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Thursday, 05 March 2009


By Brenton "Sandy" Dickson

It was a warm, mid-October afternoon in northern New Hampshire. Brent had been fidgeting nervously in the passenger seat all the way from Portland, Maine, continually changing CD’s – mostly the Grateful Dead – and mumbling about how this was all unnecessary. How he could deal with it himself.

We pulled into the parking lot of a large white colonial, peacefully located at the foot of the White Mountains. The surrounding trees seemed to be on fire. Bright oranges and reds silhouetted against the backdrop of the misty distant peaks. Why were we here? The place looked more like my 1960’s Vermont college fraternity house, than it did a drug rehab.

Two weeks earlier, I had received a collect call from a short-term detox facility in Portland. The trembling voice on the other end tearfully pleaded, “Dad, I need help.” He was straining to go on. “I have found a twelve-step program in New Hampshire, and the counselors here recommend it. Will you ‘lend’ me the money? It should only take two weeks.”

Brent had been in and out of substance abuse treatment for 20 years. But he was never able to follow through. Fifteen years of drinking and heavy crack cocaine use had sapped his self-esteem. This once charming and articulate young man had become a thin, angular, emaciated, scarecrow. His eyes bloodshot, his complexion a mottled red.

He was insensitive to those around him. He was restless, constantly pacing back and forth. His life was drifting aimlessly, like a caged hamster spinning on its wheel. Lost jobs, failed marriages, always in debt. The medical community told us his only hope was a long-term institution, staffed with psychiatric professionals. But his odds of recovery were not much greater than five percent.

How could we have let this happen? I had tried to intervene, but I had no control. On frequent visits with him and Mona, his youngest daughter, it was painful to watch a confused, devoted seven-year-old, trying to cope by reversing roles. Leading him around, and telling him what to do. While clearing brush and cutting trees around our house in Maine, the old spark and energy would return. It never lasted.

I tried hard to remain objective as I walked the premises. There were no locks on the windows, no fences, no guards, no doctors. Just 50 or so residents ranging from their teens into their 60s. A few that were between sessions were standing in the courtyard talking and laughing, drinking coffee and diet Pepsi. How could this possibly work? What had he talked me into this time? Had he just chosen another easy way out? Another in a long list of wastes of time?

His younger roommate looked into my eyes and firmly shook my hand. Not like his sloppily dressed, shifty, druggie friends in Portland. The walls of their room were bare. No pictures, just an old mirror. There were two simple bunk beds and one shared bureau.

I gazed out of their open first floor window at three mountains: Canon, Lincoln and Lafayette. I drifted back to his teens. I saw the two of us, exhilarated and exhausted as we skied and hiked on the steep, rocky trails of those magnificent peaks. He had been so positive, so active. Where had he gone?

The shelves of the spotless cafeteria were stocked with health foods and homemade snacks. The freshly brewed coffee tasted as good as it smelled. A young woman asked if she could join us. “I know what Brent is going through. Most of us on the staff went through the program. We’re all addicts.”

Brent was listening intently, smiling and nodding. “We only advise the residents. They do the hard stuff. They help each other work through and complete the twelve steps. Unlike most of today’s treatment programs, we use the original twelve steps, the ones outlined in the 1939 first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous.”

I was puzzled at the way he was more at ease with his new environment than I. Then, I thought back to his phone call - his emotional plea for help. I honed in on his words, “It should only take two weeks.”

I opened my car door as the sun was disappearing behind the western hills. I tried to hold back my tears as he uncharacteristically and spontaneously gave me a warm emotional hug. I no longer saw my old Vermont fraternity. I saw a diverse community whose residents had a lot in common. Drug addiction and alcoholism. Shattered lives and broken relationships. Hope!

He called us regularly to share his progress. After six weeks, my concerns and skepticism began to fade. But they came crashing back when he told us he was ready to go back to Portland.

He couldn’t go back. There would be too many temptations – cocaine, pot and his druggie friends. I had to take control. I had to stop him.

I once again pulled into the parking lot of the large white New Hampshire colonial. The glare was blinding. The early December sun exaggerated the glistening drifts and icicles, the bright snow covered trees and mountains. A strapping, robust, beaming, silhouetted figure walked purposefully toward me. Could this be the crumbled, broken spirit I had dropped off here six weeks ago?

The stereo remained silent during the drive back across Maine. I mostly listened. I heard of the work remaining to be done on his twelve steps. I heard of his enthusiastic plans for the future, occasionally interrupted by tearful confessions and apologies.

When I asked him about a past atrocity, he replied, “Dad, I will tell you anything you want to know, but you should start by assuming that 99 percent of the stuff I’ve told you over the years were lies.” All of the arguments and counter-arguments I had practiced while driving north no longer seemed relevant.

One thing had not changed. I was still not in control!

Brent returned to Portland where he has become as enthusiastic a member of its anti-drug community as he was a member of its drug-using community. He speaks at AA meetings around New England, and he has run free two-day weekend workshops on the twelve steps at a local hospital. In AA, he sponsors over twenty people. He never could say no!

The positive spirit of the teenager we once knew is back. But, much more mature as a consequence his journey. Addiction is an insidious affliction. But we continue to have “hope.”

[EDITORIAL NOTE: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. Instructions are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


I can only imagine the pain you have endured and the many times you must have been disappointed and hopeless. I pray that this time your son has found his place and will be able to build on his new resolve and commitment. Thank you for sharing your story - so well written and heartfelt.

Hello Sandy,

Your story was very sad but it ended on an upbeat note.

Brent will, with any luck and determination, live out the rest of his life in harmony with those he loves and who, by sticking by him, prove every day how important he is to them.

Great story..Well told..

Sandy, this was a very poignant story for me. I am so glad that Brent finally called for the help he had needed for so long. I think that is partially why his story has a happy ending.

A few days ago I got a message that a nephew of mine had overdosed. Such a waste of a young life; he was only 20 years old. His parents had him in and out of treatments for years, but, sadly, in his case he didn't live long enough to do the 12 steps.

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