12 min read
A private school principal for 17 years, Libby knew what problem children looked like — her oldest son, Jeff, wasn’t one of them. But when he replaced boyhood friends with a new crowd, he started struggling with grades and he became disinterested in sports, Libby closed her eyes to the changes.
When she finally realized the extent of Jeff’s addiction, he was hooked on heroin. Both of their lives changed, though, when Libby moved halfway across the world to Italy, where she took an Italian addiction recovery mantra to heart.
Ignoring the Signs
As the Head of School at a distinguished independent school in Maryland, nothing could slip by Libby. She watched her students — including her two sons, Jeff and Jeremy — grow up, make friends, take on athletics and get through coursework along the way.
She saw when Jeff started to change — losing weight, changing his style, making friends with an edgier crowd.
For the things she didn’t see, she heard about. The police called to say her son had been arrested for stealing cigarettes. One of Jeff’s teachers approached her to report a suspicion he was using drugs. Two of Jeff’s friends told her they heard he was trying to buy pot and crystal meth.
Libby realized that things were not as they seemed.
“I closed my eyes to it. I didn’t educate myself, I didn’t pay attention.”
She decided confronting addiction rumors was the best move. One day, she pulled Jeff out of class to take a midday drive down the block. Jeff resisted her questioning. What do you want from me? I’m a good kid. I’m playing soccer, I’m getting As and Bs. What more do you want?
Libby kept her eyes closed to the gravity of the situation.
“I wound up apologizing,” she says.
“And he wasn’t ok. He lied.”
In hindsight, she admittedly knew something was wrong, but she feared her son’s potential addiction stigma and how she would be perceived as a hypocrite by other parents. And she was uncertain of how to help her son.
Years passed and Libby kept ignoring the warning signs. The times she did confront her son, Jeff met Libby with manipulative answers that made her question her own judgment and parenting abilities.
When Libby tried talking to Jeff as he started exhibiting signs of drug abuse — including nodding off at family dinners — he’d make her feel guilty. How come I can’t be tired, but Jeremy can be tired?
At 22, Jeff started using heroin.
She didn’t fully recognize the extent of his addiction until after college.
“He went to Boston for college, but during his junior year my husband and I pulled his tuition and forced him to take a six-month sabbatical in order to go to rehab. When he returned to college, he started using heroin,” she recalls. “After school, he got a great job in New York City.”
When he got fired, it became obvious he was in big trouble.
Libby forced Jeff to go to rehab, but with no intent of truly becoming clean, he returned to heroin after 30 days in the facility. Over the course of his addiction, Jeff went to more than a dozen detox and rehab facilities to the tune of $200,000.
The tipping point came in 2004.
“He was addicted, using heroin blatantly,” she recalls. “He’d just gotten out of another detox center. I had breast cancer and a bilateral mastectomy. I retired from my job as Head of School. My father died. All at once.”
Libby was looking to get Jeff enrolled in yet another rehab facility, but she was running out of options — for her son and for herself.
“So I went to Italy where I have family and just cried. I knew I was powerless.”
She moved to Italy to be closer to her extended family. There, she visited a rehab center in Florence with her Italian cousin. The Italian perspective toward addiction — that it’s a public health issue — convinced her there was hope for her son.
In Italy, rehab centers are called communities and are completely free. They require a three- to five-year commitment and the largest one houses 1,800 people, who all live on campus.
As her cousin spoke to the director of one of the communities, trying to figure out how to get an American heroin addict admitted to an Italian rehab community for several years, Libby began to cry.
The director came over to comfort her.
“Signora, Signora, non piangere,” he said, asking her to stop crying. “Stagli vicino.”
Stay close to him.
At first, Libby was insulted. The director clarified, “Stay close, but don’t give him money for anything. Stay close.”
Later that night, Libby thought about it more and realized what he was trying to say.
“He was telling me not to abandon my son, to be there for him.”
It gave her some much-needed perspective.
This phrase brought her peace. And it helped save her son’s life.
Staying Close, But Letting Go
Three days later, Libby got a call from Jeff. He was living in California, and his heroin addiction had advanced to the point where he was shooting dope into his neck and groin because the veins in his arms, legs and feet were so overused.
He called his mother to ask for money for a new stint in rehab. It was a conversation that had become almost routine at this point.
Mom, give me your credit card number so I can get in.
Libby took a deep breath. And she declined.
Two days later she got another call.
Mom, I found another rehab center. Write them a check, but send it to me, so I can get in.
Again, Libby refused.
Three days later, Jeff called again.
This time he screamed Send me anything negotiable!
Libby refused once again, stagli vicino in her mind, keeping her centered.
“Jeff, I love you,” she told him. “But you’re going to die. When I had breast cancer I was going to die and I had to fight. I chose to live.”
“Jeff, fight. Fight.”
The next day, her son was in jail and in the hospital. The day after that, he put himself in a recovery center. For good this time.
Jeff was 28 when he went to that final rehab facility. Today, 10 years later, he is still sober.
“We’re blessed that he is alive,” Libby says. “What turned the corner for us is that Jeff didn’t feel abandoned.”
She had listened to the Italian community director those many days prior. To not give her son money. To let go of thinking she could control her son’s addiction by herself. To stay close.
It took time, but Libby finally understood: “Jeff had to choose. And he had to choose to get clean not for me, but for himself.”
Writing also helped Libby let control go. She journaled every day during Jeff’s most tumultuous years to let go of pain and make sense of it all. Years later, her notes spanning her son’s addiction — from the first signs of drug abuse to his eventual success in rehab — became the framework for her first book, intended to help other families struggling with addiction.
Q: What resources did you turn to for help?
Now there are lots of books that are available, but when I was first dealing with this I turned to Al-Anon. I still think Al-Anon is the single best resource for parents. When dealing with addiction, that camaraderie is really important. You get help from other people, there is no judgment. No one is saying that you screwed up because you’re all in the same boat together. In those rooms, there is compassion, support and love.
I don’t think there’s a right answer regarding addiction. Wee all have to find our way of getting through it and helping our children in the best way possible. Everybody wants a silver bullet with addiction. Me too. What worked for me might not for the next guy, and what worked for Jeff might not work for someone else.
Q: How did Jeff’s addiction affect the rest of the family?
I was angry with my ex-husband because he became less and less involved. The more involved I was, the more passive he became. In the end, I was on Mars and he was on Pluto. We never argued about it, he just got quiet until he really disappeared. He didn’t talk to Jeff for two years at one time. And I can’t blame him, to be truthful. He was crushed into silence.
Addiction is a family disease and it affects all of us so differently. It’s really easy to find blame. I wanted to blame somebody for Jeff’s addiction — even myself. But the reality is, it just is. Why did I have breast cancer? Nobody in my family has it. The reality is, it is the reality.
My younger son was totally confused as well. He saw, he knew what Jeff was doing, but he was afraid to tell me because he was loyal to Jeff. Jeremy told me, “I needed Jeff more than I needed you.”
One time, someone read our book and wrote to us to say Jeremy is the hero. I told him, “Someone thinks you’re the hero of this story.” He told me, “I would have loved to be the hero. Jeff’s addiction was like kryptonite around his neck. Jeff is the hero of this story.”
Every addict who is clean today is the hero of their story.
Q: In hindsight, what would you have done differently?
Education is key. If had to do it all over again, I should have educated myself. I closed my eyes. I was stupid. I made tons of mistakes. I should have educated myself and gotten involved early.
I would have had really honest communication with him. I would have had Jeff sit down with us together, instead of screaming at him like we did, and tell him he’s in trouble and we love you, and we’re all in this together, so we are going to move with you on this. Just like you would do with a kid who has diabetes or cancer. I should have handled it very differently.
Q: What is your relationship with Jeff like now?
Our relationship is based on honesty now.
Jeff works a spiritual recovery program, he goes to AA, he still works at his sobriety. Spirituality, he’ll tell you, is at the base of his recovery. He believes not so much in God, but that there’s something bigger than him and he doesn’t have to be in control. His sobriety isn’t related to his mother at all.
He says his sobriety takes work. He has a morning routine — he reads spiritual material, he writes in a journal, he runs. But the thing that keeps him sober, he says, is honesty.
Q: How did your book come about?
The reality is, the book started as a bedroom project. I was in Italy and was in extraordinary pain because Jeff was still sick. I sat down and just started to write this story. We never expected it to be a book.
A friend of mine who is a book editor read part of it and said, “This isn’t honest. You’re not writing honestly what you’re going through.” So I thought, If you want honest, I’ll go get my journals and write.
I told Jeff about it and said I was writing because I was in pain. He said that was fine. I’d call him as I was writing and say I lost you on this day — I would lose him for months at a time — and he would say, “Oh, I was in jail then.” I kind of became a journalist — asking questions and telling the truth about what he was doing. I wrote what he told me and I’d tell him, “Here’s what I wrote.” He would tell me how I got something wrong and finally said, “Never mind, I’ll write it.” He started to write passages, and that’s how Jeff got involved.
I started putting Jeff’s words in. Then I interviewed Jeremy and put his words in. But it was never intended to be a book. They were writing for me. It was an elaborate journal.
A former student of mine wanted to read some pages when she was working for a publishing company and said she thought she could get it published. I never wanted that. I didn’t want to expose this, mainly because I was Head of School, and I didn’t want people to know.
So I called up Jeff and told him I can’t do it. He said, “Mom, this is my 12th step.” So I called up Jeremy and told him I can’t do it. He said, “Mom, it will hurt like hell. Maybe it’ll help us. Maybe it’ll help someone else.”
I didn’t want to publish because I didn’t have the courage, the faith, the ego to publish it — to have my life out there in all of its ugliness. But we did. And through it I’ve become a much more compassionate, humble woman.
Q: What was the hardest thing about parenting an addict?
The hardest part was knowing that I couldn’t help Jeff, that I was powerless. I was literally powerless to help my son. That feeling of impotence was devastating. The other part was feeling like a failure that I couldn’t help him, that I was a failure as a mother, and that I couldn’t help my younger son either.
I didn’t know how. Those were bigger than the shame.
Q: What would you tell other parents whose children are facing addiction?
Educate yourself about recovery models. There are lots of models that will serve your child better than a 30-day program.
Get involved early. Have honest communication. Realize that addiction doesn’t discriminate. It can happen in any family regardless of socioeconomic status, or anything. It can happen in your family.
And have the courage to ask for help. It takes courage to ask for help.
With help from both of her sons, Libby Cataldi published her first book, Stay Close: A Mother’s Story of Her Son’s Addiction, in 2009. She earned her doctorate in education from the University of Pittsburgh and is a retired writing teacher and school administrator. Libby now lives in Florence, Italy after moving from Maryland 12 years ago.
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