“Are these okay?” My son motions towards the red plastic bowl containing a few pieces of torn sourdough bread, “Too big?”
“Zach, they’re fine. Any way you tear them is fine; they’re just for stuffing.”
Still, he hesitates, and as I sit next to him at the table and watch him labor over symmetrical circles or squares, I sense that his post-rehab confidence is tender and new, just being born. His fresh skin and crystalline blue eyes suggest that ten months clean and sober have agreed with him. I hope he’s agreed with them; we haven’t seen each other much in the few weeks since he found work, moved out of sober living, and into his own apartment.
Tonight I want to take hold of his hands and ease his mind of any uncertainty or discomfort. I want to reassure him that I’m proud of his new life, he’s doing a fine job with the bread, and all he needs to do is stay sober and good things will begin again. How about a new car?
I grab an unopened loaf and start haphazardly tearing pieces, hoping he’ll notice my nonchalance. “How have you been, Zach? You’re looking great!”
“I’m good…” But then he says, “Except everyone’s overreacting to what happened. The overdose wasn’t a big deal—it was just a bad night.”
What? Where is this going? Why now? I stay silent, stunned.
He tells me he’s not like those guys in rehab, and he’s definitely not an addict. After being sober for almost a year, he has a new plan. “I’ve decided I won’t take pills; I’ll just drink and smoke weed. I’ll be ‘sober enough.’”
Sober enough? Bullshit. After all you’ve put me through? Get the fuck out of my house and come back when you’re sane. Haven’t you learned anything?
But I say nothing. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I don’t know anything, especially about what’s going on inside of my son. Especially about what underlies his drug use. He is harder on himself than any twenty-one-year-old has a right to be. Although I try, I don’t understand how or why he suffers, what his fears are, his insecurities, what lurks in his dark places. I should know those things, but I don’t. My yelling at him is nothing more than white noise—frustration at my limitations crashing into his.
So, I steel myself and calmly inquire, “Um Zach? I’m not sure what you mean.” He looks at me, imploring (or is it manipulating?) glistening oceans in his eyes. “Mom, I can’t imagine being sober forever.”
He’s twenty-one and can’t fathom a lifetime of abstinence. Drugs and alcohol feel good. He doesn’t want to be a drug addict. Who would?
For two decades, I’ve been sheltering him from the storms of his father’s addiction, our divorce, life’s tragedies. I built a lifeboat of the finest wood and thought we were happily bobbing along. I made things easy, loving him in the well-intentioned yet materialistic way my mother loved me, shielding him from even his own mistakes; rewarding him with “things” for the least amount of effort. Denying, denying, denying the hard stuff.
We watch an episode of Modern Family as we chip away at the eight loaves of bread. “Mom, you sure this size is okay?”
Since his overdose on a potent cocktail of weed, alcohol, Xanax, Adderall, a bad batch of Molly, and who-knows-what else… since he was found in a hotel room barely conscious foaming-at-the-mouth… since his music partner called 911 and the ambulance came and took him to the hospital… since he was given back to us whole… I’ve tried to not blame myself for missing something, for falling short as a mother. For loving too hard; for loving too soft. In theory, I accept the truth of his addiction and of my own powerlessness over his choices, but in practice, I still torment myself with what I could have done, or not done, that may have kept him safe.
In our family, denial is a force of nature.
When the show ends and the loaves are done, he stands to leave. So soon? Weren’t we having fun? Please don’t go. We hug, and while I cover the bowls with Happy Thanksgiving kitchen towels letting the pieces harden overnight, I call out, “I’m excited for tomorrow.”
“Me too, love you Mom, see you at 2 p.m.”
But on Thanksgiving Day, as scents of turkey and stuffing fill the house, 2 p.m. turns to 3 p.m., then 4 p.m., 5 p.m., then dinnertime, and he hasn’t arrived. I call his dad who tells me, “Don’t worry; he probably had something better to do.” But I know my son. He wouldn’t miss this holiday. My family sits down to eat and be thankful while I quickly check outside just one more time. Petty conversations, discussions of world events, and a few gushes that “this turkey is the best you’ve ever made” do nothing to calm my nerves because something is very wrong with this picture. I look at my partner wide-eyed with terror, my hands shaking, losing their fragile grasp on serenity.
Wait it out. He’s fine, she says to me under her breath.
Since 2014, we’ve lost seven young friends to drug overdoses. One after another, like falling dominos, kids are dying. The parents, good parents; the kids, sensitive and loving. Like me, like Zach. There is a war going on and it has invaded my small country.
Sometimes I write down their names just to look at them. And remember.
I eat my dinner on autopilot, choking down heaping forkfuls so my plate will empty and we can move on. I skip the stuffing and can’t taste the turkey, creamed spinach, or even the honey-baked ham. Racing thoughts hijack my senses: Don’t catastrophize, smile every now and then, stay calm for your family, BUT what if, what if, what if he’s in a hospital somewhere scared and alone, or worse blue and stiff and… gone… like the others?
Xanax bars. Norcos. Oxys. Percs. Vikes. They’re everywhere. Pouring from the sky like sheets of steady rain. What will become of him?
Finally dinner ends—empty plates, full stomachs, and still, his vacant chair beside me.
Call the hospitals, call the police, call his friends. Find him!
My partner says, “I think it’s time. We should start with his apar–” I rise from the table and grab my keys. Careening down Wilshire Blvd, I repeat, a robot on tilt, “Please make him okay. Please make him okay. Please make him okay…”
The trip is a blur until I stand outside of the locked door of his security building. I frantically buzz residents’ buzzers from A-Z and of course no one’s there because it’s Thanksgiving and they’re home with their families. There’s no way to get in and I cross the street to be on the same side as the fire station—to be near those who save lives. I sit on the sidewalk. The cement is cool and my head throbs—fear and powerlessness pounding into my skin. As if watching a scene from a movie, I watch my partner follow someone into the building. I don’t go, petrified of what she may find. Rocking back and forth, wishing I knew how to pray.
She calls my cell—“He’s here. He’s okay. He was sleeping.” And I crack wide open, dropping my phone on the ground and howling up to the sky like a wounded animal, “Thank yooou, thank yoooou, thank yoooou.” Suddenly I’m kicking the goddamn security door because I need to hold him NOW, feel his heart beat, hear his breath, make sure she’s right. “Someone help me! Open this goddamn door,” I scream to no one and everyone. I’m feral, sobbing, kicking, pounding. Breaking the skin. She opens the door. A gust of cool air. I push inside.
He’s sitting on the couch, hanging his head, repentant, self-loathing. “I’m sorry Mom. I really messed up.”
“Yeah you did, Zach.” And as my beautiful boy stands to face me, anger and blame dissolve into the warmth of his aliveness. His heart beats into my chest as my fears and tears saturate his shirt. Yes, yes, he’s here, right here. My son is alive; many other parents can’t say that.
This is the same scared boy who, seemingly lifetimes ago, stood in the pelting rain behind the preschool gate red face crumpled, lips tight, holding in terrified screams. Brimming with blue water, his stormy eyes begged, “Mommmyyyy! No, don’t go.” And I left because they told me to. But when I picked him up, fraught with guilt and remorse, I pinky-swore that I’d always always, always, always come back and keep him safe and warm and dry.
I didn’t know then that my promise couldn’t be kept. I didn’t know then that Zach was to become his own storm… Hurtling himself every which way in order to make us proud, get good grades, finish what he starts… Crashing against his learning disabilities… Bashing his body with speed, Xanax, weed, speed, Xanax, weed… Battering his soul with lost jobs, lost opportunities, lost trust, with lies and deceit and shame… Pushing himself towards, then away from his loving family… And finally, yanking himself so close to the precipice that complete self-destruction lay only a breath away.
Trying to protect him from himself is like trying to protect atmosphere from weather.
“Mom, I’m so sorry. I am so stupid. I had some really strong weed last night. I didn’t know how it would affect me.”
My hands press harder onto his back as he heaves waves of shame and regret. I shed my own tears too—each one a reminder that I can’t save him. In this moment of clarity, this miniscule moment connecting earth and sky, only one thing matters. Love. Love for my son in all his complexities. Love for my son, and for myself—whether he’s using or not. And a new feeling borne of compassion, for both of us, enters the room.
I continue to hug him and tell him I love him and yes he majorly screwed up, and yes he made a mess of Thanksgiving for everyone, and his grandmother was so worried, and we all were a wreck, and this is the kind of shit that happens when you do drugs… but still, “I love you more than words can say.”
“Mom. I promise this will never happen again.” I know he means it, from his heart he means it. Yet I feel a pang of truth and terror that despite his best intentions, this probably will happen again.
We’re in the eye of the storm. All the more reason to be kind. All the more reason to love, right here, right now.
We sit on the couch where he, again, hangs his head. My heart breaks a little more for his pain and confusion. Our pain and confusion. My son has a disease. Its symptoms include bad choices, irresponsible behavior, self-aggrandizement, self-loathing. If only I could inspire confidence that would seep through his skin, if only he could see his worthiness rather than his failures and setbacks, if only he could internalize the words of Rumi, that I’ve printed and hung above my desk:
Do you know what you are?
You are a manuscript of a divine letter.
You are a mirror reflecting a noble face.
This universe is not outside of you.
Look inside yourself;
everything that you want,
you are already that.
If only I could, too.
Rumpus original art by Karen Cygnarowicz.
Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.