Sometimes, we can recharge relationships with a simple boundary.
My grown live-in son (aka Middle) called me on his friend’s cell. “My phone fell out of my pocket. It broke.”
Mentally, I added again? and groaned inwardly. You mean the phone that we provide? The one that helps us stay connected? The phone I replaced just weeks ago? That one?
Accusations rocketed through my head. Are you kidding me? I wanted to shout. How many times . . . Do you realize how much that cost?
Instead, I drew a shaky breath. And another, while emergency-praying. To my surprise, I spoke calmly. “Phones can be replaced.”
My reply astounded even me.
After nearly three decades of dealing with substance use disorder with my three sons, I’ve been to the edge plenty of times. Like you, I get tired of chaos, drama, manipulation. Maybe like you, I’ve called the police when I had to. I’ve hugged my kid at the psychiatric hospital and visited another in jail. Once I even went to court for a son who wouldn’t or couldn’t wake up in time. Don’t try this, by the way—the judge was not amused.
When our sons are using or drinking, they can get sassy. In altered states, they sometimes lie, don’t clean up after themselves and blast hideous music. It’s enough to make any parent yell, “Why should I live like this?”
I’ve lamented my dismal life in meetings and to friends, knowing that at any moment, I could get “the call.” So far, all three of mine are alive, and I’m grateful. But my belief that they must accept recovery to earn my support made me feel like a victim. Victim behavior got me sympathy laced with guilt—I hadn’t raised the sort of kids you brag about in the Christmas letter.
I hated being a victim. So, I turned to love. To fight against hopelessness, I turned to listening. And to restore what was left of my relationships with my sons, I turned to connecting. Instead of #toughlove, I’d be about #justlove.
At first, my justloving method was clumsy, glorified doormatting.
#Justlove (Doormat Edition) still left me feeling like a victim. My kids were doing this to me. Others said I deserved my own life, darn it, a life without grown children with addiction, mental issues and slovenly personal habits. I was ready to proclaim that I was done.
But something told me to try again. I remembered Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous adage that no one can make you unhappy without your permission. Was I giving chaos permission to rule my life?
#Justlove. The love part, I’m good at. But I suck at boundaries, so it made sense to start there. I learned that boundaries aren’t rules you make for others. All those rules hadn’t worked because they were for them, not me. Mom didn’t have to change, only demand certain behaviors from my adult sons.
Was I giving chaos permission to rule my life?
Instead, I set a boundary: I value peace and I needed the kind that doesn’t argue over broken phones. I lay aside my you-need-treatment sermons and focused on supporting my son.
When Middle came home, he said he hated being out of touch. I could’ve muttered something about his own fault, but kept my mouth shut (for once). Instead of berating him for breaking his mobile phone, I inhaled a little more peace and smiled. “What do you think you should do to get in touch again?”
In the past this was where I’d point out his guilt (loudly, with colorful adjectives like you idiot) and he’d start blaming inanimate objects or space aliens. Instead, he made eye contact and asked what kinds of jobs around the house he might do to earn money. “Or,” he said, “maybe it just needs a new battery.”
I smiled wider. “We’ll work something out.”
That week, Middle cleaned the house’s gutters. In spite of gobs of slimy leaves and the sounds of Middle stomping around on the roof, my peace boundary held.
Peace is easier to keep when I truly hear and see others.
Maybe my boundaries are very different from yours. Maybe you know what works for your family. But if you get so tired that you’re ready to turn your back on your prodigal unless he/she does what you think is best, consider this. Jesus, when confronted with sin, never told people to come back after they got their act together. He said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
The phone did only need a battery. But by creating a simple boundary, I reconnected with my son. That gives me hope and a peace I can’t explain.