To a dad of three adult children, words like arrested, homeless and addiction can be truly frightening. One Sunday afternoon, Dave Cooke got a phone call that connected all three words to his youngest son, Brandon. Panicked, Dave took off to rescue his son but learned the hard way he’d lose control of his own life in the process.
Disappointed, discouraged and nearly depressed, Dave challenged himself to get back on the saddle — or in his case, the bicycle. His personal challenge — to ride his bike for one hour every day for 100 days — was transformative and reminded Dave of his role in his son’s recovery. Now, he brings the inspiration and clarity he found on his bike rides to other parents facing similar struggles.
The Worst Phone Call
As far as Dave Cooke knew, life was good. He and his wife were successful professionals and empty nesters living in Arizona, enjoying their weekends by the pool and catching up with their adult children. One Sunday, however, a seemingly routine phone call from his daughter changed Dave’s life.
“I hit the panic button when I got a call from my daughter that my son, who was 20 years old then, was in jail because he had been homeless, struggled with the law and had been doing heroin,” Dave recalls.
The news was shocking — Dave had just visited his son a month before.
“That changed the whole game for me. In my mind, people who did heroin were sad, sorry, scary people.”
He felt disbelief, pain and sadness. And then, he felt determined.
“I put on my dad armor and said I’m going to go rescue my kid,” says Dave. “What can I do to fix this? How can I help?”
The next day, Dave was on a plane to Detroit, launching a three-month endeavor to get his son released into his care and moved back to Arizona.
He called in favors with friends who were attorneys and spent countless hours talking to his son’s probation officer to coordinate the move, which took place on his son’s 21st birthday.
“This was not understanding what the real issue was, though,” Dave says in hindsight.
This wasn’t the first time Dave had encountered his son using drugs. When he was 14, Dave caught him smoking pot.
“I had done all of that stuff when I was in high school and college and it didn’t kill me,” he says. “So I had the dad talk with him, but I didn’t have a panicked urgency to rescue him. Even when I found out he was using Oxycontin I didn’t understand, I didn’t do my research. I minimized it.”
But, unbeknownst to Dave, his son’s drug use in high school didn’t stop.
By the time he was 18, Brandon was addicted to heroin.
Today, he is 27 and is still struggling with his addiction.
“My son has been dealing with a heroin addiction for the better part of nine years, although I’ve only been aware of it for about seven.”
Taking Back Control
In the first 18 months after his son moved to Arizona, Dave and his wife experienced what many addicts and their families are familiar with — recovery, relapse, overdoses, arrests and deception.
“It was a litany of calamitous, painful stuff,” Dave says. “I felt worse and worse, and the more invested in his success I was, the more painful it became. I realized I was measuring my success on his progress.”
Dave found himself living an unrecognizable life — letting go of his professional aspirations, drifting away from friends and family, adopting an unhealthy lifestyle — living somewhere “between depression and frustration.”
“I was completely broken from his addiction.”
In a desperate attempt to bring himself out of the downward spiral, Dave pushed himself to get more involved with cycling, one of his favorite hobbies he let fall by the wayside.
Dave devised a plan: to ride his bike for one hour each day for 100 consecutive days. He accepted this as a challenge bigger than just another New Year’s resolution. And he completed it.
Each ride offered Dave personal time to meditate with his thoughts.
“The self-care that came from that restructured my thinking. I realized, as a dad and a person, I needed to completely detach from his addiction.”
For Dave, that meant reminding himself that he and his son are two different people, that he cannot control his son’s actions, and that his failures weren’t Dave’s. It also meant taking a backseat role in his son’s recovery from heroin addiction.
“I realized the only way he can experience the consequences of his choices is for me to get out of the way,” Dave says. “I was doing the work, driving him places, managing his calendar and, finally I realized it’s not my job to make sure he goes to his parole officer or gets drug testing. When you let go, they experience what it is to be responsible for their own recovery. You can’t want it bad enough for them.”
Dave saw positive changes from his paradigm shift almost immediately, and his son even thanked him for making him responsible for his own recovery.
The same year, Dave formed 100 Pedals to help encourage parents of young addicts to maintain their own health and happiness in order to be better parents and support systems for their children.
Q: How did your son’s addiction affect the rest of the family?
I think for my daughter — she was in the middle of this in Detroit and was leaving the next day — it was very hard. They were two peas in a pod, they were always close growing up. My kids are all four years apart, so when my oldest son was off at college my daughter and youngest son were together. They were the co-collaborators. So I think my daughter took it the worst. She was disappointed, scared, worried.
My oldest son was the same, but they had a different level of connection. He had experienced some of my son’s issues because they have lived together in San Francisco the year before this all happened, so for him this brought it full circle. He saw a lot of weird behavior, a lot of unusual circumstances — this closed the loop for him.
Q: What resources did you turn to for help?
I like to do things my own way on my own terms. Unlike most parents, I was pretty candid about the situation my son. I didn’t hide it or shy away. Life took a screwy turn and I was always transparent about the issue to anybody. I did feel responsible, I did feel some guilt like I screwed up as a parent, but in terms of shame or fear, I had none. I don’t have time for “woe is me”; my attitude is to change your life.
I did read a lot of books trying to understand what addiction was, what my son was going through. One book I read was Beyond the Yellow Brick Road by Bob Meehan, and I totally loved that book. I also read another great one, Positive Addiction by William Glasser. They both were fantastic books because they helped me understand better why people get stuck in life. It’s not just about drug addiction, but the mental piece about why we make the choices we do. I believe addiction is a disease, but I’m also reading another book right now about how addiction is a learned coping mechanism. You find ways to deal with stuff that causes pain; some people ride their bike like I do, some do heroin. That’s what those books helped me with — to better understand the addiction, but the “why” of the addiction.
From that I learned what he needed to hear from his dad was love and encouragement, not discouragement and frustration. He’s already discouraged, he’s already frustrated, that’s why he’s doing drugs. What he does need is, “I know you can figure this out. I love you and believe you. If you need my help I’m here.”
Q: What do you hope to accomplish with 100 Pedals?
100 Pedals is a labor of love. Our mission was, originally, to make myself available to parents who want to call and ask for advice. But what I really love doing the most is workshops and talks, sharing my story.
What I’ve found is very few parents are like me. Most won’t say, “Well I got a curveball today. My son is addicted to heroin.” I’m in the 10% who would share that. The other 90% go, “Holy crap, don’t let the neighbors know.” But there are no answers inside the four walls of a house.
What I’m trying to do is reach those parents who don’t want to go public with their pain, but who are out there searching the internet and I’m hoping they trust me enough to pick up the phone and call me. When I do workshops and talks, I say, “Let’s talk about being parents of an adolescent child.” Then we talk about things kids go through as adolescents, like drugs, sex, that kind of thing, because most parents are concerned about being good parents. Once I build up that trust and share my story, I get one or two people who say, “I’m that dad, I need to talk to you about this,” and that’s when I can coach them because they’ve learned to trust me.
Q: What advice do you have for other parents who have a child with an addiction?
When they find out their child is doing drugs, they present themselves with a conundrum. You have to understand the two sides of the coin — their child needs help immediately, so you have to move quickly to get them the help they need, but to understand what kind of help they need you have to be willing to dive in and do a lot of hard work and a lot of research to understand what they are dealing with. That involves being transparent about the issue. If you found out your child had cancer, you would seek out a specialist, tell friends and family, and ask for help. It should be the same with addiction — you have to do the same kind of research and the same kind of hard work.
I can’t emphasize enough to parents the idea of self-care. You wouldn’t believe the number of moms who tell me “I stopped running” or “I stopped going to the gym” and always ask, Why? This is the time to do that more than ever before.
Every parent needs to find that outlet that is positive and use a half hour or hour or two to detach from the chaos and build themselves up. If you’re broken, you can’t help someone else who is broken.
That’s what biking is for me — it puts me in a place of personal power, and that was the mission of my bike ride way back when. Now I’m strong for my son when he’s present, and stronger for myself when he’s not. Answering that question for myself changed my life. ▪
Dave Cooke put aside his work as a small business coach to found the nonprofit 100 Pedals in 2011. The organization’s mission is to educate the public on addiction and encourage and inspire those dealing with addiction in their family, which he accomplishes through public speaking. Dave’s passion for cycling served as the inspiration for 100 Pedals and helped him conceive “Cycling For Addiction,” a cross-country bike trip he made in the summer of 2016. Today, Dave and his wife live in Scottsdale, Arizona.