Over the past year, my son’s use of meth has dropped off considerably. I blame it all on my learning how to love him well, as my friend Pam Lanhart says.
Instead of binges lasting weeks or until he finally sleeps, now he still uses but it’s more of a scattershot use. He says it’s partly because he woke up one day and realized he’s in his forties. And it’s partly because of the dangers of fentanyl—yes, they even cut it into meth. I think it’s largely because of the ways I’ve changed how I interact with him.
When I first joined support groups for families of those with Substance Use Disorder, I was still telling grisly war stories about what my trio of SUD-ers did or didn’t do. I clung to total abstinence as the measure of success. They were the problem, not me. I loved and still love them fiercely. But some days I wondered if I could hang on long enough until they embraced sobriety.
In my online groups, other moms seemed to have the same ideas: either there was some magic method to make their children stop using, or a formula to force them to get “clean.” The postings online were similar. Yet I could hardly bear to read the desperate stories and exhausted pleas from moms whose children struggled with what we used to call addiction.
I was no stranger to these harrowing tales—I’ve written many of these myself. But somehow, when they were all lumped together on one page, their collective weight sank me every time—especially when a mom had received the ultimate call.
But as dire as much of the advice was (use tough love, detach, don’t enable), a few of these groups took a different road. I’d never heard of things like Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT), Harm Reduction or most of all, Invitation to Change.
For me, the answer was never in disengaging myself. Like so many of us moms, we love our kids too deeply and completely to abandon them. As a woman of faith, I can’t follow a Jesus who says, “Come back and see me when you’re ready to go straight.”
I can’t really blame people for wanting justice. Those caught up in SUD often damage property, relationships and hearts. To most of us, justice means retribution. These SUD people—even if they’re our kids—must pay a price for their sins. But even in the Old Testament, God keeps asking for restorative justice, not retribution. How does God do this? By loving us more.
God aims for restorative justice by loving us more.
As a mere mortal, I always thought I had the love part down. It was the boundaries part I sucked at, mostly because I mistakenly thought boundaries were rules my kids should follow. As I dove deeper into the groups that advocated loving well, I found fresh ideas.
- Boundaries are for me, not them. I had to confront myself and ask: what behaviors clash with my values? My boundaries probably differ from yours, but I first set boundaries around violence. I told them that I couldn’t abide any violence, and if they couldn’t control themselves, I would call 911. I had to mean it and be prepared to keep the boundary. In two years, it hasn’t been necessary to call 911.
- Love doesn’t mean doormat. I stopped being my sons’ punching bag. When on substances, they can be verbally abusive. I either remove myself or tell them we’ll have to talk later.
- Love does mean looking for the good. When I first joined Thrive, I wondered if I’d ever find any good to point out. But it’s funny—once you stop looking at your kid as a loser, a throwaway, a burden, you start to see the wonderful son you remember. Sometimes it’s miniscule, but to me, any positive thing is a plus.
- Harm Reduction isn’t a cop out. If my son never goes 100% off his drug but is able to function somewhat normally again, I celebrate it. In “Green Light” moments, we chat about future plans. Sometimes I have to nudge a little more. But you get very few green light moments if your person is always on the defensive.
Relationship building takes time. My son has used since his early teens. It’s going to take time to rebuild not only our relationship but his personality. I have to be willing and very patient as he takes these baby steps out of his illness. Virtually every mom I meet who has lost a child either wishes they’d been more supportive or is comforted knowing that they loved their person well.
In the past two years I’ve learned so much about the best ways to support my sons. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and we have to back up until we get back to the restorative kind of justice. But I can say that by supporting, by listening, by loving well (that is, with boundaries), I’m closer to my sons than I’ve ever been. I no longer look at them with a carefully hidden sneer or make snide comments in my head. I see them as possibility, pulling them toward the light. If you haven’t tried this kind of restorative justice with your person, I urge you to give it a go. The smiles you’ll get are worth the price of kindness.