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An Anguished Father Recounts the Battle He Lost-Trying to Rescue a Teenage Son from Drugs

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In 27 years at the Wall Street Journal, writer-editor Ron Shafer, 50, has worked on many heartbreaking stories, but none challenged him so much as the piece he wrote for the front page last July: The subject was his own son, Ryan, who two years earlier, at 16, had been killed as a result of using drugs.

Born in Columbus, Ohio, Shafer joined the Journal in 1963 after graduating from Ohio State. The day before being transferred to Washington, D.C., in 1968, he married Barbara Lucas, and when they moved out to McLean, Va., in 1976 their family included Ryan, adopted in 1971, and Katie, adopted two years later. The Shafers thought themselves a happy suburban family until in 1985 they were forced to face an awful truth: Ryan, then 14, was addicted to drugs. This is Ron Shafer’s story of the family’s tragic fight to save their son, as told to correspondent Garry Clifford.

Almost from the day Ryan died, I wanted to write something about him—I thought that might help save somebody else’s child. But it was a struggle. Was I going to tell the world that my son was a drug addict? Was that how I wanted Ryan remembered? As a journalist, I wanted to be objective, but as a father, I wanted everyone to know what a terrific kid Ryan was. He was lively and funny and could charm anyone. At 16, he was still small enough so that you could kiss him on the top of his head. He was my little boy. Until the day the story ran, I did not know whether I had done the right thing. I stayed home deliberately. At the office the next day, my phone started ringing and did not stop. The calls came from parents who were crying and thanking me for helping them understand it was not their fault.

Like most of these parents, I had thought of drug use as something you worried about when your kids got to high school. Now I know that, on the average, kids begin using drugs at 11 or 12, but at the time that never crossed our minds. Ryan had just begun attending mixed parties. He was playing Little League. In the eighth grade, Ryan started getting into a little trouble—one time he and another fellow stole a fire extinguisher, but we thought it was just a prank. Then his grades started to go down, and his behavior began to deteriorate. He began sneaking out at night. He would become belligerent at the drop of a hat, then sunny and nice again. By then he was pretty heavy into drugs, but we were denying what we saw. You build up this trust with your child, and the last thing you want to do is break it. But looking back, there were signs everywhere. His room was filled with bottles of eye drops, to cover the redness from smoking marijuana. Money was missing from around the house, and he began burning incense in his room.

It wasn’t until Ryan fell apart at 14 that we started thinking about drugs. He had just begun McLean High School, and to him, it was like going to drug camp every day. Back then, everything was so available. He began cutting classes, a common tip-off, but we didn’t hear from the school until he was flunking everything. It turned out he was going to school for the first period, getting checked in, then leaving and smoking marijuana all day. The school put us in touch with a doctor who treats adolescents with drug problems. He gave Ryan a urine test, or the whiz quiz as the kids call it, which came back positive for marijuana. Ryan admitted trying only a little bit. We grounded him, but to ourselves we said, “Thank God, it was only pot.”

Still, his actions got worse. He would kick a door, break a slat, swear at us. A few months later, psychological tests showed that he had short-term memory loss. Some marijuana strains today are 25 times more powerful than those around a decade ago, and the stuff is contributing to all kinds of adverse reactions. It may lead kids in a down period to commit suicide.

Having a child on drugs takes over your entire life. Every hour was focused on Ryan, to the point that Katie, who was 12, was shunted aside. Barb and I started arguing over what we should do, but finally we knew we had to put him into treatment. Even Ryan was ready—he was close to hitting bottom. We found out about Arlington Hospital’s six-week inpatient program for adolescents, and it was there we discovered just how many drugs Ryan had been using. My son was what the kids call a garbage head, someone who would use everything. He was using heavy amounts of marijuana and had tried cocaine, PCP and alcohol—we believe he started buying pot at 12. His drug of choice was LSD, which can cause panic, hallucinations and even suicide, but most tests don’t detect LSD. He told us that the night before he went to Arlington, he was on an LSD trip and saw snakes coming out of the TV set.

Ryan came home just before his 15th birthday. He was great, our old Ryan, lively and funny. The treatment called for 15 weeks of daily aftercare therapy as well as 90 meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous in 90 days. We placed him in a small private school for troubled youths, and his work really started picking up. After school he worked at the taco shop we owned with Barb’s brothers. He put the food together, took it to the customers and ran the cash register. He called himself a taco-ologist. By 10th grade, nine months later, his self-esteem was improving, and his reading skills, which had been damaged by the drugs, were up to 12th-grade level, he had gotten his driver’s license, and he was going with a really lovely girl. We thought this was it, he was going to be okay. He told us everything about his drug use and even mentioned a man named Jerry who opened his house to kids and used drugs with them.

Then suddenly, Ryan’s behavior started to slip. He was like two different people again. His grades started falling. He was withdrawing all his money from his checking account. One day his urine tested positive for marijuana and PCR This time there was no denial. We knew immediately he had to go back into another program. It broke our hearts.

In June 1987 he entered a 10-week outpatient program at Arlington, but his personality didn’t return to normal. We worried that he was on LSD and the tests weren’t catching it. Ryan was again in AA, but the man who sponsored him moved away, and one day he announced he had a new sponsor by the name of Jerry. We realized he was the man Ryan had talked about, and we forbade Ryan from seeing the man again. Then one day Barb called me at work to say that Ryan had tested positive for marijuana and had been kicked out of the program.

We were in a total panic. We spent a frantic day calling facilities. Finally, Springwood Psychiatric Institute in Lees-burg, Va., had one open bed. We could bring him in that night. Ryan was angry and scared. They put him in a locked room for people who might commit suicide, and leaving him there, feeling him hating me, was one of the worst moments of my life.

Ryan was diagnosed as manic depressive, and they treated him with lithium. The doctors said the illness hadn’t been detected before because the drugs masked it. Ryan also began talking about his adoption. The therapists concluded that one reason for his low self-esteem was feelings of rejection because he was put up for adoption. But over the years, Ryan had never expressed any real concern about being adopted, except once in a while to slip in something about how his biological mother must have hated him.

For a few weeks Ryan was very resentful and belligerent, then gradually he became the darling at Springwood. He was praised as being the most cooperative patient and was very supportive of the other kids. In September he was released, and we enrolled him in a special-education program in Fairfax County. He was still on lithium, which made him very tired, but otherwise he seemed his old self again.

The week after school started, we went to an open house for parents. When we got home, Katie told us the police had called and said there had been a minor accident involving Ryan’s car. They said no one was hurt and whoever was driving had left the scene, which was one block from Jerry’s house. Barb phoned him, and he told her Ryan had been there but left. We spent the next hour and a half calling the county and state police and the hospital. Finally, around 10 P.M., the state police called us and asked us to come to Fairfax Hospital.

Two state troopers were there. They ushered us into a tiny storeroom. The younger cop could barely get the words out. A young boy had run from the car…he was on the interstate highway. The terror started to rise in me, because I knew what he was going to say next: “Ryan has been hit by a car and killed.” My mind kept saying, no, it can’t be true. If he was injured or caught on drugs, we could start all over again. This was forever. He was so young, and suddenly it was over.

We put him in a grave at National Cemetery, and to this day, when I go there, I just can’t comprehend that my little boy is in a cemetery. You are never the same after the death of a child.

In time we learned that Ryan had purchased LSD that day from a friend. He had been driving his car and apparently panicked after veering off the street. A motorist said he ran into the highway with a crazed look in his eye and was killed instantly. Acting on Barb’s pleas, the trooper who told us of Ryan’s death began an investigation of Jerry, and in about six weeks he was arrested for selling drugs to minors. He was jailed, then released. Just before Christmas 1987 he killed himself.

There’s a debate raging now, but I have no doubts that legalizing drugs would be a death sentence for thousands of kids. You can’t quote the numbers—nobody keeps them; Ryan’s death was not listed as drug related. Anyone who has known someone on drugs is against increasing their availability. I’m convinced that our best hope is to find ways to prevent kids from starting. Barb and Katie are active in Youth to Youth, a group that uses skits to take the antidrug message into schools. Barb and I are involved in Take a Stand at McLean High, in which students pledge not to use drugs or alcohol. On New Year’s Eve they threw a party, the Last Blast of the Eighties, which was alcohol-and drug-free and a tremendous success.

When you lose a child, it’s hard to be optimistic about anything, but watching the effect this program is having on these kids is the first good feeling I’ve had in two years.