BETHESDA MAGAZINE—March/April 2013
There’s only so much parents can do to shape their children’s lives. Sandra Swenson learned that the hard way, when one of her two sons followed the straight and narrow—while the other spiraled into addiction.
By Kathleen Wheaton
Sandra Swenson stood gazing at her son, Joey Petrone, as he lay unconscious with a lacerated liver and a blood alcohol level of .35, and prayed for two things: that he would live, and that he had finally hit bottom.
It was March 2008. Joey had driven into a cement wall during a binge after accompanying a girlfriend to Florida on her spring break and had arrived on a stretcher at Holmes Regional Medical Center in Melbourne. Coincidentally, it was the same hospital where he was born 20 years earlier.
As doctors and nurses in the intensive care unit labored to save Joey, Swenson mentally rummaged through her son’s life—not for the first time—and wondered how she had failed him.
Like most of her friends, she had always believed that good parenting resulted in “good” children—happy and successful. “I’ve heard these things come out of my own mouth,” the 53-year-old says over tea and muffins in her Bethesda apartment. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. And: No wonder about that kid—look at his parents.”
Swenson had been devoted to her children long before she had them. As a student teacher working with nuns in the mountains of West Virginia, she’d learned to say novenas for the health and happiness of her future family.
She married her college sweetheart, Joe Petrone, who became an executive at General Electric, and stayed home to raise their sons, Joey and Ricky. But “home” was rarely the same place for two years at a stretch: Petrone was transferred often—both within the U.S. and overseas. It was a life that offered adventure—elephant rides, jungle hikes, deep-sea fishing—but it frequently required leaving friends and schools behind.
Outgoing and charming, Joey appeared to weather those changes more easily than his quieter, younger brother. “Everybody loved Joey,” Swenson says.
As a teenager at the American Embassy School in New Delhi, India, Joey was a star—volunteering at an orphanage playground and completing requirements to become an Eagle Scout. He experimented with alcohol and marijuana, but his parents weren’t worried by the few incidents they knew of, and their relationship with him was warm and close.
The pile of empty liquor bottles Swenson discovered at the bottom of their garden? She figured their Indian cook was a tippler.
During his senior year, however, Joey became moody and withdrawn, and began losing weight noticeably. Believing that he had an eating disorder (as his girlfriend had), his parents checked him into a clinic in Florida, where he fooled the specialists into thinking the same thing.
“He probably already was an addict, but we didn’t realize it,” Swenson says. “He was lying to everyone, but it took a long time for us to figure that out.”
It also has taken time for Swenson to speak openly about what happened to her son. But “now I talk about it freely because I have to,” she says. “I’m not ashamed that my son is a drug addict. I’m sad that my son is a drug addict. It breaks my heart that he’s a drug addict. But talking about it takes away the shame and the loneliness. Hiding addiction doesn’t make it go away.”
Although furious about being hospitalized, Joey ate what he was told, put on weight and was released after three months to finish his senior year in India. He received several scholarship offers before settling on the University of San Diego, a small Catholic school. His parents decided that it might be best if they lived in the U.S. while Joey was in college, so Petrone applied for a transfer and the family moved to Bethesda in the summer of 2005.
Less than two weeks after starting college that September, Joey got drunk and attempted suicide by swallowing an excessive amount of Tylenol. He was diagnosed with depression, and his parents brought him home to help him get back on track. As a way of encouraging both her son and herself, Swenson drank her morning coffee from the Proud Freshman Mom mug he’d given her.
But Swenson began to notice signs that Joey was slipping: an empty whiskey bottle in his room (it wasn’t his, he said); money disappearing from her purse; nights he didn’t come home from work. In January 2007, Joey told his parents that he wanted to move to an apartment close to the Metro so he could get to his restaurant job more easily. Swenson suspected the real reason was that he didn’t want to abide by their abstinence rules. Nevertheless, she and Petrone hoped independence and responsibility would be good for him.
Thus began a nightmarish cycle of lost jobs, drunken driving and drug arrests, and hospitalizations for overdoses. “He tried everything out there: heroin, crack, mushrooms, cocaine, LSD, though he always went back to his mainstays—drinking and pot,” Swenson says.
Although she rarely heard from her son, she found out about his voracious appetite for drugs by peeking at his Facebook page and from emergency room bills that arrived at the house. He once called to invite her to ice cream in Georgetown, and she hurried to meet him, only to have him demand the $1,000 child tax credit that she and Petrone had claimed for the previous year. When she refused, he told her he wasn’t returning to college after all. She burst into tears and fled.
From time to time, Joey would show up at the house, vowing to get sober and asking for money for a new apartment or to tide him over until he started a new job. When his parents relented, he and the money vanished. When they said no, he became belligerent.
Swenson and Petrone were bewildered. Both have alcoholic siblings, and they talked early and often to the boys about their genetic risks. “That we could be as astute and educated as we were, and as involved as parents, and still be so clueless—it was really terrifying,” Petrone says.
By night, Swenson paced the floor, dreading the phone call “that’s not from Joey, but about him.” By day, she wept and tried to get a few hours of sleep before Ricky—who studiously avoided drugs and alcohol—got home from Walt Whitman High School. The reassurances of friends she confided in rang hollow—she didn’t think Joey’s behavior was youthful rebellion or a phase—so she stopped talking about him altogether.
“It became awkward,” she recalls. “I’d jabber away about Ricky. But people notice you’re not talking about the other one, and think you must not like him very much.”
Because Joey was legally an adult, his parents couldn’t force him to get help. But in January 2007, a frightening cocaine binge finally convinced him to check into a 28-day rehab program at Hazelden, a clinic for teens and young adults in Plymouth, Minn. When Swenson and Petrone flew out to participate in Family Week at the end of the month, they met people who understood what they were going through.
“Etched on the face of each sad parent was deep fear, high hopes and endless love,” Swenson would later write in a memoir. “We had nothing in common and yet everything in common.”
Unfortunately, she and Petrone would become old hands at such encounters.
Joey graduated to a nine-month residential program in St. Paul, Minn., but soon was breaking rules and was asked to leave. He returned to D.C., where his downward spiral continued.
In the fall of 2007 he entered Morningside Recovery Center, a rehab program in California, but had to return home to face D.C. drug charges. When Joey learned from the judge that his mother had written, pleading for him to be allowed to return to rehab instead of going to jail, he told her to get out of his life.
She stared aghast at the haggard, red-eyed young man spitting curses at her.
“If addiction can happen to a smart, handsome, sweet-natured boy like Joey, it can happen to anybody,” she says. “Because he had everything going for him, and it eliminated every trace of the person he could have and should have been.”
The next time Swenson saw Joey was several months later in Florida, after he crashed into the wall. There, her prayers were at least partially answered: Joey not only lived, but recovered quickly, and he agreed to enter Caron Renaissance, an expensive and highly regarded yearlong substance abuse program in Boca Raton. But this time his parents told him that if he walked out, he would be on his own. They couldn’t afford to help him anymore.
“Finally I heard what I’d been told in Al-Anon and in so many family counseling sessions over the years,” Swenson says. “We had to stop trying to save him.”
So she wrote him a letter: “We’ve been forced to accept the most painful realization of all: Sometimes love means doing nothing rather than doing something.”
In October 2008, five months into the program, Joey walked out.
With Joey cut off, Ricky (who now called himself Rick) entering college and her marriage foundering (she and Petrone divorced amicably in 2012), Swenson channeled her grief into writing a memoir about her son’s descent into addiction and her efforts—misguided, she now believes—to rescue him. She hopes that if the book is ever published, other parents might learn from her mistakes. But after finishing it, she realized that she also might have something to offer other young people who were struggling.
The Junior Woman’s Club of Chevy Chase, of which she’s a member, was involved in fundraising for the Greentree Adolescent Program (GAP) at The National Center for Children and Families, a nonprofit in Bethesda. In the spring of 2011, Swenson proposed a more hands-on commitment to the at-risk teens who spend a year in the community.
Since some of the 20 youths would be moving on to independent living, why not teach them to cook for themselves, she asked.
Her idea evolved into Bistro BoyZ, which will soon begin its third year. Each week, a group of five volunteers and five teens shops for ingredients at a local Giant supermarket, sticking to a $35 budget. The next night, they prepare and eat a meal together.
Some of Swenson’s happiest memories are of the times she and her sons spent in the kitchen, mixing up muffins or spreading frosting. In later years, she recalls, the Petrone kitchen was often filled with teenagers “rubbing elbows and laughing.”
On a recent evening in a small dorm kitchen at GAP, a fair amount of elbow-rubbing and laughing was taking place as Swenson and her cohorts, Ginny Webber and Vicky Strella (known as the GalZ), showed three hungry teens how to cook a steak dinner. The boys had planned a feast that included baked potatoes with cheese and sour cream, hot crescent rolls with butter, oven s’mores and ice cream, lemonade, a savory wine sauce for the steak.
Everything was going smoothly until three George Foreman grills and a microwave running simultaneously blew a fuse. But once the lights were restored, everyone sat down at a long table groaning with food, and eventually the conversation turned to the next meal. One teen reminisced about his grandmother’s adobo sauce, and Swenson promised to hunt down a recipe.
Vivacious and maternal, she was clearly in her element among the young men, one of whom told her recently, “Wow, this is just like eating dinner with a family.”
Although she knows little about their lives, she’s aware that many of the youths have grown up in deprived and difficult circumstances.The teens who are referred to GAP by the state Department of Juvenile Services and the D.C. Department of Human Services all show potential to benefit from an intensive residential program that includes counseling, anger management, coping skills and substance abuse prevention. They also attend Bethesda public schools, where their classmates are often unaware that they live in a group home.
One reason Bistro BoyZ has been such a hit with the teens is the connection it creates to the community, says GAP Program Director Roberta Rinker. “It is incredible for the boys to experience members of the local community caring for them as our staff does, and doing it as volunteers,” she says.
In the more than four years since Joey walked out of his last rehab, Swenson has heard from him only sporadically, “always with a different phone number and a different story.”
But she has come to accept the idea of “letting go,” and now, if he phones while drunk or high, she gently suggests that he call back later.
“Before, I’d never do that—I’d be so desperate to talk to him,” she says.
Often, Joey does call back, though if he’s lost his phone or is on another binge or in jail, she might not hear from him for months. Although she hasn’t stopped worrying altogether, “he doesn’t manipulate me anymore. He used to call and try to get money, or just to sway me into a way of thinking. He’s still a drug addict with a problem life, but now when he calls we have an understanding. We can have a relationship, such as it is.”
Swenson, who recently moved from Bethesda to Silver Spring, gave Joey the manuscript of her book to read a few months ago. “I thought he’d be mad,” she says. “It’s a love story, and it’s true, but there are a lot of hard things in it.” She had written the book using pseudonyms, but Joey told her that she should use real names. And that he hoped it would be published one day.
“It was interesting to see my life from someone else’s perspective,” he says by telephone from West Palm Beach. “She really gets the whole picture, and maybe it could help somebody else.”
Day-to-day life is difficult, says Joey, now 25. Steady employment is hard to find in Florida—he works construction or on boats or in restaurants. He recently lost a job tending bar at a strip club after a drunken altercation. Rent is expensive, so he sometimes sleeps on the beach or at a shelter.
Asked what led him to take such a path in life, he says, “Boredom, unhappiness—it’s a coping mechanism. Boredom is the main thing.” He pauses. “I’d like to want to stop drinking. But there are some things I won’t give up, like smoking weed.”
During their struggles with Joey, Swenson worried that Rick was being neglected, but even in the worst of times he seemed full of purpose and determination. Now 22, he graduated from American University in Washington, D.C., in 2012 with a double major in psychology and philosophy. For him, Joey—whom he hasn’t seen or spoken to in years—was an object lesson. “I didn’t want to follow in his footsteps,” Rick says, adding, “I don’t really fall into peer pressure.”
“Both of my boys set sail down the same river, but while Ricky has sailed along smoothly, something rocked Joey’s boat,” Swenson writes in her book. “Some perfect storm of personality, circumstance and genetics knocked him off course.”
Having finally accepted that she isn’t to blame for Joey’s addiction, she says: “I also can’t take credit for Rick [succeeding]. He did that himself.”
Swenson often thinks about the contrast between her sons’ upbringing and the far more precarious childhoods of the Bistro BoyZ. “I look at these boys who’ve had far, far more difficult circumstances than Joey had, and my son is the one who’s homeless and a drug addict, and these kids are plugging away,” she says.
But perhaps some Florida volunteer will do for Joey what she could not, maybe say or do “some little thing” that sets his life on a better course.
One “little thing” the GalZ do for the Bistro BoyZ as they’re leaving GAP is to give them a large plastic storage box containing a George Foreman grill, pots and pans, dish soap, cooking utensils and seasonings.
“Now they know how to use these things,” Swenson says. “Maybe at some point they’ll see the grill or the pot or the pan and they’ll think back and say, ‘Oh, yeah, there were those ladies who gave me that, who cared enough to spend some time with me.’
“Maybe it will make a difference when they hit another rough patch.”
Helping the BoyZ
The Bistro BoyZ have a 2012 fundraising cookbook, Pie in the Sky, sponsored by Bethesda chef Tony Marciante of Chef Tony’s and other local partners. The Junior Woman’s Club of Chevy Chase also sponsors a scholarship fund, BenefactorZ, for Bistro BoyZ who want to attend culinary school.
To purchase cookbooks or donate to Bistro BoyZ or BenefactorZ, go to http://jwccc.org/cookbook
Kathleen Wheaton lives in Bethesda and frequently writes for the magazine.