How is it even remotely possible that I’m happy? The greatest fears I ever had as a parent have come to pass. By all accounts, I’m a failure as a mother. How can I live a joyful life?

My oldest child is an addict and a felon. How can I even hold my head up?


First, I am not a failure. All those thoughts I once had about controlling how my children turned out have been put to rest. I do not control another human being. They were never mine to control. Control was an illusion created by books and the culture of child-rearing that I lived through. My children are full human beings with free will and autonomy.

Second, I lived through those fearful times – my child’s incarceration, his homelessness, suicide threats and so much more. I learned and grew and became a better version of myself in the process. I’m stronger, braver, and more resourceful than I realized. I’ve also grown so much in compassion. I do not judge any longer. How can I?  Now that I know the amount of pain involved in these horrible aspects of life. Addicts are in pain, felons are in pain, and their parents are in pain. How can I judge anyone else before I’ve walked in their shoes? I have learned how true this old adage is.

Third, I learned detachment. This skill has served in so many aspects of my life. Not just in dealing with my addicted child. Although I learned it while figuring out how to survive with an addicted child. Detachment is what I did when I told my son that his problems were too big for his dad and me to fix and that he needed professional help. I stopped being wrapped up in his drama and feeling like I had to fix it. Instead, I pointed him to programs built to help him and let him find his way out. He’s 2 ½ years sober.

 Not to make it sound easy. We spent months listening to his tales of horror. He was sleeping under a porch, he was hungry, and he was cold. He also attacked us. We were heartless, mean, horrible parents. How could we let him suffer this way? We sent him phone numbers and addresses for organizations created to help him repeatedly. He swore he’d die before he’d call. We kindly told him that we sincerely hoped he would not but that he must make his own choices. After months of worry and standing firm, he finally called one of the numbers. He asked permission to come home for a shower and a ride to sober living. We agreed to that. We will help when you are helping yourself. He stayed in sober living because he knew he could not come home, and he thrived.

I’ve used detachment when my non-addicted son complained about his job, or lack of sleep with the new baby, or whatever his current complaint was. I told myself he had to find his own way. I can babysit while he works on his resume, offer date nights to him and his wife, and watch the new baby while they sleep. But I can only help. I can’t fix it. They will find their way through, just like I did when my kids were babies.

When my father-in-law’s Alzheimer’s became severe, and my mother-in-law called to complain, we offered her breaks and help. But ultimately, she needed more. We took her to view retirement communities and memory care facilities. She didn’t want that, she just wanted things to be different.  We told her she had to make the decision to help herself. We couldn’t fix it or make it better. She also needed more than we could give. She eventually realized this was true. Now he is in a very good facility, and she is in an apartment in the same complex. She can take care of herself and visit him daily if she wishes. We helped a lot with the sale of the house, talking to financial people and helping them move. But ultimately, we couldn’t solve the problem, only help.

Realizing that other people’s problems are not mine to fix has been life-changing. I can offer help and support. I can do the research and offer the phone numbers and addresses. I can offer expertise in areas that I am strong in, but I do not have to fix everyone’s problems.

Instead of that feeling of complete dread when a problem comes up that seems insurmountable, I stop and think about what I can offer that doesn’t destroy me. How can help and yet keep my sanity? With every offer, I keep my boundaries in mind. Do I need a break? Can I do whatever is being requested without losing myself? Is there an organization that can do what I’m being asked to do? Is help available other than me turning my life upside down?  I no longer feel the need to solve other people’s problems. This is the most empowering lesson I’ve learned.

My life isn’t turning out like I planned when I was twenty. But that’s okay. It’s a good life, and I am happy. My family knows I will always be there for them, but as a helper and to support them. It’s not my job to fix their life. I have my own life to keep on track so I’m healthy and able to give a little bit to everyone, instead of being destroyed by one person who thinks I owe them my life to fix theirs. We each have to live our own life, and mine has turned out to be a life that makes me quite happy.

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