I walked down the church hallway looking for the support group for parents of addicts. Entering the room, I kept my head down, avoiding eye contact. The room was big, bright with chairs arranged in a large circle. A few people were talking and laughing. Was I in the right room? I couldn’t imagine laughing again.
The week before my first meeting, I found my son, Sam, in his car with his head slumped forward at an angle incompatible with breathing. On that cold grey March afternoon, I stood alone in the empty parking lot calling 911. The dispatcher’s voice was all that tethered me to earth. Th paramedics and ER staff saved Sam.Now, I was trying to save myself.
“Hello! Welcome!”, called a man dressed all in black from his t-shirt to his boots. He sported a beard that rivaled those on Duck Dynasty. I burst into tears, ugly crying all the pain inside of me. “Have a seat, we are glad you are here,” he handed me a box of Kleenex.
I’m a licensed psychologist, typically on the ‘giving’ end of help, but my son’s addiction had left me in a state of fear and despair. I no longer knew how to live, or if I even wanted to live anymore.
My friends and family had advice: “Make him go to rehab”; “don’t help him financially”; “A 30-day rehab cured my friend’s son”, and my personal favorite “Have you talked to him about it? Does he know how dangerous those drugs are?”. They seemed convinced that, if I did the right thing, I could save Sam, pull him from the chemical stew he was simmering in, but none of them had a child with an addiction.
Sam, now 22 years old, had been my beautiful blond-haired boy lighting up my world with his questions and insight when he was young. What would I give to save him? Anything; anything but my other son. My boys have been the ground I stood on, the northern star guiding me home, the family I never had growing up. Their needs and love sustained me, and now, Sam, my first-born, was self-destructing.
I listened closely at the meeting. At first, I paid attention to the differences. Some had children addicted to opiates; my son was ‘only’ addicted to benzodiazepines. Some had been dealing with their child’s addiction for over 10 years.
Through a veil of tears, I told the group what happened, how everyone in my world knew exactly what I should do, and all I could think was “what if Sam dies?”.
Three gifts of wisdom were offered to me that night:
- I was not alone in my feelings of panic, rage, disgust, endless grief, and unfailing love for my child.
- I am powerless over his addiction.
- The 4 ‘C’s – I did not cause it, can’t control it, can’t cure it, but I can learn to cope with it.
I returned to the support group each week and began attending Nar-Anon. I joined The Addict’s Parents United group on Facebook. Connecting with parents experiencing the same hell gave me some measure of solace, a small piece of sanity that I could carry with me. Months went by as I watched Sam become emaciated, eyes sunk in his head, sores on his face. I had been given a front-row seat to the unimaginable – watching my son die piece by piece. As Sam got sicker, so did I. My mind continually ran two movies: one contained scenes of a younger, happier Sam; the other was filled with the ways his addiction could kill him. My heart raced when the phone rang, my stomach heaved when I saw ambulances with their lights on. I’d always been Sam’s ‘person’ – the one he could go to if there were any problems, but now the problems were too big for me to solve. Police, angry drug dealers, suicidal depression, eviction, friends dying from ODs.
The group taught me something only parents of addicts know: the boundaries we set are not for our addicts. They are not to save them. We do not have the power to save them. We set boundaries to save ourselves.
“How close to the fire can you stand and not get burned?” asked one of the parents.
In August, I texted Sam that I loved him to the moon and back but could no longer keep my front row seat to his addiction. I was dying inside. I told Sam his dad would take him to rehab when he was ready. I would only accept contact from Sam when he had admitted himself to rehab. I left work early that day, in tears, took a sleeping pill and climbed into bed. It was to be the second hardest thing I have done (so far) in my life.
A few weeks after blocking contact with Sam, he entered a 30-day rehab. We began rebuilding our relationship. I helped him arrange sober living after his discharge, deal with bed bugs, buy food. Six weeks after his discharge, Sam overdosed twice to benzodiazepines unknowingly laced with fentanyl.
The most difficult action I’ve taken in my life (so far) was to tell my son in the ER after one of the fentanyl overdoses that he had two places to live: a homeless shelter or a rehab. Sam said he would never go back to rehab. I handed him the shelter’s address and walked out of the ER. I heard Sam calling “Mom” as I left.
There is no right way to parent a child with an active addiction. There is nothing I could do to save Sam. Had there been, I would have found it. The bottom line was I had to save myself. I needed other parents of addicts to tell me it was okay to save myself and show me the path.
Today, Sam is 8 months sober in a 12-month rehab. It is not because of anything I’ve done. It is his journey, his recovery work, and his higher power. I have my own journey. I am learning to live, too, one day at a time, accepting my powerlessness, but walking with, at times being carried by, the other parents of children with the disease of addiction.
Anne E. Reckling is a mom of two boys: a 22-year old recovering (for today) addict and an 18- year old. She is a licensed psychologist living in Columbus, Ohio.