Bobbi, my therapist, is looking at me, with concern creasing her face. I’ve come to my appointment more depressed than ever. I sought her out when my 30-year-old son relapsed, after five years free from Methamphetamine use. When I called her 4 months ago, I was grasping for a hold on my sanity. I was descending quickly into the chaotic vortex life becomes when you love an addict.
Recently, my sadness fills me. I imagine it floating in my blood and as a mist hanging in the synapsis of my brain. I feel heavy from the weigh of it and everything requires more effort than I can manage. I haven’t been able to talk myself out of this sadness and it scares me. As I sit, hunched into my sorrow she asks, “Do you ever blame yourself?” I look at her startled. And think, what!? Are kidding me? I wanted a pep talk, an easy solution; but instead, I get, “Do you blame yourself?” Now I’m more depressed. Does she know how many times I’ve asked myself this question and how unsure I am of the answer?
I begin to talk, even though I don’t want to, because, that is what I’m here for. I explain how hard I tried to be a good parent, not just a good parent, but the perfect parent. I realize that’s probably a red flag, but she just listens, as I explain my journey. I tell her how my whole life was spent wanting to be a mom. I told her how ecstatic I was when my husband and I started trying to get pregnant in our second year of marriage.
Then how heartbroken I was when we went months without getting pregnant, then years. Finally, after too many doctors’ visits, tests and miscarriages – we decided to adopt. We were overjoyed when we brought home our beautiful baby boy at four weeks old. We wanted to give him everything: love, security, happiness…. Our child would have it all. I read books on parenting and worked to follow all the expert’s advice. We offered stable routines, unconditional love, consistency, mental stimulation, creative play…
As he entered middle school, I homeschooled because he was struggling in school. We also encourage his nonacademic interests. We coached little league and drove him to piano lessons, swim lessons and tennis lessons. We were also vigilant about video games, movies, and TV. We didn’t want him to spend too much time on things that would have a negative impact. There was always a parenting book on my nightstand and I tried to do it all just right.
We had one big concern. Our adopted baby boy came from three generations of alcoholics, but we felt certain we could counteract heredity. We didn’t drink or smoke, so he would have no one to learn addiction from and there would be no alcohol in the house. We thought we could give him such a stable, loving environment that it wouldn’t matter that he came from a long line of addicts. But it turns out life can be a cruel teacher and we were devastated by his addiction to a variety of drugs in his teens. I paused as I came to this point in my story. I finally said, “I gave my whole life to raising him. So, I don’t think I blame myself.”
But then I paused. as my mind came full circle. There was another thing I often ruminated about, “Unless,” I said, “I tried too hard, or was too involved. Is that what went wrong? Maybe… I am to blame! Maybe, I was too protective. I wanted to make his world perfect. Did I try to hard? That happens in sports. A player wants a home run or a touch down so badly, that they choke. Maybe, I blew it. Maybe, I choked.”
Bobbi wants to know how that makes me feel. With more than I little irritation, I tell her that I’m angry and that I’m no longer a confident parent. I constantly second guess my choices. Since there are no guarantees I know that there is no right way to handle an addict. What works one week, blows up in my face the next week. Even experts give conflicting advice and the advice varies based on your child’s age, drug of choice, personality, history, spiritual beliefs, and mental stability. And I am angry because I worry constantly about enabling or abandoning. I live in a constant state of turmoil and anxiety trying to figure out the right thing to do.
Why does it make you so anxious she asks? I think about it and I realize that all those books I read about child rearing are part of my problem. All that reading made me believe that my child’s future was within my control. The books and experts said I could determine the outcome. This made me feel confident, if I did what they suggested in their book, then my child would be well-adjusted. But this was a double-edged sword, if this was true, then it also made me responsible for my child’s success or failure. By this logic, my child’s adult life wasn’t up to him but was dependent on me. And if I did what the experts said I expected it to pay off with a successful, happy well-adjusted adult. BUT, It was a lie! I know now that there is no guarantee. But I still feel guilty, I was given a handbook and still couldn’t produce a well-adjusted adult. And I’m still trying.
With mounting frustration, I say to Bobbi, “I wish someone had said, ‘do your best, BUT there are no guarantees! A child’s free will does not disappear because you love them and devote your life to them or read a hundred books about how to raise them. Your child still gets to choose whether to use drugs, follow rules, break laws or break your heart. I wish someone had told me not to wrap my whole life up in his success! I wish someone had said no matter how hard you try, you cannot control other people, not even your own child!’”
Bobbi smiles, which at first irritates me. Doesn’t she realize how mad I am? Then I realize, this is her mantra, “you cannot control other people.” She has said to me many times, but today I worked my way to this important truth all by myself. Secretly, I feel kind of proud, because I realize that I need to be able to return to this truth on my own. It is my first step to finding peace. I say it again, with confidence “I cannot control my son.” As I say it, I realize that my misery has come from trying to do the impossible.
Our times is coming to an end and Bobbi repeats her question, “Do you blame yourself?”
I answer with more peace than I’ve felt in days, “No, I was the best parent I knew how to be, and even if I had been perfect there is no guarantee. I’m sure I made mistakes, but they were not made from lack of effort or lack of love.”
“Anything else?” she says.
I surprised myself with how easy my answer came, “I don’t I need to fix him. It’s not my job.”
“And what is your job?” she asks.
“To take the all the effort I put into being the perfect mom and put it into learning to be a healthy, happy person whose happiness and peace are not tied to what my child does.” I say.
Bobbi smiles at me and I smile back. Okay, so I guess this is what I came for after all, not easy answers or pep talks, but therapy, with a compassionate listener, that leads me back to the truth.
Today, I choose to remember that I cannot control another person and I will not blame myself for my child’s addiction. I will work on me so that I can learn to find peace and happiness in the storm because it’s the only thing I can truly control.