My Son Smoked His First Marijuana Cigarette in Sixth Grade

On an October Saturday morning in 2008, my husband, Bush, and I drove 45 minutes to a substance abuse treatment facility at which our just-turned-21-year-old son, Ted, had been a patient for several weeks. We were joining Ted at a Friends and Family Program where we were to spend the day learning some of the things he was learning. We sat a third of the way back in the classroom-like setting where I was on one side of Ted, Bush on the other.

The counselor asked us to go around the room to introduce ourselves and tell why we were there. When it was my turn I said, “My name is Sarah and I’m here to support our son, Ted.” After a brief pause I heard my son next to me say, “My name is Ted, and I’m a drug addict and an alcoholic.”

I began what seemed an out-of-body experience. “Wait a minute,” my thoughts shouted. “What just happened here? How can you say that? We are a family of faith. Your dad and I have been happily married over 30 years. You have two brothers who adore you and an extended family who loves you. We live in Brookfield. How is this possible?” I lowered my head to abort the rush of tears and look of shock.

Obviously I knew why Ted was in a substance abuse treatment facility. In the last month a friend of his had told me that Ted’s drug problem was much worse than we knew. She confronted him about treatment and he agreed to go. But that revelation was only a small tip of the huge iceberg of Ted’s addiction we did not know.

For the ten years before, Ted had been pulling away from our family physically, spiritually, relationally and emotionally. He tells us now that he smoked his first marijuana cigarette when he was in sixth grade. By the end of seventh grade we were concerned about his friend group. From early on we noticed Ted’s need for instant gratification and avoidance of pain at any cost. He increasingly withdrew from us and his brothers.

We took him to counselors. We disciplined, lectured, rewarded, talked, punished, encouraged, and discussed changing schools. Through it all we prayed fervently for wisdom, help and for God to change the direction of Ted’s heart. Still, with all that was wrong, we did not realize Ted had a drug problem. We are not sure we would have known what to do if we did know. We thought if we drug tested and the result was positive, calling the police was our only option. He barely graduated high school.

Drugs appeared to be a peripheral part of our problems with Ted. Only several times in that decade did we see evidence of drug use and never was he in trouble with the law. He made sure to use under the radar of our curfews and house rules and we ignored bright red flags. Still, we knew something was very, very wrong and that the cloud was not moving. By the time his friend confronted him with treatment, Ted was living in room off campus, having flunked out of college for the second time. He had no job, no money, no real friends and as he tells us now, using hard drugs and alcohol 22 hours a day.

Meanwhile, Bush and I read a book on setting boundaries with adult children and we had made the difficult but necessary decision to cut Ted off from money and all we were doing to keep him afloat. We knew Ted might end up in jail, on the streets or even dead but we also knew that this might be the only way he would take responsibility for himself and get help. He had to find his own way. We were out of ideas to help him and what we were doing was not working.

When Ted entered treatment his counselor suggested I attend Al Anon. I did. Working my own 12-step program has helped me regain much of what I lost of myself in Ted’s addiction. When a child is in crisis, the whole family is in crisis. When a loved one finds recovery, the family needs to recover too. For these last three years I have studied addiction and although I find myself in a field I never aspired to, I am incredibly grateful that God has used our heartache for good. I tell my story with the prayer that it might help someone else. Recently I published a book chronicling how God accompanied me through those dark years.

Ted left six months of inpatient treatment eager to return to college. We heard about the StepUP program at Augsburg College for students in recovery. While Ted was still in treatment Bush and I drove to Minneapolis to explore the program. We were overwhelmingly impressed. I got in the car and sat staring out the window at the campus. “He might actually have the college experience I dreamed for him,” I said in tears to Bush. Prayers were being answered faster than I could thank God.

Ted was accepted into the StepUP program. In a year he was a resident assistant, employed by Augsburg Residence Life, on the StepUP leadership board and earning a 4.0 GPA every semester. He had fun with friends who shared his sobriety. In May Ted graduated magna cum laude with a degree in English Literature and Theory and a Religious Studies Augsburg scholarship for leadership, academics and character. He walks with God through his personal program of recovery.

Today Ted is over three years sober and employed as a Recovery Coach and Community Involvement Coordinator by the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, MN in their student recovery program called “Clean.” I’ll let him tell you about that.

I am grateful for Educating Voices, and the helpful resources I wish I had known and used. It is my goal and privilege to tell parents where to ask questions and get help. It is my prayer that they do.

Sarah Nielsen is a wife, mother of three and a Parent Speaker with Your Choice organization ( Her book Just Keep Going; Spiritual Encouragement from the Mom of a Troubled Teen is published by Xulon Press and available on their site, and She also runs a publishing company in Brookfield, Wisconsin.

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