That night, my son’s text arrived long after I was asleep, so I didn’t hear the chime. The next morning, I read his profanity-laced description of the work party he’d attended. Worst work party ever, it read. **** (the restaurant).
The needle on my guilt-o-meter shot up so fast it could have reached escape velocity.
I wrote back immediately. Do you still have a job? Already, I could picture the party. My forty-year-old son chugged as much alcohol as possible in the shortest amount of time, then grew loud and belligerent as his prefrontal cortex was hammered into submission. My once whip-smart boy still works as a dishwasher, living in a trashed-out rental on the wrong side of town, always struggling to pay the rent.
I breathed a bit easier when he admitted that during the party, he’d tried to quit his job, but the other employees wouldn’t take him seriously. Looking for a different job, he wrote. Sick of this place. My heart broke along familiar fault lines.
I resisted my urge to preach, to tell him what he must already know: alcohol is killing you, one day at a time. But ever since that morning, my guilt has multiplied like so many Star Trek tribbles.
I am the mother of three adult sons whose lives are stuck somewhere in the past, addicted and barely hanging on to a life they each abhor. Sons who haven’t beaten the demon, who, so far, can’t seem to be all they could be. That’s the unvarnished truth.
But as I sat sipping my morning coffee, another “truth” rose up from deep inside. Guilty. As a mom you get an F-minus. These sons are the way they are because of you, mama.
Why couldn’t I shake the feeling that it was all my fault?
I’ve attended Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, and Christian support groups. I’ve read every book on addiction that I could find. I’ve heard all the sayings, memorized the Serenity Prayer, and tried most of the Twelve Step wisdom: Detach with love. Use tough love. Take care of yourself. Set boundaries. Just for today. My head knows and understands all this. I cling to my faith as if it’s flotsam in an angry sea. But my guilt remains.
I know I can’t change my sons. I know it. And it’s not as if I’ve always done nothing. I divorced one husband and separated from another to take a tough love stand against alcoholism. A close relative tried, while drunk, to commit suicide while talking to me over the phone. But when it comes to people who’ve spent nine months inside my body, it’s harder for me to let go.
There is probably a mother out there somewhere who doesn’t feel the crushing weight of guilt over her prodigal child. But I have yet to meet her. For the rest of us, when kids go sideways, we moms suffer. We not only feel the pain of the child’s predicament; we add our own version of mom guilt. I’ve called the cops when my sons menaced or scared me, hating myself every moment.
Guilt. All the rationalizing in the world hasn’t cured mine. Guilt peeks around a corner when I read of a friend’s child’s success. It mobs me when my son’s graying temples glint in the summer sun. Guilt laughs at the dreams we moms once had and mocks us for enabling or abiding or even staying in contact with the addict.
I’ll admit that the well-meaning comments pour salt in my guilt wounds. Today I read the story of a mom who was panicked over her daughter’s addiction and lifestyle on the streets. This mom had taken in her daughter (and druggie boyfriend) to better manage her daughter’s type 1 (juvenile) diabetes. The mom had to move that day, and her daughter’s disease meant she might have a serious health crisis should her insulin not be refrigerated or available. The mom’s words fairly dripped with guilt as she wrestled with the problem. Move and leave her daughter out on the street? Or give her daughter a place to stay (and keep her insulin cold)?
This situation, so common across our addicted country, brought out the standard advice. Use tough love, don’t be addicted to your daughter, take care of yourself, don’t enable. One woman wrote, “Kick her out.”
All these women meant well. They no doubt have received the same advice for their own children’s addictions. But an undercurrent of guilt lurked throughout, and I wondered why we spend so much time lecturing one another and shaming each other for caring, for being unable to cut the cord.
I doubt if any of the comments assuaged this mother’s guilt.
If she couldn’t change her addicted daughter, then maybe she could change herself—a high and lofty goal. Yet if this mom was anything like me, those calls to change just filled guilt’s gas tank again. Guilt that she hadn’t changed fast enough, detached well enough, headed off enabling soon enough to prevent more damage. Guilt over harboring a mother’s love, however misdirected.
Maybe we need a different approach. Instead of the attempts to assign blame or judge a mother’s actions or convince her of the “right” way to handle the addict, maybe we could acknowledge how hard it can be to truly stop feeling guilty. We could admit that guilt sits on our shoulders, breaks our backs under the weight of regret.
Instead of offering sayings, arty memes, annoying gifs, or easy advice, we could work on strengthening the shoulders of those who birth the world. We might admit that this kind of guilt is not pretty or, most of the time, warranted, but it is real. Moms who love their children deeply—even if they never beat the addiction—will need strong family or friends to get through the terrible times. They’ll need a place to grieve without shame. They’ll need extra courage in case they face abuse or violence. And they’ll need even stronger faith (in something) to carry the burden of watching their child suffer, maybe even lose everything. One place I find comfort is with other moms of addicts, the ones whose wounds are as deep as my own.
These other moms may say all the right things or all the wrong things, but at the end of the thread, there are tears and hugs and love. Genuine love that grows out of the pain only we moms of addicts know. It’s a love that makes it worth feeling something, even if you’re afraid those feelings will kill you.
The morning after the work party, my shoulders sagged, knowing my son is still entrenched in his addiction. That he may never escape. My prayer is that he will follow the light to a decent life. I can’t stand the thought of the mom with the diabetic daughter—or myself—grieving in guilt should the worst happen.
I sent that mom love and hugs and the assurance that she’s not alone on this awful path, and then I stood in that same puddle of light for myself and my sons. Whether it comes from above or from a bunch of moms like me, love is the one thing I don’t ever want to lose.