Review by Laura Oliver
The first call came while Lisa and her husband, Dick, were relaxing after work in their Annapolis Historic District home. At the time, Lisa was President of Anne Arundel Medical Center’s foundation and Dick, a retired lawyer and former mayor of Annapolis, was involved in a variety of post-retirement activities. When the call came in, sunlight slanting through the library windows burnished the copper-colored Oriental carpet to a warmth that reflected only the sense of well being commonplace in the Hillman household. But that evening, Lisa listened to the voice on the other end of the line with confusion, disbelief and then the first inklings of fear.
The caller was one of their son, Jacob’s, favorite high school teachers. He was calling to give the Hillmans a heads up. Apparently Jake was smoking pot and drinking alcohol. A lot. Lisa was stunned. Her son taking drugs? Drinking? “We’re a good family,” she thought. “Jake is going to graduate, go to a great college, and become the responsible and inspired leader he was born to be.” Teenagers. In theory they experiment but surely not Jake. Still, the call was such a direct and specific warning. Best case scenario? Your son is keeping things from you. Worst case? He’s in greater jeopardy than you can imagine.
One of the messages in Lisa’s memoir, “Secret No More,” is that any one of us could receive a call like this. Although they would not know it then, that warning was the beginning of a six-year journey through the fear, isolation and shame of their son’s heroin addiction. The Hillmans would never feel safe again in quite the way they had previously.
A family that lived their lives openly and with a premium on honesty was about to be tested, educated and ultimately transformed. Addiction, the Hillmans would learn, is a great equalizer. For loved ones struggling with this disease there is no “us” and “them”—no “good” families and “bad” families.
Lisa loved working at AAMC. Her job required charisma, quick-thinking and leadership skills, and she was extraordinarily good at it. And Lisa’s job as a mother was equally important to her. However, that job—parenting—came with no manual or mentor. In fact, Lisa’s own mother had died just before Jacob was born. Although she knew Lisa was having a baby, she didn’t live to greet Jacob, who defying all laws of chance, arrived 15 years to the day after his sister. Two children, born 15 years apart, on the same day. The auspicious timing of this unexpected child made it easy to assume his life would be a charmed extension of his parents’ lives. Like them, he would prioritize education, service, community and family. Neither Dick nor Lisa had reason to question this destiny, but addiction is an equal-opportunity predator.
In fact, addiction is at an all-time high and opioid addiction—heroin in particular—is epidemic. The entire country is in the grips of an expanding crisis. The press reports that there is virtually no place in the U.S. where heroin cannot be obtained within 15 minutes of a phone call. Chances are if you are reading this story, you know someone whose life has been touched by addiction.
The cover of “Secret No More” is a photo of Jake as a one-year-old child. Yes, he was a teenager when he became addicted, but through the first years of this struggle his mother still saw him as a child in need of her protection. It is, in fact, the underlying frustration of the book: why isn’t my mother-love enough to save you?
This book has two gifts for anyone who loves a person addicted to any substance. One: the gift of normalizing the problem. Nice kids take drugs. People from happy homes take drugs. People with profound moral values become addicted. “Secret No More” makes the reader understand that addiction is an illness, a wiring of brain chemistry, not a character flaw. The second gift is this: relapses are the norm, not the end of the world. They happen, and often more than once. Put your disappointment and drama into moving on. There’s perhaps a third gift in this book as well. The reminder to those who love an addict that you didn’t cause and you can’t cure this illness. This is a vitally important message to parents who may over-identify with their addicted children.
Jacob did eventually turn his life around. He now lives in Florida and is in the business of recovery and rehabilitation, educating addicts and those who love them. He often speaks before families that are in the place his family once was: scared, desperate and confused. He has arrived by a circuitous route to the place his parents imagined for him when he was born: a position of responsibility and leadership, doing good work in the world.
The phone rings and it’s Jake. He calls often now. Lisa’s face lights up; she beams, really. We all love our children but the one who was lost, well, a near-miss tenderizes every interaction from then on. “I love you” forever echoes, “and almost lost you.” It makes the joy of that love perhaps more intense because it carries with it the knowledge that no one is safe from loss—there is no “us” or “them.”
Lisa took the worst thing that ever happened to her and to someone she loved, and fought through to the other side. She wants to help you get to the other side too. This is not a “how-to-recover” book. This is a “how-it-happened-to-us” book. It is a comfort and a companion to those struggling because this account demonstrates that recovery is possible, and that it has been possible for people you know.
“Secret No More” provides real reason for optimism. As Lisa writes, no matter how bad things are, “where there is life, there is hope.”
Laura Oliver is the author of The Story Within: New Insights and Inspiration for Writers (2011) and teaches essay and fiction writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College.