Getting it Right

by Linda S. Clare
December 7, 2020

The treatment center’s director met me in the lobby. Tall, blond, and willowy, she listened as I outlined my young adult son’s challenges. I told her how, at just ten or eleven, he’d started sneaking out at night to drink alcohol. Yes, ever since then, he’d abused methamphetamine. The director nodded sympathetically. “He’s over eighteen and mentally ill,” I said, “but I just can’t kick him out.” 

The director abruptly stopped nodding. After a drawn-out pause, she asked, “Do you know how very sick you are?”

Even if I’d wanted to answer, my voice had already shut down, along with most of my self-esteem. I left as quickly as I could.

Moms like me are often told that we need help as much as or more than our children. Most freely admit to the family addiction. We’re seriously messed up. I’m great at the love part, but I suck at boundaries.

And even when our boundaries fail like breached levees, we don’t give up. We try again to speak without judgment, help our loved ones without enabling, and avoid manipulation. We’re desperate to help and not harm. To finally get it right.

Recently I tried to get it right by watching videos by a respected addiction counselor. Much of the advice I’d heard before. But then I came across a video about ten boundaries that should be non-negotiable. As in no exceptions.

Boundaries? The thing I really suck at? Non-negotiable, as in keep these boundaries no matter what? I closed my eyes and hit play.

Number one: Don’t let addicted family members abuse you—either physically, mentally, or emotionally. I may have laughed out loud. Our family uses sarcasm the way others use Frank’s RedHot sauce—we put that stuff on everything. Besides, lots of loving families beat each other up, at least verbally. But okay.

The second warned against tolerating theft. If we didn’t enforce consequences, we were, according to the video, “hostages in our own homes.” That same middle son with the meth problem also has a kleptomania diagnosis. It’s hard to tell whether he’s stealing, borrowing, or collecting shiny objects like a crow. Throw in his habit of donating to those in need (making dozens of peanut butter sandwiches for the homeless or lending his dad’s power tools), and it’s wrong but true. Fail.

Next up: Emotional blackmail. I instantly recognized “If you don’t . . . then I will . . .” threats. I hate you! Everything’s your fault! (check). You’ll never see me (or the grandkids) again! (check). I’ll kill myself! (check). So dramatic.

Yet after you’ve cut down your blue-lipped, barely breathing son hanging from an extension cord noose, it’s hard to stand firm. Besides, the counselor also said never take suicide threats lightly. If I panicked and reacted to a suicide threat, did I still keep the boundary? I marked this one Huh?

With each successive item, my heart sank deeper. Don’t let them split your loyalties, don’t abide physical force (see number one), no forcing or ignoring, period. I kept telling myself I’m great with the love part, but I knew: the ten boundaries that should be commandments were, in our house, barely suggestions.

By video’s end, I could almost hear that director from long ago clucking at me about being so sick. The addiction counselor from the video might want to beat me with the shovel she’d asked us to put down. Other moms would tell me I should never, ever tolerate such behavior and urge me to find a meeting ASAP.

Our family gets so much wrong. I’m not even close to living my values. My husband of nearly forty-five years and I disagree often. And our three sons fight against their disease every waking moment.

The bigger question is, how can we move forward? Can a mom like me finally get it right? I closed the video and wept. And then I went searching for the hope I’d lost.

But as I hunted, a searchlight appeared. The one boundary I’ve kept is love. I have not and will not stop loving my children. Love, so painful yet so sustaining, keeps hope alive, even when I lose sight of it.

Just when I thought hope had left town for good, a job miraculously appeared for one of my sons. In a few short weeks, I’ve watched him stand straighter and taller. We’ve even had a few “green light” moments, talking about his pain and his desire to change. It’s not the answer to his problems, but his new confidence shows. Bolstered by love, hope lights up his eyes once again.

I’ve lost my own hope so many times that I recognize it by the dog-eared, wrinkly cover. Some days, love gets pretty thin in spots, too. Yet both walk beside me. Hope stays strong because its best friend is Love. Shovel or no shovel, I suck at keeping boundaries. But thank God I’m great at the love part.

I’ll bet you are, too. No matter how many of those boundaries you struggle to keep, walk with me in hope and love. We might get it right yet.

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Linda S Clare

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Getting it Right

I’m great at the love part, but I suck at boundaries. Let’s keep walking together in hope and love. We might get it right yet.

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23 Comments

  1. This is so true and beautifully written, I’ve been down this road beyond counting. The only constant on this rollercoaster is love. I sometimes wonder how I have any in reserve, but it’s unceasing. Thank you for sharing your perspective and wisdom.

    • Carol,
      Love is “all” we have, but it is the only thing that matters. Thanks for weighing in. Bless you!
      Hugs,
      Linda

  2. This is a great article. I suck at boundaries, too. And yes, my family used to do sarcasm like hot sauce, too. I relate to all of it. But here’s what I’ve learned: I can say ‘NO’. And it works. A very simple and direct answer is almost a relief to our son. It’s not always pleasant, but it is do-able. And the more often I do it, the simpler and easier it becomes. Of course, there’s always the ‘three steps forward two steps back’ phenomenon that is just part of all our lives as parents of a loved one with SUD.
    Thanks for writing this. I’m less alone now.

    • Marie,
      No seems to be really hard for me. As I write this, my husband lies in hospital after a major stroke yesterday. I know I’ll need to say YES to him and NO to my needy adult kids. It will be difficult, but I will do it. Thanks for making ME feel less alone.
      Hugs,
      Linda

      • Prayers for a complete recovery for your husband. Thanks for your article.

        • Donna,
          Thanks so much. Thanks to swift intervention, he is in pretty good shape, although he will need therapy. Those clot-buster drugs are amazing! Thanks again for your concern and prayers.
          Hugs,
          Linda

  3. Oh, Linda. So sorry to hear about your husband. Sending you lots of love and hugs. You’re not alone. Janet

    • Janet,
      Thank you so much for your support. Hubs is making a good recovery so far and we are hopeful. Bless you!
      Hugs,
      Linda

  4. I am glad I am not alone in this. I have cried many times, opened up that email on “how to parent an addicted child/adult” – wanting so many times for someone to understand me. Thank you for sharing these words of wisdom!

    • Joanne,
      This path we walk is very isolating. But we have each other to help us feel less alone. I certainly don’t always do it right–but I’m always trying. As long as you Love, you can’t be too wrong. Bless you!
      Hugs,
      Linda

  5. “Do you know how very sick you are?”

    Thanks so much, Linda, for zeroing in on the source of much of the parent’s anguish. But many of us, at first, become so obsessed with saving our kids that we don’t see how sick we are becoming. Thank goodness I finally put the focus back on myself so that I could get better. I need to be strong for my other family members. Even Annie— if she came back into our lives—I would need to be strong for her.

    • Marilea,
      I know I’ve been more interested in my sons’ recovery than they are (LOL) but I have gotten better at letting go the idea that they MUST recover. That part is up to them. For now, I speak kindness and love to them–to assuage both our guilt and anguish. Thanks for your copmment–I am pretty dang strong.
      Hugs,
      Linda

  6. Thank you for writing this…I too suck at boundaries…at times not sure I have the love part down either…my daughter is now homeless, pregnant in California and all I want to do is bring her home…which never goes well even when she does not have substances in her system…all I hear is let her be homeless…and I want to is give her a home….thanks for writing this…maybe one day I will get it right…

    • Stephanie,
      You are doing it as right as you can. I’m sorry but I do not believe in “letting” them be homeless, hit bottom, etc. If I couldn’t handle my son’s behavior (as you describe w your daughter) I would have to set that boundary as you have. But please don’t think that anything YOU do will change her. She must come to her own conclusions. And I believe in “just love,” that is, loving my kids but staying safe and (mostly) sane. Bless you!
      Hugs,
      Linda

  7. My Son is in jail. Upstate NY..My husband & I want to. Have peace. We are retiring soon.
    We love our son but feel good not having him here.3 1/2 he will be out.
    We love him but don’t want him here .
    Hope the Collins CORRECTIONAL offer him alternatives.

    • Debra,
      I fully stand with you on your decision. See, there isn’t any “right” way. If you cannot abide your son, then he will find a way. But please keep on loving him as I’m sure you do. He’ll have a much better chance if he knows your love is forever. Hugs!
      Linda

  8. Oh, yes this is me!! Thank you

    • Sharon,
      When we see each other this way, I think we are all stronger because we know we’re not alone.
      Blessings and Hugs,
      Linda

  9. My son is doing better. He doesnt live with us but in the same city. I feel so bad for not allowing him to live with us again…..especially when he asks. How do you get over that part? When do you ever stop feeling guilty? My husband and I retired this year. We have been helping our son get to work with uber….helping with phone…..paying for meds…..etc….because he is working and trying…..but we cant let him live here….we would loose our lives…because it would all revolve around him….so how do you get over that part?

    • Susan,
      I can’t honestly answer because two of my three live with us. But I do believe that if you’ve set that boundary and stick to it, your son will love you for it. He knows by your actions of help that he is loved and valued. Deep down he knows why you can’t allow him to live there. It’s sad but necessary. Not sure if guilt ever truly leaves us, but you can take satisfaction in knowing you are loving him well. Blessings and hugs!
      Linda

  10. After a few years of al anon recovery I see that i was raised without boundaries so never felt safe and I then unwittingly raised my children without boundaries so they never felt safe . To feel validated and useful I worked in health care, chose a chaotic alcoholic as a partner and never sat still!
    I now see that the preoccupation with another person is not ‘good’ or ‘kind’ or ‘loving’. It leads to resentment which continues the cycle. With the help of others who have worked through this I am able to accept that i unknowingly harmed my now adult children by doing for them what they needed to work through themselves, so that i felt like the good mother, as society defines. So now I am able to wait for them to tell me how things are going for them and make no negative comments when I think’wtf’ . It’s tough though as we are encouraged to value what others think of us more than learning how we feel about things.

  11. After a few years of al anon recovery I see that i was raised without boundaries so never felt safe and I then unwittingly raised my children without boundaries so they never felt safe . To feel validated and useful I worked in health care, chose a chaotic alcoholic as a partner and never sat still!
    I now see that the preoccupation with another person is not ‘good’ or ‘kind’ or ‘loving’. It meets my needs not the other person. It leads to resentment which continues the cycle. With the help of others who have worked through this I am able to accept that i unknowingly harmed my now adult children by doing for them what they needed to work through themselves, so that i felt like the good mother, as society defines. So now I am able to wait for them to tell me how things are going for them and make no negative comments when I think’wtf’ . It’s tough though as we are encouraged to value what others think of us more than learning how we feel about things.

    • Claire,
      Thanks so much for sharing what you’ve learned. I too have cared about my adult children’s lives more than they have seemed to. By changing my way of acting with them, so far they haven’t recovered but we sure have a more loving relationship.
      Thanks again,
      Linda


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