Letting Joey Go

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.



Swenson and Joey. Courtesy photo.

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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.

Ricky, Swenson and Joey in happier times. Courtesy Photo.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.

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