Sorrow At about the same time as I was drenching nachos in salsa to celebrate my 55th birthday, my beautiful son was climbing the steps of a hospital parking garage 2,500 miles away. He made his way to the top, walked to the edge, and jumped. Shortly past midnight, my precious middle-child, the sweet little baby, who looked up at me and smiled on the day he was born, was pronounced dead.
How do you throw open the curtains, bury your child, and survive? I dreaded getting out of bed. My migraine, the pain of death, and all the medication made me float eerily above the crowd. I felt like a bystander, curiously watching myself move through the thick fog of grief . . .
Awakening I believed that my love, combined with the perfect rehab, could rescue my child. We hopped on the rehab merry-go-round together. I was shamed with labels . . . codependent, enabling, rescuing, helicopter mom. We traveled east and west, north and south. Our last stop was the sunny shores of the Pacific Ocean where residents lived in beach houses and trekked on sober cycles. He soaked up the sun, while our savings account, like the California coast, tumbled. Debt and anger became ugly companions.
At the same time my son was pedaling from place to place in California, I was painstakingly searching our house for my wedding band and my grandmother’s beads. After one week of treasure hunting I found them . . . at a pawn shop.
Slowly, through the blur of my tears, I came face-to-face with excuses and acceptance. I realized that love and money, and good intentions did not cure addiction. I made excuses when his place sat empty at family dinners. I made excuses when he picked up my migraine medicine at the pharmacy and returned with only half the pills. I made excuses when I went grocery shopping and discovered my wallet was empty at the checkout. I realized that until I let my child be responsible for his own actions, he was not going to get better. I realized I needed help. All my enabling and protecting had only delayed the pain. I hit bottom and awakened. I realized I was powerless over my child’s addiction.
I returned to my therapist’s floral couch and with her help, began to see myself through a new lens. I optimistically and naively thought I could handle my son’s addiction. As I reflect, I see that the parent’s experience of crisis intervention with an addicted child is not marked by one moment in time; it is a lifelong struggle. Each intervention was a crisis that punctuated the moment and increased my trauma . . .
My friends got to buy their children stethoscopes and briefcases. I got to buy my son phone cards and money orders for the jail commissary. I felt isolated in my fear and shame. Unlike the shelves of resources and references for college entrance exams, there were no manuals for mothers of kids going to jail. Each time I went into the bathroom I thought about my son having to sit on a cold, steel toilet in front of the gazing eyes of his cellmates. I was in jail, too . . .
Loss With each episode, the energy I needed to handle the trauma of my son’s addiction increased. The response not only became chaotic and chronic, it intensified. My world was changed and my assumptions about being a good mother were shattered. I lost confidence in myself as a mother. I lost my friends. I was shunned and judged. When I shopped for groceries, I caught friends scurrying to the canned pea aisle to dodge me. I, too, lunged behind a stack of tuna to avoid their pity.
I lost my judgment. I believed each of my son’s episodes were stages that would pass. We lost our dog. I lost my health. My weight and my cholesterol soared from the cookies and carbs I used to push down feelings. I was chewing migraine meds along with M&M’s. My life had become a bad country music song . . .
Resilience Each day was a roller-coaster test of endurance. Some days the descent was steeper than others, yet I always climbed the track back up again. How did I find the strength to walk through hell and find heaven on the other side?
Slowly I realized survival depended on my courage and my willingness to dig in for my own healing. I focused on staying in the present, neither venturing into the past, which increased my sorrow nor into the future, which increased my anxiety. Each day I took more steps into life. I started working on my doctorate to get the skills to help other mothers. I got Botox injections to cover the years of crying. I chose to inject poison instead of drink it.
I moved through my grief by cooking, counseling, and connecting. I decided to honor my son’s struggle by making a career out of helping others, who were walking a similar journey.
I now am a licensed psychologist, certified addictions counselor, and interventionist who helps other parents and patients with addiction, entitlement, and many other accompanying disorders. Going to graduate school forced me to get out of bed each day. I have the skills and experience to help others, who wrestle with the same dark demons. I never could have anticipated the ways in which I would grow. My doctoral degree was my 60th birthday present and a tangible testament to my resilience.
My family is thriving and I count my blessings everyday. I am able to think about my son and smile, remembering the sweetness and joy he brought into our lives before the storm.
Peace comes from acceptance of not knowing why this happened . . . and feeling some larger sense of time, a larger sense of relationship, a connection with family, and a smaller, deeper circle of friends and faith.
My son had a tattoo of The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) on his back. Some nights, I can feel him looking down upon me from the stars. I know he is at peace.
When you look up at the sky at night, since I’ll be living on one of them, since I’ll be laughing on one of them, for you, it’ll be as if all the stars are laughing. You’ll have stars that can laugh! And when you’re consoled (everyone is eventually consoled), you’ll be glad you’ve known me. You’ll always be my friend. You’ll feel like laughing with me. And you’ll open your windows sometimes just for the fun of it . . . And your friends will be amazed to see you laughing while you’re looking up at the sky. Then you’ll tell them, “Yes, it’s the stars. They always make me laugh!” The Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
(248) 817-8325 or Drsusiegross@gmail.com