Continuing to Hope
About the Guest
When a family member is an addict, the entire family suffers. Rick Van Warner talks honestly about his son Tommy's drug addiction, and he and his wife's continued efforts to love and believe in him. Van Warner shares how they questioned why God was allowing this to happen to their family, but they never stopped praying for Tommy, even when their faith wavered. Others have rallied around their family with prayer and encouragement, and Van Warner continues to walk this day-by-day battle with his son.
When a family member is an addict, the entire family suffers. Rick Van Warner talks honestly about his son Tommy’s drug addiction, and the continued efforts he and his wife have made to love and believe in him.
Continuing to Hope
Bob: After ten years of battling opioid addiction, Rick Van Warner's son recognizes what he has put his whole family through; and he recognizes how much his family has loved him—and stood by him—during this process. Here is Rick.
Rick: He understands that. He expresses a lot of gratitude towards his entire family and how much we have never given up on him and how much we love him. Yet, somewhere, down deep in his brain chemistry, he still has that yearning for the drug. The drug is more powerful than almost anything else. Once it has gotten hold of a person’s brain, it is very, very tough to overcome. If we could get them a full-year sober or more, then, I think, there is a better chance.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, October 3rd. Our host is Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. When someone in a family is an addict, it takes a toll on everyone who is a part of that family. We will hear more about that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us.
Bob: I do not know what would be more disruptive to a family than when a family member is sucked into addiction and where that begins to dominate, not just their life, but also everything about how that family functions.
Dennis: Let us ask our guest, who is also the author of On Pills and Needles: The Relentless Fight to Save My Son from Opioid Addiction. Rick Van Warner joins us again on FamilyLife Today. Welcome back, Rick.
Dennis: What do you think about what Bob just said?
Rick: I think that it was probably understated—that it is just total chaos / total dysfunction—very difficult to carry on a normal life when you are in the midst of that.
Dennis: You are a former journalist; although, I guess your journalism came back in your writing of this book.
Rick: Yes; it did.
Dennis: He has been married to Maria since 1985. They have four children.
We have been talking about a battle his son, Tommy, had with an opioid addiction. I just have to ask you—in writing a book like this, you are taking on a stronghold in our nation. How many people have lost their lives in this crisis?
Rick: Well, I do not know what the grand total is; but it is roughly—you know,
60 thousand a year are dying right now from opioid overdose. It is over a hundred a day. If you go back a number of years, I mean, we are talking—hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives due to opioid addiction, which includes the pain pills, as well, as heroin.
Bob: The cost, as you were saying, is not just on the lives that are affected, but it is on the families that are affected.
Bob: Your family—as you went through this ten-year period—your son, Tommy, who was addicted, had two brothers and a sister.
This dominated their teen years and beyond with their brother.
Bob: You and your wife had to try to figure out how to maintain a thriving marriage, while you are looking at your son, and never knowing when you are going to get a phone call with some new news about Tommy. How did you survive that ordeal?
Rick: Well, I think that through determination and perseverance we just could not give up hope on him. I mean, we just are people that—you know, we love our children; and you know, you are never going to give up on your child. I mean, shame on you if you do. They certainly test you and put you in the position where it’d be very easy to just shut the door—and certainly life would be easier in some ways—but we weren’t wired to do that.
I am going to just hit you with a Scripture here—James 1:12 is one of the passages that I have turned to a few times, which is:
“Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial; because having stood that test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love Him.”
We never stopped praying, even when our faith wavered. You know, we knew that we were not alone and we were not going to walk alone in this. Somehow, there had to be a way out of this if we fought hard enough. We just prayed that he would survive, honestly. Just for him to survive, and be alive, and healthy today is a miracle.
Dennis: Talk about your wavering faith.
Dennis: Did you ever have a time when you said, “I’ve really lost my faith”?
Rick: We both went through periods like that, where—I mean, we never did stop praying every day for our son to recover, to find peace in his life, to survive; but there were times that we questioned: “Why is God doing this to our family?”—you know—“We have been good people. We have always been generous, and tried to live the right way, and walk as Jesus would walk by the way that we lived our lives, every day, in that image.”
To then feel that God, somehow, had abandoned us or punished us with this situation was confusing, at times; but we did not lose faith. We just—you know, there were times when one or the other of us would waver a little bit and start to question: “Why is this happening to us?”
For me, personally, along the way, I realized that there was a purpose for all of this—and that was the book—because, if we could help one other family or give hope to one other—you know, it is possible, if you are going through this—it is possible your child/your loved one can survive. It is possible that there is a path forward out of this, but they cannot do it alone. It has to be your love and unconditional acceptance that is going to help them along the way.
Bob: I am guessing that for both you and Maria—just knowing where you are and what we are talking about, here, today—I am guessing that your relationship with Jesus today is stronger than it was a decade ago.
Bob: Some people—at the end of ten years like this— their relationship with Jesus is over—they do not want anything to do / they’ve lost it completely. You wind up in the middle of these trials, either getting pressed into Him or running from Him. With you guys, trials brought you closer to Him.
Dennis: With Rick—he had another friend in a Bible study, who kind of put his arm around you, in the midst of his own crisis,—
Dennis: —to cheer you on and to encourage you to believe.
Rick: Absolutely. We would have breakfast every Saturday morning—he was another business guy. Spending that time with him was such a relief for me every week. You know, I got more from [that] hour or two we spent together every Saturday morning than I did from anything else.
Bob: You walk away from moments like that, going: “Okay; I’m not crazy. I am not the only one going through this. This is not so unique that there is something flawed and desperately wrong with me.
“I may have issues I can address”; but there is hope that you come away with after times like that.
Rick: Absolutely. I think the stigma around this problem—addiction is not a character flaw / it is not a shortcoming of moral values. Ultimately, opioid addiction is a chronic disease of the brain. It is something that is very physiological—rewires the brain after a short period of use; it can literally hijack a person’s brain.
I think—to never give up on that person / to embrace those around you. When I started talking openly about this—before the book came out—I was talking openly about it for a couple of years prior to that. Everybody I talked to had someone—whether it was a niece, a nephew, a child, a friend—that had been struggling with this problem.
I think that the worst thing you can do is to try to go it alone and not reach out to your church, or your groups, and your friends; because there is power in sharing, and taking and receiving the support and the love of others in crisis.
Bob: You and Maria undoubtedly looked at each other, throughout this situation, and said: “What could we have done? What did we miss?” or “What did we do,” or “What didn’t we do when we were raising Tommy?” Because every parent feels this—we feel like, “If we steer our kids right, we can protect them from all of this.” Was there anything you could have done?
Rick: You are absolutely right. You first—you look inward and say: “What could we have done differently?” / “How could I have been better?” Ultimately, you realize that there is not much you can do. You have to recognize that, in a case like ours—we have four children; they are all extraordinarily different from each other—one of them happens to have this major issue.
I think that, in the end, we all do the best we can, as parents. The most we can do for them is to know that they are loved and accepted above all else. Giving them that acceptance—and most of all, your presence and your love—that they know that you are there for them, no matter what.
Then, you stop worrying about things—like that they might wear a provocative t-shirt, or they will go through a phase where they might want to put a purple streak in their hair—I don’t know what it is. [Laughter] You know, the little stuff like that, honestly, is not important in the scheme of life, especially when you are dealing with the life and death of something like opioid addiction.
Dennis: I have to ask you my favorite question—I usually do it at the beginning of the broadcast or the end; but today, I just want to ask it right now: “What is the most courageous thing you’ve ever done, as a man?”—and courage is doing your duty in the face of fear.
Rick: I think writing this book—
Dennis: And the reason—
Rick: —I didn’t really want to. [Laughter]
Rick: It is tough to put yourself on out there; right?—to that level of—and to do it in a completely open and honest way, which I know that I did. You know, I was worried about what that impact might have on my children, especially on Tommy.
Dennis: What does he think about it?
Rick: Well, interestingly enough—and it just goes back to this—they don’t understand what they are doing when they are—again, once / when an addiction highjacks the brain to this level, they only think about one thing—and that’s getting high the next time and how much they need to score to get that. All other sensibilities are out the window.
When he read the book—and he did not get around to reading it until after it was published the first couple of times—he said: “No; I lived it out. I don’t want to read it. I don’t think I want to go back there.” When he finally got around to reading it, a couple months ago, it was very painful for him; because he had no idea the level of chaos and agony he put his family through. It was very devastating to him at first, because he just didn’t even recognize it.
It goes to prove—a person in the throes of addiction—that is not the person—that is someone, who has been hijacked. It is like an out-of-body experience; it is like a different person all together.
Bob: Rick, Tommy knows that there were two times in his life when his heart stopped; right?
Rick: Yes; he does.
Bob: He knows that if—in one case, it was his dealer, who gave him CPR and brought him back to life.
Bob: Is he sobered by the fact that he should be dead now if it weren’t for the intervention of others?
Rick: He understands that. He expresses a lot of gratitude towards his mother and me in particular, but his entire family—and how much we have never given up on him and how much we love him. Yet, somewhere, down deep in his brain chemistry, he still has that yearning for the drug. The drug is more powerful than almost anything else. Once it has hold of a person’s brain, it is very, very tough to overcome. If we could get them a full-year sober or more, then, I think, there is a better chance.
You know, he is doing well right now; but I could have never guessed that he would have relapsed again a year ago.
Bob: That is why, as we sit here and we say, “How’s Tommy doing?” the answer is, “At the moment, he’s doing great.”
Rick: It is a day-by-day thing.
Bob: Do you and Maria talk about, “What do we do if it happens again?”
Rick: Well, I think that we are at a place, where we are so battle-hardened by it, at this point. Our hearts are strong and, then, our faith is strong. We are completely comfortable that we have done absolutely everything possible to help him, and it is really only up to him.
We are in a place of peace. Of course, we want him to live, and thrive, and have a great life—he’s got so much to offer—he’s so smart, so nice, so sensitive—a gentle soul. At the same time, we are at peace that we have done everything within our possible control to help him. Ultimately, only the person in that situation can control himself; and that is the hard part.
You mentioned, as a parent, you raise children—
—you try to protect them from the world; but ultimately, you are not in control—especially, once they get into their teen years and so forth. The best you can do is guide, coach, love them, and accept them.
Bob: You talked about the fact that there is an emotional need in the life of somebody who is an addict—that they are taking a pill to try to deal with a wound or a hurt that is inside of them. Have you talked with Tommy about the first time that he tried Oxy? Was it curiosity; or was he just wanting the effect, even then?
Rick: He was playing around with escape. I think he had emotional baggage even then. I don’t think that we understood—and this is a very difficult problem—is most people that have an opioid addiction also suffer from some other type of mental illness or mental condition. In our son’s case, it is depression and social anxiety.
Dennis: This crisis with your son occurred on such a regular and intense basis that you actually planned his funeral.
Rick: Yes; my wife did. I never let myself go there, but she did. She told me—she confessed to me, along the way, that she used to lay in bed at night and not be able to sleep—she’s thinking through how she would handle his death and how she would handle his funeral—which is terrible—it just is heartbreaking.
Dennis: Talk about the impact on you marriage. This is one of the real casualties of this crisis—a lot of marriages go under because of the life that gets sucked from a couple, who are committed to each other, but there’s just no room for life, for romance, for enjoyment of each other.
Rick: Right; you know, there were times when I would want to just turn it off and not even think about it or talk about it and vice versa. You know, I think the hardest thing is just—very difficult to be on the same page; because there is no clear cut “What to do?”
It is a dilemma—
—people process differently. Sadly, I have a couple of very close friends who have lost young children along the way. In one case, the marriage didn’t survive; and I think this is similar—that people process differently / people grieve differently. What she was going through—in planning his funeral and thinking about the potential inevitable—I would not really go there the same way. I just have a different way of processing it.
It is just hard to be on the same page at the same time; it is hard not to fight. Our kids did point out to us, along the way—our other children—that, “Don’t you see that you are only fighting when it’s about him—that he’s the cause of your stress and any angst in the marriage?”
Dennis: I am listening to you talk about this. Did you ever just have a complete despair, soul-wrenching point of just weeping?
Rick: Absolutely; absolutely, especially when I wrote the book. I went off to North Carolina—to this mountain, where a friend of mine has a place. There were times when I think I was supposed to write the book to help others, and it came pouring out very quickly when I was writing it. There were periods where I’m reliving it—and putting it out there, honestly, and in detail—that I would just stop and be sobbing—I would just have to take a break. It was so therapeutic, in one way; because I was getting all that pain out of me. I found that—you know, on the outside, I kept it together pretty well; but I did self-medicate with food, which is why I ended up so large. That was my side effect, and it is something I continue to work with.
It was very difficult to sleep; it was very difficult to get along; it was difficult to be a good father to my other children, at times; because it’s always weighing—it’s always there—it’s the elephant in the room, no matter what we were doing.
Bob: If you had, two minutes, and you were sitting down with somebody who said, “Our daughter’s in rehab for the third time,” or “We just checked our son in this past weekend, and we’re praying that this will be the turnaround,” or “We just learned that our son’s been taking these pills. He and his friends have been using Oxy,”—and you have two minutes to give them your best shot at the counsel, what would you say?
Rick: “Never give up on them. Don’t get too high or too low. We tend to live in hope-neutral. If you get too unrealistic in your hope, one way or another, then that is not healthy to the person or yourself,” and “Don’t sweat the small stuff. Just do whatever you can to let them know that you are there for them, and that you love them and that you accept them,”—that is the key.
Bob: You have talked two or three times about the power of unconditional love. That was key for you in your relationship with Tommy and key for him in helping him battle this; right?
Rick: Yes, I did not understand the power of acceptance. I certainly understood the power of forgiveness—which, of course, our faith is based on. The power of acceptance for a kid is incredible. His response—when I really just fully accepted him, and the communication channels opened up, and I let him know that I forgave him for all his issues and what he’d brought on the family, and that I just accepted him for who he was today—that made a huge difference. There was major power in that family love rather than putting him in another isolated facility.
Bob: There is a verse of Scripture that you have written down there—Romans 12:12.
Bob: I think its good advice for families, who are in the midst of this. Read that verse.
Rick: “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction and faithful in prayer.”
That really kind of summarizes a lot of what we have been through.
Dennis: As you were talking, Rick, I couldn’t help but think of a phrase in
1 Corinthians 13: “Love bears all things,”—it is like a bridge—it is a load-bearing act of God in our souls to give us the ability to be a burden-bearer for somebody we care about.
I want to thank you for not quitting.
Rick: Well, thank you.
Dennis: And I want to thank you for being courageous and writing the book, On Pills and Needles. You will have to wait to heaven to hear all the stories, I am sure, of how God uses this to touch lives—families/loved ones—who are off in an addiction. Thanks for saying, “Yes,” to God and for doing the courageous thing.
Rick: Well, thanks for having me; and thank you so much.
Dennis: I just encourage our listeners—pray for Tommy.
Rick: Thank you.
Dennis: Yes, pray for Tommy.
Rick: I will give you one more story of courage—not so much what I did—but my wife pulled one off. She is only about five-foot tall and, you know, a hundred ten pounds, soaking wet; [Laughter] but she is the toughest gal that you would ever want to come across.
I was out of town on a business a trip. One of Tommy’s drug dealers had appropriated his car. She managed to get hold of his phone number from Tommy’s phone, and called him, and said, “You better get that car back or I’m going to be down there and…”—to which, he said, “Lady, that car’s going to be in the chop shop before you get anywhere near here…” and this and that.
Well, she got a friend of hers—I would not have been happy with this—but she got a friend of hers to put her in the car and drive her down to one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Orlando. With a spare key, go right in his—with a barking dog there and him screaming at her from the door, probably armed—and she got in that car and took the car home. [Laughter] Anyway—
Bob: Given all that you guys have been through with Tommy over the last decade, that’ll build some toughness into you; and it comes through, by the way, in your book, On Pills and Needles—which, of course, we’ve got in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center—The Relentless Fight to Save My Son form Opioid Addiction by Rick Van Warner. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information on how to get a copy of the book, or call 1-800-FL-TODAY if you would like to order by phone. Again, the book is called On Pills and Needles; and you can order, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com, or call 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
You know, these kinds of challenging issues that we’ve talked about today—these are issues that families often face, isolated from other families. This is not something that you want to share with a lot of people.
People feel embarrassed or ashamed when opioid addiction becomes a part of their family’s story. Yet, here, at FamilyLife Today, our goal is to provide real, practical biblical help and hope for families, whatever you are facing. I know this is an issue for a lot of listeners; or you may know somebody in your church / in your workplace—somebody, who is experiencing opioid addiction, or other issues that face families. Our goal, here, at FamilyLife® is to be an ally in your journey.
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And we hope you can join us back tomorrow. We are going to talk about a very different circumstance that can rock a family. We are going to talk about what happens when someone in the family makes a decision to take his or her own life. Albert Hsu had that happen in his family, and he joins us to talk about grieving a suicide tomorrow. I hope you can be with us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I am Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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