Teen Addiction: A Steep Climb for Relationships

by Susan Burrowes
April 13, 2020

“It says strenuous.” I waved the Yosemite pamphlet at my husband, Paul, and he pulled a skeptical face. He was unimpressed.

“Sue, we’ve hiked steep terrain longer than this with no problem. I’m sure it means strenuous for tourists.” He thought we were ready for the climb to the top of Yosemite Falls. I thought I was ready, too. It was a park, after all. And I was looking forward to the mind-numbing effort of putting one foot in front of the other, focusing on the trail just ahead of me, and forgetting the enormous decisions that would have to be made in the days ahead. We were disagreeing, my husband and I, on the right way to move forward with our addicted teen. A hike in beautiful Yosemite was just the thing to distract us from our problems, from each other, and from the newly discovered distrust between us.

Once at Yosemite, the steep granite trails kicked my butt, and I wondered if the fatigue was more physical or mental. Having a sick kid was exhausting, even when she was locked up in rehab with people who knew better than I how to take care of her. And although the hike was just over three-and-a-half miles each way, less than what we’d been doing a couple of times a week, by the end of mile two, I was counting my steps up the steep incline. Just fifty steps, I promised myself, then you can rest. The numbers became my rhythm as I counted my way up the trail, not looking up or thinking of the next five thousand steps ahead of me. Stay in the moment, I reminded myself, though the moments were consisting more and more of painful hips and parched lips. I studied the precipitous gray rise and placed my feet carefully, not brave or foolish enough to stand straight and take in the wild outcroppings of glacial terrain. I snorted. Maybe if I’d had the courage to take a broader view, I would have seen my daughter spiraling out of control. Seen how my husband and I had enabled her decline. Noted the deep disagreements we had about parenting.

“Nose over toes,” my husband chirped, cheery and strong, risking being shoved over the precipice. If only I had the strength. 

Paul and I had started at the trailhead early in the morning. Groups of chatty tourists with fanny packs and cameras had irritated me as I struggled to move past them on the trail. I narrowed my eyes at their healthy-looking teens climbing up and down the rocks, water bottles swinging from their packs. My newly suspicious mind wondered if any of the bottles contained vodka, a favorite method my daughter and her friends used to disguise their school-day drinking. No, probably not—these kids look too wholesome and happy, I admitted to myself, not finding any evidence to justify my mistrust. Slowly, as my partner and I climbed into wilder, steeper areas, the tourists gave up, and the group of hikers thinned. By the time Paul and I neared the peak, we were alone, we two. 

Paul watched me, holding out his hand to help when he thought I would permit it, staying below me on the steepest rises (so we could fall into space together?). In this drought year, the sad trickle of water that constituted the falls was startling. The clouds rushed in as we neared the top, and a light, cold rain began to fall. Fear replaced my anger. The steep drop-offs, the slippery, wet terrain, and my clumsiness were a bad combination. Twenty-five steps, I told myself. Just twenty-five more. I trod the steep trail the way I plodded through my days at home, automatically and without joy, my pain at my daughter’s addiction a heavy burden. Keep going, I would tell myself each day. You have another child at home who needs you. You have to keep going.

Suddenly the trail flattened into a plateau, gnarled root systems rising out of the granite to form macabre sentinels. How could trees live here, in this hard place? Could our family flourish in the barren scree of our home life? Undaunted, my husband settled on the ground among the persistent roots and held out his hand. I joined him there, under that unlikely shelter, and we tried to figure out how to help each other and how to help our children. Here are a few things we eventually figured out:

  • We need to practice self-care.
    You simply can’t care for others if you don’t care for yourself. Take a walk or run (or hike). Listen to music. Spend time with real friends, doing things you enjoy.
  • Reduce your enabling behaviors.
    It’s a hard set of habits to break, but begin by first recognizing how you may have enabled others’ bad choices. Taking responsibility for your child’s illness and ignoring or making excuses for your child’s actions are enabling behaviors, and they will not help anyone.
  • Recognize that blame has no place in your marriage.
    Once you stop enabling your child, it will be easier to stop blaming each other for your child’s disease. It’s your child who caused his or her own addiction, and it will be your child who stays clean and sober after treatment. Or not.
  • Increase communication and enlist help if you need it.
    Communicating in high-stress situations includes active, intent listening and demonstrating openness and caring. Take turns, don’t interrupt. Make sure you understand what your partner is saying by paraphrasing and checking for meaning. A support group can help facilitate this new communication style. It’s hard, but it gets easier over time and will help to create a healthy communication environment when your teen returns home.
  • Work on your relationship.
    Time, touch, and empathy. Stress changes us all, but we have to trust that the person we love is still in there and will resurface if given a chance and a safe place to do so.

In spite of the rough terrain, we made it, my hiking partner and me. After a grueling climb through a frightening, stark vista, the clouds closed in and created a private place for us to take shelter. I rested under the trees and held out my hands, palms up, to greet the moisture in the air, knowing that all it would take was a little rain for the dry falls to be replenished. 

Susan Burrowes is the author of Off the Rails: One Family’s Journey Through Teen Addiction, winner of the 2019 Benjamin Franklin Silver Award for Parenting & Family books and an Indie Book Award finalist. She is the mother of two wonderful, terrible children in Santa Cruz, California. You can find her at www.susanburrowes.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/SusanBurrowesAuthor/.

Susan Burrowes

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