September 20, 1996 — 21 years ago today — I met my son Mishka Cesar after a 14-hour labor ending in a C-section delivery. On February 20, 2014, 17-and-a-half years later to the day, I lost him.
When he was first put into my arms, I sent out a thank you that he was healthy, and another request to my higher power that he would be free of addiction. A strange request, maybe; but I had lost a friend to addiction, one who’d died in my arms leaving behind a 3-year-old son. I knew drugs were stronger even than a mother’s love. I wanted to be able to promise that I'd always protect my son. What I did not know is that I knew nothing, and I was embarking on the most difficult journey of my life.
Mishka Cesar was a very bright, charming, determined, and loving kid. He spoke fluent French and English, and he was worldly, from traveling with me for work, or to visit his father who relocated between Thailand and Switzerland. Mishka had a wicked sense of humor; he was gorgeous and wise beyond his years. He was a lot of things beyond his years.
He was only 12 when he started to smoke pot and cigarettes, even though (or maybe because) he was in a very posh NYC private school for French expats. Those middle school drug training programs will tell you that this starting point is always the same — the gateway — but the first joint or the first beer has a very different effect on different people. After this start, if you are an addict, it only escalates.
We are living through the worst opioid crisis the U.S.A. has ever known. Budget cuts leave patients unable to seek care, or they fail to seek it out fearing legal ramifications. And what can be done? Being aware of your family history helps. It’s part of why I sent up that prayer for my newborn son. This disease loves secrets and denial; it grows in the shadows. But still, for so many, it can’t be diagnosed until it’s too late. Until that first taste sends you down a spiral you will never untwist.
At first, my reaction was swift: He was 12 and had tried pot, so I called other kids’ parents. I was aware and involved, and felt we could stop this easily with love, care, shrinks, a visit to the police station to scare him straight, and numerous conversations.
I lost my mother at age 10 to a violent suicide, so I rationalized that I have had my share of sadness and coping — sad things were not to happen again, I believed. It was mathematical for me. I believed so much in my own determination and willpower. Mostly, I believed this could not happen because it would not be fair.
But he spiraled. He tried stronger, and stronger, and stronger mood-altering substances. And, by the time he was 14, he was lying about his addiction, being jailed, put in a hospital, running away and being on the streets for weeks at a time.
What took me a while to fully grasp was this monster of a disease. I thought, Just say no, Mishka. But he thought he was invincible. I thought moving locations, changing schools, giving him negative consequences would stop the addiction. I thought, Find the best treatment, the best doctors. By the age of 15, my son had done two stints in rehab, one arrest, and was expelled from three schools in New York, Paris, and Thailand.
Finally, I admitted that I was powerless over the disease. I did not cause it, I can't control it and certainly can’t cure it. My son and I went to AA for him and Al Anon for me. It was a long road.
I was a single mom, and I broke the bank spending every penny of my savings to be able to get Mishka into treatments, for transportation — a cottage industry exists to shepherd teenage flight risks to the rehab facilities expecting them; these patients too young to drive, but too savvy to show up where they are supposed to be, if they'd rather not be there.
I paid, and paid, and paid for numerous doctors and psychiatrists. I hired private detectives, because he would disappear frequently for days or weeks in NYC. These weeks were the worst — at least I thought they were at the time. I would dive into my work; there, I was in control.
Yet the disease progressed, unstoppable, vicious; sometimes slowly, sometimes not. Each day was a rollercoaster, with the fear of death being my daily companion. Jail, the E.R., rehabs, judges, burglary, love, tears, hopelessness, laughter, hope, insanity, Al Anon meetings, and then again the day after. Every hour for five years, this is what was happening at any given moment, because that is what is it to love and live with an addict who is your son: You'll do anything, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to understand, pray, hope, console, cry, scream.
And what else could I do? My only child had been hijacked; that I loved him no matter what would not change this. Would you accuse your child with cancer of not being able to just stop the disease? No. I looked nonstop for treatments, care, and support. It became my life.
It felt endlessly lonely, and then Mishka would have what I call moments of grace: gratitude, like everything was okay, with such acute awareness and intelligence. I thought he was finally getting it. He was about to leave his year-long rehab, re-enter home and school, go to AA meetings, be home and be with me. It was going to all be great, after we had been through so much. University? Sure. He wanted to be a shrink. Why not?
I knew it was not the last we'd hear from his disease. By then, I understood we'd have to live with it until death, but things were better. There was maybe even a glimpse of light at the end of the five-year tunnel. A light, scary happiness.
I had nothing left but to hand over my faith to God and hope for this to pan out. But hopeful is not the way it ended. On a cold day in February 2014, my 17-year-old son, Mishka Cesar Kaplan, died of drug and alcohol overdose. He died in my arms three years ago at the hospital after fighting for his life for 20 hours or so, after his last overdose. He left me. He left. Because a dealer sold him who-knows-what for money he got from who-knows-whom, a so-called friend.
He is gone and I can't believe it, and the pain is immobilizing, stifling, unthinkable. Addiction took him in five years, despite our active, aggressive fight against it from day one.
Mishka went to a total of seven different facilities, and given the chance I would continue throwing every single cent at a place that would be able to keep treating him. As an executive with my own PR firm, I felt fortunate to be able to afford any of the care my son received. But based on our experience, the only care I can recommend is a 12-step based program. As they say, it works if you work it. There are no fake promises. It won’t cure the disease, as nothing out there yet can. But it makes it more tolerable to get through.
I recently just began to gather the strength to help other families that are ill and suffering from this crippling disease. I started simply helping with a gala to raise funds for Caron, for families that can’t afford their care (one month of which costs $37,000). I want to help and save the world and make it drug-free and be able to tell parents and kids to hold onto hope. I distract myself with silly projects and work friends.
It has been three years. I am in shock to be here, alive, still standing. It is for some odd reason not my time yet. I still live, or try to, by the steps and principles I have learned — and am trying to figure out one day at a time.
I don’t have guilt — just sadness, and plenty of it. I miss him all the time, every day, filling the space that worrying about him used to occupy, which is only all of it. But for you, if you are a parent or a person struggling with addiction, and you are still alive, there is still space. There is still hope.
If you are struggling with substance abuse, please call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for free and confidential information. For more stories about our many paths to, through, and away from parenthood, head to Mothership.