This Comedian Learned Her Son’s Struggle with Drugs and Depression Wasn’t ‘Rebelliousness' She Could ‘Fix’ (Exclusive)

Content creator and author Kristina Kuzmic, 45, feared she might lose her 15-year-old son to suicide. To save him, she says she had to give up her need to be a mom in control

<p><a href="https://www.instagram.com/yurihasegawaphoto/?hl=en">Yuri Hasegawa</a></p> Kristina Kuzmic and son Luka, photographed for PEOPLE in June 2024

Yuri Hasegawa

Kristina Kuzmic and son Luka, photographed for PEOPLE in June 2024

Kristina Kuzmic remembers the panicked feeling that she might be losing her son.

For more than a year, Kuzmic, an author, comedian and content creator, could see her “full-of-life” boy with the big laugh slowly begin to withdraw from a life he had once loved.

At 15, Luka was struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts, and had begun stealing to buy opioids and marijuana.

Then, one night in April 2019, after his parents confiscated cash he’d planned to use for drugs, Luka became enraged, shattering a glass against a wall. He spit in his mother’s face and tried to cut himself and his stepfather with a shard of glass. Kristina called the police. “It was the hardest thing," she says. "I knew helping him was beyond my capacity.”

Even as she was reeling from her personal crisis, Kristina — who first made a name for herself in 2011 when Oprah picked her as a winner in a reality competition and who now has 4 million social media followers —continued to entertain audiences with parenting comedy on her Hope and Humor tour. “I wanted to be for others what I needed,” says Kristina, 45.

<p>Courtesy</p> Kristina Kuzmic's new book I Can Fix This is out now.

Courtesy

Kristina Kuzmic's new book I Can Fix This is out now.

After nearly six years, seven psychiatrists and five therapists, Luka, now 20, is in a healthier place. He and his mom, whose new book, I Can Fix This. And Other Lies I Told Myself While Parenting My Struggling Child, chronicles the lessons they learned, sat down with PEOPLE to share their story.

Related: Meet the Father-Daughter Duo Who Created a Comic Book Hero to Help Teens Struggling With Mental Health (Exclusive)

<p>Courtesy</p> Luka and Kristina Kuzmic when Luka was little.

Courtesy

Luka and Kristina Kuzmic when Luka was little.

LUKA KUZMIC As a kid I loved making people laugh. But I was bullied severely and it had a big effect. I wanted to fit in but I didn’t know how. I felt alone in a group of people. I wanted to escape.

KRISTINA KUZMIC He was isolating, but I thought it was normal — teens don’t love hanging out with their parents. I thought the anger was raging hormones. Then I noticed he was isolating from his friends. He wasn’t finding joy in anything.

LUKA I remember feeling a coldness, a darkness. Those feelings grew in high school.

<p>Courtesy</p> Luka Kuzmic at 14, in 2017.

Courtesy

Luka Kuzmic at 14, in 2017.

By 14, Luka was drinking, vaping weed and taking opioids. Kristina got a therapist for Luka who said he showed symptoms of depression.

KRISTINA When I started seeing signs, I wish we had gone to therapy together, but not to try to fix him. I wish I had approached it as, “I want to be a better support.”

LUKA When I first drank and smoked, it was the happiest I’ve ever felt. Like, “Why would I want to be sad when I can pop a pill and not deal with it?” It slowly progressed. I would walk around school and pay people a dollar for a hit. It was the only thing getting me by.

KRISTINA We were in the car one day and I asked, “Have you ever thought about hurting yourself?” He said, “Yes.” My world shifted. I was consumed with fear. I remember wanting to say, “No, Luka, that’s not what you want.” But I knew if I did, he’d never open up again. Because it’s like me saying, “I don’t believe you.” So I tried to keep the hard conversation going.

Luka’s drug use worsened. His anger grew.

KRISTINA He stole pain pills from the medicine cabinet at his grandparents' house. I’d find a vape or pills, take it away and give a consequence. He’d blow up and punch holes in the walls until his fists were bloody. I knew we were dealing with depression, but I was focused on symptoms. No kid ever stopped doing drugs because Mommy asked them to. Consequences can’t heal depression. I was coming from a place of control instead of curiosity. I could have said, “Tell me what drugs do for you. I want to understand.” Later in a therapy session, he told me, “Mom, if the only thing that kept you from killing yourself was being high, would you be high?” Suddenly it was like, “My God, this isn’t just rebelliousness.” But at the time, I was scared. When fear leads, you’re not connecting.

<p>Courtesy</p> Luka, sister Matea, 19, Kristina, brother Ari, 10, and stepfather Philip, 47, in 2019.

Courtesy

Luka, sister Matea, 19, Kristina, brother Ari, 10, and stepfather Philip, 47, in 2019.

In the weeks leading up to the police encounter, the fear intensified.

KRISTINA I didn’t trust he wouldn’t hurt himself or somebody else. When it got violent that night, I remember looking at my husband, going, “I have to call.” They took him to a psychiatric hospital. At the time, Luka hated me for it.

LUKA
I was just like, “F--- you. You put me here.” Depression is blinding. You can’t think rationally. But she never gave up on me. She made mistakes, but she would always try.

KRISTINA Often when teens say, “Leave me alone,” parents do. But as imperfect and clueless as we parents are, kids need us to keep showing up for them.

While Luka was in the hospital, Kristina turned 40.

KRISTINA I thought we’d cancel the party. But my mother-in-law said, “You need to surround your-self with people who love you.” We all knew I would have been at home crying. But I was miserable. I felt so fake. After the party, I went to bed feeling like the worst mother.Then a friend said to me, “By going through with it, you gave Luka one less thing to feel he destroyed.” I learned that positive emotions aren’t something I have to earn. What if Luka is never healthy? Does that mean I never enjoy my life? You don’t do your kid favors by suffering. It puts more pressure on them.

LUKA
I would have beaten myself up if she didn’t go through with it. I would have felt like, “I ruin
everything.”

Related: Her Daughter Stopped Going to School Because of Anxiety. Now Lauri Hornik Helps Other Kids — Through Books (Exclusive)

After seven weeks in residential treatment, Luka found support in group therapy and made the decision to stop using drugs. But because of his treatment, he didn't graduate with his high school class. In 2021 after he earned his high school diploma, Kristina threw him a graduation ceremony, complete with cap and gown, at home.

<p>Courtesy</p> Kristina Kuzmic and son Luka at his home graduation ceremony in 2021.

Courtesy

Kristina Kuzmic and son Luka at his home graduation ceremony in 2021.

KRISTINA Parents want their kid to fit in a certain box and fit a certain timeline. There's this feeling of "What will people think?" But I that's self-abusive. Luka graduated on his time. If I had pushed him and put pressure on him — or even hid it, even if I was like, "We can't tell people..." — that would've had such a negative impact on him. And in the long term, it really doesn't matter. What matters is your child's health.

Luka wrote the last chapter in Kristina’s new book, I Can Fix This.

KRISTINA As I was writing the book, I'd say to him, "Is it too personal?" His response was, "Write it." He wanted it out there to help others. I’m so proud. I hadn’t seen genuine joy in him in years. But there’s laughter again.

LUKA I tell peers who are struggling, “This isn’t up to you to figure it out. Talk to someone. Get it out." There's something about saying something or even writing it down on paper that is powerful.

After years of support groups and family therapy, Luka — and Kristina — found balance. But, says Luka, "mental health is never linear. There are ups and downs."

LUKA
I’m so grateful for my family for helping me get out of this pit. And if it wasn’t for therapy I wouldn’t be here. I still feel depression, but it’s a thousandth of what I felt before. I’m on a wonderful medication. I can identify my feelings and problems — Have I eaten? Have I gotten good sleep? — and I address them.

<p><a href="https://www.instagram.com/yurihasegawaphoto/?hl=en" data-component="link" data-source="inlineLink" data-type="externalLink" data-ordinal="1">Yuri Hasegawa</a></p>

KRISTINA Parents want to fix things because we love our kids so much. The intention’s great, but it ends up causing self-hatred. If you think you can control something, when it doesn’t work out, it’s your fault. I had no power on my own to fix his depression. I had no power to make him stop taking drugs. I learned that when I met his anger with anger, he had nobody steady to lean on. The only power I had was healing me.

If you or someone you know needs mental health help, text “STRENGTH” to the Crisis Text Line at741741 or visit crisistextline.org

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