It all started with a phone call.
Lisa Hillman got the call from a beloved teacher, warning her that her teenage son, Jacob, may be dabbling in drugs.
“I will always remember that phone call,” says Lisa, the former longtime president of the AAMC Foundation. “I thought, he’s got to be wrong.”
But he wasn’t wrong. That call would signal the start of a years-long battle with addiction for Jacob.
“In addiction, the phone can be a nightmare,” Lisa says.
With the help of therapists at AAMC’s Pathways, and later drug rehabilitation in Florida, the nightmare is over today. Now 28, Jacob is more than five years clean.
“But who’s counting, right?” Lisa says.
She’s written a book, Secret No More, which chronicles her son’s struggle with drug addiction and her family’s efforts to help him – and ultimately, themselves.
“I wanted to write a story of hope,” she says.
The secrecy of addiction
Before addiction touched her family, Lisa, as a well-known hospital executive, lived an idyllic life. Her husband, Richard, is a former Annapolis mayor. They raised their daughter, Heidi, and Jacob in historic downtown Annapolis.
But things changed during Jacob’s junior year of high school. First Lisa caught her son openly drinking in front of her. Then she got that phone call.
Jacob graduated from high school and was accepted to the University of Maryland with honors, but his life took a sharp turn during a senior week trip to North Carolina. There, he was arrested for marijuana. A year later, he failed out of college due to his drug use, and returned home to work and attend Anne Arundel Community College.
“He still didn’t seem right,” Lisa recalls.
She soon learned he was continuing to use. Desperate to fix his problem, Lisa called a colleague at Pathways, AAMC’s addiction treatment center. She knew she would keep her call confidential.
The Hillmans lived a public life in many ways, Lisa says, but they also valued their privacy. Lisa found herself balancing the demands of overseeing a multi-million dollar capital campaign at AAMC with discreetly trying to get her son the help he needed.
“I think it’s a skill you learn,” she says.
Pathways eventually sent Jacob to rehab in Florida, and that’s when Lisa learned something else.
“I didn’t realize I was sick,” she says.
Through the help of a support group, Lisa learned the phrase that would become her mantra.
“I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it, and I can’t cure it,” she says.
With Jacob in Florida, Lisa focused on healing herself and letting her son go – detaching with love, she says. Back home in Annapolis, she took a call one night from her son, who confessed he’d had a minor relapse.
She told him to take care of himself.
“I was able to say that to Jacob because of the support group and learning to put the focus on him,” she says.
It was a lesson she had to remember on New Year’s Eve in 2011, when she got a call from Jacob’s counselor in Florida. He told her Jacob needed detox immediately. The Hillmans agreed to pay for his treatment, but decided it would be the last time.
And fortunately, something clicked within Jacob.
“He wanted to be clean,” Lisa says.
One day at a time
Today, Jacob lives in Florida and works in recovery, managing a group of homes for recovering addicts.
“For him, it’s almost a calling,” Lisa says.
Writing her book, too, was a calling. She wants other families who are dealing with addiction to know that it’s OK to talk about it.
Years later, Lisa reflects on the strangeness of trying to keep Jacob’s addiction a secret, even as she sat on the board of Pathways.
Once she opened up to her bosses about her secret, they were supportive, a nod to the therapeutic environment in which she worked.
She urges other parents dealing with an addicted child to find someone in whom they can confide.
“It is a family problem,” Lisa says. “If the addict is to get better, it helps if the family gets better.”
And you may not be able to fix the addict, but you can fix yourself.
“One thing that addiction teaches you is to live life one day at a time,” she says. “Sometimes, it’s one hour at a time. Sometimes, it’s one minute at a time.”