When I finally relax into a seat, after fighting through the barrage of running parents to claim a small turf at graduation, few will know we shouldn’t be here. I will patiently listen for names of kids I know from A through S. I will probably start choking up at the T section.
I counted the names in the yearbook before him. Assuming they have all made it here, I will count down: eight, seven, six. My tears will be happy ones, better than the ones that have come before.
Getting here has been twisted, turned and dead-ended. No yellow bricks or streets of gold. My baby was birthed with a dream. Don’t all parents plan fearlessly for high school, college, marriage, babies done better than we did? Isn’t graduation one step forward into a promising future? Most of the kids at this graduation will have a path mapped forward. Mine won’t.
What Addiction Looks Like
I will be able to count on both hands the number of people in this arena who know the odds defied to get here, let alone what tomorrow will bring. Few know about the late-night phone call, “I know where the boys are.”
I take my first breath in two days. Marijuana barrages us before ascending the porch steps. We should not be here. Through a dense white cloud, we see a mother in the haze. She knows these kids have been here high as kites skipping day after day of school? I have no words.
The other mom flings venomous ones in her direction. Too high to run, ours get in the car. We leave several others behind sprawled on ratty couches, amidst piles of cans and deplorable conditions. They are choosing a filthy trailer instead of their sprawling suburban homes with real beds?
An hour later I am in a pediatric psychiatric emergency room. I am too scared to take this child home where it’s just him and me. We shouldn’t be here. I should be in always sunny San Diego for work. I’d said aloud hours before the plane, “If I am not supposed to go on this trip please don’t let me.” I’d reached for my license to present to the TSA agent realizing I’d “accidentally” left it on the copier the day prior.
A Trip to the ER
The E.R. is filled with American Eagle and Nike clad teenagers who look just like my kid. We live in affluent suburbs with an epidemic proportion of kids in crisis. Naive as I am, I ask the woman who looks twelve for a drug test. She suggests buying one at CVS and administering it myself. It’s not what they do. And if they did – get this – I can’t have the results because he is over fourteen.
Let me understand, I am obligated to provide for this child until eighteen and I am responsible for anything that he might do, but if he overdoses I can’t know on what? Well, ain’t that just – another – slap in the face. She takes copious notes on his state of mind. I’m pretty sure he says if we cut off access to drugs he doesn’t want to live.
She goes behind closed doors to the “team” for review. The half asleep, stoned child answers with slurred and stuttered speech. I don’t even recognize him. I want to punch him and hug him at the same time. We wait for the verdict.
They will keep him. Relief washes over me until she informs me that I need preauthorization through the insurance company, which opens a mere nine hours away. The offer expires if I walk out the door. I will wait. I am desperate to leave without him.
A cute blond girl willingly turns over her worldly possessions to her parents, gives a hug to each, and is lead away through typical gray hospital doors by someone in scrubs. The scrub-clad gentleman returns and the process repeats. This time it’s their son! They don’t look anxious leaving their babies behind and hurry out. Sadly, I am envious.
I am called to the desk where I receive more good news. I know we said we had a bed, but psych (pun intended!) we no longer do. We would be happy to call around and see if there is anyone else in the area with an open bed, but not until we have the pre-authorization. Okay, so it’s 2:00 a.m., I haven’t slept a wink in two nights, but I should wait here to see if maybe there might be a bed somewhere tomorrow? I leave.
Just like the two weeks prior, my legs get shaky as I cross the threshold of the principal’s office. I am from the generation who feared authority. I learned nothing good happens in the principal’s office on my one and only third-grade visit for splashing in the mud pooled under the monkey bars. The kind principal had broken the news that not only had my child been skipping school for weeks but she thought I had a substance abuse problem on my hands. What? And what?
I tell both principals that the $40 mac-daddy drug test had “only” revealed marijuana. They both sit back, and glance at each other, looking surprised. “The other parents that just left here were not so lucky. Their son was also at the house with yours. He tested positive for cocaine.” Let’s be clear, I do not feel lucky.
At least I know the call to make next. A week ago, I was hysterical in a psychiatrist’s office where I screamed at the doctor, “I am losing my child, and no one is helping me! I don’t know what to do!” A quiet voice from behind the front desk says, “I went to a place and they helped me.”
I am on the phone with hope in the parking lot as I leave the meeting. I just need to make it 24 more hours. Luckily, he throws up all day and doesn’t move from the bed.
At 8:30 a.m. I’m in a dirty lobby I shouldn’t be in with others I am trying not to judge. I want to think I am better than these people, but I am not. We are all the same. Desperate parents are happy to drop off our kids for six hours of peace. Someone else to share the burden for a few hours. Two weeks of group therapy where I hear my child is a leader (later to learn was more a liar than leader), more individual therapy and finally, antidepressants. Roller coaster of hope up.
He doesn’t want to go back to school. The school doesn’t want him there either, fallout from being named a narc. I am a woman who needs a plan and I don’t have one. My family is falling apart. I have a daughter trying to be the good kid in the chaos that I am neglecting. And then my nephew dies of a heroin overdose. I am ashamed.
While I pray for peace for the family, I secretly hope this will solve my problem. I want my child to stand over this casket and see the road paved for him if he doesn’t stop. It doesn’t phase him, and he continues to push me around and aside as he walks out the door and comes home high day after day. I have zero respect from him and none for myself.
As I research options for what to do next, I get a hail mary and hear of a boarding school locally for troubled boys. I sob for an hour on the phone to the Director. He offers a visit. Sign me up. It can’t come soon enough.
Therapeutic Boarding School
In the circle driveway of the sprawling ranch, the white picket fence mocks me with its perfect home symbolism. How did we get here? I try to make light conversation about the goats and grazing horses and how beautiful the property is.
I am terrified of what is through that front door. He is barraged with questions I didn’t prepare him for. A piece of the child I once knew shows up. He says he wants to be a better person. The house is clean. It feels safe. The people seem wonderful. Hard to admit to myself, I can’t wait to have him out of my house. I need him to be someone else’s problem. He should be here. I nearly fall to my knees in gratitude when I hear they will accept him. God paved this path.
I am scared. Can I really entrust my child to complete strangers for the foreseeable future? Can they possibly do a worse job than I am doing? He has individual, group and animal-assisted therapy. I make the two-hour drive for family sessions. He proves he is capable of getting B’s and C’s.
I learn he went there with a leg full of cuts he imposed on himself. The team calls a late-night rally because of suicide concern. I try to focus on the good I can see. More pounds on the skeleton frame and less gray under the eyes. He looks a little more human with a few more smiles.
“We” are here in a church for a clean comedy event. I am half embarrassed, half awe inspired that over two thousand people pray for my child. Nothing before has helped. Not soliciting help from loving grandparents, not the dozen counselors, the energy healer, the treatment after genetic testing for a methylation problem, or the supplements. Please, dear God, let THIS be powerful enough.
A six-month, two years’ worth of a state college tuition cost stay, culminates in celebration of how he has transformed from an angry to capable young man exemplifying the positive values of the program. Strangers have shepherded my family through this storm. We drive home from the ‘graduation’ with him singing at the top of his lungs, me a balloon full of hope.
Relapse and Al-Anon
It bursts. Addicts do lip service well. He is home just TWO days before he does his favorite kind of lip service, wrapping them around another joint. Summer is horrible as we fight about his disrespect and disobedience. For all he isn’t motivated to do, defying me is something he excels at. I try to enforce. He punches holes in my walls. I make excuses for him, at least he has a job and goes to counseling.
School starts and I post The Rules so I can call them out instead of nagging incessantly. They are all positively phrased and pretty. I write in colored marker, ‘Attend school every day’. I can’t believe I have to put that on a list. I track him thousands of times a day. I show up at places where he is and drag him out of houses.
I drag everyone who will listen into my sad saga until I can no longer hear myself complain any longer. And finally, in the middle of embarrassing tears to a boyfriend who has been saintly patient by my side, I hear the little voice that says go to Al-Anon. I am not even really sure what it is, but I fall asleep with hope that it’s the answer to my prayers.
I should be here. I should have been here a very long time ago. Al-Anon is the family support group for addicts based on the alcoholics anonymous twelve steps. This is my new tribe, for I can’t recall how long it’s been since I didn’t feel hopeless, desperate, and alone.
These people I’ve just met already know me. They shoulder the burdens of a stranger for sixty minutes. I leave lighter and know I only have to make it until the next meeting. And the next. I attend every day there is a meeting I can work my life around. They remind me to take it One Day At A Time and Let Go and Let God.
I find meetings out of town while traveling for work the next week. No matter what happens in between the meetings I know I will have 60 minutes of peace soon enough to make it through. I am so grateful for finding the program I plan to practice forever. We share the message not the mess, and experience, strength, and hope. The wisdom is immense and unyielding.
He chooses to move out, not wanting rules. He chooses to stop going to school. I choose to stop controlling and practice detaching with love. I sob through books and movies on addiction, thinking that educating myself will prepare me for what might happen. Nothing can, so I choose to stop because it’s terrifying and I will face it only if I must. I choose to stop worrying because I read that worrying is praying for things you don’t want. This is the best choice I have made in a very long time.
I work to adopt the Alanon philosophy no one causes the disease of addiction. I accept myself as a human who made mistakes doing the best that I could.
I ask myself the hard questions: Did I love him hard enough? Did I want him to be good at sports and fit in and not wear purple socks so my love seemed conditional? Did I acknowledge his feelings enough? It’s hard to make the world safe for those with soft hearts, but could I have done more? Why did I give him the power to torture himself with a phone?
In the 100 boundaries I had the chance to set, I should have said “No” 97 times and “Yes 3”. I did it in reverse. I tried to control. I bribed. I screamed (loudly) “How can you be my child? How can you not show any reality of understanding right from wrong? I didn’t raise you like this!” I made excuses and gave him the benefit of the doubt. I trusted when I shouldn’t have. I write this in past tense for a reason.
I sit on a bar stool next to a woman who shares her worry that Harvard might be too much of a stretch for her daughter. I try to empathize, but today my child ransacked the house for a belt. My worry of the moment is if tonight he plans to use heroin.
Some have Harvard, I have heroin. Others can celebrate academic, sports, or other successes while I am just grateful he is alive because I’ve feared otherwise on many occasions.
I spend months practicing acceptance of the fact he won’t graduate and there isn’t a damn thing I can do about it. I swear off social media but peek and lose little pieces of myself to college acceptance posts and pictures of refrigerators covered in graduation announcements.
I am happy for all the others, it’s just hard. I RSVP with regrets to graduation parties because they will be one huge salt shaker on the wound after another.
I can’t control one bit of his journey. Then I receive another email asking:
What are your thoughts on Nolan graduating this year?
One sentence. One question. How dare she ask it like there is a chance! I am so pissed. I delete my first email back. It’s not her fault. I know she needs me to put it in writing for their records.
How could he possibly graduate?
I get the pleasure of 3 he wasn’t in school reminders every day – phone call and voicemail and email.
Well actually, she says, he could work his tail off in online classes the next few weeks. Wait, what? I hear Jim Carrey in my head. Like the movie, the chances seem closer to one in a million, not one in one hundred. But you are saying there’s a chance?
I tell him that I always have to feel like I did my best by him. Giving him the information then stepping aside is what I am training myself to do. He has to make his own decision. It’s so hard. I hang up and pray.
He shakes and tears well. He isn’t sure he can walk back through the doors. But he does it and I have never been so proud. I am grateful I didn’t tear out his yearbook ad. Lucky for both of us, my daughter kept it tucked away from me.
He actually shows up at school the next day. He says in writing, “I am definitely graduating.” Addicts believe their own lies, so I know his intention is good, but it often stops there. He doesn’t show up the next day. Why do I let myself have hope? Here we go again.
He shows motivation and self-pride, a rarity, when he says he finishes it all the next day. I can’t let my guard down completely. I know I will still be holding my breath until I hear his name called as he walks across the stage.
I try not to live a life of What If’s…it’s part of my own recovery. Essential, because they were crippling. What if he never stops using? What if the damage is already done and irreparable? What if I get a call from jail? What if my doorbell rings at 3:00 a.m.?
Why ‘what if’ and then have to live through it if it happens? If it’s bad, why live it twice? That sucks. But in this case, looking back, what if she hadn’t asked the question? We wouldn’t be here.
I picture what he will look like crossing the stage. He is blond haired, blue eyed, six foot two with Abercrombie model-esque chiseled cheekbones and a rugged jawline. He looks strong. In some ways he is, but it’s different. Others have studied hard and found healthy ways to overcome their challenges. He hasn’t, but I’ll give credit for grit. I pray at some point he will want to do it an easier way.
So, that dream that he was birthed with, may or may not come true. He still won’t live under my roof. He is welcome to when he chooses recovery. There is another child here working hard to make her way in the world. The chaos of addiction is not welcome here.
One step at a time. At least he will be a graduate. If I regret where we have been or think about what tomorrow may bring, I will miss living this moment in gratitude. I am grateful he is alive. I am grateful he chose to graduate. I am grateful for the tribe who has supported all of us and are here to celebrate.
This moment – here, in this arena – is a miracle. Praying, believing in miracles, and living in every moment in gratitude is a better dream to practice chasing. Practice may not make perfect, but progress is enough. I will keep showing up for practice. But that’s for the next moment. This one is for us. Him and I. Because, we are here.
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Christy Thaxton starts and ends each day with gratitude to the tribe who has helped her realize the serendipity of our stories. She writes for others to lose themselves in words or find themselves not so alone. With faith, wine, and chocolate by her side, she is learning how to be the best mother to two, girlfriend to the one, daughter, friend, and yogi-wanna be she can. She will publish her first novel of the Do-Over series and launch a children’s series to teach meditation in 2019.