It’s a Mystery

I’m one of those people who tries to learn everything I can about something I am facing.  I read the latest books and current research findings, watch videos and peruse the internet in search of information.  I can’t help myself.  I believe this obsession is based on anxiety rather than curiosity.  If I can just understand something, I can cope with it. I probably use the internet access on my cell phone more than any other feature! If I have a question, I search for an answer.  Of course not everything has an answer, does it?  Some things remain a mystery. Some things you cannot find on the internet.

My son told me that in his inpatient program all unanswerable questions remain unanswered.  In other words, there is no internet access or iPhone to look up the name of the actor who starred in an old movie.  Furthermore, disagreements among the residents cannot be resolved when faced with some little-known fact.  He says they just throw their hands up and say “It’s a mystery!”  A group of them were trying to remember who wrote the song “I Went to a Garden Party.”  OK.  I’ll admit I didn’t need my internet to answer that question.  It was Ricky Nelson.  Naturally I looked him up later and learned many more details about Ricky’s life (and death) that I won’t share with you.  I know you have your own internet access.

Anyway, I recently watched a special on HBO about addiction and in the corner of the screen it advised viewers to go to  I hardly needed encouragement.  The very next day I went online and found pages of HBO videos about addiction.  I want to discuss two of them (I’ll admit I haven’t viewed all of the videos yet but you probably know that I will). The first one I want to discuss is called A Mother’s Desperation in three video chapters. Watch:

Chapter 1 begins with a blunt description of the chaotic and difficult path to recovery as described by David Rosenbloom, Ph.D., Director of Join Together, Boston University School of Public Health. He notes there is no smooth ride to recovery. I agree. Later in the video I will hear the mother featured in the video say that when her daughter first entered rehab she was led to believe that her daughter would go through treatment and learn what she needed to learn and essentially come out recovered. She says “…maybe they didn’t explain it to me or maybe I didn’t understand.”  I think most family members don’t understand what’s ahead; I certainly didn’t.

The mother tells her story about her daughter who is addicted to heroin. Here are some of the observations I made while watching the video: the mother says she will do anything to help her child, says she is desperate, lists all her child’s previous successes and shows photos of her daughter earlier in life, admits that her daughter has stolen from her in the past but also admits she overlooked it. The mother mentions how she feels other parents blame her for the daughter’s addiction inferring that she has not been there for her daughter. She ends by saying that she cries a lot and sometimes thinks she, herself, won’t make it.  Then she quickly says she has to make it because, if she doesn’t, her daughter won’t.  She states that her daughter isn’t thinking clearly.  I feel like the mother also isn’t thinking clearly.  She is in rescue mode 24/7.

Chapter 2 begins with a family support group that the mother attends. All the people there are women.  I wonder where the fathers and siblings are. The focus of the family support group is not the mothers attending the meeting, it is their addicted children.  They share personal stories about their child’s behavior; they talk about relapse and the cost of treatment. They express sadness, fear, nervousness and even anger. They never address their own behavior. They do not broach the subject of  enabling or codependence. They do not talk about setting boundaries. They do not discuss their plans to move forward with their own lives.  And finally, I can’t help but notice a bit of one-upmanship as the mothers describe their own sacrifices and burdens related to caring for their grown children. For example, one mother shares how she and her husband drove a very long distance every weekend for 10 months to visit their son in treatment and then how they cried the whole way home. Another mother talks about how they were forced to spend all the money they had saved for their child’s education. Coverage of the support group ends and the video moves to the mother being called to come and pick up her daughter at the police station. The daughter has been released on her own recognizance. The arresting officer has befriended the mother and has helped find the missing daughter. The mother says she is nervous about her daughter coming home because it has never worked in the past. I wonder why the daughter is going home for the same reason. It seems to me like the last place the daughter needs to be. I see the mother pick up her daughter and then something odd happens.  The mother is in the parking lot with her daughter and with the arresting officer.  She reaches over to fluff her daughter’s hair and tells her to say ‘thank you’ to the officer in the same tone of voice that a mother generally uses on a young child.  That moment tells me so much about the mother’s relationship with the daughter.

As they drive home, the mother takes the opportunity to talk to her daughter.  She begins by saying “gonna run the house like a rehab.” Next she asks “…what’s it going to take for you to reach bottom?” She continues: “I’m just thinking what did we do wrong or did we do anything wrong….?  Finally she tells her daughter that they need to sit down and make a plan, a goal, a contract, or something and live by it…” She asks, “does that sound good?” I notice how passive the daughter is and basically disinterested in what her mother is saying.  The mother treats her daughter as though she is about 10 years old.  In the next chapter she asks her daughter what she should do with her while she, the mother, is at work? She says, “If it weren’t for your addiction, I wouldn’t have to be worried.…” I recognize a codependent relationship when I see one and this one seems classic.

In Chapter 3 the mother reflects on how the daughter’s addiction has affected her own life. “What I have really really lost……. is the ability to dream.”  She continues, “I have to live one day at a time.  All the dreams a mother has (college, good job, grandchildren), I don’t have those any more.  I miss not looking ahead.  To me it is like a loss.  My goal is to some day not have to worry.  I like having my own freedom. To me it’s like I have a 10 year old I have to babysit.”  I noticed that I had already observed her treating her daughter like a 10 year old but was still surprised when she actually says she feels like her daughter is a 10 year old. I assume that this video is supposed to make the observer highly sympathetic to this mother and the terrible desperation she feels but it has the opposite affect on me.  I see a mother who has no tools in her toolbox, little self-awareness, attends a support group that reinforces her codependent behavior, and who is attempting to whip her daughter into shape.

The video ends with David Rosenbloom saying  “Long term recovery begins with treatment but when treatment is over, in fact the family and patient are really still at the beginning of this journey.  Everybody is sort of starting again under a very different circumstance. And it takes a long time and it can be extremely stressful. The circumstances have changed altogether.”  I agree.  I wonder why they would post a video that exemplifies what the family should not do and what a family support group should not be about. Is it because all of the experts who are interviewed in the HBO documentary about addiction, really don’t have any idea how families should engage with their addicted family member?  Do they see this video as reaching out to parents?  I hope not.

For contrast, watch the video called  Getting an Addict into Treatment: the CRAFT Approach .  CRAFT stands for Community Reinforcement and Family Training. I was struck by the differences in these two videos. If there is anything I have learned over the past 12 years, it is that being angry, judgmental, and accusing does nothing to resolve the situation and takes a heavy toll on my personal health, my relationship with my son, and my well being.  Once I understood my enabling and codependent behaviors, and once I began to focus on myself, and once I adopted new skills, everything began to change. Perhaps it’s a mystery but, then again, perhaps it isn’t.

What Lies Within

In 2003 my husband and I had been married and lived in Utah for 22 years. Our 18 year old son was going off to college and my husband had accepted a new position in the California Bay Area.  This is what I wrote as we packed up everything we owned and sold the home we had lived in for 14 years.

A bag full of old stuffed toys, a crate of canning jars, a large collection of yarn mixed in with unfinished projects; my things, our things, his things.  Every box represents some part of our life. There are books and athletic equipment and Christmas decorations and garden tools. Sometimes I feel relieved to filter out the stuff that weighs me down and other times I want to cling to each and every thing that has ever been a part of our lives, as though we wouldn’t exist without them, as though they define us.  It isn’t the china as much as the worn flour sack dish towels, washed and rewashed hundreds of times, folded and refolded, tucked into the same kitchen drawer year after year. These dish towels seem to represent our day to day existence as the years went by. 

I haven’t touched the photographs, all those smiling faces frozen in time; I can’t go there yet. I have so loved this warm and safe home, being in the middle of life, not young, not old, just here, a mom, a wife, a nurse.  I will miss our son, miss being a part of his activities, miss him at the breakfast table, miss watching movies together, miss talking about stuff and laughing.  I see his high school yearbook, the videos of basketball games and tennis matches, the complete set of Harry Potter books. He is a young adult now and will unlikely live in our home again except over the holidays and perhaps one more summer! I’m already looking forward to Thanksgiving. 

That was 12 years ago. I did not know then what  lie ahead for us.  I did not know that he would succumb to addiction, drop out of college, go to jail, total a car, fall into endless debt.  I did not know that we would spend more on addiction treatment in one year then we planned to spend on his entire college education and possibly graduate school. I did not know that we would go to family meetings every week for years nor that I would meet people from every walk of life trying to cope with their addicted family member. I did not know that I would attend Al-Anon meetings and read Al-Anon books. No one can see next week’s headlines and I am no exception. Our smart, funny, musical, athletic son would become a stranger who would lie to us and overwhelm us to the point that nothing in our life seemed to matter except him.  I did not know that I would become crazed with trying to rescue him.

Now, 12 years later, we are all very different people.  And all of this has made me think of the difference between my relationship with the past and my relationship with the future. The past is no doubt open to interpretation as my husband and I argue about some detail or other like where we vacationed in a particular year. Generally the past is shared and there is some evidence that it actually happened (think of those family photos). Our memories aren’t perfect but we agree about the majority of experiences in our lives.  We were there. But the future has no photos and no memorabilia.  It is both assumed and imagined but it is not tangible. We won’t find it in boxes when we move from point A to point B.  When I imagined the future, I could be hopeful or fearful, rigid or flexible.  I could dread it or welcome it but the disturbing truth is that I could pretend I had the  means to control it.  I didn’t then and I don’t now.

Here’s a glimpse into my past projections into the future concerning my son; please notice the assumptions that I made about every aspect of his life.  Our son would be accepted into and graduate from a good university.  He would marry an educated and sensitive woman who would embrace us.  He would have an interesting and challenging career.  He would make a decent salary.  He would have children.  He would own a home.  He would take vacations. He would continue to play the piano and perhaps tennis, a sport he loved. None of these assumptions included drug addiction, repeated treatment programs, jail, or financial collapse. Future assumptions about offspring don’t generally include things like illness, accidents, divorce or other negative events.  In other words, I painted a rosy picture of the future; I painted the future I wanted. It was all about me, not him.  I never consulted anyone else about the future I imagined.  It’s possible that my husband imagined the future differently, I don’t know.

I no longer spend time imagining his future.  He is a different person now and so am I. I don’t get to decide if he lives a sober life, marries, has children, stays here or moves away.  I don’t get to decide his future at all.   Nowadays I focus on myself. I cling to  a quote credited to Ralph Waldo Emerson: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”   So every day I try to look at what lies within me.  The past is the past and the future is the future.  But who am I today?  What do I need to do to be who I am?  What has meaning, what can I contribute, how can I embrace the wonder of this day before me?  How can I love my son today, just today?  How can I accept who he his and find peace with who I am?  That is my challenge.

Find Grace

Every year I travel to Teton Park outside of Jackson Wyoming with three of my closest friends.  We’ve been doing it for years. We take two canoes, 6 paddles, river bags, life jackets and our binoculars.  We put on below the Jackson Lake dam and paddle our way down to the putout at Pacific Creek.  Depending on the depth of the water, we venture off into back areas of the oxbow in hopes of glimpsing whatever wildlife we might be lucky enough to encounter.  We’ve come across moose, wolves, coyotes, bald eagles and even bears.  Sometimes we pull our canoes together and just drift along as we share a bag of potato chips or a cold beer.  We’ve faced challenges; my partner and I had to be rescued once by the park rangers and on another occasion we tipped over.  But, all in all, we have taken care of ourselves over the 25 years we’ve been doing our trip.

For a long time, I didn’t want to be in the back of the canoe.  The person in the back of the canoe does the steering and really has the responsibility of overseeing where the canoe goes. I sat up front and did what my partner told me to do and warned her when I saw a big rock that we needed to avoid.  I was very capable of spotting big rocks. I lacked the confidence to be in the back but that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t critical of my partner from time to time. I wasn’t afraid to let her know that she needed to turn us left or right or around. So there came a point when my partner told me that she was tired of the back and it was time to shift roles.  I felt almost sick to my stomach.  I didn’t really know how to steer a canoe; I wasn’t experienced enough; something would happen and it would be my fault. I began digging through my river bag looking for my inhalant. Of course I was too ashamed to admit how stressed I felt and there was no way I could refuse to take my turn.  I couldn’t make excuses. I felt trapped.

So, I did it.  I sat in the back and prayed. Little by little, I got better.  What was frightening was no longer frightening. I practiced. I learned. I still make mistakes but I am no longer afraid of making mistakes. I can correct. I can back the canoe up, turn it in a circle, slow it down and power forward.  I trust my partner to tell me about the big rocks but sometimes she doesn’t.  She apologizes and we move on.  I can let the canoe drift a bit while I get out my binoculars or look for my sunglasses. I can allow myself to be just enough in control. I’m here to be with my friends and embrace all that nature offers. I’m not here to be perfect. I want to be in the moment. I want to collect memories of moments that will sustain me when I’m not on the river.  Here is one memory that I want to share.

We come around a bend and there ahead of us is a blue heron standing so still among the reeds that she could easily be missed.  She doesn’t look at us.  She never does. She doesn’t make a sound. She doesn’t move.  Nothing changes, no feathers ruffle. It is as though she has no idea we are there.  But she knows.  When we get within a certain distance, she rises upward more like an angel than a bird. It is such a graceful ascent.  I’m mesmerized by the nonchalant way that she lifts her wings and gently flaps them as she searches for another spot away from these human intruders.

So whenever I am told to close my eyes and imagine something pleasant or relaxing (think yoga class), I place myself on the river with the blue heron. I feel the sway of the canoe and hear the sound of our paddles moving through the water. I see her. I am hypnotized by her amazing stillness. I marvel how perfectly she blends in to her world.  And then, at the perfect moment, she rises in slow motion, never glancing my way. And even though it is completely silent, I hear her.  She is speaking to me.  Be still. Blend in. Let go. Hush fear. Practice. Learn. Forgive. Find grace.