"For this son of mine was dead
and is alive again;
he was lost and
is found."
Luke 15:24

My Prodigal Son

by Willis Owens
Nashville, Tennessee

(Used by permission, Image Magazine)

My son was home!

Steve had been gone for more than five years, but now he was finally home! It was early June--1980.

Although he had lived in Nashville, where my wife Janie and I live, he had literally been in another world--the world of drug and alcohol addiction. Much of the time, we had not known where he was living or how to contact him. Occasionally he came by for a visit, but he was usually so high on drugs that he scarcely knew where he was. But now he was home, begging for help. The weeks ahead were to be long and difficult, but it was great to have him back home.

It all started back in junior high. While camping out on a friend's farm, Steve and a couple of his buddies decided to try some beer. Sometime later, they tried marijuana. Soon, Janie and I heard rumors that Steve might be experimenting with drugs. When we faced him with this information, he denied it. Since there were no visible changes in his behavior and since he was still doing well in school, we tended to believe him. Eventually, however, we became aware that he did indeed have a drug problem; but we had no idea how to cope with it. Having been reared in families where personal problems were kept within the family, we did not seek help. Since I had never heard of the concept of "Tough love," I was probably too lenient with Steve. Steve periodically used drugs and alcohol throughout his high school years, but he continued to do well in school and graduated third in his class at a large metropolitan high school.

Steve enrolled in the engineering school of Vanderbilt University. Even though his use of drugs had increased, Steve made the honor roll his freshman year. During the summer break, Steve worked and saved some money. Just before he was to begin his second year of college, he decided to move from home into an apartment with one or two friends, provided we would continue to pay his tuition. This proved to be his downfall. No longer having to face Mom and Dad daily, his drug and alcohol use increased significantly. The first semester he made all Cs. The second semester he dropped out altogether.

Steve went to work full time, which gave him more money for drugs. He had now graduated to hard drugs like cocaine and heroin. He was also a heavy consumer of alcohol. Within a few months he began to lose jobs, and over the next few years he was fired from one job after another. He also had numerous accidents with his automobile. Within a space of three or four years, he went through three vehicles fender by fender. Fortunately, he never injured himself or anyone else in these accidents. Eventually, he began dealing in drugs because he could not make enough legitimate money to support his drug habit. More than once he overdosed, and his friends had to rush him to the emergency room to save his life.

Steve chose friends who were also heavily involved in drugs, and his roommate was an exconvict who had already spent time behind bars for a drug-related crime. One Sunday afternoon his roommate suggested that they break into a pharmacy and steal drugs. Being high on drugs at the time, this seemed like an excellent idea to Steve. So he and his friend proceeded to enter the drugstore by cutting a hole in the roof and dropping into the building. They helped themselves to the drugs they wanted, but in the process they tripped a silent alarm. The police were waiting for them outside the building. They were booked and put in jail. Some of Steve's friends helped him make bail, and that is when he decided to go home-where he knew he was loved and where there were people who would help him, if he wasn't beyond help.

All through these years, Janie and I had continually asked the big question--Why? Why was our son a drug addict? Had we failed as parents? Did Steve have some serious flaw in his personality that caused him to turn to drugs? Janie and I had always felt we had the very epitome of what a Christian family ought to be. Steve grew up with two older brothers, and his mother and I have been happily married for nearly forty-five years. We worked together, we played together, we scouted together, we camped out and took vacations together. From all appearances, Steve was a well-adjusted child, he did well in school and never had any behavioral problems, he got along well with other children, he was a very industrious child, and he never had to be prodded to do whatever he needed to do. If Steve had a problem, it might have been that he expected too much of himself.

Looking back, Steve does not blame his drug problem on his family or anyone other than himself. He says he does not know why he started or continued with this lifestyle. How did I handle Steve's addiction? Not very well. At first I was angry with him for bringing such reproach on the family. I wallowed in self-pity, believing I did not deserve to have this happen to me. I also had a strong sense of guilt. I was certain that somewhere along the way I had failed Steve. This led to feelings of inadequacy, and I began to have doubts about my ability to do anything well.

Finally it dawned on me that I was placing the emphasis on myself instead of Steve. Eventually I began to reflect upon the fact that my son was caught in the grasps of one of the worse curses of our age, and he needed my concern. But what could I do? There really wasn't much I could do at this point, because Steve did not yet want my help. About all I could do was wait and pray. I prayed that Steve would return home, and I begged God to protect him until he decided to return home. When I had the opportunity, I reminded Steve that his bedroom was still empty and that he was welcome to come home anytime. Those years before my prayers were finally answered seemed like an eternity.

Now Steve was back home. What next? His words upon returning were, "Just lock me up somewhere and throw away the key." My response was, "Son, I have no earthly idea what we need to do to help you overcome your problem, but with the help of God we will find a way and we will win." At this time I knew nothing of his problems except that he had been heavily involved with drugs and alcohol. Over the next two or three weeks, Steve gradually let me know about the DUIs and the criminal charge. We hired a lawyer and contacted a Christian counselor. We were in court about twice a week and visited the counselor once each week. I tried to be with Steve as much as possible. I went with him to every court session and transported him to every session with the counselor. Between these sessions we stayed at our place on the river, fishing, gardening, and rebuilding a badly bruised relationship. None of this was easy for either Steve or me.

Did everything go smoothly? Hardly. In less than a month from the time Steve returned home, his closest friend during most of his drug days committed suicide. But somehow Steve survived this without any relapse into drug use.

Sometime later, however, Steve got together with old friends one weekend, and there were drugs again. He was scheduled for a very important court session early that Monday morning. If he missed this session he would probably be sent immediately to the state penitentiary. Monday morning came, and Steve was nowhere to be found. Steve's case was the first on the docket. His lawyer asked for a delay, and Steve finally got there--just in time. This was the last time Steve ever did drugs. Sometimes when the night is the darkest, dawn is about to break.

Steve began to make good progress, and my wife and I felt he was well on his way to recovery. But then he got with some of his former friends, and he came home very intoxicated. What a letdown. It was all I could do to keep my cool. I still find it hard to believe that the Lord provided me with the patience to deal with this situation calmly, gently, and lovingly. Janie and I let Steve know how disappointed we were, but told him we still loved him dearly and wanted so much for him to overcome his addictions. He has not had a drop of alcohol since.

After many court sessions, Steve's legal problems were finally resolved. Tennessee had rather lenient laws concerning driving under the influence at the time, and for those offenses we only had to pay fines. Steve pled guilty to the burglary charges under a plea-bargain arrangement. He was sentenced to a three-to-five year term in the state penitentiary. Since he had no prior criminal record and since Tennessee's prisons were already overcrowded, he was permitted to be on probation for five years rather than be incarcerated. What a relief!

Although the legal problems were essentially behind him, Steve's self-esteem was still very low. As his counselor reviewed Steve's record, he noted his good academic performance prior to the final year at Vanderbilt. Consequently, he advised Steve that returning to school would be the best way for him to regain his self-esteem. Steve wanted to go to David Lipscomb, where I taught Biology, but realized that the admissions office would not be anxious to admit a student with a history like his. Hoping that Steve could attend Lipscomb, I went to see Vice President Carl McKelvey. Carl and I had graduated in the same class and had worked together for many years. After much discussion, Carl finally looked at me and said, "I will admit him, but only because he is yours." What a great blessing to have people who will make themselves vulnerable to help you when you need it the most.

Steve really struggled with school at first, but as the weeks went by, he became more relaxed and began to enjoy his school work. When grades came at the end of the semester, he made all As.

To make a long story short, Steve graduated in 1982 with a major in mathematics and a 4.0 average. During his last semester, he applied for admission to the graduate school of Texas A & M and was admitted. My wife and I were a little apprehensive about his leaving home, but felt it was time for him to try it on his own. Within eighteen months, he completed a masters degree in computer science.

Upon graduation, he married Sandra, whom he had met at Lipscomb, and took a position with the TRW company in Huntsville, Alabama. He has been there since, working on space and military projects. He and Sandra now have three sons, and they attend theTwickenham congregation. What a contrast to those days before 1980. God has given our family a great victory. Praise his Holy Name!!

Do you have a son or daughter who has a problem similar to Steve's? I wish I could tell you exactly what to do to assure success, but I can't. There are a few suggestions I might make.

  1. First of all, never, never give up hope-regardless of how bad the situation might be.

  2. Let your child know that you love him and that you will be there when he is ready to make a change.

  3. Realize that you cannot force your child to change; she must have a desire to do so.

  4. Never tell your child that when he straightens himself up, he is welcome back to the family. It most likely will never happen.

  5. When your child returns home, and hopefully she will, don't remind her of all the heartache, the anguish, the disappointments she has caused you; she knows it without your telling her.

  6. Never complain about how much helping your child is costing you. I kept no records and have no idea how much Janie and I spent on Steve. It doesn't matter. We would have gladly used every penny we had to see him like he is today.

  7. Be patient, be kind, be gentle, but at the same time be firm.

  8. Don't lose your cool; it won't help.

Struggling with Steve through these years of addiction and recovery have had a profound influence on my life. It has been very humbling. It has also been very helpful, as I have tried to serve as an elder in the Woodmont Hills Church for the past fourteen years. I am beginning to understand the admonition of James:

Consider it purejoy my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:24).

--Image, September/October, 1995

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