Midwestern Mama struggled in the early years of her son’s addiction with what to give him for Christmas – torn between what was kindness and enabling. She poured her heart out in a column (below) for the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 2011. Last year, her son was in a residential treatment program. Now six months sober, she’s as excited as a “kid at Christmas” to have her son home for the holidays.
Without hesitating, parents are natural givers. It starts with the miraculous gift of life and continues with gifts of protection, encouragement, sustenance, love, praise, boundaries, hope, strength and more.
We give our best without expectation for anything in return. All the while, we’re prone to question ourselves if we could do better or do more. It is the unwritten code of parenting, the natural order, the way it is. Our parenting report card may not be perfect, but it’s all A’s for effort. It is our heart that tells us if we’ve given well, if it’s good enough.
When our son was little, it was easy to give gifts that absolutely delighted him emotionally and materially. It showed in his face and in his behavior.
During this season of giving, I’m at a loss what to give our 19-year-old son. Certainly there are things he needs – things we’d ordinarily give him if he was not living a transient, unemployed, addicted lifestyle further exacerbated by deceit and denial. It’s far more complicated because material gifts (clothes, food, money, and housing) fall within the taboo category of enabling, the major no-no of addiction.
Instead, we give him our prayers daily – actually, multiple times day and night when I wake up at 3 a.m. and wonder if he’s warm and safe. We give him our love. We give him our commitment to help. We give him our best wishes. We give him all we’ve got and we keep trying to come up with something more, something better, something of affirmation and value.
We’re learning to give him the freedom and respect to live with the outcomes of addiction and mental health, to own his problems, challenges and choices. This is the gift I understand in my mind, but find difficult to reconcile with my heart.
There are other things we have given him that I wish we hadn’t, at least not for as long as we did. We gave him benefit of the doubt way too many times. We gave him chances to change, only to be shortchanged by more of the same. We gave him a clean slate more times than he’s aware, including paying off substantial debts all with the idea that we don’t want a poor credit record to hurt him once he gets his life together.
We also forgave him for all we went through these past few years because we finally realized that he didn’t do these things on purpose or to us. A combination of drugs and mental health has influenced his actions and choices beyond his control.
We’ve made amends, too, by realizing he is emotionally starved for the comfort and joy that home and family represent. And while we can’t give him our trust these days to live in our home, we do welcome him to visit, to curl up in a blanket by the fireplace, to play with his little brother, and to hold hands around the table in grace before sharing a home-cooked meal.
Emotional gifts are sustaining but often aren’t noticed or appreciated unless these are absent. Material gifts, however, can be just as important because these are physical reminders, even symbols. And this is the season of material gifts, things wrapped up in paper with ribbons and small notions that Santa puts in stockings.
I suggested he put together a Christmas list, so we’ll see if he does and whether there are items we can give with good conscience – items we don’t think he’d sell or things that will go unused. The last couple of years, he’d open his presents and then these would stay unused in a pile on his bedroom floor.
The idyllic mother image in my mind compels me to pile gifts under the tree that will magically trigger a transformation in him from despair to delight, from pessimism to optimism, from stubborn to open minded, from addiction to recovery.
During the gift-opening frenzy, sadly, I know that we’ll keep an eye on any cash that his siblings or cousins receive from relatives because our son has had sticky fingers. (Three times in the past year he stole his little brother’s wallet full of allowance he’d been saving for an i-pod; his older sister has had cash taken from her purse; and, this summer he stole money that his grandmother gave to his cousin for doing chores around her house. Parents of addicts nod their heads, yep, it’s part and parcel.)
Any ideas what we should wrap up for him? I know we’ll give the gift that keeps on giving – love, commitment, hope … and probably some socks, underwear, gloves, books and favorite candies.
With no job at present, he said he won’t be able to give presents this year. It’s nice that he wants to give, but we don’t expect anything nor do we want something he picked up at the store.
The gift we want is a gift he’ll give himself – the gift of help, of sobriety and recovery, of health and happiness.