That night, my son’s text arrived long after I was asleep, so I didn’t hear the chime. The next morning, I read his profanity-laced description of the work party he’d attended. Worst work party ever, it read. f*** (the restaurant).
The needle on my guilt-o-meter shot up so
fast it could have reached escape velocity.
I wrote back immediately. Do you still
have a job? Already, I could picture the party. My forty-year-old son chugged
as much alcohol as possible in the shortest amount of time, then grew loud and
belligerent as his prefrontal cortex was hammered into submission. My once
whip-smart boy still works as a dishwasher, living in a trashed-out rental on
the wrong side of town, always struggling to pay the rent.
I breathed a bit easier when he admitted
that during the party, he’d tried to quit his job, but the other employees
wouldn’t take him seriously. Looking for a different job, he wrote. Sick
of this place. My heart broke along familiar fault lines.
I resisted my urge to preach, to tell him
what he must already know: alcohol is killing you, one day at a time. But ever
since that morning, my guilt has multiplied like so many Star Trek tribbles.
I am the mother of three adult sons whose
lives are stuck somewhere in the past, addicted and barely hanging onto a life
they each abhor. Sons who haven’t beaten the demon, who, so far, can’t seem to
be all they could be. That’s the unvarnished truth.
But as I sat sipping my morning coffee,
another truth rose up from deep inside. Guilty. As a mom you get an F minus.
These sons are the way they are because of you, mama.
Why couldn’t I shake the feeling that it
was all my fault?
I’ve attended Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, Christian
support groups and read every book on addiction that I could find. I’ve heard all
the sayings, memorized the Serenity Prayer, and have tried most of the
twelve-step wisdom: Detach with love. Use tough love. Take care of yourself.
Set boundaries. Just for Today. My head knows and understands all this. I
cling to my faith as if it’s flotsam in an angry sea. But my guilt remains.
I know I can’t change my sons. I know it.
And it’s not as if I’ve always done nothing. I divorced one husband and
separated from another to take a tough love stand against alcoholism. A close
relative tried, while drunk, to commit suicide while talking to me over the
phone. But when it comes to people who’ve spent nine months inside my body,
it’s harder for me to let go.
There is probably a mother out there
somewhere who doesn’t feel the crushing weight of guilt over her prodigal
child. But I have yet to meet her. For the rest of us, when kids go sideways, we
moms suffer. We not only feel the pain of the child’s predicament, we add our
own version of mom-guilt. I’ve called the cops when my sons menaced or scared
me, hating myself every moment.
Guilt. All the rationalizing in the world
hasn’t cured mine. Guilt peeks around a corner when I read of a friend’s child’s
success. It mobs me when my son’s graying temples glint in the summer sun.
Guilt laughs at the dreams we once had and mocks us for enabling or abiding or
even staying in contact with the addict.
I’ll admit that the well-meaning comments
pour salt in my guilt wounds. Today I read the story of a mom who was panicked
over her daughter’s addiction and lifestyle on the streets. This mom had taken
in her daughter (and druggie boyfriend) to better manage her daughter’s Type I
(Juvenile) diabetes. The mom had to move that day, and her daughter’s disease
meant she might have a serious health crisis should her insulin not be
refrigerated or available. The mom’s words fairly dripped with guilt as she
wrestled with the problem. Move and leave her daughter out on the street? Or
give her daughter a place to stay (and keep her insulin cold)?
This situation, so common across our
addicted country, brought out the standard advice. Use tough love, don’t be
addicted to your daughter, take care of yourself, don’t enable. One woman
wrote, “kick her out.”
All these women meant well. They no doubt
have received the same advice for their own children’s addictions. But an
undercurrent of guilt lurked throughout, and I wondered why we spend so much
time lecturing one another, shaming each other for caring, for being unable to
literally cut the cord.
I doubt if any of the comments assuaged
this mother’s guilt.
If she couldn’t change her addicted
daughter, then maybe she could change herself—a high and lofty goal. Yet if
this mom was anything like me, those calls to change just filled guilt’s gas
tank again. Guilt that she hadn’t changed fast enough, detached well enough,
headed-off enabling soon enough to prevent more damage. Guilt over harboring a
mother’s love, however misdirected.
Maybe we need a different approach. Instead
of the attempts to assign blame or judge a mother’s actions or convince her of
the “right” way to handle the addict, maybe we could acknowledge how hard it
can be to truly stop feeling guilty. We could admit that guilt sits on our
shoulders, breaks our backs under the weight of regret.
Instead of offering sayings, arty memes,
annoying gifs or easy advice, we could work on strengthening the shoulders that
birth the world. We might admit that this kind of guilt is not pretty or most
of the time, warranted, but it is real. Moms who love their children
deeply—even if they never beat the addiction—will need strong family or friends
to get through the terrible times. They’ll need a place to grieve without
shame. They’ll need extra courage in case they face abuse or violence. And
they’ll need even stronger faith (in something) to carry the burden of watching
your child suffer, maybe even lose everything. One place I find comfort is with
other moms of addicts, the ones whose wounds are as deep as my own.
These other moms may say all the right
things or all the wrong things, but at the end of the thread there are tears
and hugs and love. Genuine love that grows out of the pain only we moms of
addicts know. It’s a love that’s worth feeling something, even if you’re afraid
those feelings will kill you.
The morning after the work party, my
shoulders sagged, knowing my son is still entrenched in his addiction. That he
may never escape. My prayer is that he will follow the light to a decent life.
I can’t stand the thought of the mom with the diabetic daughter or my own life
grieving in guilt should the worst happen.
I sent that mom love and hugs and the assurance that she’s not alone on this awful path, and then I stood in that same puddle of light for myself and my sons. Whether it comes from above or from a bunch of moms like me, love is the one thing I don’t ever want to lose.
What’s your story? Do you battle guilt like I do? If you are feeling alone in dealing with a loved one’s addiction, there are many groups out there to help YOU, including The Addict’s Mom, Al-Anon and Nar-Anon and many others. God Bless.