A Thanksgiving Lesson
A lesson learned early in my son’s addiction was to let go of expectations. As long as he was using, I was told to forget about his finishing school. Erase that dream of his graduation, a career, a wife, and family.
Until he could get his addiction under control, nothing else would matter.
But when it came to holidays, letting go was the hardest.
And for me, Thanksgiving was the worst.
As a child and young adult, Thanksgiving was my favorite. Even today, it holds such sweet memories. It was the one holiday a year when I could count on being with my parents, grandparents, older brother, and later, after I was married and had children, our extended families. Love and warmth filled those leafy fall afternoons. There was so much to be thankful for. My cup runneth over.
So it was natural that as a wife and mother I wanted to create those same Thanksgivings for my own family, when we would gather with my brother and our children together, savoring the day and holidays past.
Instead, when my son was actively using and falling deeper and deeper into addiction, Thanksgiving brought some of our darkest days.
Jacob was 21 at the time. Weeks before the holiday, he entered his first inpatient stay at a treatment center in Maryland. Getting him to go into treatment, after years of using, was a major victory.
At first, I felt immense relief. My son finally was in a place where he was safe, and where people far smarter than me could help him get well. Could this be it, the end of Jacob’s years of using? Surely here, in this halcyon setting by the Chesapeake Bay, he would give up drugs and become again the loving, responsible son we knew.
My husband and I dutifully signed up for the three-day family training weekend that began the day after Thanksgiving. It meant shortening our time with relatives, but we were eager and willing to learn about our son’s condition. We would do anything that might help him get well.
It hurts to recall how naive I was.
Just ten days into Jacob’s stay, when we visited for the first time, I looked into my son’s eyes and knew something was wrong. The next day a phone call from the counselor confirmed it. Despite protocols and tight restrictions, Jacob had secured drugs. Immediate expulsion resulted.
Up next? A year later, Jacob agreed to enter a treatment center that was part of the health care system where I worked and where he would stay for the next two weeks.
That year, I greeted Thanksgiving knowing my son had failed his first inpatient stay. He was only a few days into his second. Would this one be any different?
Thanksgiving Day, I sat at my brother’s table, which was filled with laughter and storytelling, steaming casseroles, salads, carved turkey, relishes….but sadness overwhelmed me. I stared at the napkin in my lap. Why wasn’t Jacob with us? Why was he missing this precious time with his cousins? What was he doing? Did he miss us even one-tenth of how much I missed him?
Jacob completed his second inpatient stay. At the recommendation of the counselor, Jacob moved to a sober living house and outpatient treatment in south Florida. It would take another rocky year and another inpatient stay before Jacob’s sobriety began, a miracle of recovery that’s now in its ninth year.
During my son’s early recovery I worked hard NOT to have expectations. After all, this was his journey, not mine. I set expectations only for myself. Al-Anon would become my lifeline. I would attend Al-Anon meetings regularly, seek a sponsor, become a sponsor, practice the Twelve Steps, and work hard to focus not on Jacob’s recovery, but on my own.
I never gave up hope – for Jacob or for our family.
This coming Thanksgiving marks ten years since that painful time when Jacob first entered inpatient treatment. Since then, we have had many Thanksgivings together. One stands out. Just a year into Jacob’s sobriety, my family joined my brother’s family again for Thanksgiving, and this time, I couldn’t take my eyes off of all the faces around the table, especially my son’s.
Among other things, addiction forces us to let go of expectations–even more so as holidays approach.
But with support from groups like Al-Anon and other people, with trust in something greater than ourselves, and with a focus on our own recovery and not that of our loved one, we can find the hope we need.
And after all, isn’t that something to be thankful for?
Author of Secret No More
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