On an early December evening, my
neighbor’s holiday lights sparkle while I sign Christmas cards with Peace
glittered across the front. I’m in the spirit—until I start to add personal
notes. My chest tightens, my fingers grip the pen. What can I say that isn’t a
big fat lie?
My inner voice is cruel: Hi friends and
family! It’s been at least three weeks since we’ve broken up a late-night
Until a few weeks ago, I considered my
grown sons’ late-night scuffles a part of our family’s English/Irish heritage. Sure,
there was a lot of profanity-laced yelling, but I never felt personally
threatened by my thirty-somethings. Besides, I’d never hesitate to call 911 if
necessary. Their occasional drunken
brawling was simply sibling rivalry played out to its logical end. Wasn’t it?
Actually, no. It wasn’t.
Friends and strangers flooded me with
concerns for my safety. One asked when it was my turn to have a life. Another
said, “There’s only one you.” Some quietly ignored the post altogether. I was
surprised, shocked and ashamed. Really ashamed.
Inner Voice couldn’t wait to start in. This
is what you get for telling, it scolded, adding a sour pickle grimace. Moron!
Don’t talk, don’t tell not only shields perpetrators, it protects the
whole family from embarrassment, misunderstanding and shame. I’d violated the
rule, and I was getting my just desserts: shame pudding, topped with a dollop
These feelings of unworthiness quickly
leapt beyond my sons’ fisticuffs and spread out to include the status quo my
husband and I have entertained for far too long. Two out of three sons live
with us. Both have mental illness and Substance Use Disorder and both don’t
have jobs. I’m ashamed for them and for me. And so far, I haven’t been able to
So how come,
Inner wants to know, you put up with these overgrown third-graders, anyway?
They’d rather sock each other than use their words. You really ought to
The last bit takes me straight back to the day, decades ago, when a drug counselor looked me in the eyes and said, “Do you know how sick you are?” At that time, only our middle son was embroiled in substance use problems. Still. Then and now, I duck my gaze, my cheeks aflame. Fear traps me in a chokehold so tight I can barely swallow. “Do something?” I croak. Like what?
The morning after one of those fights my
husband and I always present a united front and steely resolve. I’m all about
love, nudging our sons toward treatment—mental health, drug or otherwise. My
former Marine likes to make lists of house rules and punishments for
noncompliance. We sit those boys down and deliver ultimatums. They’ll toe the
mark, or else.
At least that’s how it’s supposed to go.
Until my friends’ recent concerns, I didn’t realize that during these family meetings, we also drag shame, waiting to pounce, to the table. The moment our kids point fingers at each other, my husband’s voice hardens. I slouch in my chair. Before we know it, arms are folded, shouting starts and gaslighting begins.
“What about him?”
“What he does is worse—way worse.”
“Mom, you take opioids every day—you’re
just as bad.”
“You have to give me thirty days before you
can kick me out.”
Their father pounds the table. I ignore
the tears poking at the corners of my eyes. Practice my Lamaze breathing.
Silently cry out to God.
Boots stomp. Doors slam. My husband and I
stare at empty chairs and then gaze at each other. It’s a shame-filled rodeo. We’ve
Or have we? Am I ashamed that I can’t
control another person? Ashamed that we voiced our limits instead of rolling
over? Am I ashamed that I told my children I love them, but that violence will
not be tolerated?
I finish another greeting card, this one to
friends with a much different life. Comparing my tribe to families without
Substance Use Disorder lets shame bite deep. My oasis of peace evaporates like
Yet behind some of those smiling faces,
maybe there’s another big fat secret that warns, “Don’t talk, don’t tell.” What
if another mother, making out her own batch of holiday wishes, also feels
crushed by shame? What can I say to her?
Maybe peace is more a direction than a
place. I open each card and carefully write:
Peace doesn’t mean that the war is over.
Peace comes in the ways we deal with our hurts. May you and yours rest in the
Peace that passes all understanding.
A wispy Christmas spirit bubbles up in me as I watch the twinkling lights chase darkness away.