I believed him, and even as his behavior changed to that of aggression and hostility, I found excuses. Picture: Flickr.com

Washington - Something has happened to Ben. His beautiful red hair, the color of brick dust, is cut short - so short that the overhead fluorescent lights seem to shine off his scalp.

I look in his eyes, and I see distance. I want a hug, his big arms wrapped around me, my head turned to the side, buried in his chest. He's nearly a foot taller than me. I would hold on tight, repeating the words I always say after a big hug when he starts to pull away, and I hold on: Sometimes, I don't want to let go. Maybe he will say what he used to say, "I love you, Ma."

It's January 2006, and our family is participating in the Family Week at an inpatient treatment program in Montana. We don't know these parents and their children, and yet we're all too aware that within minutes, we'll be asked to speak openly about the most emotionally devastating periods of our lives.

The counselor asks us to introduce ourselves. Tim, white-haired and blue-eyed, is the first to speak. "My son, Bryan," he begins, his chin dropping to his chest. He tries to speak, but no words come, and the tears flow down his cheeks.

"My son, Bryan," he begins again, "is a heroin addict." He starts sobbing. "I'm sorry," he manages to say, wiping at his tears with the back of his hand. "I'm so sorry." His wife, Susan, takes his hand and continues. Steve's next. He's stoic, but that changes as the days go on. My husband, Pat, and Ben's two older sisters, and I struggle through our tears as we remember the way Ben used to be before drugs, and how he's become a person we barely know.

While the questions family members of addicts ask may differ, the feelings of guilt and shame are universal. Guilt for what we did or didn't do, said or didn't say. Shame for our imperfections and limitations, because even with all our endless expressions of love and concern, we couldn't wrestle our children free of this demon of addiction. 

I look at Ben, but he's staring at the floor, his feet jumping, hands clenching and unclenching. I remember five years ago in the spring of 2001 when I picked up the phone - so sure of myself, so confident in my skills as a loving, compassionate parent - to hear the school principal tell me that Ben had been found with drugs.

No. Not possible. Not my Benny. My hand shook as I held the phone. I couldn't speak, couldn't think. I realised I was holding my breath, but I couldn't breathe. 

READ: Family key against drug abuse

That night, when we talked, his face was red with shame. "I'll never use drugs again," he said, his voice shaking, tears streaming down his face.

I believed him, and even as his behavior changed to that of aggression and hostility, I found excuses. He's an adolescent. Of course he has mood swings. 

I should've seen the signs. I should've known how to handle a drug problem in my own home; after all, I was the expert, writing multiple books on the subject of addiction.

And, finally, the phone call from college. "I'm lost. I can't remember anything. Someone stole my backpack. I'm flunking all my courses."

Treatment for six months. Relapse. Sober. Relapse. Sober.

It's been a long, harrowing journey, but Ben is now 31 years old and recently celebrated his 10th year in recovery. He's a writer, happily married, living in a home just a few miles from where he grew up, and thinking about starting his own family.

The Washington Post