A Thanksgiving Lesson

by Lisa Hillman
November 16, 2020

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

Blog: lisahillmanauthor.com

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  1. Lisa,
    Thank you for this wonderful message. Reading it was like looking into a mirror and reliving my wonderful childhood and young adult memories and desires of the Thanksgiving holiday! I also experienced the sadness and emptiness that you did when my son was not at the Thanksgiving dinner table. I am so very very pleased with the outcome your son, you, and your family are sharing now. Sadly, my outcome was different, During the holidays my husband and I plan and do different things to divert our attention from what is no longer. Congratulations to your son and all that he is accomplishing. I will send my supportive energy and thoughts his way always!

    • Joyce, you are kind to write.
      I am glad you and your husband have each other to plan for the holidays, and may you find the quiet joy and comfort you deserve.

  2. Some pursue addiction to the the gates of insanity and death. Not everyone gets a happy ending. The persistence of this illusion is astonishing. My daughter has been at it for 30 yrs. let go and let God. Jan ?

    • Jan, I fully understand that many are not “there’ yet. Some may never be.
      But we can’t give up hope.
      Yes, let go and let God is a wonderful phrase.
      In my hardest moments – even today – I say the Serenity Prayer over and over and…


  3. Dear Lisa, your story really made me smile! I’m so happy that your son has turned his life around and you have him back in your lives.

    But the lesson—gleaned from Al-Anon teachings which I also cherish—is a good one about expectations. They are “premeditated resentments,” aren’t they? You’ve been wise to hold back on having too many of them regarding your son, and just let his life play out. Our children have enough shame and guilt—enough pressure—without our heaping our happy expectations onto them.

    Our children may—or may not—embrace recovery someday. Many of them do. But it will be because THEY wanted it and were willing to fight for it, not their parents. We can help them, of course. But they must do the heavy lifting.

    This year for Thanksgiving, as I look around the table, I will not be sad at the empty chair. I will be grateful for the loving faces I see in front of me and celebrate them. This deliberate refocusing of my life is what gets me out of bed every morning and brings me joy. I wish the same for all grieving parents out there. Covid has brought isolation back into our lives when what we need now more than ever is connection with each other.

    Thank you for sharing your story. It gives us all hope!

    • Marilea, thank you so much for your response. You are a wise woman.
      Here’s to a happy Thanksgiving for you, however it will be celebrated this very odd year.

    • This!

      • Hi Brenda. I hope this means this was helpful or you can relate to this.
        So many of us can!

  4. Thank you for sharing your story – my son wants to go to a sober living in Florida – could you tell me which one your son stayed at.

    • Gwynn, I don’t think it is still there.
      My best advice is for you and your son to consult with a trusted counselor or professional in your area and ask their advice.
      That’s how my son got to Florida. He was sent there from a treatment center in Maryland where we live.
      I hope your son finds a place and a time in his life when he can get healthy.
      There is always hope.
      Meanwhile, take care of Gwynn. You are the only one who can.

  5. Lisa,
    Thanks for an informative article. I’m still waiting for my three adult sons to find recovery, but we usually manage to get through the holidays if I maintain low expectations. For me, it’s my family of origin (my mom and sib) where I struggle–they just don’t get it and can be very judgmental. I am learning to have low expectations of them too–and I lean on my sisters here at MomPower and my faith when hope ebbs.
    Happy Thanksgiving!
    Linda S. Clare
    Author of Prayers for Parents of Prodigals

    • Linda, thank you. This Thanksgiving we all need to keep expectations very very low.
      Be safe!

  6. Thank you Lisa, this was a beautiful story. I am happy you have had many wonderful Thanksgivings with your son. AlAnon is so very helpful
    Blessings, Danni.

    • Danni, thank you. Blessing to you as well.

  7. This brings back so many memories!
    Our daughter entered treatment on 11/08/16, only to be hospitalized the next day with life multiple threatening conditions. She recovered and re-entered treatment the Monday before Thanksgiving. My husband and I got up early and prepped an entire dinner, packed it up and drove the 90 minutes to her rehab, where the 3 of us celebrated together. Later that day, as we ate with the rest of our extended family, my heart ached, but I treasured that hour we had.
    4 years later, she is thriving in her recovery and so are we, thanks to NarAnon, our family and our church family.

    • Maura, thanks so much for sharing this. We all need to hear stories of recovery like yours.
      This makes me happy just to read.
      Thanks, again, and best wishes to you and your family!

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