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.
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”.