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OXYGEN MASK

“Put the oxygen mask on yourself first.”

This is excellent self care advice, but for parents of addicts it’s an oversimplification. If your child has SUD and especially if it’s combined or other mental illness this advice can feel impossible. I believe in self-care, but it can be very hard to accomplish.

I think of it like this. The airplane is flying along when suddenly there is turbulence and the flight gets rough. The masks drop down and you reach to put yours on before you try to help your child. Normally, you would place your mask on yourself and then reach over and place your child’s mask on them. Everyone is safe and you both get the oxygen you need. Care for yourself first, then care for the other person.

However, if you child suffers from SUD it’s never that easy. Imagine this instead.

The flight gets bumpy and your addicted child immediately begins to act out, yelling and panicking as the oxygen masks drop from the ceiling. You reach for your mask as you simultaneously try to calm them down. They flail and scream knocking the masks around and your mask is swinging wildly, making it difficult to grab. As you work to get your mask with one hand and push your child’s flapping arms out of the way the other, they begin to cuss at you.

“Don’t touch me, why aren’t you helping me? Give me my mask!”

You try to explain that you are attempting to get your mask on, then you will help them with theirs, to no avail. The thrashing and panic continues as you work desperately to reach your mask. You finally seize it and try to place it on your face only to have your child knock it from your hands in their erratic grasping.

You reach for it again, but you are getting short of breath and it’s getting harder to fight for that mask. Your child seems unaffected by the lack of air, drama and chaos they are causing, but you are overwhelmed and afraid you both may die if you don’t get the damn mask.

You tell your child they must calm down, and let you get masks on you both and they argue with you about your ‘demands.’

“How dare you tell me what to do, you don’t understand me”. They draw more of your energy and further exhaust you as they argue about how you are handling the crisis.

With a single minded determination, you ignore the tirade and push them away so you can reach your mask.

“How can you be so heartless?” they yell, “You know I need your help! How can you push me away?”

 It hurts to have them attack you when you’re only trying to help you both, but you don’t have time to deal with the hurt or even acknowledge it. As they rant you make one last grab for the mask. Your fingers wrap around it and quickly you pull the elastic over your head. You feel the fresh air filling your lungs and for just a moment your body relaxes as oxygen renews you.

Then to your surprise your child, suddenly aware of the life saving mask, tries to pull the mask off of you instead of reaching for their own. You work to protect yourself, and reach for their mask, hoping to get them the air they need, but they push your hands away. In their irrational state they think your are trying to take something that is theirs. They lunge for it and in their anxiety and frustration, they rip the mask from the ceiling and pull the tube loose. Their mask is no longer functional.

Their eyes go wide with realization and they start pulling and fighting for your mask again.

You realize that someone is going to suffer, maybe die. Will it be you or them? You want them to calm down, you want help, you want it to stop, you want this to be easier, you wish you had never gotten on this flight.

You wish it was a movie, where something magical happens and at the last minute someone comes along and saves you both. This isn’t a movie and the flight may last years.

Yeah…

Put the oxygen mask on yourself first.

I try not to beat myself up because it feels so hard to care for myself, because loving an addict is incredibly complicated and simple answers have a way of becoming very convoluted when addiction is involved.

It’s not simple and it’s not easy. I need help and support. I will go to a meeting, see a therapist, take an antidepressant, detach, block phone numbers, go no contact for a while.  I will do what I need to. Self-care isn’t just scented candles and long walks. Sometimes it’s protecting myself and preserving my very survival and my mental health.

It’s gonna be a long flight.

CHASING HAPPINESS

I’ve been chasing happiness for the last few years. It’s been an elusive creature. I sneak up on it and think I have a good hold on it, and then it slips through my fingers. It’s not that I’ve been in the depths of depression for two years, but I’ve worked hard for every shred of happiness I’ve found. I lost my grip on happiness when my son relapsed two years ago. I tried hard to hold onto it, in spite of his drug use, homelessness, angry violent outbursts, and meth-induced psychosis.

I crept up on moments of happiness by focusing on the positive things in my life, instead of his addiction. I did a twelve-step program and saw a therapist. I read scores of books on codependence and drug addiction and detachment. I worked on detachment a lot. It wasn’t easy, but it was necessary for my sanity.

Detachment was really hard. When he was using my son would call incessantly. When I stopped answering he would call from a new number. When I quit answering that he would show up at my house. When I said “no” to him in person he would get aggressive and angry. I called the police on my own son and I finally got a restraining order.

I continued to paint, cook, do yoga, swim and write while all this was happening, but no matter how hard I tried, the drama was always in the back of my mind. I found happiness at times, but it was contingent happiness. It required a guardedness a determination to not feel sorry for myself or my situation. It was happiness derived from effort.

My first grandson was born and I was able to completely enjoy that time because of the restraining order, although I knew my son was homeless and probably on a crime spree, I pushed it aside and immersed myself in being a grandmother.

I had taken in his two dogs when he relapsed and I found great joy in training and working with them. I started painting with watercolor and found I enjoyed the challenge. I discovered writing competitions. I really enjoy those, and I’ve done well in them.

I’ve been feeling pretty pleased with myself for not letting his addiction destroy me. Glad I was getting on with my life. I was convinced I would be just fine if he never got sober. And just like so many other moms have discovered, it seems when you finally let go and realize that their sobriety is up to them, the impossible happened.

My son got arrested, which forced him into sobriety. When he was released, to my surprise he agreed to go to a sober living facility. He has currently been sober for 30 days and is working on 90 meetings in 90 days. He has a job and just picked up a second job.

When he first went to Sober Living I was very skeptical and guarded. He has always complained about 12 step programs. So I thought he was just taking advantage of a warm bed and three squares a day. But he surprised me. He has followed every rule and has completely embraced working the program.

After 30 days of sobriety, I agreed to see him again. I am amazed at his attitude and the effort he is putting into working the program. He’s no longer angry and aggressive or rude and entitled. He’s a wonderful person to be around again.

After spending time with him last week an amazing thing happened. Happiness snuck up on me. I wasn’t working at it, or trying, I just realized one day that was happy in a deeply significant way. At first, I had a really strange reaction to it. I got angry. I don’t want my happiness to be tied up in his sobriety. I don’t want to dependent on him to feel deep fulfilling joy. But then I realized that really, as long we love people our happiness will be tied up in their health and well being. That can just be extra hard when the person we love is an addict.

For now, I will enjoy not having to chase happiness. I will relish the fact that it comes right up to me out in the open, no longer a skittish creature I pursue. I will enjoy every moment and try not to worry that it might become elusive again. I will live in the moment. One day at a time.

 

A GOOD DAY

The air in the car was heavy with emotion. My son, in the passenger seat, sat and looked out the window towards the gray naked branches of the two lonely trees at the edge of the parking lot. His deep voice was uneven and agitated.  I listened with my heart in my throat. I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear what he was saying.

“I almost killed a man, mom. I had a knife in my hand, and I wanted to. The anger and the drugs had built up in me and I didn’t care who I hurt or if I spent the rest of my life in jail. . .  At least I’d be warm.” He was remembering an incident during a drug-fueled crime spree he had been on just a few weeks ago when he was homeless, cold, desperate and high on meth. He had been freezing for days and something as simple as being warm was completely out of his reach.

“Some sort of feminine magic stopped me,” he said. I assumed he meant the girl who had been with him on these forays into lawlessness. Thankfully he had not killed anyone, but he had been picked up by the police. He spent three weeks in county lock up. The only thing they could convict him of was evading arrest when he ran from the police on a routine traffic stop.

“Mom I started sobering up in jail, but I couldn’t get rid of the horrible thoughts. I just wanted to hurt someone. I didn’t care who.” He looked shattered, “I haven’t prayed in years.” He whispered, “But I started praying. I needed my higher power to help me. Sometimes I would pray all day. The evil thoughts wouldn’t stop. I prayed so hard.”

I reached over and rubbed his shoulder, small gentle caresses, trying to pass my love and support through my fingertips. “I’m so relieved you found a way through it son- that you chose to fight it.”

I’m stunned, I had no idea how deep his despair had been. Although I’m glad he shared this with me, I’m also very sad. It is crushing to know these things- that he has such capabilities and so much rage. I hurt for him and I fear for him. His whole life will be spent fighting addiction and the rage it unleashes. I’ve never had to fight against urges inside me that could tempt me to break the law or hurt others. I’ve never dealt with addiction to something that could destroy me. I feel profound sadness.

“I’m glad you’re praying and so glad to have you back,” I said. “I’ve missed you.”

He smiled sadly. Then he spotted a friend in the parking lot and pushed all the emotion away, “Look there’s Joe,” he said as he waved at his roommate. We were sitting in the parking lot of the sober house where he is now living. He had left jail sober and willing to work a program.

“Joe’s doing good now,” he said. He knew Joe from years ago. They got in a lot of trouble together in their teens – drugs, alcohol crime. But my son and he had lost touch when he was sober for seven-year. Now they were both in the same boat again. I could be resentful of Joe, but he had convinced my son that this sober house was “cool”. So, maybe they could find long term sobriety together in their thirties.

“I should go,” my son said.

“Can I have a hug?” I asked.

He leans over and hugs me, “I love you mom.”

I hold on too long and whisper against his hair, “I love you too, son.”

I drove home with a heavy heart. It’s hard to hear my son’s anguish. I had gone through hell watching him careen out of control during his relapse but had been so happy when he went to sober living. Now, hearing firsthand about his emotional pain made me suffer all over again. It’s a strange place to be- happy for his sobriety, joyful at having him back in my life, but also very sad to be learning firsthand of the emotional toll it’s taken. I knew it was bad, but sitting with him as he recounted it was devastating. It hurts to become reacquainted with my sober son and fully realize the pain he’s endured, and the battle he fights every day. It’s painful to see how each relapse changes him and brings new horrors for him to process. These were heavy thoughts to carry home in an empty car on a Saturday night.

He had been at our house to celebrate my birthday. It was only the third time I had seen him since lifting the restraining order I had taken out when he was using. The day had been wonderful. It was the first birthday he had been sober for in two years. His dad had picked him up early and he had spent the whole day with us. He was open about his meetings and his work on the twelve-step program. His sister-in-law had asked thoughtful questions and encouraged him to talk. He and his brother had gotten along well, and we had all enjoyed our newest family member, my six-month-old grandson. It had been a very good day. But driving him home, just the two of us, he had opened up even more. Listening to him unburdened himself of some of his deepest pain was a sad ending to a happy day.

I struggled with how I felt about it. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have to hear about these things. I don’t feel like “normal” moms end their birthdays with stories of their child almost committing murder. But I know that there is no such thing as a “normal”. We all have our secret burdens. This is mine.

After some mental gymnastics, rolling these thoughts around in my head, I realize I can approach these talks like the ones I have with my other son when he shares that he’s frustrated with work, or the baby isn’t sleeping. I offer support and understanding and remind him I love him, and he can talk to me any time.  That’s also the solution to these difficult situations.

Although the stories are much harder for me to relate to and I may not want to hear them, I can listen. All he needs is my ear and my love. I can’t change who he is or what he’s been through. He just needs to know I love him exactly as he is. I am not required to be comfortable with these difficult stories, or the addiction or the anger. I just need to love him and that’s the easy part. I do love him. He’s my son, the child whose smile I adored, the toddler whose first steps I applauded. The man whose emotions I can read from a distance. The man whose quirky sense of humor I totally get and whose face I’ve memorized. Loving him, the true core of his being is easy.

I just have to remember to leave his sobriety alone. Only he can find it. I must leave the twelve-steps and the hard work of facing his demons to him. It’s something only he can do.

So, for the thousandth time in this journey I will remember that I am powerless over the addict. I can only do this one day, one hour, one minute at a time. I will treasure each sober day and soak it in, because I know that there are no guarantees. And finally, I will not let fear rob me of the joy of a good day, because today was a very good day.

SOBER AGAIN

YEAH!!!! My son has chosen to go to a sober living facility. I’m very happy. The two years leading up to this point have been really awful. My son, an addict since his teen years, relapsed in 2018 after being sober since 2011. Experiencing those seven years of sobriety, made the relapse extremely painful. We thought we were out of danger.

Obviously, we were not. Now that he’s sober again, I’ve been thinking a lot about 2011 when he came out of prison sober for the first time in ten years. My husband and I approached his sobriety with strong boundaries and a certain degree of skepticism. We were veterans of the struggle, so we were very realistic. We didn’t let him move home, we didn’t give money, we limited our time with him. But as his sobriety progressed, we let our joy at having him back, erode the boundaries.

After a year on his own and some unexpected complications with his living arrangements, we let him move home. Then I employed him at the family business. Then we started paying for car repairs and medical bills (even though he was working). He leaned heavily on us.

We were so happy that he was sober, that we didn’t worry about his dependence. We became so vested in his sobriety, that we were afraid to let him struggle. We were always stepping in to help him out. In retrospect, this probably set him up for failure. When he ran into problems that we couldn’t fix – marriage problems, anxiety, poor financial choices, temptations – he relapsed.

It also became very taxing for us. We began to get tired and maybe a little resentful that he wasn’t becoming independent and growing in his sobriety. Just being sober, it turns out, isn’t enough. He needed a bigger circle of support and he needed to grow and become independent.

We want to do things differently this time.  We are going to try very hard to keep him from leaning too heavily on us for his recovery. We want him to develop a strong network of support, particularly people who have been in his shoes and understand the struggle for sobriety.

We are telling him how very proud we are that he made this choice. We are expressing our love and desire to have him back, whole and healthy, in our lives. However, we are determined to allow this recovery to be his.

We will give him room to struggle, fail and then find his own support. A sober living facility gives him a safety net while he does this. They offer groups, counseling and job assistance. It’s huge that he’s chosen to go there and be in a place that can give him the support he needs.

It only happened after we refused to help him any longer. We made him leave our house in the dead of winter, refused to bail him out of jail and all the really hard things we parents hate to do.  But he finally made a good choice.

I hope he will take full advantage of all the assistance the sober house has to offer. He must choose to turn to them and use the tools they give him, instead of coming to us for help. My husband and I are determined to help him by letting his recovery belong to him.

We are discussing boundaries and ways to continue to say ‘no’ as lovingly as possible. Our son needs to find his independence. My husband and I want our son back so badly that it will be hard to hold ourselves back from coddling and being too helpful. My son is a wonderful man when he’s sober and we’ve missed him since his relapse. But we cannot feel like his sobriety is dependent on our responses to him or our actions. This needs to be something he can look back on and say “I did it!” with pride and confidence.

It’s not going to be easy, because he sounds wonderful sober. Every fiber of our being wants him to stay that way and we tend to be fixers. We want to jump in and fix problems. But we have to stop.

When he was using, we told ourselves, “We didn’t cause it, we can’t control it, and we can’t cure it.” This is still true. This is not our problem to solve. We have to let him do this on his own. He will get our unending love and support, but he is an adult and we will give him the respect of treating him like one.

Acceptance

Are the police after him? Does he have a place to stay? Is he cold, hungry, sick, desperate? Does he hate me?  Is he alive?

My thoughts don’t stop. I am an addict’s mom.  I can plaster a fake smile on my face, fill my Facebook page with happy thoughts and most of the world would never know.  But listen to my thoughts and you’ll know.

I currently have a restraining order against my son. It put an end to the drama, anxiety and anger. It was initially a relief. But over time, once he was no longer harassing and abusing me, a feeling of loss set in. I don’t think I was prepared for how sad I would be. I have lost a person, a whole person. He can’t be in my life right now, and it hurts.

He is angry, violent and abusive. He lies, breaks the law and can be vengeful and vindictive. This is a hard thing to accept about your own child.

As I consider this truth, I realize that there have always been angry, violent people in the world, and they all had parents. I’d never thought about that before. Bonnie and Clyde had parents. Billy the Kid had parents. Hitler had parents. The very first offspring in biblical history included a murderer. Cain murdered Abel and his parents were literally created by God.

“But I was a good parent!” my emotions scream. “Life is not fair!” logic screams back. People get cancer, babies die, people get divorced. Life can be miserable. Why did I think I would be exempt?

So, now the question becomes, how do I deal with the life I have been dealt?

First, I decided to be brutally honest with myself. I look at some hard truths.

  1. I am the mother of an addict and I don’t know why he is an addict.
  2. I cannot save him or control him.
  3. His life will be unpleasant until he chooses to change.
  4. He may never choose to change, and he may die
  5. I will continue to feel pain as long as he stays on this path.

That’s a depressing list. How on earth did I end up here? Does the “how” matter? I can’t change the past. So, where do I go from here?

When I refuse to accept the truth, I suffer. I ruminate and worry and beat myself up about a situation that is completely out of my control, a problem that has literally been around since Adam and Eve.. I can accept that I am one of them and get on with my life, or I can question God and the universe and analyze my parenting and every move I have made and ever will make. I can obsess and worry and cry and fight against the truth with every fiber of my being. . . and I will suffer. Or can I accept the truth, give up my expectations for acceptance and find peace. I will still experience pain, but I will not suffer as much.

I am not saying that I will never try to help my child. I’m not talking about resignation or loss of hope. I’m talking about accepting the truth of the situation and giving it space in my head in a way that is not trying to figure it out, or fix it, or control it. Just accept it. I am a 20-year veteran of this war, and I have not been able to save my son, figure him out, control him or anticipate how to stop the next catastrophe. It is time for me to accept the truth, give up my expectations and stop suffering.

I’m through with worry and recriminations and panic. My life is what it is. I will live in and focus on the present moment and stop reliving the past and worrying over the future. I will stop the tsunami of thoughts whirling in my head through radical acceptance. This is my life, and I will live it with as much grace, acceptance and serenity as possible.

PARABLE

Once there was a kind old woman who lived near a beautiful lake. Every day she sat on her porch and enjoyed the view. In the summer she swam in the cool water. In the fall she took long walks along the shore.  In the winter she watched the sparkling water and felt thankful for the wonderful place she lived.

One day a man came and fished from the public dock near her house. He fished often and they became friends.

After a time, he brought a boat and launched it into the water. Soon he decided to stand in the boat, and he fell overboard. He could not swim and called for help. The old woman jumped in to save him. She pulled him ashore and he thanked her profusely.

The next day he came again with his boat. “Don’t stand up,” called the kind, old woman. The man nodded, but soon he stood and fell. Once again, the old woman swam out to save him. “Don’t stand in the boat!” she said as she shook the water from her clothes.

Over the next few weeks, this occurrence was repeated. Some days the man managed not to fall overboard, but often he did. The old woman began to dread looking out her window. She stopped sitting on the porch and taking walks.

She offered to teach him to swim, but he said he couldn’t learn. She bought him a life jacket and he lost it. She bought another, he forgot to wear it. She asked him to stop using the boat, but his promise never lasted long. She hid the boat, but he soon found another.

She told herself she would not save him. One day she tried, but she could not bear to hear his cries for help. She jumped in again.

Every day she worried if he would show up. Even on the days that he didn’t come, she spent the day wondering if he would. Winter was the worst- jumping into the freezing water. Her paradise had become a torture chamber.

In desperation, she called the police, but they said the lake was public and she could not stop him from using it. “But he’s crazy,” she said.

“Fishing is not a crime,” the officer said.

“He should wear a life vest,” the woman said.

“I’ll write him a ticket,” said the officer.

The man paid his ticket and wore his vest for a while, but soon forgot. The old woman called the police again and again, but they could only write tickets and soon tired of her calls and began to act as if she were the problem. She begged them to put him in jail, where at least he would be safe, but they said they could not.

She continued to beg her friend to stop fishing from a boat, to wear a life jacket, or learn to swim, but there was no convincing him.

“But your survival is dependent on me,” she said, “you need to be able to save yourself.”

“But you always save me,” he said.

“I’m tired of saving you, it’s destroying my life,” she said.

“But I cannot save myself,” he said, “would you let me die?”

Next, the old woman talked to her friends at church and they said, “How can you not save him? You must love your fellow man,” and she felt guilty for thinking about letting him drown.

She talked to her friend the psychologist and she said. “He needs help, but we cannot force him to get help unless he says he wants to die. He obviously does not, because he calls for help. You must understand he is sick,” and the old woman felt guilty for not wanting to help a friend who was sick.

She talked to her strong, old friend who was a veteran of many wars and he said, “Only the strong survive. How have you let him ruin your life for this long? Ignore him.” and the old woman felt guilty for not being able to ignore him.

So, feeling like no one really understood her dilemma the kind, old woman felt totally lost. Would she ever be able to return to the life she had before he took it from her?

*****

Parables usually have a moral. What is the moral of this story? Maybe you think the story sounds ridiculous. Who would be so irrational? Who would refuse to stop behavior that could kill them? Who would refuse to find a way to save themselves? And would someone really destroy their own life to save another?

Unfortunately, it’s not as ridiculous as it sounds. Repeating self-destructive behavior is exactly what an addict does when they return to drugs and life-threatening situations over and over again and refuse the help that could save them.

And the dilemma the kind old woman faced? It is exactly what the person that loves an addict faces. Every. Single. Day.

HOSTAGE

I have spent the last seven months practicing extreme forgiveness, understanding, patience, and kindness with my recovering addict. I’ve written many times about our ups and downs when he came to live with us after a yearlong relapse. He started out really trying to get along and respect our boundaries. But then things begin to change.

I don’t know if he began using Meth again, but I do know he started using other addictions to deal with his sadness and anger. He seemed to think gambling and women were perfectly acceptable ways to deal with his sorrows. But I wanted him to work towards healthy coping mechanisms.

He is triggered by ultimatums, yelling, and demands. So, we patiently and kindly tried to point him to positive activities, to no avail. We finally realized our situation had deteriorated to the point that we were being held hostage in our own home. We had become so compliant, so unwilling to upset him, that instead of being angry because he was living in our house, making no efforts towards independence, we were telling ourselves that we were lucky that he hadn’t stolen from us or become violent. Such a low bar we had set.

We thought with a good job, he could get back on his feet and improve his attitude. He finally got hired and we tried so hard to help him. When he wrecked his car and we feared it would derail his progress, I agreed to drive him to work while he saved to buy another one. I was now hostage to his schedule. But we were excited by the possibilities. A good job, a reliable car… he was on his way.

After eight weeks of driving him to work, we suggested that we all needed to have a talk. This infuriated him (it always does). We asked how much he had saved for a car. His answer “Nothing.” We had feared this answer and had carefully planned our response – hoping to avoid escalating the situation further.

We told him we had allowed him to stay in our home to get a new start and he could not live here while being irresponsible. We offered him three options:

  1. I would continue to drive him, but he must turn most of his paychecks over to us to hold until he had $2000 saved. (We knew he would claim this was treating him like a child, which is a pet peeve of his.)
  2. He could pay us rent and find his own rides to work and he could do what he wanted with his remaining paycheck. (This was our rebuttal to being treated like a child.)
  3. He could come up with an alternative solution that we all could agree on.

He disgustedly turned them all down. He raged about how unfair we were and at some point, swiped a bowl off the table sending it flying across the room and then made vague threats.

I saw my husband’s anger rising. I slipped out of the room and called the police non-emergency line. “The situation is not an emergency, but I’m concerned it may turn violent…” I whispered into the phone.

Fortunately, that day did not end in violence, and the police were kind and helpful. When they arrived, my son was in the basement angrily packing his things. The police said, “If he’s packing, that’s good. We don’t want to exacerbate the situation. You need him to leave willingly, otherwise, you will have to evict him. If he gets violent call 911 and we will be back immediately.”

That day he chose homelessness over responsibility. It’s a sign of mental illness, I know, but I no longer know how to help him. He is back on the streets and has lost his job. Of course, he calls daily begging for money, food, to shower or wash his clothes. He’s working to make sure we see his suffering. He wants us to know what we have “done to him.” Although when he stormed out of the house, he knew he had no place to go.

It’s horrible. We struggle with the pain of it, but this encounter made it clear that we can’t save him. We had spent months thinking he just needed a break, being held hostage by the hope that he could make it if everything went right.

However, the eight weeks I had driven him to work, an offer by his grandparents to match his savings, the excellent job with Amazon offering paid benefits were undeniably great opportunities. The fact that he had thrown it all away was also undeniable. We could no longer fool ourselves into believing that he just needed a break.

Whether it was drugs or alcohol or his mental disorder (BPD) that made him blow this chance, is impossible to tell, because he is seldom truthful. But it’s obvious that he was not going to allow us to help him. Any effort to “tell him what to do” was going to be met with threats and fury. We are not willing to be held hostage by his temper in our own home.

I will always love him, but I can’t control him or save him. It’s is so sad knowing his uncontrollable impulses and anger will continue to destroy his life. I know it is very difficult for him to have self-control. But, he will have to seek out the help he so desperately needs, and so far, he had been unwilling.

So now we are back where we were seven months ago, trying to set and keep boundaries that will keep us healthy. I found a quote that helps:

“Detachment with love is letting someone be themselves while separating yourself from the consequences of their actions.”

I wish this had ended differently. I wish I had a success story to share, but unfortunately, that is out of my control. The only thing in my control is my life and I refuse to live it as a hostage. Instead, I intend to make each day count and find my way to peace and contentment no matter how my son chooses to live.

Anger

I’m angry. I’m ranting and my husband is agreeing with every word. We are both mad at our son. I never wanted to spend as much time being angry and frustrated with him as I do. It wasn’t how I imagined my life. But here we are.

We found out our thirty-three-year-old son, a recovered meth addict with four months of sobriety, went to the boats and gambled away his paycheck. He is living with us (again), trying to get back on his feet after a yearlong relapse cost him everything – marriage, possessions, job, house, and car.

After finally getting a job and beginning to make some money, a night at the boats was stupid, irresponsible, and irritating as hell (but he wasn’t using). So, although I wanted to be furious, give ultimatums, demand that he move out, or give me his paychecks to manage, I know that treating him like a child is a huge trigger. He self-destructs when we start trying to control him. He wants to be treated like an adult, even though he doesn’t seem responsible enough for adulting.

We’ve been dealing with his addiction for years and we’ve learned that when we are angry to pause, discuss, and try to calm down before taking action. We also try to check our boundaries. Are we upset because we are just tired of the struggle? Or is he crossing a boundary?

Boundary Check: He has to be working and sober. Check, check… he’s doing both. I had agreed to drive him to work for 5 weeks while he saves for a car. We were still within the 5 weeks (check). Even though I wanted to refuse to drive him after this, he hadn’t done anything to violate this boundary. The only requirement was that he be up and ready to go to work every day (check). He was doing this.

But still, we were angry! After we talked some more, we realized that we felt trapped. If he doesn’t save the money and we stop driving him, he will lose his job. We were feeling responsible for his job, something that wasn’t our responsibility. We were feeling we had to make sure he succeeded which also wasn’t our responsibility. We needed to detach from this. Not easy, but just talking about it made us realize what we were doing. We can’t take on the responsibility of his life, it must be his to live.  Success or failure, it is up to him. “Detach! Give it back to him,” we admonished each other.

We were also angry because we had allowed him to borrow our car on his day off (because he had been doing so well!) and he had gone to the boats! So, we felt taken advantage of and disappointed.

We agreed that a new boundary would be that he couldn’t borrow our car on his days off. Not because we can keep him from going to the boats or to punish him, but because we didn’t like how we felt when he used our car to go waste money. And that’s how we would explain it to him. Boundaries are not about controlling him, they are about protecting our emotional wellbeing.

Next, we reminded ourselves that we had a boundary in place about driving for 5 weeks. I hadn’t agreed to drive indefinitely. So, we needed to enforce that boundary. But, just talking about it stressed us out. We don’t want him to lose his job, he could never move out without a job. So, we agreed that if we wanted (and only if we wanted to), we could set a new boundary at the five-week mark (again, this was about making us feel okay). If he didn’t have transportation by then, we could make additional requirements to continue driving him a few more weeks. We could require he give us part of his paycheck to guarantee the money would be saved in a predefined time. He wouldn’t like it, but we had given him a chance to do it without help. He could refuse and lose his job and then he’d have to move out. All of this was stressful to think about, but we were getting ahead of ourselves (a common problem with parents of addicts, because we’ve seen the worst-case scenario play out too many times). So, to deal with the current situation (not all the possible future scenarios) we decided that we would just remind him that he needed to have transportation figured out in five weeks and let him know we were disappointed that he wasn’t exercising more self-control.

Since boundaries are for us, we would only tell him what was necessary, so we didn’t mention possible new boundaries or consequences. Our boundaries aren’t something we want to argue about or negotiate. They are to protect us and keep us accountable to ourselves.

We continued to talk and discussed the fact that his brain is still healing, and he is still acting immaturely and irresponsibly. We know this is part of the journey, unfortunately, we can’t skip this part or miraculously cure it. Just acknowledging that it’s hard and talking about it helped. We also reminded each other that this was not forever. If he doesn’t continue to work and stay sober, we can evict him. We have to remind ourselves that we always have a choice.  Right now, he’s trying, and we are willing to help – one day at a time.

We both felt better after our discussion. We have learned to listen to our anger and examine it before we act. It’s easy to just be angry and let that anger flare and create more hurts and wounds to the already fragile relationship with our son. He is very sensitive to anger and judgment, once he became sober, he felt all the judgment and condemnation that comes his way, and it’s a hard part of being sober. So, we try to listen to our anger and examine what it’s telling us before we act. We do it when he’s not around so we can be completely honest with each other.

This could have been a major fight with our son, with threats and tears and rash actions. Instead of acting on our anger, we spent some time listening to it and instead of a crisis, it ended up being just a bump in the road with a chance to vent, acknowledge how hard this is and plan our next steps.

Every day that we can support each other and work through our emotions instead of letting them control us is a step in the right direction. And every day that he stays sober is a very good day.

Loving What Is

With an addicted son, life never seems to go according to plan. I end up doing things I didn’t plan to do, being responsible for things I didn’t want responsibility for and generally feeling out of control. The challenge, of course, is how to be happy anyway.

I was not happy to end up with three dogs. I never wanted three dogs. I was very content with my old, overweight beagle named Daisy who wandered around the house, nose to the ground, tail waving, completely obsessed with the smells surrounding her. She fit my slow-paced retired, life very well. She was to be our only dog.

But I have a son who is an addict and that fact can throw a wrench into the best-laid plans. He relapsed last year after many years of respectable living. When he relapsed he had beautiful golden Pitbull named Willow with a red nose and liquid amber eyes. When he relapsed her behavior started to show the strain of living with an addict, so he asked us to take her (he has a good heart). My husband, the one who was adamant that Daisy would be our only dog, said: “We have to take her, she’s family.” So, of course, we did.

Then, in the illogical way of an addict, after giving Willow up to us, my son took in a litter of abandoned pups when they were just days old. He took them from a dealer who was going to kill them. He said they gave him a reason to live. It may have been true. He faithfully fed them by bottle every two hours and I enabled him by buying formula, but who can let puppies starve?

Six months later when he lost his house, he still had three of the puppies. I took two to a local shelter and cried all the way there. He claimed he had a home for the third. I soon discovered that the third was living in his car with him. The pup was a rambunctious Lab/Pitbull mix with a dense black coat and a white patch on his chest. He named him Shadow. Shadow adored my son and they slept together in a freezing car, huddled together under blankets throughout the relentless winter.

After three months of homelessness, my son was ready to get sober and we let him move home with Shadow. He moved in and began the arduous road of recovery. He was sober, but not responsible. After a few months, he moved out and left Shadow with us. I didn’t complain, because despite making every effort not to get attached, I fell in love with the exuberant pup. After living in a car for a large part of his life he seemed to find all the world an adventure. So now I have three dogs.

But here’s the wonderful part:

I have been a lake girl my whole life. Last year I retired and wanted to spend a lot of time at our lake house, but sometimes I get bored and lonely since my husband hasn’t retired yet, and most residents at the lake are weekenders. Also, sometimes I felt uncomfortable being alone.

This year it’s been different. I have been at the lake most of the year and I’ve had the three dogs with me. I have found training them is a pastime I really enjoy. I rent out a vacation home next door to mine, and I can’t have poorly behaved animals terrorizing the guest. So, they must behave! I have spent the summer working with them, and they have responded beautifully! They come, sit, respect the boundaries of the yard and require no leashes when they go out. I get many compliments on their behavior. It has been extremely rewarding.

I also no longer get lonely. The dogs follow me around all day and curl up with me to watch TV and all join me in my bedroom at night. I’m never without a furry ear within arm’s reach, or a warm nose resting on my lap. When I write, they curl up at my feet and their gentle snores keep me company. I chuckle when they dream with quiet woofs and feet peddling the air.

With two Pitbulls I’m also never afraid. I’ve had people comment, “I’ll bet no one messes with you with those two around.” They are correct. Though neither one has ever hurt a soul, they have vicious sounding barks and growls, which are on full display whenever someone knocks at the door.

The best part of all- the dogs love the lake too! Shadow, being part lab, leaps off the retaining wall and belly flops into the water chasing sticks, Frisbees or whatever I throw. Willow only wades into the water, no belly flops for her, but then she swims circles with a giant Pitty grin on her face and her tail wagging under the water. They both eagerly jump on my paddleboard with me for a paddle around the cove. If I go out on the Seadoo, they both sit on the end of the dock and watch me, not leaving their posts until I return. When extended family visits I put life jackets on the dogs, and they swim for hours with the kids.

This morning I realized how blessed I am by these two silly beasts. I went for a morning swim and they both begged to join me. So, I sat on the dock and threw sticks for Shadow and swam circles with Willow. Their enthusiasm for play was infectious and I found myself laughing and playing like a child. Willow chased my splashes and Shadow romped with so much energy that I marveled he could keep going. He bounded from land to, to dock, to water, repeatedly. Willow whined, wishing she was brave enough to jump, then eventually would wade in and swim circles again.

It’s not all perfect. It’s been work and I’ve had to adapt. Some mornings I wish they’d let me sleep in, sometimes I wish I could make my coffee without three dogs underfoot and sometimes I wish I didn’t smell like wet dog. But the pluses have outweighed the minuses by a long shot.

These dogs, that I didn’t want, have brought so many unexpected bonuses. Being the parent of an addict has enough sorrow; it’s nice to find unexpected joy.

Whenever I get frustrated because life isn’t going exactly as I planned, I try to remember to “Love What Is” (the title of an excellent book by Katie Byron). I try to find the good in the path I’m on, even if it’s not the path I’ve chosen because sometimes joy can be found in expected places. I know it’s true because these two unwanted dogs have been a delight.

Even When He’s Sober

My thirty-three-year-old son, who was a meth addict for ten years, sober for seven and then had a yearlong relapse, is sober again. I’m glad he’s sober, but I’m tired and depressed. I have had trouble wanting to do anything for the last few days.

I should be happy. He’s not in meth psychosis or jail or a drug house. So why am I not?

He has been sober for four months and we have made it through a one-day relapse, a major fight, and many ups and downs. We are learning better communication and he is seeing a psychiatrist and trying to find a job. So why am I depressed?

He’s no longer living with us. He is currently living with a girlfriend’s family. She is also a former addict, but she seems to be good for him. She is encouraging him to look for work and keep going to his psychiatric appointments. He seems to be good for her family. He mows the yard, does home repairs, helps with housework and errands. They seem to really like him and need the help he provides, and this seems good for him. He feels needed. So why am I sad?

He calls me regularly. I’m glad he wants to talk to me. I’m glad to support and encourage him. But his calls can be depressing. I hear all his problems and worries and hear his lackadaisical approach to solving them. He still would rather play than work. He still seems to struggle with committing to solving his own problems. He seems to want to be rescued.

When he calls, I hear about how unproductive the job search is. I hear about health and dental problems that are going untreated because no one has health care. I hear about the rebellious teenager of his girlfriend who has problems because her mom was an addict during her formative years. I get requests for gas money constantly. Gas is expensive and job interviews and psychiatric appointments require gas. (I know he’s sober because he passes his drug test for job interviews, it’s his felony conviction that gets him). I hear about his debts that he can’t pay because he can’t find a job.

I also hear about bad choices. His girlfriend quits a job because it’s too hard. He drives places he shouldn’t when he doesn’t have gas money. They go to the boats and gamble away $20 each when they don’t have money to spare. He misses a psychiatric appointment for a job interview for a job he doesn’t get. Then he misses another one because he has an infection in his tooth causing his face to swell. So, he goes to the doctor instead. If he misses one more appointment, he will be dismissed from his psychiatrist care. He’s terribly codependent with his girlfriend. I’ve said I will pay for his dental appointment if he will get his teeth fixed, instead, he spends days finding free dental care for his girlfriend but does nothing for his own dental needs.

So, I think I’m sad because it’s so hard for an addict to start over. The world is unforgiving, and they are not at their best for months or even years after getting sober. The personality and behaviors that drove them to use are still there, and the problems – financial problems, health problems, mental problems are all compounded by their years of addiction.  Our nation does not have a safety net for addicts, just judgment and scorn.

Consequently, I’m constantly torn between detaching and helping. After all, he’s sober, I want to help and I know it’s very hard. But he also is very willing to do nothing if I make him too comfortable. It was easier to detach when he was high and abusive. This is much more ambiguous. I feel like I’m always second guessing myself.

So here I sit – sad and tired. I think I’m tired of constantly guarding myself, trying to keep from being taken advantage of. But also tired of watching his struggle in a world that seems to be working against him. Tired of trying to figure out the “right” thing to do. Tired of watching my son and worrying if he’ll ever be self-sufficient.

But losing myself in sadness and depression won’t help anyone so I need to remember:

Even when he’s sober, my self-care cannot end.

Even when he’s sober, I cannot become enmeshed.

Even when he’s sober, I can’t start taking responsibility for his life.

Even when he’s sober, I can’t quit working my program.

Even when he’s sober, I don’t have to answer every phone call.

Even when he’s sober, my happiness shouldn’t be tied up in his success or failure.

I realize that his sobriety made me so happy that I became enmeshed again. I feel responsible again. I realize now that I must remember everything I have learned about codependency and continue learning how to live MY best life. He will have to figure out how to live HIS best life. It’s hard, but he won’t learn to live in this world if I continue to rescue him. I must figure out how to balance supporting him and encouraging him with my emotional wellbeing.

Maybe I was foolish and happy enough to think it was going to be easy once he got sober. Or maybe I just hoped it would be. Now that I’m realizing the work isn’t done, I will rest and practice self-care and get my energy back. I will reassess my boundaries and see if I need some new ones.  I’m not defeated, just having a brief pity-party before I get back on track. I need to remember that I have to put the oxygen mask on myself first – even when he’s sober.