She Learned to Let Go and Let God Help Her Addicted Grandson

Both her adult son and his son, whom she adopted, struggled with substance abuse. Was her approach to parenting in some way enabling?

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Andrea Freidenthaler with grandson Devon

I walked through the park with a flashlight, searching for my grandson, Devon. I knew where to look because I was tracking his cell phone. Devon often slept under a tree in this park, just a few miles from the house where my husband, Rob, and I had raised him.

Devon was 18. He was a homeless drug addict. Rob and I, realizing we had to stop enabling his addiction, had told him he couldn’t live at our house if he insisted on doing drugs. It was the tough love I should have given Devon’s father—my son, Brandon—decades ago. Rob and I had adopted Devon as a baby when Brandon, addicted to methamphetamines, was unable to care for him.

And now Devon was an addict too. It was our family curse. My first husband was a violent alcoholic whom I’d married at 18. I fled that marriage and raised Brandon as a single mom. Neither Brandon nor Devon could overcome their addictive genes. Neither could understand why their fathers abandoned them. Rob and I, middle-aged by the time we married, loved Devon with everything we had. The drugs won anyway.

Which is why I was in this park in the middle of the night. I knew my Al-Anon group would not approve. But letting Devon go and committing him to God’s care were the hardest things I had ever done. It tortured me not knowing whether Devon was alive or dead. I’d sat by his side so many times while doctors revived him from an overdose. What if tonight was the night he OD’d and no one was there to call 911? I couldn’t stand it. I had to know.

I pointed the flashlight at one tree, then another. A shape appeared in the beam. A skinny body curled on the grass. I flicked off the light. I walked forward quietly.

Please let him be breathing. What would I do if I found him dead? Or alive? I didn’t know.

When Devon was a child, Rob and I swore to each other we wouldn’t make the same mistakes I’d made with Brandon. I’d enabled Brandon’s addiction—not on purpose. When you love someone and know nothing about addiction, all you think about is helping. Throughout his adolescence, I enrolled Brandon in special schools and programs, took him to counselors, paid for rehabs. When he turned 18, he disappeared and barely spoke to me. I sent him rent money and continued to push for rehab.

It was only after he called to ask for help with Devon that I knew my efforts had failed. I’d met Rob by that point, and we’d just settled into what I hoped would be the first truly happy and stable chapter in my life. We lived in Santa Monica, close to the beach, working long hours at absorbing jobs. We agreed we didn’t want kids.

Brandon called out of the blue. “Devon’s sick,” he said. “He’s with his mom at a bar. I don’t know what to do.”

Rob and I didn’t know what to do, either. All we knew was we couldn’t turn our back on my 15-month-old grandson. We drove to San Bernardino, where we found Devon’s mother standing outside a bar in the pouring rain, holding Devon and a dirty diaper bag. She handed Devon to us and disappeared back inside the bar.

We bought fresh diapers and discovered Devon had a huge rash all around his pelvic area. He felt hot. We took him to a hospital, and the doctor diagnosed two ear infections. Devon’s temperature was 103 degrees.

Fearfully, we drove to where Brandon and his girlfriend were staying—a filthy garage, piled with drug paraphernalia and empty beer cans. A broken crib with no sheets stood in one corner. Everything smelled of urine. Brandon went to the grocery store to buy food for Devon and returned with only beer and cigarettes. Brandon had been incommunicado for months. I had no idea things were this bad. Rob and I looked at each other.

“How about we take Devon for a few days until he’s over his infection?” I said to Brandon. He just nodded. We bundled Devon into the car and sped away before Brandon could change his mind.

Rob and I are Jewish, but we weren’t observant back then. Still, we prayed all the way home. We created a makeshift bed, gave Devon his medicine, fed him and held him, then put him down to sleep. At last his crying ceased.

Watching my grandson’s tiny chest rise and fall, I knew we couldn’t take him back to that garage of horrors. But who would raise him?

We looked into adoption. A foster family. I called an organization called Grandparents as Parents. We bought bottles and more diapers and blankets and tried to find a used crib and stroller.

Days and then weeks went by. The longer we cared for Devon, the clearer it became we couldn’t give him up. Brandon showed no sign of changing. Giving Devon back would be a death sentence for my grandson.

We adopted Devon, and gradually Rob and I settled into our role as parenting grandparents. We downsized our jobs, figured out child care and moved from Santa Monica to suburban Lakewood, where the cost of living was lower and there were lots of other families. Right away Devon started calling us Mom and Dad.

We knew we couldn’t do this alone, so we joined a synagogue. We signed Devon up for Cub Scouts and hosted sleepovers. Devon turned out to be a loving, adventuresome boy, ready to go camping at a moment’s notice. True, he could be a handful. Yet he would help other kids at school calm down. When the principal gave him a humanitarian award, he said, “This should really be for my mom. She taught me who to be in the world.”

He loved to snuggle up with Rob and me, and he always seemed to know what we were feeling. Once, he saw me throw up my hands at our backyard bird feeder—raccoons had emptied it out yet again.

“I got this, Mom,” he said. He disappeared into the garage, and the next day he gave me a beautiful tri-level bird feeder cleverly designed so only birds could reach the seeds. “Now you don’t have to worry,” he said, giving me a big hug. He’d made the feeder by hand.

Yet he struggled—just like his father. Both Brandon and Devon were hyperactive and had trouble sitting still in school and paying attention. Devon fell behind academically.

And he never stopped wondering why his birth parents didn’t want him. He knew Rob and I loved him. He had a nurturing and activity-filled life. Still he couldn’t overcome a deep sense of abandonment and shame.

The first inkling of trouble came in junior high school, when we got a call saying Devon had been caught smoking marijuana. We tried not to overreact. We talked to him, found him a counselor and made sure he stayed involved in the synagogue youth group.

But the drugs grabbed hold. And despite everything I’d learned with Brandon, I made all the old mistakes. Rob and I cajoled. We threatened. We bargained. What we never did was stick to our ultimatums or stop picking up the pieces for Devon.

At last a counselor at a treatment program told me I could either attend three Al-Anon meetings per week or Devon would be kicked out of the program. “You are enabling his drug habit,” the counselor said.

I didn’t even know what that meant. But Rob and I went to Al-Anon. And there we heard the words “bottoming out.” As in, Devon had to bottom out—come to the utter end of his tether—before he would decide to do something about his addiction. Our job was to commit him to his higher power and stay focused on our own relationship with God.

“He’s just a child!” I protested to Rob. Then Devon turned 18. He’d been to eight rehab programs. Overdosed multiple times. Lied to us. Stolen.

The tipping point came when he emerged from yet another treatment program, saying he wanted to enroll in culinary classes to become a chef. Soon we discovered he was using the tuition money for drugs.

Rob and I steeled ourselves and confronted Devon after he came home high late one night. “You either quit or move out,” we said.

“Well, I’m not quitting,” he said after realizing we weren’t backing down this time. He went to his room, threw a few things into an old duffle bag and walked out the door.

And now here I was in this park, a few weeks later. I bent down and peered at Devon. I could see his chest gently rising and falling. He was alive! I reached out a hand to shake him awake, then drew it back.

For a long time I simply crouched there, trying to make up my mind. Every instinct in my body—the same instincts that had taken over when I watched tiny Devon sleeping in his makeshift crib all those years ago—shouted at me to wake him and drive him to a treatment program.

That’s what I wanted to do. Was it what God wanted me to do?

I thought about all the times I’d tried to rescue Devon. And suddenly I realized I’d failed not because I hadn’t loved Devon enough or been a good enough parent. I’d failed because I was trying to be something I wasn’t. I was Devon’s grandmother. Not his higher power. God was Devon’s higher power—and mine too.

Yes, Devon might overdose if I let him go. But I had to trust God. Just as Devon would have to trust God if he ever wanted to get clean. Both of us had to trust. I couldn’t make that decision for Devon. Only for myself.

I whispered to Devon that I loved him—knowing that despite everything he was still the sweet boy who’d made me that beautiful raccoon-proof bird feeder. Then I stood up and walked back to my car.

I lost track of Devon for a while. At last, after one more overdose, he told me he couldn’t go on. I found a long-term Jewish rehab program—a time commitment Devon had always resisted in the past. A few weeks in, Devon called and said, “Mom, I’m here because I want to be. Not because I have to. I’ve never felt like this before.”

He graduated from the program and, except for one relapse, has been sober ever since. He’s rekindled his dreams of becoming a chef.

I can’t predict whether Devon will remain sober. His dad finally got sober several years ago and now works at a drug treatment program. He and Devon haven’t reconciled. They’d both be the first to say they’re living, and recovering, one day at a time.

Rob and I are, too. We no longer orient every day around Devon’s care. We pray together, go out to eat, see movies. We live. Above all, we’ve learned to trust God. It’s so hard to let go of the ones we love. But God never lets go of us. And that’s enough.

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