By Meleah Maynard
When Martha Wegner’s 18-year-old son David disappeared into drug addiction and homelessness, she turned to the thing she knew best to help her cope: writing. For 180 days after he walked away from a Twin Cities-area inpatient drug treatment program, Wegner (M.A. ’82) penned letters to David, writing openly and honestly about what she and her husband, John Hay, were going through and posting them on a blog. Writing was healing, not just for her, but, as she discovered later, for David too.
Wegner’s letters were published into a book titled Dear David: Dealing with My Son’s Addiction One Letter at a Time. Wegner, who lives in St. Paul, talked with Minnesota Alumni about how addiction affected her family, how they coped, and how everyone is doing now.
What would you most like parents of addicted children to know?
I would like them to know that they are not alone. So many families are going through the same struggle, but you start to think you’re crazy and that you’re the only one. I also want them to know that there is hope, and by that I mean your child may or may not find recovery, but you can still find recovery on your own. You can still be a whole or somewhat happy person even if your child is still using or missing. When I was forced to live my own life I realized that life didn’t stop because David was out using and missing. It’s something I learned: My happiness doesn’t depend on him being sober.
When did you find out David was an addict and what was he like before that?
He started using in the spring of his junior year of high school. Before that, he’d said he was completely uninterested in drugs. Then he tried marijuana. It was complete downhill slide from there. He said it filled a place in him that felt empty all along.
How did you get David into treatment?
In between David’s junior and senior year we had him assessed and he did outpatient treatment before going to a sober high school. He had a few relapses, but he did graduate. The night of graduation he left and we didn’t know where he was. He didn’t come home for a few days, and then when he did, he would leave again without telling us where he was going or when he would be back. We noticed money was missing, and we could tell he was stealing other things. We told him he needed to get treatment or leave, so he left. A week later he was back and went to outpatient treatment, but in a few days he walked away and was homeless again, that time for three weeks. Finally, he agreed to do inpatient treatment, but after seven weeks he walked away and we didn’t know where he was. Those were the toughest times, when he was missing. That’s when I started writing the blog.
Did you think about how David would feel when you posted these letters?
I can’t say I considered him much. I was in such pain and so disoriented that I just had to write about it. I couldn’t keep it inside. I couldn’t keep it a secret. I felt like my heart was going to explode. I thought the only way I could get my feelings out, and despair heard, was to write letters letting him know that I loved him and missed him and was angry with him, but also tell him what was going on here at home.
He called his dad once and asked him to tell me to stop writing the blog. He was homeless and didn’t have a computer but kids on Facebook would say, “Hey, how are you doing? Where are you?” So then he checked it out. It was my first awareness of “Oh, maybe I should be thinking about him.” And then I thought, I don’t care. This is my pain and my story and my life and this is what I need to do. It wasn’t about punishing him. The letters, and this book, are not about David. They’re about me and how I survived.
Once David was in recovery, I did ask him if it was all right to use his real name in the book. He said it was fine, that this had been his life. He felt bad about the things he did, but he wasn’t ashamed and I wanted him to know that his parents were never ashamed of him. He also okayed putting a photo of him on the cover and a photo of the two of us together, smiling, on the back. That photo lets people know that, at least for today, it was a happy ending.
How did support groups help you and your husband?
I would recommend that all parents of addicted children find a support group. It’s important to understand that you can’t control the situation. Addiction can happen to anyone. You think your kid comes from a good family and is an Eagle Scout and a nice boy with good parents and that that will prevent drug addiction. But it doesn’t. It’s a disease and anybody can have it. I want parents to understand that, because there can be such a level of shame. You feel like you can’t tell anybody and that you must have done something wrong. But you are not defective human beings and neither are they.
What do you think saved David, and is he still sober?
He had run out of couches and options and was sick and tired of being sick and tired. My friend Mike, a recovering addict, suggested he go to the Union Gospel Mission [a Christian ministry dedicated to serving people who are struggling with homelessness, poverty, and addiction], where Mike was a volunteer, to try to get sober. David went there, he told me later, because he was so tired of hurting inside. He didn’t go there to get sober, but he was in such pain, he couldn’t think of anything else to do and being there did help him. David told me later that my letters helped him too, because they made him hit rock bottom faster. He couldn’t hide from the truth. The jig was kind of up because he couldn’t say, “Oh my parents kicked me out.” The possibility for hiding and keeping secrets really dried up.
He’s 20 years old now, and he works in Minnetonka and has an apartment. He’s very happy, and has been sober for over two years. Sometimes he speaks with me when I talk to groups about recovery, but mostly he wants to be done telling his story and just live his life, which includes recovery but isn’t all about recovery.