CONTROL?

I was trained to believe that we are in control of our lives. I think it’s a product of the seventies and positive thinking philosophies. I believed that if I worked hard enough, thought positive thoughts, and did my best, that I could make my life turn out perfect.

Then one day I came face to face with the fact that I can’t control my world. No matter how hard we try, some things are out of our control. Listening to my son rage in a meth-fueled delirium over the phone for the hundredth time removed every last shred of ambiguity I had about control.

When I think back to what I wanted for my sons, it was simply for them to be healthy, happy and successful.  I wanted a big cheerful family with ‘good’ kids. I did everything I could imagine to guarantee that. Healthy foods, regular checkups, positive reinforcement, church, boy scouts, theater, swim lessons, sports, loving encouragement, good schooling, help with homework… We visited family often, hosted holidays, and worked to create the family I wanted.

You name it, we did it.

Preparing for the holidays this year, I realize that by those standards I am an abysmal failure. This year is nothing like I imagined my future holidays would be. I have one son who is divorced, on probation, and an addict. My other son, although financially stable and married, suffers from depression. My addicted son has major problems with our extended family and really would prefer not to spend Christmas with them.

My younger self would have been horrified – addiction, depression, crime, family strife. Where is the perfect family? I have the color-coordinated pictures, the family traditions, the scrapbooks. I can bring receipts; I did the work. This is not how it was supposed to turn out…

But it’s okay, I’m not that person anymore. Over the last few years, I have learned a lot, and the most important thing I’ve learned is that I can’t control my life or my kids’ lives. The only thing I can control is my thoughts. I can see all the ways I’ve fallen short of my dreams, or I can see where I and my family actually are, and the truth in each situation.

I’ve learned to accept both my boys exactly as they are. I’ve let go of the dream version of my adult sons and fallen in love with who they actually grew up to be.

My youngest, who struggles with depression, is loving, caustically witty, and hardworking. He and his wife have blessed us with an adorable grandson who laughs and smiles enough for three toddlers. My son and his wife are wonderful people and work together to learn the best ways to deal with my son’s depression and are helping my grandson learn to deal with his emotions in healthy ways (something this grandma didn’t learn till my 50s). They are all amazing, and I trust them to figure it all out.

My son who has substance abuse disorder is currently 13 months sober. He attends four NA meetings a week and is almost ready to begin sponsoring others. He calls me every day. Sometimes he complains furiously about his boss and his job (I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut and just let him vent), and other days his words carry sunshine as he tells me how he helped another addict, or shared in a meeting, or kept his cool in a situation where he normally would have used. His girlfriend is a former addict as well and he is helping her in her sobriety. They seem really good for each other. My son sometimes seems more comfortable with former addicts than his own family. But they understand him in ways we never will. So I’ve accepted that.

Our family Christmas will be fractured. But I’ll listen to my son, and respect his wishes. I’ll split the group and have more time to spend with everyone. My husband realizes that multiple get-togethers mean more work and has kindly offered to order food for our holidays. (I’ll have to think about that, cooking for my family is one of my love languages, but I might take him up on it.)

My mother-in-law isn’t happy about splitting up the holiday celebrations, but I’m hoping to help her see that trying to force others to do something that is emotionally unhealthy for them, is not how my family works anymore.

So, I can’t make my kids happy, or sober, or make my family get along, or make my in-laws happy. But I can look at my situation clearly and honestly. It is not what I would have ever planned. But it is what it is. It is a bunch of imperfect people, each doing their best, and that is good.

Others may judge it or think I’ve failed, but I know better. Those who are lucky enough to have perfect families and children can enjoy them in blissful ignorance. I know that perfection is a fragile, fleeting thing. They can appreciate their blessings, but the credit goes to chance and luck, not their control.

While others celebrate their perfection, I’m celebrating honesty and effort. I’ve given up control and expectations. I’m just over here coasting along on the current of life, seeing where it will take me, finding happiness in unexpected places, and appreciating it all the more, because I know how precarious it really is.

The Good Stuff

This morning I woke up depressed. I pulled the covers over my head and considered staying there all day. But my mind just flew from one problem to the next, and the cat’s insistent meow was annoying me. So, I pushed back the covers, pulled on some pants, fed the cat and made coffee. I plopped in a chair with a giant steaming mug and gave myself permission to forgo my morning exercise, and muck around in my brain to see what the heck my problem was. I thought back over the worries that had kept the covers over my head until they drove me out of bed.

Over the weekend I had cared for my nephew. He is in a vegetative state after a wreck last year. Spending a weekend with my once vibrant, daredevil sixteen-year-old nephew was heartbreaking. It was also mentally and physically exhausting – cleaning bodily fluids, washing loads of laundry, pulling and pushing an unresponsive teenage body, schedules and medicines to remember, the fear of making a mistake. I came home feeling every bit of my sixty-one-years and moving gingerly to protect my sore back. It’s the first time I’ve felt truly old. It also made me worry about my sister who is headed towards burnout with the stress of being a caregiver. I was exhausted after only three days.

To top off my emotional baggage, my RAS planned to come visit his cousin over the weekend and didn’t show up. So, of course, that added worry about him (and his sobriety) to my already overloaded psyche.

When I got home, we received a call from my NAS, who lives in a lovely one hundred-seventy-year-old home that he and his wife are slowly renovating. A portion of the plaster ceiling had fallen unexpectedly, making him stressed and angry. The crash happened just seconds before his wife and toddler returned from a trip. What if it had fallen on the baby? We went over to help with clean-up and absorbed a big dose of his tension and frustration.

Then, last night I got an irate call from my RAS. He complained angrily about his boss, and his job. He wanted to quit, even though he is responsible for rent, car insurance and bills. Then, after I listened to that tirade, he transitioned into a rant about his girlfriend’s ex showing up and getting into a fight with him. Fear and frustration came surging through me as I listened. It didn’t sound like sober behavior.  

He called me back after his AA meeting and apologized for dumping on me and I told him he scared me. He assured me he was sober and told me the meeting really helped him feel better. But the knot in my stomach was still there at bedtime.

So, I woke up this morning worried about all of it. My nephew, my sister, my RAS, my NAS, my age and sore back, the old house, tempers, burnout, sobriety…

Why do I feel everyone’s problems so acutely? How do I keep from accumulating their worry, stress, burnout, sadness, anger, fear? I love them all so much, I want them to be happy, healthy, and  sober. But I can’t cure them of every discomfort. If I had a million dollars and solved everyone’s financial problems, there would still be issues. You only need to look at rich or famous people and see the drama, affairs, divorces, depression, suicide… So, I know, logically, I can’t “fix” anyone’s life for them.

 But I keep wishing I could, and then when I realize I can’t, I find myself feeling guilty for having an orderly, slow-paced, stress-free life. I’m retired, have few health or financial problems and am in a happy marriage. I think I almost feel like worrying about them is my penance. Their emotions suck away at my calm. A state I’ve worked very hard to create. If I’m not careful I get absorbed in their lives instead of living my own.

Who would I be helping by allowing myself to drown in the emotional distress of others? If I can stay strong and cheerful, at the very least, they do not have to worry about me. If I get despondent, because of THEIR problems, I just compound their troubles, because now they have a miserable, nonfunctioning mom, sister, or wife to deal with too.

It’s counterproductive to give up on my peace because others are hurting. But sometimes I do have survivor’s guilt.  When I’m suffering it’s, “why me?” and then when the suffering stops, it’s “why not me?”

After my own years of stress, anxiety, and depression, I’m very empathetic to other people’s pain, and I’d love to cure it, but I can’t. No one could dig me out of the dark place I was in but me. I had to figure it out myself. It hurts to watch the ones I love be stressed, angry, and tired.  But I can not take on the responsibility of fixing them. It is hard, demanding work to control my own emotions and impulses. How smug would I be to think I could control others?

As I was ruminating and trying to talk myself out of my gloomy mood, my phone rang. Caller ID said it was my daughter-in-law. Only it wasn’t. My two-year-old grandson had accidentally dialed me. He was ecstatic to hear my voice and his mama agreed he could keep the phone and ‘talk’ to me. He walked through the house showing me his toys and pets. I mostly saw his nose and forehead the whole time, but it was adorable.

It cheered me up – a lot, those minutes of focused joy. It’s so important to make time for the good stuff – like random calls from a barely verbal toddler. I had been suffering from tunnel vision, focusing so relentlessly on the problems that I was forgetting there are some very wonderful things in my life.

I’ve come through a lot, but I have arrived at a comfortable, happy place. I need to remember that my family will come through their difficult times too. Not because I will fix them, but because they are all talented, hard-working people who are just as capable of figuring out their lives as I was.

I just need to give them time and support. I also want to be as emotionally healthy as possible, so when they need a shoulder to cry on, or a compassionate person to vent to, or a helping hand for the weekend, or to hear Grandma’s voice, I can be there.

Today, I’m taking a ‘me’ break. I’m writing this because writing always helps smooth out my jumbled thoughts. I’m also resting and thinking happy thoughts. As trite as that may sound, ruminating on my family’s problems doesn’t do one thing to help them. It just adds to my stress, which in turn will add to theirs. So, I’m changing the channel and moving on to think about good stuff today.

The sun is shining, my grandson is adorable, I have two adult sons whom I love, TAM is great place to get support, the cat is purring at my feet, and I am a strong woman who can handle whatever life throws at me.   

Growing

One year ago my son was homeless, sick, suicidal and had a warrant out for his arrest. He called and texted nonstop demanding money, begging to come home and sharing the horrors of homelessness – sleeping in garages, sneaking around houses to sleep on the back porch, nodding off under a bridge. He was furious with us because we kept saying “no” to all his requests to come home and demands for money.

However, one day after numerous calls, I did agree to bring him a coat he had left at our home. I met him on a street corner in a very unsavory part of town. I brought his coat and some granola bars and a pair of gloves. He took them disdainfully, obviously annoyed that this is all I was willing to do.  

I was shocked by the sight of him – skeletal, dirty, disheveled. His face was pockmarked and pale, his eyes hollow, cheeks sunken. His clothes had burn marks where he had nodded off with a cigarette still burning. His movements were rapid, his feet unsteady, his eyes wild, his hair a brittle halo of tangles, his language course and angry. His attitude radiated rage at what “we” had allowed him to become. It was obvious he felt we had the capacity to save him if only we weren’t so uncaring.

But we had tried saving him too many times to count. How many times had we let him come home? Paid for a hotel room? Sent money for food? Paid for Uber to the emergency room?  Drove in the middle of the night to pick him up from some place dangerous? It wasn’t working.

We had concluded that he must save himself. We knew our best efforts would always fall short. For his own sake we had to wait for him to realize that we would not and could not do the work for him.

So we were refusing to give him money or a place to live. Every time he asked for help, we sent him a list of phone numbers for rehabs, sober living, homeless shelters and food banks. At 34 years old we were finally insisting he grow up and take care of himself. Drugs were killing him, but his dependence on us was killing him too.

That day, after our meeting, I went home and cried, worried that my detachment might be a death sentence. I knew it was a possibility, but life with constant crisis, suicide threats, jail, meltdowns, risky behaviors, and being held hostage by drugs, was not a life for him or us. I told myself, he had to want to live as much as I wanted him to; badly enough to do the hard work of getting sober.

So, my husband and I sat with our grief and pain. We worried, cried, complained and felt hopeless… but we continued to say ‘no’ and send him “the list.” Every time we sent “the list”, he’d text back “I’ll die before I go to any of these places.” We’d text back “We love you and hope you choose to live.” It was becoming a sadly repetitive dance.

But knowing he had choices – a place he could sleep, or get food, or get help made it easier for us to say no. He was choosing to stay homeless, high, or hungry. It felt like he wanted to force us to be the ones to save him. It was brutal, but we stuck to our decision to wait for him to choose a better life.

Three weeks after our visit on the street corner, and buckets of tears later, he called and said, “I give up. I’ll go to jail or sober living, your choice. But I can’t do this anymore. Just let me come home and shower and look presentable before you take me either place.”

I knew the next day was an intake day at sober living, so we agreed to the shower and offered a good meal and a soft bed with the agreement that the next day he would go to sober living. He was surly and angry the 24 hours he was at our house, but he slumped into the car the next day, clean and well fed, and my husband drove him to sober living. Miraculously, he stayed and cooperated and eventually, thrived.

Today he is ten months sober. He is attending meetings multiple times a week. He has a sponsor who he takes his trouble to (instead of me… wow!!). He graduated successfully from sober living after eight months which gives him access to their meetings and counseling when he is struggling. He is working a job with people who really like him, are aware of his journey and help and encourage him. He has an apartment he shares with his girlfriend who is a recovering addict that he encouraged to get clean. He has held strong through the relapse of multiple friends and the death by overdose of several others. He turned himself in with the help of an attorney (an AA buddy) and is working on dealing with his charges.

I am so very, very proud of him. He has done it himself. He has worked through all the struggles with the support of his AA friends and sponsor and the sober living counseling. We mostly hear about financial issues and have floated him a few small loans as he gets back on his feet. Watching him finally learn to take care of himself is amazing.

His sponsor reminds him that he has to stand up for himself when his boss demands he work seven days a week. He reminds him that every person needs rest, and he is working on sobriety, so he can’t let himself get physically and emotionally overwhelmed.  He tells him he must care for himself. He encouraged him to ask for a raise. He insisted he attend extra meetings when he was struggling. And my son has complied. The rebellious, immature, demanding child has finally grown into a man with the help of a mature, 30-year-sober sponsor.

This sponsor took my son to an AA meeting full of men who had all been sober 20 years or longer. It gave my son hope. He sees successful men who lived their younger years much like he has. At 35 my son finally feels like a man and is acting like one. He finally has a sober community to turn to. He never wanted to follow our advice, because we “didn’t know what it was like.” Now he’s surrounded by men who know exactly what it’s like and he can relate to them and will listen to them. They support and help him in so many ways. His whole apartment has been outfitted by donations from the AA community or people he works with. He has a sober network of friends for the first time in his life.

My husband and I no longer feel like his very survival is dependent on us. We have seen him learn to depend on his own efforts and the efforts of a community of sober friends and mentors who love and support him.

Having a safety net of other people surrounding my son takes such a weight off my husband and me. We will be forever thankful to the men who have stepped up to mentor him. We have never even met them, but that’s okay. Our son is an adult and he is creating HIS sober life. He is building a life apart from his parents and becoming independent. Our relationship has blossomed without the weight of being responsible for him weighing it down.

I have never been prouder.

But he would never have grown up, if we hadn’t quit treating him like a child and rescuing him from his choices. Detachment was the hardest and best thing we’ve ever done for him. I can say that now, but at the time it was terrifying. Looking back, I’m so glad we stuck with it.

Wheels

My thoughts are racing, and I can feel the stress crawling up the back of my neck, like a spider, ready to sink it’s fangs into me and send me into a full scale melt-down. Imaginary scenarios play out with startling clarity and sickening detail… Ridiculous lies to cover a relapse, winter homelessness, late night calls, never-ending texts filled with ultimatums and demands …I try to turn off the scenes playing out in my brain and calm myself. I can’t believe I’m feeling all this again.

Especially since there is no reason for this panic. I think its a form of PTSD, this taking a perfectly normal activity and spinning it into a catastrophe. My thoughts and body react even as I tell my brain that this is irrational.

It all began on a happy Saturday afternoon. My husband and I had decided that we needed a larger car and would finally get rid of our old Toyota. I had absolutely loved that little red car when we bought it, but it was time to move on. It was fifteen years old with almost 200 thousand miles on it, so we knew we wouldn’t get much on trade-in, but we needed something bigger. Besides, our son could really use a car.

He was six months sober, working a program and doing well. He had not asked us for the car, he didn’t even know we were getting rid of it. We thought it would be a nice surprise for him as well as a way to help him get back on his feet. Finding transportation to meetings and work had been taking a toll on his finances. He hadn’t asked for much since he’d gone into sober living and it felt really good to offer something he hadn’t requested. When he was using, he was always scheming for something. And we said ‘no’ a lot. So this felt good… or so we thought.

The problem began after we called him and told him of our decision. He was ecstatic and sounded almost manic at the good news. We were happy for him, but as soon as we hung up the phone, our panic began. Thoughts about enabling and codependency tickled the edge of our subconscious. Had we thought this through?

And then the memories started flashing into our thoughts, like a gunshot on a quiet evening. They’d pop up shattering our calm.

We remembered every time he had…

destroyed a car.

traded rides for drugs.

begged for money to fix a car he had neglected.

lived in his car to avoid rehab.

used a car to run from legal troubles.

driven drunk or without a license or insurance.

All at once we remembered all the ways him having a car could go wrong, and reflexively we reacted with stress, worry and rumination. Nothing had gone wrong yet, he didn’t even have the car yet, but my husband and I both were feeling it. Our subconscious was bracing itself for catastrophe. Our happy Saturday afternoon had turned morose.

Fortunately, after many rounds of sobriety and relapse with our son, we have learned that our shared experience and love for each other is our greatest asset. We have learned to talk about how we are feeling and what is going on.

So, we had a long talk and then set some ground rules with our uncooperative brains. First, no being selective in our thoughts. There were both good and bad things we could think about. Our brains were going straight to all the bad things we had experienced in the past, so we decided to remind each other of all the good things that we could also think about.

He was…

working a program, diligently and it was HIS idea.

choosing to be in sober living and was taking it seriously.

working a job EVERYDAY.

paying his rent for sober living WITHOUT HELP from us.

hiring a lawyer and actively working on his legal issues.

And he was our son and we LOVED him.

Next we reminded each other not to catastrophize. We shouldn’t assume the worst. That’s our past trauma talking. We need to live in the present. We weren’t ignoring the past, but we couldn’t ignore his current, very real, very consistent efforts either.

Next, we reminded each other that we “Didn’t cause it. Can’t control it. Can’t Cure it.” And talked about the fact that we were NOT responsible for his sobriety and giving him a car didn’t suddenly make us responsible. We had not offered it as a bribe to get him to do something, or to control his behavior. We were simply offering to help because we could.

Then we also decided that this needed to be a no-strings-attached gift. We wanted to avoid the whole codependency issue, giving him the car wasn’t a response to his manipulation or an attempt by us to manipulate him. It was a gift to our son who was working very, very hard to stay sober. It was an expression of our love and our pride. It was not a reward or a bribe, no-strings-attached would make this clear.

So, he got his license back, paid for his insurance, and we gave him our old car. I have to admit that we fought our crazy feelings for a few weeks. It’s not easy to retrain a brain conditioned by codependency with an addict. But it’s been a month and we’re all doing great.

He feels a lot of pride in “having wheels again.” And he’s installed a new sound system and speakers in the old car. To us it seemed frivolous, and we had to remember that no-strings-attached thing. The sound system made him crazy-happy. He shows it to everyone. When we looked for the positive, we realized that in his sobriety he has had to learn to say ‘no’ to the part of his brain that is searching for good feelings. Feelings the drugs used to provide. Working on the car gave him good feelings in a healthy, productive way.

 He has used his “wheels” to help some of his old friends who are still struggling. This worried us at first, but again we reminded ourselves about the no-strings-attached. Then we looked for the positive again and realized that part of AA is helping others, so he’s doing what he needs to. So far, our worries have been unfounded. He has not relapsed or missed a single curfew since he’s gotten the car. It’s great to see him growing in pride and confidence.

Maybe one day, we will no longer have those moments of panic where we wrangle with worries about relapse, enabling and codependency. But that is part of OUR recovery. So, we will deal with these feelings and face them and talk them through. We will not let them build into anger and resentment. Yes, our son has made life difficult in the past, but right now he’s working extremely hard to do all the right things and we will not let our out-of-control feelings make us bring up all the ways he’s failed us in the past.

I’m not sure how many years it will take to no longer have flashes of panic and imagine a crisis at every turn. His last relapse happened after seven years of sobriety, so the fear is real. But we will work our program, just like he’s working his, and take it one day at a time. We will trust that the work we’re all doing, as well as time and maturity will come together to create something wonderful. And today is a good day, we are all healthy and happy… and our son’s got “wheels”.

‘No’

Am I enabling or helping? Should I say ‘no’? How do I know the right thing to do?

How many times have I asked myself these questions over the years? As the mother of an addict, I spent years lost in self-doubt – questioning my every move.

I felt heartless when I set boundaries, but I felt so abused when I didn’t. My son could twist me into absolute knots. When he was trying to get my cooperation, he would paint such detailed verbal pictures of his suffering. The guiltier I felt, the better chance he had of controlling me. I wanted so badly to do the ‘right’ thing, the thing that would make him get sober, but it was hard to push back against his unrelenting pleas and demands.

After seventeen plus years, I’ve finally developed the confidence and strength to stop second guessing myself. I now know that there is NO ‘right’ thing to do. Just ‘effective’ and ‘not so effective’.

Finding the most effective response to my son’s pleas is always difficult. So, the first lesson I learned was to never answer quickly. My standard response is, “I need to talk to your dad; we will get back to you.”

My raging, emotional son waiting on the other end of the phone did not make for good decision making. If my son fought me, yelled, or demanded that I answer him right away, then I said, “If you insist on an answer right now, then the answer is ‘no’.” Once I started doing that, he stopped demanding immediate answers.

The next thing I learned was that my first question should always be, “How will this affect me?” I had to separate myself from the crazy drama filled picture he was painting and approach his needs as I would anyone else’s. Do I have time? Do I have the money? Do I have the energy? Do I want to do this?

Just because he was panicking and acting irrationally, did not meant I should. There needed to be a rational adult in the conversation, and by default, it had to be me.

Next, I had to learn to think long term. Addicts are always in the moment. They always need it right now. Often it felt so much easier to just send him the $20 and make the craziness stop for a while. I desperately wanted it to stop. But each time I gave in, I rewarded his panic and drama.

When I first started saying “no” he would always escalate the situation. The more he persisted and the crazier he got, the harder it was to say ‘no’.  I finally realized that I was teaching him to make his situation worse to get me to respond. It had to stop. I had to say ‘no’ and NOT CHANGE MY MIND WHEN HE ESCALATED THE SITUATION. It was the only way to get the insanity to stop.

At first, it was awful. His anxiety, fear and insistence went through the roof and then of course mine did too. He tried so hard to get me to rescue him. As kindly, and lovingly as possible I had to say ‘no’, in spite of what he said or threatened.

My personal method of saying no, in order to keep the “you’re a horrible mom” demons at bay, was to say ‘no’ but offer an alternative. The alternative always required him to take action to improve his situation. He needed to stop looking to me to rescue him.

When he called complaining of hunger, I refused to send money, but offered to drive him to a food bank. When he refused repeatedly, it became clear that it really wasn’t about hunger, just money.

When he called wanting to move home, I sent a list of phone numbers for rehabs and sober living I had gotten from the SAMHSA hotline and kept saved in the notepad on my phone. I sent it to him many times. He got furious every time. He swore he’d die before he’d go to anyplace on the list.

We just kept saying, “You need more help than we can give you, but we love you.” Of course, he told us we couldn’t possibly love him if we would leave him on the streets. But we kept saying ‘no.’ Knowing he didn’t have to be on the streets, but chose it over the available facilities.

I think what I’ve learned is that I have to be as stubborn as he is and quit assuming he’s helpless. I’ve learned to say ‘no’ and mean it. Not to be mean, or tough, or to force him to find his bottom, but because as long as I rescue him, he’s knows he’s just one crisis away from mom and dad jumping in to help him.

Before we learned to say ‘no’ and mean it, we were rewarding the crisis. When he escalated and we eventually gave in, we were rewarding his persistence and horrible life choices.

He needed to own his problems and start taking responsibility for fixing them. It’s easy to make bad choices, when someone else has to solve the problems you create.

It was extremely hard but I could not continue being held hostage by the unending crisis that was his life.

The month before my son decided to go into the sober living – the one that he swore he would die before returning to – was one of the hardest times of my life. I had to say ‘no’ so many times while my son yelled, threatened, cried and let his life deteriorate to sickening levels. My husband and I were very afraid we would lose him during those awful days. We had to face that possibility and deal with our feelings. But we had to let him find his way without rescuing him.

We were able to stay the course because we really, truly knew that we could not save him; we had tried too many times without success. We knew that he had to save himself.

He eventually did.

He called one day and asked me to let him come home, just to take a shower he quickly added. Then he wanted a ride to the sober house for admission. He had called and made all the arrangements himself. So, he came home showered, ate a good meal and then my husband drove him to the sober house. After threatening to die before going there, his reversal was shocking, but such a huge relief.

Later he told me that he almost overdosed in a parking lot. He realized he could have died alone and not been found for days. It scared him. That’s when he changed his mind.

Allowing him to find his own way was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But this is the first time he’s ever gone into a program by his own choice.

He’s currently five months sober, attending meetings, building a network of sober friends, working a job, and living at the sober house. He’s the happiest I’ve seen him in years.

My Younger Self

My thirty-year-old self would be horrified by my current mental state. She would have wondered about my parenting skills, and she would have totally judged me. Not out loud mind you, but with a look of compassion, pity and a little superiority.  My younger self thought she had the world figured out. She would never have believed she’d find herself in the position I am in today.

I am currently happily cleaning and prepping our vacation rental for a visit from my adult son. He will be bringing a girl, one he’s not married to. I can hear myself from twenty years ago – gasp – they aren’t married? What is wrong with you?

They will stay over the weekend and probably eat every bit of the junk food I am stocking the cabin with. Sugary cereal, cookies, sour candies, oatmeal cream pies. When my son was young his sweets were strictly limited, and I would never had imagined one day submitting to his cravings.

To further shock my younger self, I will be picking his girlfriend up to transport her for this weekend, because, well, of course he doesn’t have a license or a car. Oh, and by the way, I’m picking her up from jail. At this point my thirty-year-old mom-brain would have exploded.

But, you see, my son is ninety days sober, his girlfriend is at sixty days. They were cohorts when they were both abusing drugs, a relationship forged in hardship. They spiraled out of control together. He ended up in sober living. She ended up in jail, where she has been for the last two months. When he asked me to pick her up, I had a long internal dialogue about enabling and codependency. I have those conversations a lot these days.

However, the way he approached me was this. “Mom, I can find someone else to pick her up, but our mutual friends are not sober, and I don’t want to interact with them. Would you go with me to pick her up?” I told him I’d have to think about it and he agreed to wait for my answer. (A good sign. He was not demanding or pushing.)

After some discussion, my husband and I agreed that I should do it. When I told him, my son’s face lit up like a kid’s on Christmas morning, it told me how surprised he was that we said ‘yes’. We’ve been very insistent about boundaries during his sobriety, so I think he had been expecting a ‘no’.

He’s heard ‘no’ a lot from us lately, and he’s taken it well. So, it was nice to say ‘yes’, and it’s because he’s been doing his part. He’s working a program in sober living. He’s leading NA meetings and working a job. He’s also encouraged and supported his girlfriend in her sobriety.

It’s probably what helped their relationship go to a deeper level. During their daily phone calls, they began imagining a future where they were both sober. So, although my son knows I think it’s too soon in his recovery for a relationship, a month ago he informed me that he was in love.

 We have teased each other about our difference of opinion, me reminding him how often relationships have been his downfall. Him hassling me about ‘mothering’ him; a favorite family catch phrase that kindly reminds me to mind my own business. So, I have accepted his new love interest, after all he is an adult, and I will meet her when I pick her up from prison. (I’m working hard to shut-up the voice of my younger, judgmental self who would be mortified.)

Their plans once she is released are to spend the weekend together and then get her into a sober house. When my son told me the location of the prison, I realized that we would be close to our vacation rental when we picked her up. I asked if they would like to stay there instead of using his hard-earned money for a hotel. They both loved the idea, and I was pleased that they would be far from old friends and familiar triggers. (I know its ‘mothering,’ but no one called me on it this time.)

So here I am, smiling as I neaten the towels, stock the fridge, and arrange their favorite snacks on the counter. I could handle this so many other ways. Ways my younger self would have demanded. I could refuse to accept them as a couple, or I could agonize about where this will go, or if they are good for each other. But when has worry ever solved my problems? So, I’m going to put all my worries about the future aside for a weekend.

I will enjoy the simple pleasure of doing something nice for my son. I will give him and his girlfriend a special weekend to remember – a sober weekend. I won’t let worries about next week, or next month, or next year intrude on the joy. Even as I type this, I can feel the fears niggle at the base of my brain, but I cannot control him or his future. If nagging, lecturing, or giving advice would have solved his problems, we wouldn’t be here now. So I will push away those little jabs of worry and take pleasure in the moment.

I will delight in being a mom and getting to spoil my son. I will savor his smiles and laughter. Being able to do something kind for my sober son is an opportunity that I won’t pass up.

I’ve thought about it and I don’t believe I’m enabling. I’m loving. It can be hard to separate the two when you’ve loved an addict for years. But, this wasn’t something he demanded or manipulated me into. He’s not taking something from me. It’s a gift I freely offered.

Getting to prepare a welcoming environment for my son and his friend feels lovely. This weekend I’m celebrating. My son is coming to visit and I’m meeting his girlfriend. How normal it feels. I’ll take it, even though my thirty-year-old self would never understand.

SUFFERING

I know about suffering. As the mother of an addict, I’ve lain awake on a cold winter night knowing my son was homeless. I’ve seen him skeletal and pockmarked from Meth but unwilling to stop or seek help. I’ve listened to my phone ring and ring, unwilling to answer it because of the abuse and anger I knew I’d receive. I knew suffering before that. My parents were killed in an accident with a drunk driver when I was nineteen years old. I lost years to that grief.After my parent’s death, I desperately wanted to have a baby, because I had lost my family. My brother and sister were minors and sent to live with family members far from me. I was young (19) but married, and that was my plan to handle my grief. When I tried to get pregnant, I found I was infertile. Eventually, we adopted a child and that child grew up to be an addict. It felt like life was completely unfair. How could one person have such a tortured life?When I began counseling to deal with my son’s addiction, I was told to accept that I could not control another person, to accept that I could not save my son. I had to realize that it was something he must do for himself. I was also told to accept the fact that he could die. It was necessary to accept this fact because otherwise, I would spend the rest of my life held hostage by this fear. Every time he needed me to enable him, he could call up my greatest fear and I would give in to his demands.Having already lost my parents, accepting that I might lose my son was brutal. Life just continued to run me over. Why should I have so much suffering?To get on with life and step out of feeling like a victim, I had to accept that life is painful and totally unfair. It never feels fair to have to endure hardship. But nothing ever truly feels like hardship until we endure it ourselves. Maybe that’s why life feels so unfair, we are never as fully aware of another’s suffering as we are our own.Accepting that life is painful for everyone was important to my giving up the feeling that I was unfairly afflicted. Everyone has pain in their lives.Then I found the saying “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” I realized that I chose to deal with the pain I experience would determine how much I suffered.When I fought against the truth and demanded that life should be different, I suffered much more than when I accepted my life – no longer bemoaning my fate but looking hard truths squarely in the eye and figuring out how to deal with them. This was the first step in my recovery from suffering.Once I quit thinking life should be different, I could focus on handling my life exactly as it was. I was unwilling to be a victim of my own life. As long as was fighting reality and demanding that it shouldn’t be this way, I was not dealing with my life.Facing it fully and truthfully was essential. My son was an addict and I was the mother of an addict and we both would be for the rest of our lives. It was imperative that I learn to live with this fact. After I accepted this, I could begin to gather the tools I needed to live this life. 12-step programs, co-dependence education, detachment, support groups, a whole library of books as well as therapy, and antidepressants. These things all became part of my acceptance of my life and my recovery.I have learned to deal with the horrible, drama-filled days when my son is using and not let it destroy me and I have learned to enjoy his cheeky personality when he is sober, without being derailed by the fear that it won’t last.One day at a time is much more than a catchy phrase, it’s essential. Letting go of the hurts from my past, no longer imagining all that might go wrong in the future, and just dealing with the moment. My relationship with my son is directly related to his sobriety and will probably continue to be so, but my happiness with MY life is not tied to his sobriety. We are separate people, and I will not tie my outcomes in my life to his life decisions.So, I’ve experienced pain and suffering, but I am trying to reduce the amount of suffering I must endure. As I’ve emerged from the darkness of my suffering, I’ve begun to realize how much pain and suffering there is in the world, and that it was self-indulgent to think my suffering was worse than anyone else’s.In just the last few months I have a friend whose eight-year-old grandson is dying of cancer. Doctors have given them no hope and he has only months to live. Four weeks ago my sixteen-year-old nephew had a horrific car wreck and is in an unresponsive coma, with his family praying for a miracle. When I thought that was enough to deal with, another friend has just discovered a mass on her ten-year-old daughter’s kidney. She will require surgery, radiation and her prognosis is uncertain. There is so much pain in the world and life is unfair. We can’t escape this truth.I used to believe every problem should have a solution and every hardship could be overcome. I had been taught that positive thinking is the solution to everything. If things weren’t improving, then I wasn’t being positive enough. This created a horrible cognitive dissonance because my brain understood how difficult my life had been, but my heart refuses to acknowledge that I couldn’t control it. But denying the truth didn’t create positive outcomes, it just denied me the chance to face the difficulty head-on. Accepting hard truths was the only way to avoid suffering and deal with my problems realistically.Finding joy in the midst of my pain was the only way to ensure that I found joy in my life because there is always pain and the possibility of pain. But with acceptance of truth and acknowledgment that pain is a part of life, I can reduce my suffering. No longer fighting reality, but accepting it, was the greatest gift I ever gave myself.I am the mother of an addict, and I always will be, but I am also a grandmother, an artist, a writer, a wife, a cook, and a friend and I find joy in those things, even in the midst of difficulty. Living fully in each moment, being honest with myself, I find I have more happy moments than painful ones. The painful ones pass quickly if I don’t ruminate and argue with the universe about whether I deserve it or not. I try to face it head-on, deal with it as best I can, and look for the next moment of joy.Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.

Peace on Earth

Christmas lights wink on the periphery of my vision and stockings hang above the glowing fireplace. At my feet a blonde and a black pit bull snore gently while soaking up the heat from the fire. They are ying and yang, dark and light, gentle and wild. I never wanted them, never asked for them, but here they are keeping me company as I write my grocery list for Christmas dinner. The Pit bulls were rescued from my son when he relapsed on Meth three years ago. They joined my ancient beagle as part of the family and have become my constant, loyal companions. They add joy.

We sit in front of the fireplace as I plan… it’s gluten free and dairy free for my millennial son and his wife, finger foods for the grandson, cherry pie for my AS and mincemeat for my husband. It’s a lovely morning, peaceful and happy. This Christmas I may actually have ‘peace on earth’, unlike last year.

 Then my son was living on the streets, buried deep in addiction. To finance his habit he stole his Aunt’s car a few days before Christmas, throwing the family into disarray. We were already tangled up with the stress of his addiction and his Aunt’s mental illness. The crisis produced when those two things overlapped was mind-blowing…there was little peace to be found.

On Christmas day the family, minus the two feuding members, tried to come together and have a Christmas celebration; oohing and cooing over our newest member, our six-month-old grandson. We cooked a turkey and pies. The house was filled with pungent aromas, an assortment of sweets, presents under twinkling lights and a baby’s babbles. It should have been perfect. But our attempt at a happy family Christmas fell short. The day was interspersed with phone calls from our two angry, irrational  family members, trying to pull the rest of the us into the fray.

I, my husband and my youngest son chose to detach from the melee.  We turned off our phones to focus on our day together. However, it is difficult for my mother-in-law to detach, she continued answering her phone, and was pulled inexorably into the dispute. When my youngest son took pity and stepped in to answer her phone to try and extricate her from the argument, he was given a vicious tongue lashing by his fifty-year-old Aunt.  This left him brooding and mumbling curse words under his breath while his grandmother became sullen and quiet. The day was far from peaceful.

We did eventually convince my MIL to turn off her phone and we had the veneer of a normal Christmas. My son, his wife and new baby deserved all the joy and happiness of baby’s first Christmas. I found moments of delight in the day, thanks to a skill necessary to the mother of an addict. I have worked to learn to lock up my worries, put them in a box in my head and separate them from my life. It is a practice my counselor suggested, the stockpiling of my worry. Once a day I allow myself thirty minutes of uninterrupted worry-time. I can focus completely on my troubles. Then I must put them away until the next day. This may sound silly, but it works very well for me. If I start to worry, I tell myself that I can worry at the ‘designated worry time.’ It got me through last Christmas.

After the fiasco of the holidays my son spent another ten months declaring that he’d die before he’d go back into any program.  We responded with our boundary that he could not come home. Every time he begged, we sent him phone numbers for organizations that could help him and asked him to take responsibility for himself.  

Finally, after sleeping in garages and under porches, freezing on the streets, experimenting with heroin, having all of his possessions stolen, developing an infection and losing his phone, he agreed to go to sober living. That was thirty days ago.

That makes this holiday the first in several years that he will be sober (I hope, it’s only nine days away). That makes me happy, but not naive. If he makes it till Christmas, this year will still be far from a picture perfect holiday. My two sons haven’t been speaking, the last relapse really hurt my NAS. My AS and his Aunt haven’t spoken since he stole her car last Christmas. My father-in-law has dementia and has been getting increasingly confrontational as the disease progresses. My side of the family has become very rude about politics this year, and of course there’s Covid. So, yeah, it’s all very complicated.

Yet, still I feel peaceful.

The peace comes from giving up the hope for a ‘Norman Rockwell’ Christmas. You know, the large, cheerful family bantering around the steaming, turkey-ladened table with smiles from ear to ear.  The epitome of what Christmas SHOULD be.  

Don’t fall for it. There is no certain way Christmas SHOULD be. Yes, traditions and memories are wonderful, but not if they cause stress in a family already burdened by addiction and/or mental illness. So, I have made adjustments to my expectations to allow me to feel peaceful in spite of this funky, crazy year.

Fortunately, Covid has made it easy to limit the size of my family Christmas, so that’s a blessing with all the Political drama. For the small group that is coming, I’ve been up-front about who will be here. I’ve given everyone permission to come when they are comfortable. So, they can come and go as they please. If someone would like to come a different day so they don’t have to interact with the whole family, that’s okay. If they can’t afford presents, that’s okay too. If they become uncomfortable and fear they will begin a squabble or create drama I’ve made it clear they can leave, with no judgement. I’ll even pay for Uber if they need a ride. Everyone is permitted to do what they need to keep the day conflict free and avoid their own anxieties.

I’m working with what I have; and that is a family full of individuals who are unique and imperfect – but trying. I will allow Christmas to unfold unscripted and devoid of all “shoulds.” I plan to enjoy every minute of it. Peace came from giving up my need to control other people or even understand their actions. I have my boundaries- No Drama! – and other than that I am just ready to love my family, exactly where they are in spite of, or maybe because of, their flaws and eccentricities (that’s just a kind way to say we are all a little messed up).

Love is blind…  not to stepping over my boundaries, I will definitely call you out on that …but love is blind to the shortcomings and weaknesses of the people I love. Here’s to Christmas, whatever it ends up looking like.

Peace on Earth and Merry Christmas to all.

And So It Continues….

One month ago I wrote about how going “No Contact” with my addict son was helping me regain my sanity. I was finding normalacy again without the daily drama and crisis that were forced upon us by his life style. I foolishly thought that we hadn’t heard from our son because we were doing such a good job of holding our boundaries.

I was wrong.

It turns out, he had just found a way to survive without us. It was something illegal and I don’t know exactly what it was, but he was making a lot of money. It abruptly ended one week after I wrote that piece.

He got beaten up, had all his possessions and money stolen and landed on our doorstep. We cleaned him up, fed him a meal and deposited him on the street corner of his choice. We told him he could not move into our house and he would have to figure out what to do now that his gravey train had ended.

Our period of “No Contact” was over. After that day the phone calls started. Even though I have seventeen of his phone numbers blocked, he found new ones and called and texted multiple times a day with one crisis after another.

We refused to let him come home. He kept calling, kept telling us how we were letting him down and that it was our fault he was homeless and on the streets. He called us names, told us horrible stories of freezing, starving, hiding in garages… He kept saying we had completely screwed him over because we wouldn’t rescue him.

Every time he called we reminded him of the local Sober Living that he could go to. He told us at least 20 times that he would die first. I believe his exact words were, “I’d freeze to death under a bridge before I’ll go there.”

We said, “It’s your choice” and told him we were sorry that was the decision he was making and that we loved him. We only answered about one in three calls and texts. We never just told him no, we always offered him an alternative choice:

You can’t come here, but we can take you to the Sober House.

No, I can’t send you money for food, but I can send you the address of a food bank.

No, I won’t send you money for a room because your cold, but go to the nearest salvation army, pick out a coat and call me, I’ll pay them over the phone.

He turned down every offer. Our offers always required him to make some effort towards the solution. We knew we could not rescue him.

My husband and I cried, cussed and worked to support each other through this abrupt reversal of fortune. It threw us right back into the drama that we had been so thankful to leave behind. But we never gave in. We lovingly held on to our boundaries of no money, no rides, and no coming home – over and over and over again. He was incredibly persistent and manipulative and rude.

But, finally on Saturday he texted me:

“Mom, if you’ll let me come home and take a shower, wash my clothes and feed me a meal you can take me to the Sober House.”

I was shocked, after all the refusals. My husband and I talked and we agreed to this. I know my son is very concerned about appearing dirty and unkempt. I knew he would probably freeze before he’d show up in public dirty and dishelved. I knew why he needed to come home before he went to the Sober House. So we agreed. But told each other that we couldn’t let him manipulate us into anything else, if we allowed him to come home for this.  We promised to hold each other accountable.

While he was waiting for my husband to pick him up, he began to text me about not trusting us, because once we had tried to get him committed. I assured him that we weren’t going to try to do anything to trick him, that we were happy he was going to the Sober House. But I also told him that he couldn’t trick us either. I told him:

“No arguing in this house. No passive aggressive bending the rules. You must wear a mask the whole time you are home. You must wear it correctly, covering your nose and mouth, since you have not been social distancing. There will be no arguing in this house or you will leave. You also cannot begin to negotiate for a new plan once you get here. The deal is you clean up, get fed and then we take you to the Sober House.”

He agreed to everything and to our complete surprise he did exactly as we asked.

No matter how awful he had been, it felt good to get him cleaned up, well fed, dressed warmly and rested up. It did my mother’s heart good.

We found out that he couldn’t check in till the next day, so he got a good night’s sleep too and then the next day, we deposited him at the Sober House without a fight – no whining, arguing or begging. It was such a huge relief.

When I happily told a family member what had happened, she said, “Well, I hope he finally figures things out. He needs to get his life together.”

I was sad that was her response. Because I was very happy -you see, we’ve learned not to think that far ahead. One day at a time. It was the best possible outcome for our weekend. He took a positive step and he is safe and warm. That’s enough for me to be ecstatic.

So to any moms struggling out there, I say, “Stay strong. Hold your boundaries with love and celebrate every small step in the right direction.”

NO CONTACT

Three months ago I had a sadly familiar phone call with my son.

“Mom, I need a ride. Send me money for Uber.”

“Why do you need a ride?”

“It’s dangerous here. This is a f***ing emergency.”

“Dad and I offered to pay for Sober Living last week. You refused.”

“Mom, I’m not playing around. I need this, don’t mess with me,” his voice crescendos, angry and afraid as he yells into the phone. This is where I usually cave-in…

“No.” I say without as much strength as I’d like. Then, after a pause, “You got yourself into this, figure out how to get yourself out.”

“Mom…”

“I gave you an answer.”

“Listen, I’m serious.”

“I am too.”

“Mom, don’t screw with me. You have to help me.”

There was another long pause as I worked to keep myself centered and do what I had promised myself a hundred times to do.

 “You will have to figure this out,” I finally said.  That is a sentence my therapist had been drilling into my head for two years. I’d been working on giving his problems back to him when he tried to give them to me.

He hung up on me and then called my husband to try his luck with him. This phone call, one of hundreds, was finally the one that caused my husband and I to decide to go ‘no contact’ with our son. It’s a move we had been contemplating for a while. The phone call wasn’t particularly abusive, it was just the frequency of the calls and his unwillingness to accept any offers of real help that were wearing on us. We were tired of being forced into daily crisis management of problems that we did not create.

It’s been a long road for us to get here, we had to truly believed that we needed to stop helping him in order for this to happen. Rescuing him from one crisis after another was not correcting the source of his problems – addiction. We had helped him so often that we finally knew in our hearts that he needed much more than a break, a bill paid, his car fixed, a ride, or a meal. We finally knew that his need to be rescued was never going to end.  We decided on ‘no contact’ because the constant effort to say ‘no’ and be argued with about it for hours on end was exhausting. To stop helping him, we needed to stop hearing him beg, plead, threaten and harass us for help. Several times he had even stooped to threatening suicide. The days were long and depressing when he called relentlessly.

We realized that we didn’t need to hear his stories. Whether he was lying or telling the truth didn’t matter. Whether he was sober or not didn’t matter. Even his safety didn’t matter, because everytime we rescued him from a horrid situation, he just got into another one. Until he was ready to leave this life it wouldn’t change. Every time we rescued him, we just enabled him to ignore his real problem.

               ‘No contact’ is our last resort. I don’t know if it will save him, but it just may save us.

Once the calls stopped life changed. My husband and I found new things to talk about, besides our addicted son – new recipes, new movies, places we want to visit after Covid. We instituted a nightly “Happy Hour” – after my husband leaves his home office at 5:00, we spend an hour outside on the patio, throwing a tennis ball for the dogs and talking about “happy” stuff. Wine, cocktails or a favorite snack are often involved. Sometimes a neighbor will join us.

I stopped reading books about addiction. I have hundreds in my library. I finally decided to pick up a novel for the first time in years. Reading it was lovely.

I joined a Facebook group about painting and one for cooking and another to get involved in the upcoming election. I found new things to keep my brain busy.

The last thing to go was my writing. I always thought that ‘at least’ I would be able to help other people by writing about what I have gone through. I wanted the suffering to have meaning and to help others. It was important, I felt, to tell parents not to feel guilty or blame themselves for their child’s addiction. But it pulled me into a sad place and honestly kept me feeling like a victim. I will write the book one day, after I’ve healed emotionally. But right now, I’m trying to reclaim my life.

I now focus on living each day fully. No thoughts about the past, no worries about the future. I get outside in nature, play with my dogs, swim, paddleboard, practice yoga, cook and visit my grandson. I still write, but I’ve been writing fiction, which is really fun.

Happily, my husband and I have discovered that we still truly enjoy each other’s company. Our bond wasn’t just forged in crisis management. We discovered that we still have great fun teasing each other, now that we aren’t walking on eggshells. Before we were always working to protect each other from the latest tragedy, trying to keep from revealing the panic and sadness. We had forgotten how it felt to laugh together and have fun. Our home is no longer a bomb shelter where we huddle to survive the latest attack. It is bright and busy and full of teasing, good food and laughter.

There are moments where I think I should feel guilty for going on with my life, that I must be horrible for not knowing where my son is or how he is caring for himself. I feel guilty for not suffering right along with him. In this judgmental narrative, wanting a life, makes me selfish and an unfit mother. But my relationship with my son cannot be judged by normal parent-child parameters. Our relationship is twisted by a cruel toxicity that turns my love into a instrument of manipulation.

So, I have decided to go ‘no contact’ with guillt as well. When my mind begins to flirt with feelings of shame, I push them away and remind myself that I have analyzed and argued with myself for years. My guilt never improved my son’s situation or my own. After much practice, I can stop those thoughts. Distraction, relaxation, exercises – I’ll use any tool necessary to move my thoughts to a healthier place.  And it’s easier without daily contact. Without the onslaught of blame and harassment, once the unrelenting voice of addiction was quieted, we can think rationally.

Calmness and peace feel amazing.  I’m shocked that I can fall asleep easily at night and I don’t wake up in a panic in the mornings. I’m astonished that the ding of a text message doesn’t cause an anxiety attack anymore.

And, yes, I can still love my son while not being in contact with him. I still want the best for him, pray he finds his way and will be the first one to step-up the moment he wants treatment, or wants a relationship that is not toxic. If one day we can again coexist peacefully, I’ll be incredibly happy. But until then, “no contact” has allowed me to reclaim my life.