Tough Love… A Blessing in Disguise

By KJ Foster, MPS

A Blessing in Disguise

When I finally broke down and attended my first Al-Anon meeting, I was eight months sober and it had been a long time coming. I was attending AA meetings every day, working with a sponsor and doing my step work, but my approach to life and my problems was still very much the same as it had always been. I was fighting against the tide of suggestions from my sponsor, my friends and my support group, and was trying to manage my son’s drug addiction with the same faulty thinking I used to manage my own. I thought I knew better. I thought I could handle it on my own. After all, what more did these people want from me. I wasn’t drinking and I was taking all the other suggestions. I was even doing those darn steps. I admitted I was powerless over alcohol and my life was unmanageable (Step 1), I believed that a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity (Step 2), and I was willing to give my will and my life over to the care of God as I understood him (Step 3). I even did that excruciating inventory they suggested to find my character defects and begin making amends to those I had harmed (Steps 4-9). And now they expect me to go to Al-Anon too. Don’t they understand I’m a single Mom, working a full-time job, trying to stay sober myself? It’s just too much for me to handle! Are they crazy?! And this is exactly where the problem lies. They… all those people who listened to me cry and complain at every single AA meeting I attended, wallowing in my own self-pity… the ones who came up to me after the meeting and told me, “you need to go to Al-Anon,” “Trust me,” “Believe me,” “It’s going to help you.” They were not the crazy ones. It was me! Because they were right. I just had to be in enough pain to be willing to take the suggestions and go. It took eight months.

At that first Al-Anon meeting the speaker was a young man in his late twenties who was sharing his experience having a mother who was an alcoholic. This hit me like a ton of bricks. The realization of just how much my drinking affected my two boys was overwhelming. I was overcome with guilt and remorse for my own inadequacies as a mother but reminded myself of why I was there. I was determined to stick it out and have the opportunity to share about my son. I identified myself as an alcoholic with eight months of sobriety, struggling with the downward spiral of my 19 year old son into drug addiction, starting with his drinking and use of pot at 14 and ultimately progressing to a daily addiction to heroin. I began to cry, par for the course, as I shared about my attempts to get him counseling, his refusal to admit he has a problem, and the impact it was having on my younger son, his 13 year old brother.

After the meeting was over, I was approached by an elderly gentleman who began sharing with me about the similarity of his own experience with his son and how his son was ultimately able to recover and is now married with his own children. Very encouraging I thought, but still felt little hope. Especially when the man started to tell me how I was enabling my son by allowing him to live under my roof and continue to use drugs. He talked about detaching with love. I told the man that I couldn’t possibly kick my son out of the house. After all, what if he dies? I remember starting to cry, yet again, and saying “I can’t do it. I just love him so much” at which point the man grabbed me firmly by the shoulders, looked me square in the eyes and replied, “You don’t understand. If you don’t do this you are going to love him to death.” I was both horrified and speechless! The man went on to share more about his story with his son and how it took, what he described as, “tough love,” in order for his son to get better and explained to me how my “helping was hurting.” After he finished feeding me the harsh reality of my situation, the man looked at me with a sincere and gentle kindness in his eyes and said, “do you realize how courageous and strong you are?” As I stood there wiping away the tears, I hardly felt courageous and just looked up at him trying to gain back my composure, along with whatever dignity I had left. I think he could see the questioning in my face. He went on…”from what you described here tonight you are going through hell with this kid and yet you haven’t picked up a drink in eight months. Do you know how incredible that is? That’s something to be very proud of!” I didn’t realize it at the time but looking back I see that this man was doing something I now do today as a therapist at a treatment center working with the families of alcoholics and drug addicts. It was just recently described to me very succinctly at a seminar I attended this week… the speaker put it this way, ”you’ve got to slap’em in the face while you pat’em on the back.” And this is just what this man did for me and exactly what I needed. I never saw the man again, but it was a powerful moment and a turning point for me. I realized that I needed to start practicing tough love.

Over the next six months I would have to change the locks on my house three times, as my son made attempts to go to both NA and AA for a month or two and then relapsed. I filed two Marchman Acts that I didn’t follow through with when I was assured by my son over and over again that he really meant it this time; he was going to go back to AA and was going to stay clean and sober. Finally, in August of 2009 when my younger son came home from school to find his brother shooting heroin in his room, I knew I had to do something drastic. By the time I got home from work he was gone, so I sat and waited. Watching from the kitchen window, I saw my son pull up into the driveway. When he got out of the car and approached the house, I could tell immediately that he was high. Before he was able to even get up to the house I was standing on my front door step with several garbage bags filled with his belongings (a first for me to take it this far) and proceeded to give him the tough love speech for the last time. As he stood before me, a hollowed-out shell of the vibrant young person he once was, I begged him to let me take him to treatment. He adamantly refused and proceeded to scream obscenities at me, telling me that any mother who would do this to her son couldn’t possibly love them. It shot through my heart like a knife. I knew this person standing before me was not my son, but the disease. My son is sweet, my son is compassionate, and my son is loving. This time though, was different than the other relapses, my son was completely gone. No sign of him or his kind soul were anywhere in sight. What stood before me was a dark, empty, lifeless shell of a human being. His disease had finally taken away all that was left of him. I thought he would surely die if he didn’t get some help, but he didn’t want any help. All he wanted to do was continue using. I turned and left him there on the steps continuing his screaming and his ranting. Just before turning to go back in the house I told him that if he didn’t leave I was going to have to call the police. It took every ounce of strength I had in my being to leave him standing there. I went back into the house and fell to the floor in a heap of tears. What if he dies, what if I’ve just killed my son? The voices of my Al- Anon and AA supports rang out in my head, “if you let him stay, he will die,” “you are robbing him of his bottom,” “he needs to face the consequences of his actions.” It sounds good in theory, but putting it into practice was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.

A month went by and my son was nowhere to be seen. All the other times when I had told him to leave I would get reports from his friends that he had shown up at their house or I would at the very least have friends report sightings of him around town. This time, there was nothing. He had virtually disappeared off the face of the planet and I feared the worst had happened. I began calling hospitals and police departments in an effort to find out what happened to him. Based upon his condition when he left and the fact that absolutely no one had seen him in weeks, I was convinced he was lying in a ditch somewhere and no one had found his body yet. I went into an emotional tailspin like nothing I had ever experienced before. I cried for three days non-stop, couldn’t eat or sleep. Looking back on it I feel as though I was so convinced he had died that I was literally already mourning his death. After three days of crying, it was just after midnight on September 18 and I knelt down on my bedroom floor with my forehead to the ground and begged God to find my son. I promised God that I would accept whatever his will was for my son even if it meant that he had in fact died. I told God that I would try to understand that perhaps my son had to die in order for others to get well, as difficult as that may be to comprehend. I would try. And I promised I wouldn’t drink and thanked him for keeping me sober through all of it. I was 14 months sober and I had finally surrendered everything. Not only my own life, but the lives of my children. They are not mine to own or to keep. They are gifts from God who belong solely to God. I love them. I cherish them. But I am powerless over everything and everyone, except my own actions. All I can do is my very best to lead by example. After my prayer, I got into bed and slept better than I had slept in my whole 14 months of sobriety. I awoke the next morning to my phone ringing. It was my sponsor. She was at Barnes & Noble and told me that she thinks the boy sleeping on one of the benches outside is my son. I told her not to let him move and I’d be right there. I jumped out of bed, threw on my clothes and raced to the store to find him sitting outside next to my sponsor. My sponsor went inside and I sat with him pleading to let me take him to detox. I read him a poem I had written the day before and told him that I would do anything to help him and that he didn’t have to live this way anymore.

I Can’t Stop Crying
I can’t stop crying thinking of you dying
This pain in my heart is tearing me apart
What have I done to my beautiful son?
Feels like only yesterday your life had just begun
Precocious and so smart
Gifted from the very start
On stage your star burned bright
Guided by an inner light
Your future seemed certain delight
Then darkness came to call and took away it all
Spiraling down a hole your addiction took control
Body, mind and soul
I can’t live in the why, the what or the who
It doesn’t help me and it doesn’t help you
There’s nothing I can do
It’s all up to you
The more that I try
I assist you to die
I love you so
I want you to know
I’d lay down my life
To make it alright
To see you get well
Not living this hell
I can’t stop crying thinking of you dying
This pain in my heart is tearing me apart
What have I done to my beautiful son?
Feels like only yesterday your life had just begun
September 18, 2009

Both of us cried and he agreed that he didn’t want to live this way and wanted to go to detox, but he wasn’t quite ready just yet. He had a friend who owed him five dollars and he wanted to go collect his debt. I knew what this meant; he wanted to go use one last time. I begged him not to go and to come with me to detox. He assured me that he would call me the next day. Somehow I knew he wasn’t going to call me the next day but I also realized I was powerless over doing anything to make him come with me at that moment. I also knew it wouldn’t do much good until he actually wanted to stop. I, of myself, was powerless. As he walked off that day, I was strangely at peace and no longer consumed by my fear. Hoping and praying that he would call me at some point, I filed the necessary Marchman Act paperwork with the courts and waited. It was four days later, a Wednesday, when he called me late in the afternoon and said he was ready. Could I come get him? He was finally ready to go to detox. I took him to DAF which did not have any available beds so he wound up detoxing on our couch at home. As soon as he was feeling well enough he began attending meetings again, got a sponsor and got a job… all within the 10 days it took to get a court date.

My son showed up for the hearing with his sponsor by his side and a job, pleading with the Magistrate who was overseeing the case to please not send him to treatment. I have to say I found it pretty impressive, as did the Magistrate. It was hard to tell him, with sponsor by his side and job in hand, that he needed to go to treatment. So the Magistrate did the next best thing and told him she wanted to see him again in three months to check his progress. She told him she wanted his sponsor to come back and tell her that he was still doing well and still working and she also wanted me to come back and report on his progress. The Magistrate did this for 18 months!! For the first year my son had to appear every three months and then after a year she asked him to come back in six months. At eighteen months she finally cut him loose and he has been clean and sober ever since, being restored to the smart, creative, kind and loving soul he once was. I am forever grateful to this wonderful woman and all the others who have helped me and my son along the way.

At four years of sobriety I decided I wanted to do more than just give back through sponsorship of other alcoholics. Having experienced the healing effects and the trans- formation of my life and that of my son’s through sobriety and the program of recovery, I decided to finally make use of my Master’s degree in Mental Health Counseling and leave the corporate world behind to embark on a career helping families suffering from the effects of addiction. I am currently a registered licensed mental health counselor
intern working for a local treatment center and specializing in addiction as a family disease and its effects on the family system. I meet families each and every week who know little about alcoholism as a disease and are especially unaware of how their attempts to help their loved one is actually hurting them… typically, by protecting them from experiencing their consequences and thereby feeling the full impact of their behavior. I encourage all family members of our clients to attend Al-Anon, Nar Anon, Fam Anon and/or Alateen. It is now my job to “slap’em in the face while I pat’em on the back.” As odd as it may seem and as uncomfortable as this may sound, there is nothing more satisfying when I get to see a family recover from this horrible disease. There are far too many who are not so fortunate. I am blessed and grateful to get to do what I do every day.

KJ Foster is a therapist at the Beachcomber Family Center for Alcoholism and Addiction Recovery in Delray Beach, Florida. She graduated from New York Institute of Technology with a Masters of Professional Studies in Human Relations. KJ started writing poetry as a way of processing her emotions and ultimately coming to terms with her addiction and that of her son. KJ is passionate about helping other addicts, their families, and the recovery process which she credits for transforming her life.