When I discovered my sixteen-year-old son was using Cocaine I fell apart. I felt shame, guilt, anger, frustration, and complete incapacitating grief. It was completely unimaginable to me that this could happen because I had done all the “right” things. I read the parenting books, took my sons to church, loved them unconditionally, talked to them about sex and drugs, assured them they could talk to me about anything, showered them with praise and love, taught them right from wrong..… good grief, I was a full-time-stay-at-home-homeschooling mom! I gave parenting every bit of my energy and passion. How could this possibly happen to ME?
I can remember sitting halfway up the steps between the first and second floors of my two-story home. My husband was a work, my youngest son was at play practice and my oldest son was at the rehab I had just delivered him to. I sat on those steps and ugly cried for hours, unable to compose myself, console myself or even move from the steps where I had collapsed once I was alone. I was so shocked at this turn my life had taken.
That day was twenty years ago. In the intervening years, I have paid for three rehabs, an intervention, and sober living – twice. There have been five relapses, three jail stints, eighteen months in prison, two restraining orders, hundreds of blocked phone calls, thousands of answered phone calls, and thousands of dollars in rent, utilities, house payments, car payments, meals, and hotel rooms. It has been a roller coaster ride of dizzying heights and terrifying depths.
Our cycle started with five years of addiction that had a series of one to three-month stretches of sobriety sprinkled among the horrors of an out-of-control teenager. My son’s DOC went from cocaine to meth to alcohol. When a young person, addicted to illegal substances, turns 21 they think they’ve hit the jackpot. A mind-altering substance that’s legal. But for my son alcohol was more damaging than drugs. Cocaine and Meth made him paranoid and careful, alcohol made him sloppy and reckless. He went to prison for crimes committed while drunk.
When he went into prison we refused to visit and only accepted occasional phone calls for a year. He cleaned up and turned his attitude around in prison and we agreed to a tentative relationship when he got out, although we didn’t let him move home. That round of sobriety lasted seven years. Long enough to fall in love with him all over again, watch him get married, buy a house, a car, a dog… all the trappings of a normal life. He never attended meetings or had a sponsor, but he seemed to be managing on his own. We thought our family was one of the lucky ones.
But when life got really hard and his youthful marriage began to crack, he relapsed. Spectacularly…he dove back into Meth, shocking us all. As the relapse dragged on, he lost everything. We tried so hard to help him keep his house, his car, and his marriage to no avail. We were trying harder than he was. His relapse lasted three and half years and took him and us to depths that still hurt to remember. Laying in my warm bed during a howling midwestern snow storm, knowing he was homeless is a hell I don’t ever want to repeat.
But thankfully, another cycle of sobriety followed his long, depressing relapse. A wonderful sober living facility helped him. He was kicked out the first time for breaking curfew, we didn’t let him come home. But after another round on the streets, he finally went back. He is currently over 18 months sober, working, paying his own rent, dealing with criminal charges in the courts, and getting better every day at a sober life. He’s attending meetings and talks to his sponsor regularly, he has a strong network of sober support. I’m hopeful.
He has changed, but so have I. The difference that strikes me the most between the woman that sat on those steps and cried twenty years ago and the woman I am now is my perspective. Back then, my thoughts were all about ‘how did this happen to ME? How did I fail so miserably? What will people think about ME?’
I had been taught that it was my job was to control my children. So I felt if they failed it must be my fault, and conversely if they were going to succeed, I had to make it happen.
Today, I know better. I cannot control another person. And my children’s success and failures are their own. Even as a child my son had free will and feelings and emotions that had nothing to do with me. He had hurts, insecurities, and anger that I couldn’t understand, and even though I was willing to listen he wasn’t willing to talk.
Today I know my son’s sobriety is his to achieve and maintain. I don’t struggle over every word I say to him, because I no longer think my words will make or break him. I don’t try to tell him how to solve his problems, because we are very different people, and he usually has his own way of doing things. I only offer advice when asked and I set boundaries so his life choices affect him, not me.
Maybe age and time are required for a parent to realize that they and their child are separate individuals. Maybe I see it more vividly because I was enmeshed in a codependent relationship with an addict. But I wish when my son first began his struggle, I would have realized that it was his struggle not mine. I wish I had been more compassionate and curious about what had sent him into the realm of drugs and mind-altering substances. What pain he was trying to heal? What insecurity did it help him overcome? What adrenaline-fueled need did it satisfy? If he couldn’t talk to me who would he like to talk to?
It took years for us to have these conversations, because at first all the chaos and drama felt like something he DID TO ME, instead of something that happened TO HIM. It took a long time for me to feel compassion for his homelessness, his broken heart, and lost possessions. I just saw it all as something I had to fix and that made me angry.
Of course, he did act like I should be able to fix everything. But that was because acted like I had all the answers. The mom-mindset was strong. How was he supposed to know his problems were his to fix if I never let him?
Now I’ve learned to say, “you have to figure this out yourself,” without anger and resentment. I feel compassion for his problems without the need to solve them. I can be sad with him, instead of making it my job to cheer him up. I listen to him complain and say “man, I’ll bet you’re really upset!” without giving advice on how to solve the problem.
Our relationship is the best it’s ever been. It feels like that’s what he’s really wanted from me all along. To see him as a person, capable of living his own life, making his own mistakes, and solving his own problems. He still needs help sometimes, and we choose carefully when are willing to give it. He’s learned to accept ‘no’ gracefully and asks for less and less.
When I look back, I wish I would have seen that this was not about me. I was not to blame. I was not the one that would fix it, and I was not the one that was hurt the most by it. My son destroyed many years of his life with drugs. I destroyed many years of mine by taking his problem on as my own. I had to learn to give up my addiction to rescuing him and learn to just love him while he figured it out.