REVIEW: A House on Stilts: Mothering in the Age of Opioid Addiction by Paula Becker

Reviewed by Jennifer Jenkins

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house on stilts cover - young child jumping in airThis thoughtful and heart-wrenching narrative should come in a welcome kit for parents of teenagers. People may think their own family is immune to addiction, largely due to higher socioeconomic backgrounds. But addiction is not choosy, despite your income level or solid 401k. Becker presents a portrait of addiction that is tough, with sharp, barbed claws that sink deeply into an unsuspecting psyche. Even when the claws are retracted, they leave holes that an addict must now fill.

The book introduces a typical family; Dad is a doctor, Mom is an arts administrator, and both are involved in their children’s education and extracurricular activities in an upscale part of Seattle. Becker’s writing is engaging and detailed to keep the reader interested in their particular quaint idiosyncrasies. They are doing everything right. Becker states, “We were a certain kind of liberal-arts-school-graduate cliché. We valued books, reading, creativity, curiosity, and being kind to one another more than anything. We didn’t recognize that many other parents did the same. We were sincere and, I realize now, smug.” How such seeming normalcy leads from baseball practice to heroin needles is where the horror seeps in and people begin to judge.

Becker’s writing is compelling enough for us to take that journey with her as her oldest son Hunter becomes an opioid addict. We meet Hunter: smart, personable, funny, and considered the golden boy by teachers, friends, and his parents. They are initially certain that he is innocent of any wrongdoing. When informed that Hunter has been shoplifting, his parents “told ourselves that those shopkeepers must have been mistaken.” The portrait painted by Becker leads us to question this as well.

As a teenager, Hunter seeks to belong to a group that will appreciate his humor and ambition, which is like every other teenager in the world. Unfortunately, Hunter’s friends introduce him to fentanyl, which is a strong prescription pain reliever akin to morphine. Fentanyl use frequently leads to heroin, methamphetamines, and alcohol abuse, because once something makes you feel that good, regular life is bound to be a disappointment. When Becker and her husband have the wool firmly pulled back from their eyes when Hunter is only 17, the round-robin of strong confrontation, tearful confessions, hopeful rehabilitation, and inevitable relapse begins to play out and overtake their lives.

Following Hunter’s path is difficult, because we have gotten to know him and hope for his redemption. One of the most painful paths for Becker is finding the reason for Hunter’s addiction: isolation, troubled childhood, emotional sensitivity, school challenges – if these sound generic, that’s because they are. There is no reason, and there is no one to blame. If there were a solid set of rubrics to follow that lead to addiction, the issue would have been solved. This is a well-told tale of how to survive a parent’s nightmare, while wishing it never had to be written.

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