When You Can’t Help Your Troubled Teen: Like Chasing Smoke in the Wind

Just after my fifteen-year-old son Gabe left our home for five months to enter residential treatment for depression and substance abuse, a movie was released ― Beautiful Boy ― based on the book by David Sheff about his son’s struggles with addiction and his own journey as a father.

People who knew our family’s situation ― trying to be supportive ― suggested we watch it. That the story might help us or illuminate the universal ways a family suffers when one of their members is struck down. I kept seeing the promo shot of Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet embracing on a bench in the new releases queue but swept past it every time.

I didn’t know then if the son lived or died. I was afraid to watch a movie about a family where despite their efforts, the son was lost forever. I didn’t know yet Nic Sheff was one of the statistical anomalies of crystal meth addicts who survived and went on to become a successful television writer.

I avoided reading about another family’s struggle with addiction or depression

I bought the book and it sat in the stack on my bedside table for months before I dared open it. The movie won awards. Critics wrote about the beautiful cinematography, shot on location near one of my favorite places, Point Reyes National Seashore in Northern California.

Still, I avoided the movie and the book for months. Finally, one weekend when my husband and daughter were out of town at a sports camp, I opened the book and read it over the course of the next two days.

It was not our story, after all. The problems of the beautiful boy in the book were not my son’s problems. And yet. I learned so much from reading it about how it feels to have everything you knew or thought you knew about parenting ripped away from you. To have your happiness and wellbeing tangled up with a fragile, unpredictable child no longer in your control or living in your house, but always in your heart.

I didn’t watch the film until the day before Gabe came home from treatment. At the beginning of the movie, Steve Carell as David Sheff sits in his son’s room, examining the music and surfing posters on the walls, the stacks of books and CDs, his son’s artwork ― searching for evidence ― clues to who his son is. Before he went away, I had done the same thing in Gabe’s room when he was out of the house and I wasn’t sure where he was or who he was with if he was safe.

Before my son went away I sifted through the artifacts of his life

Picking up objects and carefully setting them back down. A major league baseball encased in Lucite was signed by one of the Yankees. A pile of Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. A deck of cards from Alcatraz each printed with a story of one of the notorious inmates. A pocket knife inlaid with mother-of-pearl my husband had passed along to him, from his own grandfather. Gabe’s worn white baby blanket. The silent artifacts of his early life. Willing each mute object to speak to me somehow, give me insight into who he was and how I had lost track of him.

Like David Sheff, my husband and sometimes my daughter spent hours in the car at night driving the streets of our town looking for Gabe when he turned off his cell phone and would not come home. We imagined ditches and drug dealers and other terrible things ― skateboard accidents, police, adults who did not know him or care about his welfare, older kids buying alcohol or drugs.

Or that he was high and had lost track of time, or in a place dark enough where he might act on thoughts of harming himself. For us ― a wretched, frozen state of suspension, unbroken by tears. We were beyond yelling or threats by then.

Even when they found him and returned him home, I could not sleep. The scorched earth scenarios I invented did not recede with his return. I listened in the night, as long as I could stay awake. For footsteps, opening doors, the low murmur of his voice on the phone.

Before he left, he was plagued by an inner restlessness we could not calm or reason with. When he didn’t know I was watching and his face was in repose, I could see the suffering play out across his features.

It became clear to us that we could not help our son

After many failed attempts to lift his mood ― a pair of sneakers, dinner out at his favorite fried chicken place, extra allowance for his video games ― it became clear nothing like that would help. No amount of talking, grounding, begging, bribery, tears, or ultimatums. We could not crawl inside his head and manage his shifting emotions.

It was like trying to contain the smoke from a wild bonfire on a windy beach.

Gabe said to us after he’d been home a few weeks,

You never asked me how I was feeling back then. You never asked, ‘How are you?’ You just said, ‘Do your homework. You’re failing Spanish. You can’t go out. Tell us where you were.’ Why didn’t you ever ask me how I was feeling?

Gabe, age 15

He was right.

We were busy chasing a trail of smoke that had already disappeared over the crashing waves.

More Great Reading:

The Pressure on Teens to Achieve is Real: How Parents Can Help

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