In January 2011, Anita Devlin was at her home in Massachusetts, hands shaking, as she typed out the most important text message of her life: "Son, please let me know you are OK. I love you." As she waited for a response, she stared out of her living room window at the fresh layer of snow that had covered the front yard. Cold, or maybe it was panic, crept into her fingers and toes. She began to pray that her son, Mike, was still alive.
Mike was lying in the bathtub in a dingy Burlington, VT, motel room, hoping the handful of pain pills he'd taken would kill him. When he saw Anita's text, he called her. "I'm scared," he told his mom, his voice weak and shaking. "I'm scared and I need help."
Mike started abusing opioids secretly in high school, after doctors prescribed him painkillers for sports-related surgeries. In the fall of 2009, as a sophomore at the University of Vermont, Mike confessed to Anita and his father, Michael, that he was addicted to the drugs. Anita and Michael pulled Mike out of school and sent him to an outpatient rehab center in New York City.
As far as they knew, the treatment had put him back on the right track. But when he returned to college the next spring, he quickly relapsed and dropped out of school. He'd begun stealing money from his roommates for drugs—and when Anita got the call that prompted her text message to Mike in January 2011, it was because his buddies hadn't seen him in several days and were worried he might have overdosed.
Path to Hope
That night, Anita quickly arranged for a friend of Mike's to stay with him in the motel. A few days later, Anita and Michael drove Mike to Caron Pennsylvania, a well-regarded residential treatment center nestled among rolling farmland in the southeastern part of the state. During his 30-day stay, Mike finally committed to staying healthy. Afterward, he transitioned to a sober living house in Dallas to continue his recovery.
Something changed in Anita, too, during Mike's treatment and in the months and years since. As part of the program at Caron, Anita, Michael, and their daughter, Alex, drove there to attend lectures aimed at family members. Anita began to understand more about her son's drug abuse. "I thought that Mike was just a party animal. I didn't understand he was sick," says Anita. She also confronted the shame and anger she felt about her son's troubles and started to consider what role she might play in helping him heal. "A lot of women think, Not my kid, he wouldn't do that," says Anita. "That kept me from accepting much earlier that Mike had a drug problem."
Mike thinks his mother blamed herself in part for his descent into drug dependence. "I knew she felt guilty that she'd missed the signs of my addiction," he says.
At Caron, Anita met with a variety of counselors and began to accept that she couldn't take away Mike's addiction. "I knew I had to stop treating Mike like he was still a little boy," she says.
As Mike entered a new life of sobriety, Anita decided to share her hard-won knowledge with other moms of addicts. "I don't want any mother to feel as alone as I did," she says. In 2015, Anita self-published , a book about Mike's and her experiences, and sold it on Amazon and through her Facebook page. The back of the book lists , where Anita also keeps a blog, and mothers began to reach out to her for advice on dealing with their own troubled families.
At first, Anita would spend hours each day talking to people who were coping with their child's addiction. "I'd been working with so many moms one-on-one that I asked each if they wanted to start meeting as a group. Most of them said yes," Anita recalls. She began assembling women in small groups who met in church basements, coffee shops, or living rooms. "Talking with other women who 'get it' helps you through the pain," she says.
Maura Campbell, of western Massachusetts, calls Anita "my angel." After her son Chris overdosed last year, Maura connected with Anita at the suggestion of an acquaintance. "This woman I didn't even know got me through the darkest days of my life," recalls Maura, who was hit by a crippling depression after checking Chris into a detox center. For weeks, Anita and Maura spoke on the phone every day. They'd talk about Chris's progress—Anita had helped secure him a partial scholarship at a much better treatment center—as well as Maura's own mental health. Anita even put Mike in touch with Chris.
"There aren't a lot of people you can tell when your child has drug issues, and Anita made me feel much less alone," says Maura. "I've developed a sisterhood with the other moms I met through Anita's Facebook page."
Anita's efforts come as other families in her community and around the country grapple with an out-of-control opioid epidemic. In the past few years, a number of community groups such as and help parents connect with one another and gain access to important information, such as how their kids fared in various treatment centers. And large nonprofits such as have evolved to meet the demands of the changing landscape of addiction.
Gradually, Anita began to take her message to a new audience. In 2015, she spoke to the local chapter of the Philoptochos Society, a women's charitable organization, at the Greek Orthodox Church of Our Saviour in Rye, NY. "I was petrified of sharing my family's story," Anita recalls. To make matters more nerve-racking, her father had been the priest of this congregation for years and many people who knew him would be there. "But I knew I had to speak about addiction to give people permission to talk about it," says Anita. Afterward, people thanked her and shared their stories. "I realized this was something I had to do more of," she says.
"Much of what I talk about is very raw and real," Anita adds. "There were times I hated my son. The whole experience sunk me into a deep depression. But I found that the more I shared, the more the other moms would share." As time passes, she speaks less about her son's addiction and more about her own journey. "Anita embraces her vulnerability. She has been shaped by the fear and pain—it hasn't gone away. But since she started speaking publicly, she has found a way to channel all the emotion she went through," says close friend Fr. Nathanael Symeonides, a director at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
In June, Anita spoke to 150 Greek Orthodox priests and bishops, all male. She was intimidated by the crowd at first, but she got a huge round of applause at the end. Even better, her speech helped spark a movement to make the church more welcoming to families affected by addiction. "I want the church to be the first place people go, not the last," she says. "I want the priests to tell their parishioners that there is no room for judgment."
Between the book (which she's turning into a screenplay), the private conversations, and the speeches, Anita is healing not only others but herself. "I am in recovery from my son's addiction," she says.
Mike now lives in Dallas and recently celebrated six years of sobriety. He works with other former addicts and coaches youth and high school lacrosse teams. He got married last year. "After I'd been sober for a while, I saw with different eyes what my mom had been going through during those difficult days," he says. "Our relationship has grown a lot. Her work brings me great joy."