I’ve had 31 years to love my son, imperfectly. He is an addict, and I have done everything from tough love to soft touches to screaming expletives to get him to wake up and face his addiction. I am trying to save his life, of course.
I don’t have a lot of leverage, though. He’s clearly a fully-grown adult now, able to make whatever decisions he likes about his life. But the darker side of this is that my son started using drugs when he was 11 by stealing the Marijuana I thought I had hidden.
My son was ripe for addiction; it was just a matter of time and opportunity, and having a single, working, stoner mother gave him plenty of both. So did his other relatives: his grandfather was an alcoholic. His uncle and an aunt spent a short time in a methamphetamine rage. His father was a pothead, a meth-head, and absent, and I was a mother who spent many years self-medicating. My son is also half Native American and the scientific literature shows that alcoholism, leading to liver disease and cirrhosis, is the fifth-leading cause of death for Native Americans.
Growing up, my son would tell me about his experiences with drugs. Being the “cool” mom, I just listened attentively. But growing up in a family where denial was also a drug of choice, I chose to believe that his admissions were bravado, and I didn’t take them seriously.
On his 21st birthday, I threw him a party to celebrate. I bought the keg, the liquor and the food and provided the location. I heard my son vomiting into the wee hours of the morning. I thought, Oh, he’s just an inexperienced-drinker. He’ll taper off; I did. That night, though, was also when he started using heroin with his friends.
My contribution to raising an addict is so clear now. As I watch my son, I know that that party was the start of his addictions, and that his disease is likely to be a death sentence. Ten years later, he has an enlarged heart and his edema is so bad he can barely walk from one room to the next without gasping for air. And yet the alcohol and heroin still call to him like a seductress he cannot refuse —damaging, dysfunctional and deadly.
A Parent’s Responsibility
My son has been in rehab twice and detox three times. He chooses his friends based on who can bring him “shit” because that’s all he wants from life. He has lost custody of his son, been in jail twice and, as I say, is at death’s door. I bear a lot of the blame, I know, and all the therapy in the world will never take away the shame, guilt and tremendous regret I have about the terrible role-model I was for him. He had a mom who wanted to be a friend, to be the cool mom. He had a mother who used alcohol and weed to cope during some of the most impressionable years of his life.
When my son was in rehab, I attended family support meetings. I listened as parents cried and raged about their kids’ addictions. I listened as they sat baffled that their kids had found drugs as a solution to problems. Pressure from peers, in my opinion, is just the tip of the iceberg. Our kids choose to use because behavior is learned, because their pain is overwhelming and reaching for a way to relieve that pain is the only coping mechanism they’ve seen. They use because parents are too busy with work, life and their own parties, and because they need to survive in homes where domestic violence is the norm. They use because parents get addicted to oxycodone and other, legal drugs. They use because uptight parents loosen up after a few drinks. All of us also find comfort in community and many kids seek out that which is familiar to them: other broken people with whom to share their pain.
I found two liberating truths at the family meetings:
You cannot “re-parent” out of guilt; and
With awareness comes responsibility.
So, while I own my part in my son’s addiction process, I also hold him accountable for his ongoing decisions to choose drugs/alcohol as his coping mechanism, and I must let him find his own way out. It is he who must make the decision to quit.
I wrote this essay because I wanted to begin a conversation about parents’ responsibilities to our children as we raise them. We need to drink responsibly in their presence; we need to use prescription drugs as directed; and we need therapy to guide ourselves through our own pain so we don’t transmit it to our children. We need to involve the entire family in the healing process.
I found my way out of the druggie lifestyle with no physical damage. Knowledge helps me cope now, but “With much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief” (Ecclesiastes 1:18). This, I know all too well.~Sherrie Gonzales-Kolb
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