#TBT – Addiction … Truth for 24 Hours

Three years ago, Midwestern Mama contemplated what it would be like if her son could tell the truth for 24 hours. Here’s a column that ran in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. #TrustFeelsGood #OYACommunity

Real_Mom__What_if_we_had_the_truth__for_24_hours_

You know the saying … we’ve come a long way, baby. And thank goodness for that!

Nothing to Hide

We are a couple of moms creating a community of adults who care and are concerned about the young addicts in our lives. Together, we share our stories. Together, we share our truths. Though experiences, support and information, we are connected. We are together.

With kids born in the late 80s and early 90s, I didn’t jump on the social media train until a few years ago, and of course, it wasn’t even an option when they were little. Thus, they were spared from having baby pictures shared on Instagram. They were spared mommy blogging about spit up and potty training. And, they were spared from having their lives shared with “friends,” “followers” and “fans.”

The absence of social media did not equate with super private lives necessarily. Among friends and family, whether face to face or in letters and phone calls, we certainly shared plenty of details. I remember having daily, hour-long phone conversations with another mother who was part of a volunteer committee. We talked about anything and everything.

At the same time, I like to think I always had good judgment and a healthy respect for family members and family matters about what to share and what to keep within more immediate confines. Maybe that’s my generation. Maybe that’s my set of values. But maybe there’s some real merit in it, too.

When our middle kid, Our Young Addict, began having problems, I was open and honest with just about everyone, especially with teachers, coaches, counselors, neighbors, co-workers and many others. It seemed important to clue them in on our chaos and to share our experience. We had nothing to hide and only the best intentions.

More often than not, we were offered support and concern. Not everyone knew what to say or do, but everyone cared. Some people were grateful to know what was going on. Others had personal or family connections to addiction and recovery. Most were sympathetic if not empathetic.

Sure, there were some people who didn’t understand. Some thought surely I was exaggerating. Some probably were in denial about their kids. Some probably passed judgment on us and on our son. Most certainly, some got tired of getting a truthful response when they asked how we were doing or how our son was doing. They probably wanted to hear that everything was better, that he wasn’t an addict, that he had stopped using drugs, that all of this had just been a phase.

Along the way, I did turn to the internet to find information. Not only did I find volumes and volumes of information (and varying degrees of helpfulness), but I also started to find communities. You’ve read this before – this is how Our Young Addicts started; another mom and I connected as part of an online forum, exchanged our stories, and found value in sharing our experiences. We bolstered each other up. We offered each other the advice we ourselves needed to hear. We supported each other. We didn’t hold back because honesty was the key to success.

We decided that social media would be the best way to create a community with you. That’s way we launched on Twitter, Facebook and WordPress. Our intent is to provide glimpses into our own experiences as encouragement for you to share yours with the rest of the community. In addition, we like to share current news and findings so each of us becomes smarter and more informed.

One of the things that Mid Atlantic Mom and I feel strongly about is finding a balance between honesty, transparency and identity. Our sons are in their twenties now. They are legally adults. They have a right to their privacy and that includes their identities. That is why I do not use my name or my son’s name. It’s out of respect for his past, present and future. But that is also why I tell it like it is what we’re experiencing, what it’s like. The anonymity … It’s not for fear of shame or stigma. It’s not for keeping a secret. It’s for what I call being appropriately anonymous. That’s why we use the monikers – Midwestern Mama and Mid Atlantic Mom.

Our stories, not just mine and Mid Atlantic Mom’s, all of ours collectively, are vitally important. These stories create community regardless of whether the young person you’re concerned about is just trying out drugs or alcohol, is using recreationally, is abusing regularly, is progressing toward addiction and or more substances, is experiencing consequences, is in treatment, is in relapses, is in recovery, is struggling or thriving. Our stories are our truth and our truth is our connection.

Midwestern Mama

B Minus or A Plus – Grade This Essay

The youngest member of Midwestern Mama’s family writes about his brother’s substance use disorder.

When someone in the family is using drugs, it’s only a matter of time before one person’s problem becomes everyone’s problem. Our youngest son is 15 years old, a freshman in high school, and he recently wrote a “coming of age” essay for his English class where he talked about growing up with an addict brother.

He was nine years old when his brother began using drugs. For a year or two, he likely didn’t notice much, but by fifth grade we couldn’t hide it from him, nor did we want to. It was the year that things started to implode and it was the year that his class would participate in D.A.R.E. We believed it was important that he understood the chaos (in an age-appropriate manner) and to let this experience shape his own future choices, behaviors and attitudes towards drugs.

As we tried to work with our older son to move him toward treatment, we also worked hard at helping his younger brother and older sister process things. We talked openly with them, asked for their impressions and ideas, and we encouraged them to talk with a counselor or attend Ala-non or Ala-teen to put things in perspective. They saw us at our best and at our worst. They saw us for who we are.

One day our youngest was particularly distraught. In his recent essay, he wrote: “My life was ridiculously hard for a fifth grader.”

He knew that I had been working with a therapist to help myself manage the emotional roller coaster of parenting a kid with substance use disorder, so I offered to let the two of them meet and chat. It seemed to help little brother embrace the idea that he didn’t have to go through this alone and that there might be merit in talking with someone other than his family members – someone more objective and trained at these sensitive topics.

The next day, our youngest went to his school counselor. They hit it off, and she shared with him that she had a sibling with a substance use disorder. For the next couple of years, he would talk with her whenever things felt out of control, and through these conversations, a middle-schooler worked his way through some tough, scary, emotional times.

Just how did he feel during fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grades? His essay reveals: “D.A.R.E made my problems even worse. I already knew a lot about what drugs did to the body because I had seen what they did to my brother.” He went on to say: “My brother’s problems affected my life in many ways. I (wanted) to be his friend … it was difficult to do so when he constantly was high or on the crash from drugs.”

They essay continued to talk about all the times when his brother had stolen his wallet, when he was homeless and his hygiene deteriorated – “He would smell like rotten apple dipped in crap drizzled in vinegar,” — when he was arrested for underage public intoxication, when he went to treatment but ran away … In just a few pages, my youngest son detailed the many low points he witnessed during his brother’s active addiction.

He concluded his essay by writing: “Knowing all I’ve been through is scary. The purpose of writing this (essay) was to (say) people have crazy family problems. I am outgoing and energetic, but deep inside, I still have problems. The best thing I learned through this experience is to stay strong. Talk to friends and counselors. Don’t let your problems overcome who you truly are. You are allowed to be affected by these tough moments in life, and at times you will feel worthless. Stay strong and it will get better. If life doesn’t have ups and downs, you’re (not really living).”

Little brother’s essay was as heartfelt and honest as anything I’ve ever read. It was also full of insight and perspective. I give it an A-Plus. His teacher, however, because the essay was riddled with typos, punctuation, spelling and grammatical errors, gave it a B-Minus.

Oh, well. I’m glad there’s another writer in the family who is willing to share this story – a story that has impacted each family member and a story that has had dark chapters, and now, over the past seven months of sobriety, is changing to chapters that are becoming increasingly bright.

Midwestern Mama with excerpts from her youngest son.

Gift-Giving Guide for Our Young Addicts

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.

Midwestern Mama