Slow Progression In A Bad Direction
About the Guest
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Katherine JamesKatherine James holds an MFA from Columbia University, where she received the Felipe P. De Alba fellowship. Her novel Can You See Anything Now? was longlisted for the Doris Bakwin prize and won Christianity Today’s award for best fiction of 2018. Her work has been published in various journals and anthologies and one of her short stories was a finalist for a Narrative Spring Prize.
Have you ever wondered how a good kid could get caught up in bad decisions? Dave and Ann Wilson talk with Katherine James, author of “A Prayer for Orion,” about the journey she had with her son.
Slow Progression In A Bad Direction
Bob: When Katherine James and her husband learned that their son had been smoking marijuana, as a high school student, they were concerned for a number of reasons.
Katherine: A lot of kids smoke pot, and it turns out to be something stupid they did when they were younger. But for my son, I really did know/I knew he was susceptible to addiction; it runs in the family. Certain things about him/some of the things he struggled with—I just knew that he was high risk for addiction.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, December 31st. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. The pain that comes with being a parent of a prodigal, especially a prodigal who has become involved with addictive behaviors/with drugs and alcohol, that pain is a pain that leads all of us to prayer. We’ll talk with Katherine James about her journey today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. The word that just keeps coming to mind, as I think about what we’re going to talk about, is “heartache.” Families go through seasons, moments, experiences, episodes of heartache. I always try to remember what Jesus said at the end of the Sermon on the Mount—He said, “Winds and rains and storms are coming your way. The question is, ‘What’s your house anchored on?” and “Are you going to be standing at the end?’”
We’re going to talk about that in a minute; but this is a big day for us here—the last day of 2020. We need to have kind of a heart-to-heart with our listeners here on the last day of the year.
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We hope that today’s conversation is going to be an encouragement to families, who may be in a very difficult situation. In fact, I think there are going to be a lot of listeners, who can resonate with our guest today. Katherine James is joining us on FamilyLife Today; Katherine, welcome to the program.
Bob: Katherine is an author and a fellow staff member with us at Cru®, formerly Campus Crusade for Christ®. She and her husband live in suburban Philadelphia; they have three kids. She’s written—
Dave: Before you get there, Bob, we have to talk about her entrance into the studio today! [Laughter] It was memorable.
Ann: Wait, wait, wait. Are you really going to bring this up?
Dave: I could see me doing that.
Bob: We brought her in, asked her to sit down. The chair we’re sitting in has rollers, and hers just rolled farther than ours did.
Katherine: Someone took it, and swiped it out from under me to intimidate me, and I fell on the floor and broke—
Dave: —and broke a glass; you know?
Bob: And a lawsuit is coming. [Laughter]
Katherine has written a book—it’s really a memoir—it’s the memoir that no mom would ever want to write. It’s called A Prayer for Orion. Take us back to the genesis of this story, when you first recognized that your son was in a bad place.
Katherine: He had anxiety from when he was a little kid. He had some sort of predisposing factors that, a lot of times, kids who end up struggling with drugs have. It had been going on for a long time; but he was, at the same time, a really good kid, just kind and thoughtful.
Probably around middle school, something seemed to change with him. He had some great friends and, then, started hanging out with some iffy friends. However, he probably wasn’t a great influence on them either. I think, a lot of times, kids’ [parents] assume that somebody else is responsible/some other kid is the one who’s—
Bob: “Our kid’s the good kid; it’s the other kids who are the bad kids.”
Katherine: Exactly! Mine’s probably the one that said, “Hey, I want some weed!”—you know, that’s not always the way we picture it.
Dave: When you started to see that/some signs, did you have any idea of drugs?
Katherine: No; I would say no. It wasn’t until one specific thing happened that I realized, “Uh-oh; this is bad. We’re heading in the wrong direction.”
Bob: Where did your son fit in the family birth order?
Katherine: He’s the third—only boy.
Bob: The third of three.
Bob: You guys are involved in ministry—you’re on Cru staff—church is a part of life; Jesus is a part of life—
Katherine: Yes; yes.
Bob: —that’s the background and the foundation he’s growing up in.
Katherine: Yes, very much so.
Bob: But you said there was one thing that was the wake-up call for you guys that: “We’re dealing with something we never imagined we would be dealing with.”
Katherine: Right; it was when my daughter found him smoking weed with some friends. For us, that was a shock; because he just wasn’t the kind of kid we ever thought would do that, which it usually is that situation for parents, who have a good kid.
The other thing is, as Christian parents, we think that it’s a matter of: “Do this and, then, this,” “Do this and, then, this”; right? Did all the right things—read the Bible stories at night, modeled a Christian life, loved each other—all these sorts of things; so then, in my mind, anyway, it was sort of: “Well, that’s not going to happen.”
Bob: It’s not like he saw mom and dad smoking weed.
Katherine: Right, right; yes. “We did the right things; he would turn out to be the right kid”; so that was a shock when he really was doing the wrong things.
Dave: What happened? Your daughter tells you—
Dave: —did you go confront him?—or did he own up to it? What happened?
Katherine: I think my daughter took him to youth group, dropped him off there, and then came and told me what they had been doing. I just went over and basically burst into the church and just like, “Get over here right now!”
I was not the sort of mother that is an angry mother; I’m just always like, “I’m not going to yell; I’m going to be very sweet.” I yelled, and I actually pushed him; I was like, “You stupid idiot! You stupid, stupid idiot!” That was the beginning.
Ann: When your daughter told you, what did you feel?
Dave: Well, she’s feeling angry!
Ann: I know! I know! [Laughter] But anger is a second emotion; so I’m wondering, “What was the first emotion? What was at your gut level?”
Dave: Look at you!—you’re going deep!
Katherine: Oh, get all deep on me! Now I have to—
Dave: This is what happens when we talk at night!—[Laughter]
Ann: This is what happens; that’s true.
Dave: —she’s like, “Honey, what are you really feeling?” “Uh…”
Katherine: Oh, sort of, “What did I do wrong?” That’s where my mind—throughout our whole journey, constantly I struggled with that—“How did we get here?”
Ann: I think a lot of us, as moms, think that.
Dave: How did he respond?
Katherine: He didn’t fight back or say anything; he never said anything mean to me.
Ann: What did he say?
Katherine: I don’t know that he said anything at that point. He got in the car, and I drove him home; he sat down. My husband and I sat down with him, and we talked it through. But that was the general way things went in our home—we would talk with him—I’m sure there was some sort of discipline; I don’t know what it was.
Dave: Let me ask Bob: “If you caught one of your kids in the same situation, what do you think you’d do?”
Bob: I would hope that what I would do, first of all, is to pull back and pray and just say, “Lord, I’m going to need to walk by the Spirit, whatever that’s going to look like; and I need wisdom here to know what my full-of-grace-and-truth encounter with my child needs to look like.”
Katherine: Man, I should have done that! [Laughter]
Bob: I’m not saying that’s what I would have done!
Katherine: No; I’m sure I prayed.
Ann: This is from a dad of grown children now.
Bob: Well, that’s right.
Ann: I’m just thinking—
Dave: Well, I’m just going to say—I’m sitting beside a mom, who did exactly what you did.
Katherine: Oh, okay. [Laughter]
Dave: With one of our sons, after a night of him getting drunk, I remember you going out there; and man, our neighbors heard that one!
Ann: Yes; I will say that I probably reacted instead of responded. I think the base and the root of that was fear: “Is this who you are? Is this who you’re becoming?” It was fear of what it could lead to, maybe.
Katherine: You’re good; thank you! That’s exactly what I felt! [Laughter] No, it is!
Ann: Is it?
Dave: Yes; I’ll tell you what—that same son has said to me now, as an adult, “I wish you would have been harder,”—I mean, sometimes the righteous anger is needed.
Bob: This is where a calculated, Spirit-led approach—
Ann: That’s the key.
Bob: —because you have to have the wisdom of God; you don’t have wisdom on your own in that moment. What you want to avoid is just a response of the flesh; that is, “This what I’m feeling; therefore, I’m justified in whatever I do at this moment.”
Bob: When the neighbors were hearing you, it was more—
Dave: I might be exaggerating a little. [Laughter]
Ann: I wasn’t yelling; I was having him dig out bushes. [Laughter]
Dave: Yes; she put him to work!—like, “You think you’re going to sleep in today?—you’re hungover. Watch this: you’re working.”
Bob: Was that a calculated Spirit-led response from you?
Ann: I didn’t pray; as I said, I reacted.
I think God would probably give us a different response to each child, because He knows who they are. I really do wish I could go back, and talk to me as a younger mom and say, “Sit down; pray; ask God, and get wisdom,”—maybe even call people or whatever—get some godly counsel. But no; I did not do that at the time.
Bob: You hate to want to call anybody; because who wants to say, “Guess what my son did last night?”—right?
Ann: It’s true!
Bob: It’s embarrassing.
Ann: —especially when you’re in ministry.
Katherine: —in ministry, and when it involves drinking.
Dave: How was your husband a part of it? How was the marriage part?—were you in tandem together?
Katherine: Yes, I trusted my husband. I knew that, as I was going, getting him, that he was praying without ceasing. I think we were both clueless enough, where we were kind of like, “I don’t know what we should do.”
Bob: Did you walk away from that confrontation with your son, thinking, “We’re going to keep an eye on him, but I think this is probably a one-time thing,” and “We’ll watch, but I can’t imagine that this is the direction that he’s going to go”?
Katherine: My fear had a lot to do with the fact that I knew he was susceptible to addiction; it runs in the family. Certain things about him/some of the things he struggled with, I just knew that he was high risk for addiction. A lot of kids smoke pot, and it turns out to be something stupid they did when they were younger; but for my son, I really did know.
Dave: Now, was there any sense—I mean, like Bob said, you’re this Christian family/you’re in full-time Christian work—was there any sense of: “We have to hide this, or cover it up, or keep it quiet; we don’t want the church to know”? Or was it sort of out there?
Katherine: It was sort of out there, just because we were sort of set up that way. We’d always had a very open home. Since the kids were young, we had seminary students—and that sort of thing—friends stayed with us, who needed a place to stay. Our kids have brought their friends over; it kind of just became known. We never had that option of: “Are we going to tell people or are we not going to tell people?” Although, I could see—especially, a family in ministry—how that would be really hard to make that decision, if you were ever given that situation, where you had to: “Well, am I going to tell somebody or not tell somebody?”
When things just continued to get worse and worse with our son, I think, in the end, I’m really grateful we had never been secretive with people.
Dave: Yes; you know, so many churches, really—and ministries—they keep things that are darker/that don’t line up with what’s supposed to be—like you said earlier: “A plus B should equal C,”—it’s sad; but the church is often the place you hide the most rather than go, and be real, and find healing with other people going through the same thing.
Katherine: Yes; that’s true.
Bob: This is true for people in the church, not just for people in leadership in a church; there’s a sense: “If people knew, they would judge me.
Dave: Right; sad.
Ann: That’s it.
Bob: “They would conclude things about me,” or “…about our parenting,” or “…about our home.” The reason some people feel that is because there are people who will.
Katherine: I think, too, it’s interesting—I got cancer later on. You know, if you get cancer, you get casseroles. [Laughter]
Katherine: You get a kid doing drugs/hard drugs, you get silence.
Katherine: It’s a unique struggle to go through, having a prodigal.
Bob: How did you handle the next several weeks or months?
Katherine: Yes; we were clueless. It seemed like the more time that went past, we thought it was just a one-time thing. Our son was never a kid, who came through the door stumbling, and also never lost his temper with us; he was always very kind. It wasn’t a clear thing until later.
Ann: It’s interesting—even in your book, you don’t name his name—but you call him “Sweet boy” throughout the entire book, which I thought, “That’s so interesting.” It reveals so much to me about him. Describe him to us—the fact that that’s the name you gave him in the book.
Katherine: Yes; just from a young kid, he was a just a really kind, kind person. I remember one thing he did when he was a kid—he probably would have been four our five, maybe—we used the “Four Spiritual Laws,” which is a Cru thing that kind of shares Christ with people. He’d seen this thing/this little booklet; so he went up to his room, and he spent all this time and stapled together a little booklet, where he wrote his own four spiritual laws.
Katherine: Then he went out to the street, and waited for cars to stop at the stop sign, because he wanted to share Christ with them. I remember standing there, thinking, “This is the most amazing thing; I can’t believe he’s doing this. What an awesome thing.”
At the same time, I’m thinking, “Please don’t do it! [Laughter] What am I going to say?”
Bob: “This is embarrassing the neighbors”; yes.
Katherine: You know, I’m kind of like, “Oh, where’s my heart at?” Anyway, that was one of the things he did as a really young kid.
Bob: In that period of weeks or months—when you thought, “Okay; this was a one-time thing. We’re not seeing anything; things are back to normal,”—was that because he was hiding better than he had before?
Katherine: Probably; there was a time, where things got really unclear what was going on. Another thing that really showed me—and this is a big deal, too—was probably six months or so after that first youth group thing that happened, I did get the sense: “I should, at least, be looking through his room. I need to, at least, be searching for things and make sure that I’m doing what I can to make sure that he’s not doing anything.”
There’s a little crawlspace in his room. I got in there, and then there’s this insulation that’s stuck to the ceiling; and I pulled it down. There was one of these liter plastic Coke® bottles; and it had a hole in one side, and duct tape, and all sorts of strangeness going on with it. I was like, “This is so a drug paraphernalia thing. I have no idea exactly how it works; I guess it’s a bong.” I didn’t know, but I Googled it. Yes, there were tons of them on there, so I knew exactly what it was then.
Another thing—I just don’t remember exactly how we handled it or what we did—but probably sat in the living room, and talked again, and came up with some sort of a plan.
Bob: Discipline; yes. I’m just imagining, as a parent, you don’t want to overreact. But knowing, “What’s the right reaction?”—I don’t think any of us know that in the moment.
Ann: I think, as a mom, I would have been freaking out inside, just kind of panicky.
Bob: Yes! “I found a homemade bong in the insulation,”—yes!
Katherine: Yes; there’s something desperate about that. That was a big wakeup call to me, for sure.
As far as counseling goes, that was another tough thing; because he wasn’t receptive to it at all. Anything that had to do with his own anxiety, really was like, “He’s going to run away from it.” It’s not like, “Oh, I’m going to make you go; so here—go—I’m dropping you off.” It was more of: “He’s going to run.” That really had more to do with the anxiety than anything else.
Ann: If you would say, “What are you afraid of?” he couldn’t come up with answer for you.
Katherine: Oh, no, no, no. I don’t know if he didn’t get it himself or whatever. I think he puzzled himself; I don’t think he knew exactly why.
Dave: There had to be—I’m guessing we all do this as parents—we’re just, “What did I, as a parent/did we, as parents, contribute to make this what’s happening with our son?” Is that where you were living? I can imagine lying in bed every night.
Katherine: Yes; absolutely.
Bob: The answer to that is: “Maybe there are things you could or couldn’t have done; but ultimately, kids make their own decisions. God pours grace on our parenting mistakes; and we have to own what was our contribution, if there is a contribution we made; but we can’t own the choice a child makes and say, ‘We were responsible. If we had done this right or this wrong, we could have spared our son.’ There’s no guarantee on any of that.”
Ann: The hard thing is, too, that we need to remember—is the spiritual battle going on—even for us, as parents, where the accuser is constantly accusing us—
Ann: —and getting us to feel so horrible about maybe what we’ve done as a parent. He loves to put the blame on us.
I’m sure there are things, for every single parent, we have done wrong; but there’s still that point of saying, “God, I need to hear from You; protect my mind and my heart,”—that surrender, continually, of your child and yourself to Him.
Dave: Yes; I told you—you know, I guess I can say this—we’re finishing up this parenting book. I got up at 4:30 this morning and doing edits. I keep, as I’m reading it, trying to say, “Okay, there’s no way we’re saying, ‘If you do this, you’ll get this.’”
You think/you’re writing a parenting—like, “Oh, I want to read this; because they’re going to tell us…” It’s like, “No; we can’t guarantee anything, but I can guarantee one thing,”—and I know you know this—“There is a God; He can be trusted. He’s with you in the cave/in the crawlspace; He’s there in that moment,”—that’s all I can guarantee; I can’t guarantee anything besides that. There are Scriptures/there are principles in His Word; but at the end of the day, your son or daughter is going to make decisions that make no sense sometimes. There’s a God that’s with them and with you, and you can trust Him.
Bob: Lots of prayer/lots of wise counsel to open your story to others, who you can trust, who can pray with you, and give you godly guidance in your journey. Maybe, together with others, read a book like the one Katherine’s written called A Prayer for Orion: A Son’s Addiction and a Mother’s Love. We have copies of the book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can order your copy from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com. Again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com. The book is called A Prayer for Orion by Katherine James. On our website, you’ll find additional resources/help for parents, who have children, who are involved in substance abuse. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com.
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We hope you have a safe New Year’s Eve and a happy new year. Hope you can join us back tomorrow as we’re going to hear from Katherine James about her son’s first overdose and how that landed him in the hospital. We’ll pick up the story 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 hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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