Tag Archives: addiction

Speaking to Seattle’s Future Nurses? Yup. 100%.

Last May, about a month before our lives would change drastically due to a mostly forgotten essay that went viral (before I even had a blog site), I wrote the following and posted it on FaceBook. It is almost six months later, and we are in Eastern Washington, preparing to speak again for another group of nursing students.
bursting with excitement at the prospect of getting to spend the morning tomorrow with a large classroom full of individuals who want to learn how to not only care for the body of a patient, but for their mind, heart and soul…especially when those patients may be homeless, struggling with addiction or unable to speak English. Perhaps their religious faith or sexual orientation are very different from what is deemed “normal” in the hospital’s local community; do they not still deserve the same excellent care that is boasted about in all the hospital’s advertising materials? So, if you’d like to know what Rob and I are up to, feel free to read on. Thanks for taking the time!

I have to be up in four hours, in order to get to Seattle University on time for a 7:30 am class. Rob and I have been invited to speak, this week and next, to two groups of first year nursing students, on the topic of respect and dignity for every patient.

Part of our intro goes something like this…

You have chosen a career that has incredible meaning and huge potential to impact the lives of not just your patients, but the families of your patients, as well.

We tell them, through our story, how that impact can be for harm or for healing, depending on how they wield it. We share a bit about the painful scorn, glaring neglect and blatant discrimination Ryan experienced at two different hospitals where we were with Ryan in the ICU. But our focus is on the GOOD stuff – the endless acts and words of kindness, respect and genuine compassion that we received from the medical team at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle during our 17 day stay there.

Each time we prepare to speak to a group of nursing students, I have trouble sleeping the night before. Typically something goes wrong to cause us to be unable to get into bed, or, like last time and again tonight, I received a “random” extremely disturbing phone call or message from one of Ryan’s old friends – friends that are still, tragically, using drugs. For those of my friends who believe in God – and Satan – it seems obvious where these come from. But for those of my friends who don’t believe in a personal God, much less the devil, I’m okay with you saying it is just bad luck. Even bad karma. I respect your beliefs; I have amazing friends, and I am grateful that you respect mine! But whatever the case, for the 24 hours before we go do this presentation, it always seems like all hell breaks loose in an effort to keep us from speaking.

Perhaps that is because our story illustrates exactly what Jesus taught when He told us to love the least of these…when He modeled treating those society despised with the utmost respect…when He broke commandments by healing those who were suffering on the Sabbath. As one of our doctors at Harborview said, “Didn’t Jesus hang out with prostitutes and sinners??” Yup. 100%. And who did He spend the most time calling out?? You got it. The “good people” of the day…those super religious folks that were always – ARE always – harping about who is doing what wrong. And sadly it typically doesn’t involve much self-reflection.
Rob and Ryan - Day 4 at Harborview

Perhaps it is because our story challenges our listeners to put aside their fears, judgments, prejudices and biases to see the SOUL of their patients. We encourage them to do what our team of nurses did – they looked beyond the outward condition to Ryan’s story. They didn’t judge him by his addiction, the number of times he had already overdosed, the horrific condition he was in, his sexual orientation or the fact that he no longer owned anything of value other than a few items of clothing, a lot of well-read books and memorabilia from childhood. The Bible has a LOT to say about our human tendency to judge others by their outward appearance, and God’s constancy in looking only at our hearts. And He sees – and loves – EVERYONE. No exceptions. Not even those religious folks He was so often calling out.

Or maybe it is because we can’t tell the story of our 17 days in Harborview without recounting at least a few of the many wonders we witnessed there. Our story wouldn’t make sense without telling about the day Ryan was being transferred to the hospice to die and then…he wasn’t. The next six days, and the way that the hospital lovingly cared for Ryan, and for our family, while we experienced things nobody could explain was…well, as one of Ryan’s doctors said, “Even the most staunch atheists around here are using the word MIRACLE.”

As many times as we’ve presented this story…as many times as we’ve read it through and vividly remembered each moment as it is retold, Rob and I never stop marveling. It always brings us to tears, and leaves us in awe of our good God who proved His love for Ryan by giving us all unexpected time to spend together, and an invaluable chance to say good-bye.

If you’ve never heard the story, you ought to come sometime and sit in the back, behind all those super smart nursing students, and listen. I am, and have always been, prone to doubt. But when we tell our story, even my doubts go out the window (and that is really saying something, especially these days!).

I am reminded of how personal, powerful and passionate God was toward us in those 17 days.

Or if you know a group of nursing students or people in other caring professions who could use a real-life example of how they can change the lives of a family forever (even if their loved one doesn’t survive), by the dignity, respect, compassion and kindness they show in their words and their actions, let us know. For us, getting to share both about the painful things we went through, and the gloriously precious days provided for us by Harborview (with a bit of help from God) is all about healing and redemption. It binds our wounds, and makes our grief a little easier to bear, knowing that maybe even a few other families will receive the kind of extraordinary treatment we did when they experience the worst trauma of their lives.

At the very least, you’ll learn why, in our opinion, there is NO WHERE else to go but Harborview if you have a serious medical emergency in the Pacific Northwest. But no, we don’t get referral bonuses, nor do they even know we tell all sorts of people about how amazing they are!

But most of all, we tell Ryan’s story because Ryan matters to us. Because we will never stop honoring him and all that he taught us in both life and in death, as long as we have the voices to do so. Because we adore our beautiful boy…just because he breathes…and even when he does not.

Yup. 100%.*

*To know the enormous significance of those two words…you’ll have to listen to our story. We’ll be sharing it on January 10th at the Gay Christian Network Conference in Chicago – Join us there!

Just Because He Breathes

June 1, 2009 – 2nd Day of 17 Days in Harborview

On the night of November 20, 2001, a conversation held over Instant Messenger changed our lives forever. Our twelve year old son messaged me in my office from the computer in his bedroom.

Ryan says: can i tell u something
Mom says: Yes I am listening
Ryan says: well i don’t know how to say this really but, well……, i can’t keep lying to you about myself. I have been hiding this for too long and i sorta have to tell u now. By now u probably have an idea of what i am about to say.
Ryan says: I am gay
Ryan says: i can’t believe i just told you
Mom says: Are you joking?
Ryan says: no
Ryan says: i thought you would understand because of uncle don
Mom says: of course I would
Mom says: but what makes you think you are?
Ryan says: i know i am
Ryan says: i don’t like hannah
Ryan says: it’s just a cover-up
Mom says: but that doesn’t make you gay…
Ryan says: i know
Ryan says: but u don’t understand
Ryan says: i am gay
Mom says: tell me more
Ryan says: it’s just the way i am and it’s something i know
Ryan says: u r not a lesbian and u know that. it is the same thing
Mom says: what do you mean?
Ryan says: i am just gay
Ryan says: i am that
Mom says: I love you no matter what
Ryan says: i am white not black
Ryan says: i know
Ryan says: i am a boy not a girl
Ryan says: i am attracted to boys not girls
Ryan says: u know that about yourself and i know this
Mom says: what about what God thinks about acting on these desires?
Ryan says: i know
Mom says: thank you for telling me
Ryan says: and i am very confused about that right now
Mom says: I love you more for being honest
Ryan says: i know
Ryan says: thanx

We were completely shocked. Not that we didn’t know and love gay people – my only brother had come out to us several years before, and we adored him. But Ryan? He was unafraid of anything, tough as nails, and ALL boy. We had not seen this coming, and the emotion that overwhelmed us, kept us awake at night and, sadly, influenced all of our reactions over the next six years, was FEAR.

We said all the things that we thought loving Christian parents who believed the Bible – the Word of God – should say:

We love you. We will ALWAYS love you. And this is hard. REALLY hard. But we know what God says about this, and so you are going to have to make some really difficult choices.

We love you. We couldn’t love you more. But there are other men who have faced this same struggle, and God has worked in them to change their desires. We’ll get you their books…you can listen to their testimonies. And we will trust God with this.

We love you. We are so glad you are our son. But you are young, and your sexual orientation is still developing. The feelings you’ve had for other guys don’t make you gay. So please don’t tell anyone that you ARE gay. You don’t know who you are yet. Your identity is not that you are gay – it is that you are a child of God.

We love you. Nothing will change that. But if you are going to follow Jesus, holiness is your only option. You are going to have to choose to follow Jesus, no matter what. And since you know what the Bible says, and since you want to follow God, embracing your sexuality is NOT an option.

We thought we understood the magnitude of the sacrifice that we – and God – were asking for. And this sacrifice, we knew, would lead to the abundant life, perfect peace and eternal rewards. Ryan had always felt intensely drawn to spiritual things; He desired to please God above all else. So, for the first six years, he tried to choose Jesus. Like so many others before him, he pleaded with God to help him be attracted to girls. He memorized Scripture, met with his youth pastor weekly, enthusiastically participated in all the church youth group events and Bible Studies and got baptized. He read all the books that claimed to know where his gay feelings came from, dove into counseling to further discover the “why’s” of his unwanted attraction to other guys, worked through painful conflict resolution with my husband and I, and built strong friendships with other guys – straight guys – just like the reparative therapy experts advised. He even came out to his entire youth group, giving his testimony of how God had rescued him from the traps of the enemy, and sharing – by memory – verse after verse that God had used to draw Ryan to Himself.

But nothing changed. God didn’t answer his prayer – or ours – though we were all believing with faith that the God of the Universe – the God for whom NOTHING is impossible – could easily make Ryan straight. But He did not.

Though our hearts may have been good (we truly thought what we were doing was loving), we did not even give Ryan a chance to wrestle with God, to figure out what HE believed God was telling him through scripture about his sexuality. We had believed firmly in giving each of our four children the space to question Christianity, to decide for themselves if they wanted to follow Jesus, to truly OWN their own faith. But we were too afraid to give Ryan that room when it came to his sexuality, for fear that he’d make the wrong choice.

Basically, we told our son that he had to choose between Jesus and his sexuality. We forced him to make a choice between God and being a sexual person. Choosing God, practically, meant living a lifetime condemned to being alone. He would never have the chance to fall in love, have his first kiss, hold hands, share intimacy and companionship or experience romance.

And so, just before his 18th birthday, Ryan, depressed, suicidal, disillusioned and convinced that he would never be able to be loved by God, made a new choice. He decided to throw out his Bible and his faith at the same time, and to try searching for what he desperately wanted – peace – another way. And the way he chose to try first was drugs.

We had – unintentionally – taught Ryan to hate his sexuality. And since sexuality cannot be separated from the self, we had taught Ryan to hate himself. So as he began to use drugs, he did so with a recklessness and a lack of caution for his own safety that was alarming to everyone who knew him.

Suddenly our fear of Ryan someday having a boyfriend (a possibility that honestly terrified me) seemed trivial in contrast to our fear of Ryan’s death, especially in light of his recent rejection of Christianity, and his mounting anger at God.

Ryan started with weed and beer…but in six short months was using cocaine, crack and heroin. He was hooked from the beginning, and his self-loathing and rage at God only fueled his addiction. Shortly after, we lost contact with him. For the next year and a half we didn’t know where he was, or even if he was dead or alive. And during that horrific time, God had our full attention. We stopped praying for Ryan to become straight. We started praying for him to know that God loved him. We stopped praying for him never to have a boyfriend. We started praying that someday we might actually get to know his boyfriend. We even stopped praying for him to come home to us; we only wanted him to come home to God.

By the time our son called us, after 18 long months of silence, God had completely changed our perspective. Because Ryan had done some pretty terrible things while using drugs, the first thing he asked me was this:

Do you think you can ever forgive me? (I told him of course, he was already forgiven. He had ALWAYS been forgiven.)

Do you think you could ever love me again? (I told him that we had never stopped loving him, not for one second. We loved him then more than we had ever loved him.)

Do you think you could ever love me with a boyfriend? (Crying, I told him that we could love him with fifteen boyfriends. We just wanted him back in our lives. We just wanted to have a relationship with him again…AND with his boyfriend.)

And a new journey was begun. One of healing, restoration, open communication and grace. LOTS of grace. And God was present every step of the way, leading and guiding us, gently reminding us simply to love our son, and leave the rest up to Him.

Over the next ten months, we learned to truly love our son. Period. No buts. No conditions. Just because he breathes. We learned to love whoever our son loved. And it was easy. What I had been so afraid of became a blessing. The journey wasn’t without mistakes, but we had grace for each other, and the language of apology and forgiveness became a natural part of our relationship. As our son pursued recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, we pursued him. God taught us how to love him, to rejoice over him, to be proud of the man he was becoming. We were all healing…and most importantly, Ryan began to think that if WE could forgive him and love him, then maybe God could, too.

And then Ryan made the classic mistake of a recovering addict…he got back together with his old friends…his using friends. And one evening that was supposed to simply be a night at the movies turned out to be the first time he had shot up in ten months…and the last time. Ryan died on July 16, 2009. And we lost the ability to love our gay son…because we no longer had a gay son. What we had wished for…prayed for…hoped for…that we would NOT have a gay son, came true. But not at all in the way we used to envision.

Now, when I think back on the fear that governed all my reactions during those first six years after Ryan told us he was gay, I cringe as I realize how foolish I was. I was afraid of all the wrong things. And I grieve, not only for my oldest son, who I will miss every day for the rest of my life, but for the mistakes I made. I grieve for what could have been, had we been walking by FAITH instead of by FEAR. Now, whenever Rob and I join our gay friends for an evening, I think about how much I would love to be visiting with Ryan and his partner over dinner. But instead, we visit Ryan’s gravestone. We celebrate anniversaries: the would-have-been birthdays and the unforgettable day of his death. We wear orange – his color. We hoard memories: pictures, clothing he wore, handwritten notes, lists of things he loved, tokens of his passions, recollections of the funny songs he invented, his Curious George and baseball blankey, anything, really, that reminds us of our beautiful boy…for that is all we have left, and there will be no new memories.  We rejoice in our adult children, and in our growing family as they marry…but ache for the one of our “gang of four” who is missing. We mark life by the days BC (before coma) and AD (after death), because we are different people now; our life was irrevocably changed – in a million ways – by his death. We treasure friendships with others who “get it”…because they, too, have lost a child.

We weep. We seek Heaven for grace and mercy and redemption as we try – not to get better but to be better. And we pray that God can somehow use our story to help other parents learn to truly love their children. Just because they breathe.

Linda Diane Robertson
Originally written on December 5th, 2012
Posted on January 14, 2013 – Ryan’s would-have-been-24 birthday

NOTE: If you’d like to read an example of the beautiful, gracious and loving soul our son Ryan was, read the letter he wrote to Rob on Father’s Day, only 9 days before his accidental overdose.