Getting It Right

The treatment center’s director met me in the lobby. Tall, blonde and willowy, she listened as I outlined my young adult son’s challenges. I told her how at just ten or eleven he’d started sneaking out at night to drink alcohol. Yes, ever since then, he’d abused methamphetamine. The director nodded sympathetically. “He’s over eighteen and mentally ill,” I said, “but I just can’t kick him out.” 

The director abruptly stopped nodding. After a drawn-out pause, she asked, “Do you know how very sick you are?”

Even if I’d wanted to answer, my voice had already shut down along with most of my self-esteem. I left as quickly as I could.

Moms like me are often told that we need help as much or more than our children. Most freely admit to the family addiction. We’re seriously messed up. I’m great at the love part, but I suck at boundaries.

And even when our boundaries fail like breached levees, we don’t give up. We try again, to speak without judgment, help our loved ones without enabling, and avoid manipulation. We’re desperate to help and not harm. To finally get it right.

Recently I tried to get it right by watching videos by a respected addiction counselor. Much of the advice I’d heard before. But then I came across one about ten boundaries that should be non-negotiable. As in no exceptions.

Boundaries? The thing I really suck at? Non-negotiable, as in keep these boundaries no matter what? I closed my eyes and hit play.

Number One: Don’t let addicted family members abuse you—either physically, mentally or emotionally. I may have laughed out loud. Our family uses sarcasm the way others use Frank’s Red Hot—we put that stuff on everything. Besides, lots of loving families beat each other up, at least verbally.  But okay.

The second warned against tolerating theft. If we didn’t enforce consequences, we were, according to the video, “hostages in our own homes.” That same middle son with the meth problem also has a kleptomania diagnosis. It’s hard to tell whether he’s stealing, borrowing or collecting shiny objects like a crow. Throw in his habit of donating to those in need (making dozens of peanut butter sandwiches for the homeless or lending his dad’s power tools) and it’s wrong but true. Fail.

Next up: Emotional Blackmail. I instantly recognized, “if you don’t, then I will,” threats. I hate you!/Everything’s your fault! (check). You’ll never see me (or the grandkids) again! (check). I’ll kill myself! (check). So dramatic.

Yet after you’ve cut down your blue-lipped, barely breathing son hanging from an extension cord noose, it’s hard to stand firm. Besides, the counselor also said never take suicide threats lightly. If I panicked and reacted to a suicide threat, did I still keep the boundary? I marked this one Huh?

With each successive item, my heart sank deeper. Don’t let them split your loyalties, don’t abide physical force (see number one), no forcing or ignoring, period. I kept telling myself I’m great with the love part, but I knew: The ten boundaries that should be commandments were, in our house, barely suggestions.

By video’s end, I could almost hear that director from long ago clucking at me about being so sick. The addiction counselor from the video might want to beat me with the shovel she’d asked us to put down. Other moms would tell me I should never, ever tolerate such behavior and urge me to find a meeting asap.

Our family gets so much wrong. I’m not even close to living my values. My husband of nearly forty-five years and I disagree often. And our three sons fight against their disease every waking moment.

The bigger question is, how can we move forward? Can a mom like me finally get it right? I closed the video and wept. And then I went searching for the hope I’d lost.

But as I hunted, a searchlight appeared. The one boundary I’ve kept is love. I have not and will not stop loving my children. Love, so painful yet so sustaining, keeps hope alive, even when I lose sight of it.

Just when I thought hope had left town for good, a job miraculously appeared for one of my sons. In a few short weeks I’ve watched him stand straighter and taller. We’ve even had a few “green light” moments, talking about his pain and his desire to change. It’s not the answer to his problems, but his new confidence shows. Bolstered by love, hope lights up his eyes once again.

I’ve lost my own hope so many times that I recognize it by the dog-eared, wrinkly cover. Some days, love gets pretty thin in spots, too. Yet both walk beside me. Hope stays strong because its best friend is Love. Shovel or no shovel, I suck at keeping boundaries. But thank God I’m great at the love part.

I’ll bet you are, too. No matter how many of those boundaries you struggle to keep, walk with me in hope and love. We might get it right yet.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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