The winter sun peeked out from behind clouds and a bitter wind reminded me that spring wasn’t here yet in Oregon. That day, though, I was feeling good. My middle son was in between what I call meth binges—a few days when his “real” personality returns, and he stops being paranoid, aggravated and mean-spirited.
Instead, he smiled. He made pleasant conversation. He flopped on my queen-sized bed and looked up at me.
I always walk a fine line during these windows—on one hand, my heart overflows with thankfulness to be able to carry on a conversation with Middle. If you’ve ever coped with someone who uses meth, you know that when that person is high, the most innocent question can set off a barrage of accusations or complaints. During those times, anger surrounds my son like a fog—one that can ignite at any moment. But in those brief periods when the drug isn’t running his affairs, my son becomes delightful again.
I celebrate those times, but I worry too. Clarity can evaporate quickly. I’m never quite ready to go down the rabbit hole again. And a piece of me still hopes he walks away from substance use and doesn’t look back.
I sat on the edge of the bed as we chatted. He talked about his girlfriend’s seven-year-old son with autism, how the boy loves to have his hair stroked, how it helps him relax and fall asleep. “Start at the forehead and then go back,” Middle said, still lying on his back. “The kid says it calms him down.”
Although not formally diagnosed, Middle is likely on the autism spectrum too. As a little boy, his anxiety often kept him from even attending class. He repeated songs and ad jingles he’d heard on television until it drove us nuts. He was rigid about any changes in his routine. All these things he’s carried well into his forties.
My son kept talking, his voice growing thick and dreamy. Before I knew it, I was stroking his head—forehead to back—precisely as he’d described it. Middle’s hair glinted silver, but I kept on running my fingers through it. “Your hair’s so clean,” I said. “Smell’s good, too.”
With his eyes closed, he told me his hopes, for a driver’s license, a job, to be happy. I kept stroking his head. Soon, his breathing slowed, until he was snoring lightly.
All his life I’d tried to find a way for him to be happy.
All his life, I’d tried to find a way for him to be happy. I’d taken him to counselors, social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists. We were never able to stick with one person long enough for a diagnosis, and he crashed into meth use by age twelve or thirteen (unbeknownst to us at the time). Nothing—no antidepressant, ADHD drug or program was able to fill his empty places.
Over the decades, he’s been through treatment, programs and more programs. Jail for six months. Fines and tickets have littered the path. Sadly, so far, the monster called meth still wins the day.
But as I sat there stroking my son’s head, I could see that the simple act of touch conveyed so much more than a lecture, a scowl or a turned backside. By touching him in a mother’s tender way, he knew he was worth something. He didn’t have to deserve my love in order to feel accepted. In that moment, I understood a tiny bit of God’s love for us all—that we can’t earn or be good enough to deserve it.
As a boy, my son didn’t like to be touched. Perhaps it was part of his autistic tendencies, or maybe touch made him anxious. He kept his jacket on indoors. I was even instructed not to look at him the day he received a school award. I longed to hold him in my arms or just stroke his head, but he couldn’t tolerate it.
Middle awoke with a snort and flashed a sheepish grin. “Guess I fell asleep.”
I smiled. “Yep, you did.” I had no words of wisdom, no lecture or pleading or instruction left in me. I’d already said everything through the simple act of touch. I wonder if more of us could find stronger connections this way. If your loved ones will allow it, hug them, place a gentle hand on a shoulder. If things have been rough, let your fingers extend an olive branch.
He sat up and I withdrew my hand. I wanted him to stay sprawled on my bed forever. I hope my fingers told him how much he’s loved, cherished. But even if he just tolerated the touch, I can’t forget what a gift it was to a hurting mom like me.
The days are still cold, and the monster will call again soon. I’ll grieve to lose my son once more. But I also hope that somewhere deep inside, he’ll remember my fingers running through his hair, saying I love you I love you I love you I love you. I hope it makes him as happy as it made me.