When I first discovered my son Jon’s substance usage, it was as if the earth below me had fallen away. I was weak on my feet, blurred in my mind and hurting in my heart. This knowledge frightened me. The shock and fear hurt. I had no idea how to process my own feelings, let alone help Jon in a useful way. Honestly, I did not know how I felt, as I was responding in my usual way: With anger. As was my habit, I detached myself with indifference, unconsciously thinking it might spare me from further heartbreak. I thought things like “How could he do this to me?” “Who does he think he is?” and “I am going to need to fix this.” I was angry. I was scared. I was out of my comfort zone. Way out of my comfort zone. Childhood trauma reared its ugly head as it often did (I had no idea what it was at the time).
Jon went to a local rehab center for evaluation, and so began the enticing thought of him “getting fixed.” I remember distinctly the look in the Director of the facilities eyes as he explained to my wife and I that substance use is usually a symptom indicating underlying mental health challenges. What? Um, no. Not my kid. Weakness? Stigma? Addiction? Mental health? This was too much. As Jon resisted helping himself, I attended the weekly meetings for loved ones of people in treatment at the facility. Along with other parents of teens in treatment, adult children of parents in treatment, and some grandparents of grandchildren in treatment, my journey began. Yes, my journey. Unknown to me at the time, I had a lot of work to do. I had growing to do, I had childhood stuff to confront. I had friendships to lose and others to strengthen. I had family and spousal dynamics that needed my attention. I had no idea I needed to do this work. Yet, I was somehow in denial about it. So, part of me did know. A part I did not want to see the light of day. I was so scared.
I was scared for Jon. What if I lost him? What if I can’t fix him? What if…..what if, what if? Round and round these doubts and fears filled my head. I didn’t sleep. How could I? He would run away, have dealers deliver to the house in the middle of the night, and get high as often as he could. An overdose. A suicide attempt. Days spent in this clinic and then another. Where was my son? Where was my amazing boy who I loved so deeply? He was not visible. Not in those dull eyes, the deadpan face, the angry attitude. And there I was, off to a rocky start. Ego shaken, frightened to the core, and lost. Jon was off to wilderness therapy 5 months after we found that first stash. He would be spending the winter in Utah. Outside. I would begin thawing my heart and letting go of my resentment and anger.
In this segment of Jon’s journey, I was attached to him in a symbiotic way. If he had a “good” week, I had a “good” week. The adage “you are only as happy as your least happy child” was my mantra, although I was not chanting it. It was a safe place to be… Jon needed to work. Jon needed to “get better.” This concentration allowed me to avoid reflection. I didn’t need to look internally. Hey, he’s the addict, not me, right? Yes – and no. As I embraced assorted sources of support, I was able to hear the notion of separate journeys. Jon had one to navigate, and I had one to navigate. We could both be doing our own work, and we could be doing work together. I was already broken from childhood, and the hard shell I developed over decades in order to protect myself was cracking. Light made its way into my darkness. At first it was blinding, and hot with pain and discomfort. Most uncomfortable and unwelcome. Yet, I needed it. I needed it for me. For my spouse. For Jon. For my other two children. I had and still have a lot of great reasons to embrace the uncomfortable. To challenge my beliefs. To allow more and more light into the darkness I Iive in. To start living genuinely.
I am still on this journey. Jon is still on his. Yes, 5 years later he is alive.
Hope #1: He has self love.
Hope #2: He graduated from H.S.
Hope #3: He has overall healthy relationships with his two siblings.
Hope #4: He has overall healthy relationships with my spouse and me.
Hope #5: I have discovered that there is light, if I let it in.
I have been reminded that there is love in all humans. And there is pain inside me that I do not need to be afraid of. If I am afraid of it, that’s ok, as I will not run away. I have rediscovered that enduring the pain is necessary if I want growth/change/less pain. Yes, there is work. Hard work. I would not trade any of this. I highly recommend it all. You are not alone, I promise.