Voices on Addiction: Letting It Suck

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I wanted to believe that details mattered. That I gave off an impression of competence. So when, in the Sunday Times Magazine, I came across an interview with some random, successful person extolling the virtues of a blazer made from sweatshirt material—cozy but professional—I bought such a blazer, which then proved useful not only on airplanes, but also in emergency rooms, hospitals, treatment centers, support groups, and other places bleak with air conditioning and worry.

The spring my son was seventeen, he and I spent every Thursday night in Midtown Manhattan, in a windowless basement with a clock stuck at 7:15. As part of a multi-family support group for adolescents in recovery for substance abuse, we were an irritable mix of parents and teenagers sitting in a circle. The thing we most had in common was that none of us wanted to be there.

A disheveled dad in an oversized suit always arrived late and sometimes fell asleep. An Italian business dad, with silver hair and a purring accent, appeared very wealthy and like he expected people to listen to him—except when he got to this room with his daughter. The teenagers looked, I suppose, how teenagers have always looked, which is to say stunning but in weird outfits. Every week, I sat in the same chair in my blazer, loath to hear again the desperation in my voice.

My son, tall, gorgeous, and angry, had just returned from inpatient treatment out of state when we joined the support group. That January, two months earlier, I had flown with him to rehab in Louisiana, believing the worst was behind us. Over the previous two years, he’d dropped out of high school twice and often disappeared for days at a time on Xanax benders that turned him into someone else, his eyes hollow, his voice full of scorn.

During that time, I’d been so focused on getting him help that I hadn’t yet imagined what would happen after I did. In my case, what happened after was a layover in Houston where I watched Trump get inaugurated, and a phone call from my insurance company denying coverage for treatment they deemed medically unnecessary. I filed one appeal, then a second, then a complaint after which the New York State Department of Finance ruled the insurance company “negligent.” But by then, I’d put rehab on a credit card so he could stay two months. He came back home to Brooklyn in March, where to our shared bewilderment, we each remained entirely ourselves. “Don’t eat in your room,” I called, flitting around his doorway like a mom doll whose string you could pull to hear the same shrill instructions over and over again.

“Okay,” he answered from bed, sliding a half-eaten ham sandwich under his desk.

If he left the house, I sat restless on the couch, listening for the key in the lock. If he stayed home, I was just as distraught, convinced he was depressed or hung over or buying pills on the internet. I recognized that my love looked a lot like scrutiny, but I didn’t know what to do other than pester. If we couldn’t talk honestly about a sandwich, how were we supposed to talk honestly about anything? So, I enrolled us in the Thursday night support group, hoping it would help.

In the waiting room upstairs, an uplifting video on loop showed a kid and his mom and how he went from being suicidal in high school to living in a sober dorm at college, where he also played in a sober rock band. I teared up each time. But as we went around the basement introducing ourselves, I usually felt like we were doing experimental theatre. Like we’d been typecast. Or, like it had been so long since any of us had done any normal mom or dad thing, that we came to perform as parents, as families, instead.

The room generally simmered at a low squabble. A mom would say, “Well, you said you and Katie did weed.”

Staring at the floor, the kid would huff and roll his big eyes. “I would never say that I ‘did’ weed.”

But within the span of a sentence, the conversation could swing wildly from flip resentment over parental syntax to accounts of near overdoses. Horrific images of fourteen-year-old girls doing coke with men who should be in prison. Self-destruction described with disarming clarity. The stories gathered into an exhausting swirl of terror at what did or could have or still might happen, yet each meeting also dragged on with the predictable strain of teenage detachment. Mostly, each Thursday ended in a ricochet of inconclusive demands around curfews and prom and vaping and whether or not parents should buy cigarettes for their children.

Nevertheless, that for that hour and fifteen minutes, my son and I were in the same place. He sat next to me, and I put my hand on his back, feeling him breathe, like I did when he was a baby. As stilted and repetitive as the discussions became, I cleaved myself to those meetings, convinced that my son’s recovery was a matter of my effort. In the pathos of parenting, I assumed his pain was my fault. And so I assumed, in turn, that it was up to me to make it better. To make him better.

 

Marpa Lotsawa was an eleventh-century Tibetan Buddhist translator and teacher who once warned his teenage son not to attend a festival in the neighboring village. The son ignored his father and went anyhow. On his way back, he was thrown from his horse and killed. Weeping over his son’s body, Marpa looked up to see his disciples confused by his grief. In their own times of loss, Marpa had been pragmatic in his reassurance that everything was impermanent, that the time of death was uncertain, and that life itself was an illusion. When his followers reminded Marpa of this, he responded with something along the lines of “yes, but it is a very sad illusion.”

I first heard this story in Bodhgaya, India, where the Buddha found enlightenment twenty-five hundred years earlier and where I was living when I found out I was pregnant with my son when I was twenty-three years old. The location of his provenance would not, I knew, protect us. But I did believe there was something about the sparking of his existence in this holy place that would fortify us both—or at least remind us to breathe.

I was living in India then because I was studying Tibetan Buddhism, attempting to confront or even embrace the First Noble Truth: that suffering exists. By the time my son and I were spending our Thursdays in Midtown seventeen years later, I was well aware that suffering existed, but I had mistaken it for something to be upended by determination. By clocking in hours at a support group, gripping the edges of my chair until my fingers cramped. By wearing a blazer. By enduring scrutiny.

At one point that spring, when I was at the doctor for some routine thing, she was alarmed by how pale I looked and took a blood draw. Calling a few days later, the doctor said I had grown so anemic that I would need a blood transfusion. I’d known I was anemic since I was eighteen, but then I forgot. I forgot I had a separate body which needed tending. I failed to understand that exertion alone was not going to protect either of us—not my son, and not his mother.

 

That summer, after nearly three months in the support group, a vicious relapse involving lots of Xanax and something called SuperXanax landed my son in the ER. It was Fourth of July weekend and, because the insurance company was closed, we had to wait three days, in the ER, to get any kind of approval about where he might go next. I spent those days on a payphone, confirming what I already knew: if you were rich, treatment meant a holistic, seaside spa with equine therapy and raw food chefs. If you were not rich, there was a place on Long Island where the receptionist was not at liberty to disclose whether or not a seventeen-year-old girl had died there the year before.

Through my son’s therapist, I eventually found another inpatient program in a different state that seemed safe and promising and which offered to cut us a deal. Two months later, my son came home again, and the next Thursday, we were back with different parents and different kids in the same basement, having the same conversation.

One night, a red-haired young man with freckles on his arms and paint on his pants was muttering as if he didn’t mean to talk out loud. “Being sober sucks,” he said. Watching his mother from across the room, I felt in my solar plexus the despair in her face.

“How can you say that?” she pleaded.

“I’m not saying things aren’t better,” he explained. “But it still sucks.”

Had my son said the same thing, I would have crumpled in rage or defeat. Watching the bluntness of another family’s exchange, I saw these two people in a way I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen anyone. I saw that they were both scared. I saw that they were being honest. I saw that it wasn’t anyone’s fault. They both looked dejected, but for the first time, I understood that while bearing witness to someone else’s pain might not change our own, it provided perspective I couldn’t have otherwise grasped. In this case, it was the raw admission that being sober—the very reason we were all in that basement to begin with—was harder and more grueling than any of us wanted to admit. And that no matter how much she loved her kid, this other mom couldn’t do anything to change that.

My son and I didn’t have any revelations in the circle. We had no breakthrough moments of joy or conciliation. We did not go on to star in our own promotional video. Instead, a few months and several relapses later, my son turned eighteen and refused treatment altogether.

 

Like most families in recovery, I initially hoped that “accepting the things I cannot change” was a reassuring but disingenuous slogan on a pamphlet with a picture of the beach. Or, I thought “acceptance” was something you did if the person struggling with addiction was a grown-up. But as a parent, as a mother, I was terrified that “acceptance” meant complacency, meant that I wasn’t trying hard enough.

Though I wished they were not true, the words of the red-headed boy stayed with me, especially once my son left treatment. Over time, his insight allowed for my insight, the understanding that I had wanted something for my son that wasn’t possible: not just sobriety, but a reprieve from suffering. From his own suffering. I wanted being sober not to suck because I wanted being alive not to suck. I had forgotten that the First Noble Truth didn’t just apply to weary mothers. I had failed to recognize that if he was ever going to live fully, he was going to have to know that sometimes things sucked—but also that they sucked a lot worse if you took so many pills you were no longer yourself.

It’s been three years, now, since our last stint in that basement. During this time, I’ve often been left with no choice but to let my son find his own way. This past fall, before the COVID-19 outbreak, my son was in Milan, where he’d been offered a modeling contract. One night, around 3 a.m., my phone rang, jolting me with panic. Instead, his voice was small and weepy on the other end of the line. It was morning in Italy, and he’d been awake all night. “I don’t know if I can do this,” he admitted, jet-lagged.

Once I realized he was not calling from a police station or a hospital, I let myself breathe. “You’re sad?” I asked, sitting up in bed, understanding he was lonely and sober. Suffering. I listened. He talked. With an ocean between us, he was able to say all the things he had never allowed himself to say or feel before, at least not to me—mainly, that it sucked. I had never been prouder.

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Rumpus original art by Jon Peschke.

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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, interviews, and book reviews 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.


Liesl Schwabe's essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Review of Books, LitHub, and Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, among other publications. She served as a 2019 Fulbright-Nehru Scholar in Kolkata, India and currently directs the Writing Program at Yeshiva College. More from this author →