Almost every child has giggled himself silly playing games like Peekaboo and Hide and Seek. There’s the element of surprise. There’s the element of relief. And there’s an element of interaction. Each part of these games involves questions and realizations, and kids and parents learn a great deal from playing types of games together.
As my son nears his 22nd birthday and his childhood friends are graduating from college, I’ve remembered quite a few of the old games drawing connections between these pastimes and current times. Being a Millennial, my son’s playtime started out with more traditional activities – board games like High-Ho Cheerio and building sets like Legos. By grade school, he and his peers were moving toward electronic toys – GameBoy, video games, computer games. Social media took off when he was in high school with Facebook, Instant Messaging and texting.
If you’re a parent in your 40s, 50s or 60s, you probably remember the Game of Life. You moved around a board with a game token that was shaped like a car, and you could make choices about college and careers, buying homes and insurance.
Lately, I’ve thought about addiction as a board game. Please know I’m not making light of it or even being glib, and I am absolutely not implying that it’s a game on purpose or a mind game. No negative intentions or connotations, just a positive and easy to understand metaphor. OK, we’ve got that settled. Thank you and keep reading.
It’s just that parenting a young addict reminds me of a board game that comes with an objective and requires strategies as well as luck (sometimes good luck and sometimes bad luck) in order to move forward. That is the point after all, to move forward, to come out a winner.
Whatever the game, the element of surprise is ever present. It ranges from the anticipated to the unexpected, and leaves the players wondering what will happen next. The inherent intrigue, including the unknown possibilities, creates interest in continuing the game instead of quitting.
For my young addict and for our family, surprise was definitely part of our early experience with addiction. It started off with our surprise that he was using – he was such a good, smart, well-liked kid and we had been good – not perfect – parents. Our son didn’t fit the stereotype of a drug user, let alone an addict. No one would have predicted he would have a substance use disorder. Yet, the signs were there and when we had confirmation that he was using drugs, we really weren’t that surprised.
I think his quick thrust from using to outright addiction certainly surprised our son- he didn’t plan to have a problem – and the consequences of use surprised him even more. Never in his wildest dreams did he expect that his path would diverge so much from his peers’. They went to college. He postponed college and when he started a semester late, he ended up in detox and the ER six days after classes started and was kicked out of school within a month after that. Talk about a fast track that further propelled his use and myriad consequences.
We stood by him, but in a firm yet loving way. Our no-enabling stance definitely took him by surprise as did our loving detachment and relentless encouragement. Our imperfections with parenting a young addict created inconsistencies that set us all back from time to time. (Where are the rules to this game?) Sometimes, it has felt like playing one of those games when you get close to the finish line only to draw the card that sends you all the way back to the beginning so that you have to go through all the dice rolling or spinner spinning again. (How many times did that happen in High-ho Cheerio? It was the game that seemed like it would never be over.)
Once we knew what was going on – what game we were playing — we immersed ourselves in understanding addiction, treatment and recovery in all its many variations. While we didn’t necessarily have the answer or solution, we certainly embraced knowledge and explored options.
Having an understanding of the game means that now there really are no more surprises from our perspective. Each difficult step has come with realistic, but ever hopeful, understanding. Instead of surprises, we get confirmations of our suspicions and concerns. Instead of surprises, we are better equipped to deal with whatever happens next, or at least we tell ourselves that.
We continue to anticipate a happy surprise. We hope one day he will want to change enough to get maintain a positive attitude that maybe today will be the day. When it isn’t, well, we find relief in a text, sighting or visit. These aren’t always pleasant, but these are tiding us over. We are grateful he’s alive for another day because each day is a day of positive possibility. That is a relief.
Each interaction with our son is an opportunity. We can tell if he’s high or coming down. We can tell if he’s had a good day or not. We can tell if he’s receptive to talking about his situation or if it’s better to give it more time. We can tell if he’s had a good night of sleep, a shower or a meal. We can tell when he’s itchy to leave us to go with his friends.
Anymore, our interactions are less and less frequent, but still somewhat predictable. He’ll contact us and ask to come over. He’ll shower and eat. From there, it depends. He might fall asleep – anywhere from a short nap to upwards of 16 hours, no kidding. Or, he might be energetic and play video games with our younger son or even take the dog for a walk.
Then … he’ll hesitate by the kitchen counter and say, “I’m heading out.” We both know what that means. From there, it’s usually days – even a week – before we hear from him again. We’ll reach out to remind him that we’re here, that we care. If he interacts, great; if not, we let him be. Too much interaction on our part seems to drive him further way and it takes longer for him to return.
We’re finally getting good at this game, and we know that the most important winner will be our son!