Parents of overdose victims, and others affected by addiction, gather to support each other and feel like they’re not alone

Joshua Todd Hall

By Sarah Ladd
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

GEORGETOWN, Ky. – A warm scene in a Georgetown home Monday night turned the focus of persons with addictions from alcohol bottles, pill bottles and needles to the intimate struggles those people’s families face.

The group of a dozen or so sat in a circle in the dining room and took turns sharing about their love and loss as they spoke, sometimes tearfully, about their sons and daughters who struggled and continue to struggle with various addictions.

They are members of PAL, Parents of Addicted Loved ones, an organization that “provides hope and support through addiction education for parents dealing with an addicted loved one,” says its website. The members gathered Monday said that as a result of PAL, their journeys have “totally changed” and helped them feel like they’re not alone.

Karen Butcher, the group’s PAL facilitator, referred to the times parents try to help their children out of addictions: “You think at first you can love them out of it, talk them out of it.” Others around the table chimed in with, “pray them out of it, buy them out of it,” but, Butcher said, “You can’t.”

The group laughed, cried and allowed themselves to be vulnerable by each sharing how alone, ashamed and hurt their children’s addictions has made them feel.

One couple, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy in the situation, shared their story and journey as they’ve poured energy, love and financial resources into fighting their child’s alcoholic addiction. Through taxes, rent and bonds, they lost over $20,000. They also lost two houses because their child was not responsible with bills.

“You cannot change them,” they said. “They have to change themselves. But you change too, in your approach.” They said not answering phone calls from their loved one has been a “major accomplishment,” as they learn they can’t fix everything.

“I thought it was just normal college behavior,” one person said, sharing with the group how he was in the dark for 15 years about his child’s addiction. “It’s amazing how you keep learning more and more.” This meeting, a detour from the group’s normal schedule, was held in the home of Kay Combs, Midway University’s interim director of graduate, evening and online admissions, in honor of Combs’ son, Joshua Todd Hall. He died in 2016 after a relapse following two clean years that Combs described as her “miracle” years.

The group wrote inspirational and meaningful messages on rocks painted blue in honor of Hall’s favorite color, and gave them up to the care of Combs’ backyard memorial garden in honor of her son. They sang, “They will know we are Christians by our love” and prayed together after placing the rocks in the garden.

“I don’t think I could have shared last year,” Combs said, telling the group about her struggle learning of her son’s “two lives,” taking time to heal, and finally, “It feels like a blessing this year” after joining PAL and releasing a lantern for her son in Nashville. She said her healing experience has reflected her desire to know “what it looks like to survive.”

“What I learned about this disease was the evilness behind it,” Combs said, citing ways people can acquire drugs, such as the dark web and illicit sources of prescription drugs.

Many said the hardest thing they’ve faced with their children’s addictions are the lies that the children tell their families. “Every day, it’s a different story,” one person said.

“You know they lie, they cheat, they steal, but Jesus loved them anyway,” Combs said. “All through the Bible, he loved them anyway.” She said this was her motivation for loving her son through all he faced.

Many said their children’s addictions started with what they passed off as “college partying” or marijuana use and spread to methamphetamines, heroin and opioids.

The group noted a book that has helped them all through their journeys, The Four Seasons of Recovery for Parents of Alcoholics and Addicts, by PAL founder Mike Speakman. Many said they related to the content of the book, which made them realize their journey wasn’t unique.

The book outlines stages of grief,  “But it doesn’t always happen like that,” Combs said. “You have to do what you can live with.”

Combs read from her son’s 1996 school journal, in which he wrote that he had three wishes: to stay young forever, have a beautiful wife and have a job “that I love and can make a great living at.”  He was an associate youth pastor at Grace Christian Church with his wife when he died at 34. He will indeed be “young forever,” Combs said.

“I believe all our children are treasures,” she told the group, reading from a speech she gave at her son’s funeral: “’He is a diamond in the rough is a familiar way of saying somebody has potential to become far more than he is right now,” she read as the night came to a close.

“But we are much more like opals than diamonds,” Combs said. Opal comes from “desert dust, sand and silica, and owes its beauty not to its perfection but to a defect.”

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