of Oregon and return a new person.
We did as Paul instructed and each of us, including outside family members, wrote Sam heartfelt letters sharing how he had hurt us with his drug abuse and how much we loved him. He listened intently to our letters, but sat stoically as he watched us fight back tears. In the end, he was left with 2 choices: leave with my husband for Oregon or leave with Paul, who would show him where to get food stamps and where he could find the safest homeless shelters in NYC. We had cornered him like a team of warriors confronting their weakest member. Desperate for help, he looked to me, his mom, his protector, and asked, “Mom, why are you doing this to me?”
I had only spoken to my son a few times before he decided to walk out of the rehab center. He sold all his belongings, including his phone, and had stayed a few nights in a homeless shelter, eventually ending up in the city parks. I reached out to law enforcement in Bend, Oregon daily, desperate for help. But they gave me the same line day after day, “Miss, he’s 21 years old. You may have to accept that this is the life he’s chosen.”
Determined, I called Paul. My son was missing and alone, and Paul must help me find him. Instead Paul told me that Sam was not alone, God was with him. Hearing these words, a weight was lifted off my shoulders and I broke into tears. I knew that Paul was right. If I believed that God sent his one and only son Jesus Christ to live and die for me, then surely He could be trusted to take care of my son. As I sat there, I felt a peace settle over me and I was able to think clearly for the first time in weeks. My family had volunteered for years at our church serving the homeless, so I contacted my mom’s pastor who offered to reach out to churches across Bend. By morning, I was connected to Stacy at the United Methodist Church.
If I believed that God sent his one and only son Jesus Christ to live and die for me, then surely He could be trusted to take care of my son.
Stacy worked to clothe, feed, console and mother the homeless people of Bend. She had children of her own, heard the pain in my voice and wanted to help. I sent her photos that she shared with the homeless community. A girl recognized the “good looking loner” who spent most of his time in the library. This was something! We now knew where to find him, but there was one problem–the solar eclipse. The library would be closed with millions of people from all over the world flooding into Bend to get as close to the center of totality as possible.
On August 21 at 4:09 EDT, over 154 million people watched the news as the solar eclipse passed across the state of Oregon. My mom and I flipped from station to station hoping to spot Sam in the crowd, but we did not see him. It would be two insufferable days before I’d hear from Stacy again. She found Sam at the Safeway supermarket buying groceries with food stamps. He was polite, wearing shoes and did not appear to be on “hard” drugs. Sam declined her invitation for dinner and a bed for the night, but said he’d meet her at the church the following morning for breakfast with the pastor.
Weeks later, I would find myself 2,741.6 miles from home, sitting in the parking lot of a psychiatric hospital alone and in disbelief. I took a deep breath before opening the car door. I found it almost impossible to get out of the car. I was angry that my husband wasn’t with me, that no one in my family had come to support me. With my heart pounding in my ears, I willed my feet to move me forward through the sliding glass doors of the psychiatric hospital.
Nothing in my life had prepared me for this moment. Sitting in the waiting room, I felt like I had been dropped into someone else’s life and the feeling I was feeling was shame. I watched through the glass partition as a young man with a half-shaved head paced back and forth mumbling and laughing to himself. Then, I saw Sam. He was even skinnier than when I last saw him, and his hair and beard had grown into a matted mess. Holding back tears, I stood up to greet him and my body stiffened, not knowing what to expect. He saw me through the glass and a wide smile appeared on his face. Entering the room, he said, “Thank you sweet Jesus, I never thought I was going to see you again.”
That evening, lying in the darkness of my rented AirBNB bedroom, I remembered Paul’s words, “Sam is not alone, God is with Sam.” I had been so hurt that no one had come to support me in Oregon, but now I was aware that God had planned it this way. I knew then that this was not a tragedy, but an opportunity for me to grow closer to Christ. It was a gift. Overcome with gratitude, I did something I had not done since childhood. I got down on my knees and prayed. Thanking God for this difficult moment and asking Him to guide my thoughts and actions according to His will released the negative thoughts that had been causing me so much pain. In this quiet space I could feel the Light of God’s heavenly presence and His promise of peace.
I spent a month in Oregon while my son recovered in the psychiatric hospital from a marijuana-induced psychosis. I took this time as an opportunity to strengthen my relationship with Christ; inviting him into every aspect of my life and trusting in him one day at a time. The relationship I had built with Christ would sustain and guide me in the coming days, months and years as I faced more challenges with my son.
My son relapsed several more times over the years, ending up back in the psychiatric hospital. It can take years for the brain to heal from a psychotic break and heavy marijuana use. Each time Sam relapsed, I became more aware of my helplessness. This awareness deepened my dependence on Christ, giving me the strength I needed to fight the evil that was trying to destroy my family. On Thanksgiving Day, after another relapse, we told our son that he had to leave. Through continual communication with God, I did not fear. Perhaps for the first time in my life I was relying on God’s strength instead of my own. We did not hear from Sam until Christmas Day. He called to wish us a Merry Christmas and tell us that he was moving into a sober living facility.
I’m happy to report that my son is doing very well. He’s financially independent, sober and in love with a young woman he met in AA. And I am recovering from the idolatry of having a perfect family and perfect life. It is enough to have God.
Thank you, God. ….