When her son Jacob was a high school senior more than a decade ago, Lisa Hillman received a disturbing phone call. “It was from a beloved teacher calling to tell me that Jacob’s friends were worried about him,” recalls Hillman, a fundraising executive and former broadcast journalist who lives in Annapolis. “He was drinking and smoking [marijuana].
“From that moment on, my life — our family’s life — changed.”
On Feb. 17, Hillman, a Baltimore native and mother of two, will speak about her 2017 book, “Secret No More: A True Story of Hope for Parents of an Addicted Child” (Apprentice House). She will serve as the keynote speaker at “Families and Addiction,” a program presented by Jewish Community Services, the Maryland Faith Health Network, Sol Levinson & Bros. and Pikesville’s Beth El Congregation. The free public forum and panel discussion will take place from 10 a.m. to noon at Beth El, 8101 Park Heights Ave.
Jmore: How did you initially deal with your son’s substance abuse problems?
Hillman: I tried to ignore it. I said, “Not my child.” I told myself all high school kids try drugs and alcohol. It was just a phase.
There was no reason Jacob wouldn’t grow up to be the brilliant, handsome, accomplished person he was meant to be. I went quickly into denial and told no one but my husband. But Jacob kept using. It started with alcohol and weed, and then OxyContin and heroin.
Why was the denial so strong?
Part of the denial was that we had a prominent position in town [Hillman’s husband, Richard, served as mayor of Annapolis from 1981-1985]. I worried, “What will people think?” I was consumed by shame. Maybe part of my shame was about being a Jewish mother. As Jews, we focus on achievement and family. We put a lot of expectations on our kids, and that can be harmful.
You finally realized he needed help?
I tried to get help [for him] from a psychologist and an outpatient treatment program at the health system where I worked. That didn’t help. Finally, in-patient treatment was recommended. But how do you get them to go when they don’t want it?
We gave him an ultimatum. We said, “Jacob, we love you, but you can’t continue to live in our home if you don’t go into treatment.” I don’t know how I said it. Afterward, I held my breath. I thought, “Oh, my God — my son’s going to be homeless on the streets of Annapolis!”
But quickly, he said he would go. He went to Ashley Treatment Center here in Maryland. But he wasn’t ready. We visited about 12 days later and I could tell immediately that something was wrong. They checked and found out he was using. He had to leave the program.
How did you come to grips with his addiction?
The day Jacob left for [an outpatient treatment program in Florida], we met with a counselor who said, “Now what are you going to do for you?” For the first time, I realized I needed help, too. I was depressed, crying, obsessed with where he was, couldn’t sleep. It took about three or four years until I sought treatment and started going to Al-Anon [a support group program for family members of addicts]. When I went to my first meeting, I felt immediately comfortable and not alone anymore. There were people who understood me. Al-Anon gave us a common language with him.
What happened to Jacob?
After he went to the sober living house, he moved into an apartment with another guy and he used again. New Year’s Eve 2011 into 2012, we got a call telling us, “Your son needs detox badly.” [At the detox] we said, “Jacob, we love you but this is the last time we’ll pay [for treatment].” After detox, Jacob spent almost 100 days in rehab and then lived in a sober house for six months. He got a job, became active in [Alcoholics Anonymous], got a sponsor, and on Jan. 23, he was seven years clean.
He lives in Florida, has a strong recovery network and finished college last year. We’re very proud of him.
Any advice for parents of addicts?
If you need help, get it. Stay emotionally close to your child. Set boundaries and talk to your kids early — in fifth or sixth grade — so they know what you expect.
A common thing kids say is, “I got to be 13, 14, 15, and suddenly felt very different from other kids. I picked up a beer, took a pill and suddenly felt like I fit in.”
Jacob said he felt like he had a hole inside of him that alcohol and drugs filled. But when he took the alcohol and drugs away, the hole was still there. That’s where spirituality and God come in. As long as your child is alive, there is hope.
For information, visit jcsbaltimore.org.