My 26-year-old son has been struggling with a substance use disorder for over six years. When I entered this frightening journey of addiction, I was without support and unsure how to respond. I have watched my son drop out of college, attend five treatment centers, stay at eight sober living homes, have two stints living in his car and two on the streets. I have watched him struggle with depression, anxiety, trauma and numerous other unresolved mental issues. For me, it has been a living hell where I have felt guilt, isolation, sadness, fear and all of the negative emotions which go with loving a child with a substance use disorder.
But I refused to take it lying down.
I threw myself into learning all about this disease and how I could best help my son. I went back to school, began a support group, joined other support groups and became a Parent Coach. Most importantly, I can proudly say I have evolved as a parent and as a person using Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT) tools, which have taught me essential skills like positive reinforcement, natural consequences and self-care. I became better prepared than ever to keep my own life together while motivating my son to change and find treatment.
Very recently, I watched my son have three large beers and become a person I did not know, as he initiated a belligerent and aggressive encounter with police who were not even addressing him. The next thing I knew, my son was being handcuffed and brought to the ground because he would not stop his verbal abuse and had become combative. I was beside myself, pleading with my beloved son to stop – to keep his mouth closed. It was like being in the Twilight Zone, seeing my well-raised young man taken away in custody to a detention center. At the time, I was visiting him out of state and I did not have a car, a support system or a single contact in the area – nor did I even know where they were taking him.
My head was spinning; however, I decided to summon the resilience I needed to help myself and help him. From my experience as a Parent Coach and my recent education on addiction, I knew the best thing to do was to let him sit in jail, not bail him out and not visit him. Essentially, I was letting natural consequences happen.
Of course, allowing consequences like this to happen sounds easy when I am advising someone else. But it was so very different when I was experiencing my own heartache and maternal desire to “save” my son from himself. Communication, although non-verbal, was key. By not bailing him out of a situation he created, I was “telling” him that I was giving him the dignity to either fail or succeed on his own. He was solely responsible for the consequences of his actions, and he would be the only one responsible for the rewards.
I was not looking for a lighter sentence, just the right one. I knew, however, that I had to do something positive, and decided to stay an extra couple of days and head into the courts to speak with someone who might be knowledgeable with his sentencing. After a few hours, I found the judge’s clerk and went in, not only as a parent but as a person who coached others like myself, and asked the court to consider sentencing my son to a diversion program where he would get mandatory treatment rather than jail time. I remained strong in my support for his recovery and not in support of his self-sabotage and addiction.
A day after my conversation with the court clerk, I was on a plane back home. My son’s video sentencing was done while I was en route, and it wasn’t until later that evening that I knew the verdict. It was truly the best-case scenario as the judge gave him a fine (which, of course, he himself would pay), a year of probation and three months of compulsory impulse-control classes.
When my son called me after his sentencing, he was extremely apologetic and said all the right things – and, of course, I was hopeful. I also know the reality: Unless he truly wanted to change, things would remain the same. I did not lecture and I did not plead during our conversation, but simply explained what I experienced while watching his arrest and what I witnessed as to his actions. He knows, because I have told him more times than I can count, that he is loved. We know he is capable, we can help him if he chooses recovery – and yet it is up to him, and only him, to find a better life.
I am extremely proud of myself for having made that difficult decision to allow my son to experience the natural consequences of his actions. I felt empowered by both my inactions (not bailing him out) and my actions (finding a positive way to support his potential recovery). I continue to feel good about my role in his life and how I handled this painful situation. I was able to control what I could control, and let go of what I was unable to control.
I know I cannot completely change my son, but I know that I can change how his actions affect me. I will hold on to hope and I will continue to offer him my support, compassion and love.