As son battled addiction, parents faced struggle of their own

Tim Rader, a high school football star from Ashland, Pa., who became addicted to prescription pain pills while undergoing cancer treatment at age 17. He is now in recovery after a 10-year battle with addiction. Radar's parents talk about their own struggle as their son sunk into addiction

By Sari Harrar

During October and November, the Healthy Kids blog examines the epidemic of teen prescription drug abuse through the stories of teens and young adults in recovery, their parents and treatment experts. You’ll get a first-hand look at a problem that’s more widespread and more deadly than many parents realize-- and find real-world advice about protecting your kids.

Previous posts told the story of Tim Rader, a high school football star from Ashland, Pa., who became addicted to prescription pain pills while undergoing cancer treatment at age 17. He is now in recovery after a 10-year battle with addiction.

Today: Parents talk about their own struggle as their son sunk into addiction

Lou and Patty Rader’s experience shows that prescription drug abuse and addiction can happen to any kid, in any family-- and how even the savviest parent  can easily explain away or ignore early signs of trouble in a teen. Lou, now 62, ran a program for drunk drivers at a Schuylkill county hospital and was often called to evaluate whether participants needed treatment for drug addiction.  He later oversaw drunk-driving programs for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. “I started my career working at a drug and alcohol clinic,” he says. “I sat across from people who needed help with drug problems all the time, but I didn’t recognize it when it came into my own house. I missed all the signs in my own son because I didn’t want to see them.” 

The Raders were the kind of family that ran the ticket booth at high school football games, took their sons to church on Sundays and volunteered whenever school needed parents to help out. Patty Rader helped run the all-night after-party at Tim’s high school prom so that teens could celebrate in a save, supervised way. “We were very, very involved parents with Tim and with his brother, Michael,” Patty Rader says. “Tim was a good kid. He was involved in plenty of healthy activities. He never got into trouble with alcohol. We never thought anything like this could happen to us.”

But she says she did felt twinges of worry at times when Tim asked for painkillers in the months after his cancer diagnosis. “In the back of my mind, I felt a little bit of a concern-- I didn’t want the kid to take too many pain pills, but he was in real pain. At one point it was because he’d had a port put into his chest for the chemotherapy. Another time, it was because he his gallbladder was removed. We were so worried about the cancer that we weren’t thinking beyond that.”

When Tim went away to DeSales University the following fall, the family was overjoyed-- their son’s life was back on track. But looking back, Rader says she knew something had changed-- changes she now realizes were possible clues to drug use. “Tim started coming home less often,” she says. “When I would go down to pick him up, the kids in his dorm room would start quickly cleaning things up when I came into the room.  His grades slipped. Something didn’t feel right. But I was so happy that he was back to living the life he wanted that I didn’t think about it too much. Then things improved at school. Tim joined the golf team. He brought his grades up high enough to get on the Dean’s list. It was easy to think everything was okay.”

Rader graduated, got a high-paying job as a drug-company representative, moved into a Manhattan apartment and asked his girlfriend to marry him. “Looking back,” Patty says, “It was like the fox guarding the hen house. He was around drugs all day in his job. Eventually he couldn’t withstand the pressure.” While dropping off drug samples at a doctor’s office one day, Tim stole painkillers from a medicine closet-- beginning a descent into addiction that ultimately led to heroin and homelessness.“At one point before things got really bad, Tim even told us at dinner that he was a drug addict but that we shouldn’t worry-- he was seeing a doctor, he had everything under control and didn’t want his girlfriend to know,” his mother says.  “I didn’t know what to do. I would sometimes drive from our home in Ashland, Pa., to New York at three in the morning and knock on his door, just to see if he was all right. And I could always tell from looking into his eyes whether he was or not.”

Ultimately, Rader lost his job and his fiancé. He bounced in and out of rehab as his parents tried to help him. “I would look at him and I could see that Tim wasn’t there,” Patty Rader says. “He wasn’t in that body. It was like I lost him, like somebody took his soul. And he was gone for years. The other people in rehab called him ‘the preppy addict’ because he looked so handsome and always wore those golf shirts. Every once in a while he’d get clean and be like his old self. But then the addiction would start again.”

In stark contrast to the support and consolation she’d gotten from friends and family during Tim’s struggle with cancer, Patty says the family’s struggle with addiction was met mostly with silence. “We were so accustomed to the troops gathering around with the cancer, being cheerleaders and helping and cooking dinners, but now there was dead silence,” she says. “It was horrible. We weren’t embarrassed, but nobody talked about addiction. We were alone. It had to change.”

 Finally, the Raders got help for themselves through Narcotics Anonymous and a parent support program at Caron, a drug and alcohol rehab center in Wernersville, Pa. At 27, Tim reached the end of yet another stint in rehab, this time in New Mexico and Patty made a decision. “I knew that helping him out was just enabling him,” she says. “I had tried for years to detach with love. To stop giving him food and shelter and money, but I always gave in one way or another. I would always take him in, or go down and pick him up when the police called. But this time, I told him he couldn’t come back home. I called my family and my friends and asked them not to help him, either. I remember one of my best friends crying her eyes out on the phone. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But the addiction was tearing our lives apart, too.

“So we got help, we detached from Tim and we talked about the experience. We did it because the addiction was making us so sick, so obsessed.”

For the Raders, it was the turning point-- but change was slow. After several years on his own, Rader agreed to go into a recovery program. “My family had to get healthy before I got healthy,” he says. “It was a gamble. There was no guarantee that tough love would help me. But when an addict has nowhere else to turn eventually there’s a chance they’ll try recovery. It worked for me. Recovery isn’t easy; I work on it every day. But I’m myself again. I’m married. My work is telling kids and parents about what really happens in drug addiction.”

This summer, Patty Rader had a heart attack at age 59.  “All my numbers looked good, but there’s no way to measure the effects of all the years of stress,” she says. As a result, she’s quit a decade-long cigarette habit and feels that in a small way she understands how tough recovery just might be. “You have to fight all the time,” she says. “When I see how far Tim has come, I’m just so grateful.”

Tomorrow: What parents should know about prescription drug addiction