"I should have known," says 41-year-old Julia, reaching for another tissue to wipe her red, tearing eyes. "We'd suspected for some time that our daughter, Ariel, was smoking pot, but we had no proof. Then one day last year, I found a joint in her jacket pocket when I took it to the cleaners. As if that wasn't bad enough, a teenage neighbor told us, 'I thought you should know: I saw Ariel snorting coke at a party.'
"I'll never forget that awful night when we confronted her. I said, 'Ariel, are you using drugs?'
"She shot back, 'Are you crazy?'
"My husband, William, could barely control himself. He yelled, 'Don't pull that garbage on us. Mom found a joint in your coat!'
"'That was my friend Sherry's,' she lied. 'You never trust me! You never believe anything I say!'
"At last, Ariel admitted sullenly, 'Okay, I get high sometimes, but it's no big deal.' Since then, we've tried everything to help her. We've taken her to psychologists and experts on teen drug use; she's been in and out of treatment programs. But she's 18 now and still using. My older sister, Helen, had a drug problem in college, so I should have recognized the signs earlier.
"I don't know if our marriage can survive this strain. I love William dearly, and up till now he's always been there for me, yet suddenly he's become remote and cold. How can he act like this when our daughter's life is at stake?
"Still, I never thought we'd have any serious problems with Ariel. She was popular, always excelled at school and was very close to her brother, Matt, who's 11 now.
"The trouble began when those devastating floods hit Iowa a few years ago. We barely had time to throw a change of clothes into the car and evacuate to a motel in a nearby town. The entire first floor of our house — including Ariel's bedroom — was destroyed. On the surface, Ariel seemed to be coping. But soon she grew moody and started hanging out with kids we knew had dubious reputations.
"Then Ariel began cutting classes. She seemed lethargic. Occasionally, I'd find a bottle of eyedrops or decongestant in her room, not realizing that she was trying to hide her telltale red eyes and runny nose. Yet any time we confronted her, she'd shout, 'Get off my case!' It was always 'the other kids' who were getting high.
"Once we discovered the truth, our whole family was turned upside down. Matt was devastated. Then William started to shut me out. Actually, he flip-flops. Some days, we'll talk about nothing except Ariel. Then at other times, he'll clam up and look as if he'll explode if I say another word.
"I can't stand it when William and I fight. In my family, we barely raised our voices. I really did have a picture-perfect Midwestern childhood. Dad taught high school math, and Mom stayed home to raise the three of us. Though we didn't have much money, I never felt deprived. I remember picnics on the lake, sight-seeing trips to nearby cities, church every Sunday. Everything was wonderful until my senior year of high school, when we found out that Helen was on cocaine, heroin — you name it, she tried it. Thank God, she's been clean for 15 years.
"College was a welcome escape for me after the grief my family went through that year with my sister. I met William toward the end of my sophomore year, and it was love at first sight. After our first date, neither of us dated anybody else.
"I'm a program coordinator at the local community center, and I love it. But William has never been happy with his work in the sales division of a manufacturing company here in town. I wish I had a nickel for every time I've suggested we work on his resume so he could look for a more exciting job. He just never makes the effort.
"Things get even worse between us when we visit my parents. I know my dad is pretty conservative and Mom speaks her mind. But William now refuses to visit them at all. Why can't he just ignore their remarks, the way I do?
"Another area we've always struggled with is our sex life, which is terrible. Frankly, I don't think about sex all that much even in the best of times, and right now, it's the farthest thing from my mind. But William is always ready, and if I refuse, he gets upset and thinks I don't love him.
"Somehow Ariel managed to finish high school, and she's living at home. She's been good about doing her chores and respecting her curfew. Plus, she does seem to be sticking with this latest outpatient treatment program, and she's been working as a clerk in a video store. She hasn't expressed any interest in going to college, but we're hoping she'll be ready if and when she cleans up her act for good.
"We may not be able to save our daughter, but please tell me there's something we can do to save our marriage."
"I am just as upset and guilt-ridden as my wife is, but I cannot for one more hour — one more minute — listen to her go on and on about Ariel's problems," sighed William, 41, a handsome man with thick, wavy hair and piercing blue eyes. "She literally follows me from room to room — even into the bathroom — repeating the same things. I know Julia can't turn it off completely. But couldn't she at least turn it down a few notches? She spends half the day sobbing.
"Not a night goes by that I don't wonder whether I could have done something to prevent this. We tried to be such good parents. But we can't wring our hands forever. Funny, I say that, but I don't know how to stop, either, do I? I know I need to control my anger. I don't mean to scream, but I'm feeling brittle these days.
"Spending time with my in-laws leaves me even more crazed. My wife may say her childhood was perfect, but to me it sounds like it was dictatorial. Her parents constantly tell us, 'You shouldn't have been so lenient with Ariel' and 'You should have noticed her problem sooner.' Isn't it hypocritical for my mother-in-law to blame me, when the same thing happened to her own daughter? Julia's mom once cursed me out because I expressed an opinion she didn't agree with — and Julia expected me to swallow it. Well, I can't do it anymore.
"My folks couldn't have been more different. Dad sold farm machinery; Mother helped him, but mostly she raised us — I was the youngest of five. My parents were active in the community and our church, politically moderate and very tolerant of other people's ideas. I was close to both of them and wanted to be the same kind of father to my children. Obviously, I've failed.
"I know Julia wants to help when my job stresses me out, but it's a touchy subject for me. I never knew what I wanted to do with my life. I was recruited right out of school, and I've stayed with the company for years. But my salary is too good now to turn my back on it, and besides, at my age, what would I do?
"I love my wife, but we've lost that closeness we always had. We certainly aren't intimate in bed. It's such a struggle to figure out when she's in the mood, I've just about given up.
"I always considered myself the kind of guy who could figure out what to do on my own, but our marriage is getting worse. We can't even get away for a night. A few months ago, when we went out of town to my sister's birthday party, Ariel had some friends over, and we think they got high in the house. She's not allowed to have guests anymore, but Julia is still afraid to leave her or Matt alone at home.
"We're both so frightened — for Ariel and for ourselves. It's time to get some help."
The Counselor's Turn
"For the past two years, Julia and William have been struggling with every parent's nightmare," notes the counselor. "Their conflicting ways of reacting to stress made things worse. Julia needs to talk about her fears all the time; William tends to withdraw.
"It was clear these two loved each other very much, but the only way they could preserve their marriage and their individuality was to be a little selfish and refocus their time and energy on each other.
"First, I referred Julia to a psychiatrist, because she had the classic signs of clinical depression: anxiety, weeping, sleeplessness and an inability to concentrate. The doctor prescribed an antidepressant, which helped her face her problems.
"While the goal was to get these two communicating, we also discussed how unproductive it is to live in constant regret and self-doubt. 'Sometimes we just don't know why a child takes drugs,' I told them. 'It happens in the best of families, and you've done everything you can for Ariel right now. As long as you stick to the rules you've established for her, you must stop heaping blame on yourselves. It's time to move on.'
"It was also time for them to start paying attention to Matt, who had been lost in the shuffle. They encouraged him to invite his friends over so they could get to know the boys better. William and Julia keep in touch with the boys' parents, and several of the families meet regularly for potluck dinners. 'We plan to do this all through high school,' explained Julia, 'so we'll feel comfortable enough to call one another for help or to ask an opinion.'
"Their next challenge was to manage their intrusive in-law problem. I helped the couple understand the concept of boundaries — defining what they wanted and needed and letting others know when their behavior crossed the line. It wasn't easy, but Julia started standing up to her parents, which has strengthened her self-esteem as well as her marriage. 'I couldn't believe it,' William exulted at one session. 'Julia actually told them we weren't coming to Sunday dinner because she couldn't tolerate the way they spoke to me. Victory!'
"Julia's deeply religious childhood had also sent her the message that sex was not something good girls enjoyed, so she found it hard to be intimate with the man she loved. Defining her boundaries would help in bed, too: 'If you tell him exactly what you want,' I said, 'you'll feel more in control, and more sexually free.' Seeing that William respects her on nights when she says she just wants to cuddle, she has become more responsive — and adventurous — on other nights.
"Another area we addressed was Julia's need to talk about Ariel all the time. Understandably, William was feeling swamped. The couple now takes twenty minutes every day to discuss whatever is on their minds; knowing she can count on that time, Julia can think about other things instead of wallowing in her worries all day.
"Discussing his work situation with Julia helped William realize that he didn't want a new job, after all. 'I'm not ready to make a change,' he decided. 'But I've asked for a few new projects, which has helped me to stop moping about which path I should have taken.'
"Though the couple suspects Ariel still gets high occasionally, she's doing well at her job and is sticking with her outpatient therapy. 'I'm sad that our dreams for her — going to college, raising a family — may never be realized,' Julia said. 'But the fact that William and I are so much closer keeps me grounded.'
"Julia and William ended counseling after six months, having realized that you have to let your grown children take responsibility for their lives, while you work on the one thing you do have control over — yourselves."
"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most popular, most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This month's case, about a couple trying to cope with their teenager's drug problem, is based on interviews and information from the files of Mary Ellen Lester, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The story told here is true, although the names and other details have been changed to conceal identities.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, July 1999.