The JUST Drawer

by Linda S. Clare
October 5, 2020

Despite the sunshine, the morning was late-winter crisp. As a friend and I ventured out for a walk, I poured out my heart. “All three of my sons are messes.” I pulled my woolen scarf higher around my neck. “And not one of them is willing to change. It’s like Russian roulette—do I wait for them to want to change? Or do I drop everything and hammer on them until they give in and accept help? I don’t know what to do anymore.”

The friend—a mom whose grown kids had all successfully launched—looked confused. I didn’t expect her to really get it, but our friendship took a precarious turn when she said, “Why don’t you just . . . ?”

I didn’t hear the rest of her sentence. I nodded politely while I stared up into the bare limbs of an oak, thoughts naked and ashamed. Just. Just what?

I could have told her about the dozens of parenting books I’d consulted since my children were small, about how the traditional advice somehow never worked. I might have recounted all the meetings, counseling, and slogans I’ve tried to embrace to no avail. But my friend was already waving goodbye.

A wind gust whipped my hair across my cheek. A cloud parked itself over the sun. My friend’s comment would go into the Just Drawer.

As a mom of grown sons with substance use disorder, I often feel like one of those organizers with dozens of tiny compartments. Every little box, door, drawer, and shelf is color-coded, designed to keep unlike things from ending up like a tangled necklace chain. But lately, my Just Drawer has overflowed.

Every day, problems, emotions, and possibilities present themselves. Instead of staying neatly organized, all the just advice hovers like a cloud of locusts. Why can’t I just say no? When am I going to just stop thinking of my thirty- and fortysomethings as children? Why can’t I just?

“Just set boundaries,” one counselor advised. “Just treat them with dignity and respect,” another friend said. Less tolerant folks in my life insisted, “Just don’t put up with their garbage anymore!” With apologies to Nike, I’m a big fat failure at Just Do-ing anything.

Part of the problem lies in the way my sons slide back and forth between adulting and acting like overgrown kids. When it comes to things that they’d like for me to do for them, they’re as helpless as third graders. But if I begin to treat them as if they’re not quite yet tall enough to go on the carnival ride, suddenly adults rise up and proclaim independence. “You’re not the boss of me,” destroys any hope of mature dialogue. It’s hard to know if we’re on the playground or at the bar.

Many other moms I speak with also deal with this Jekyll and Hyde transformation. Their grown son or daughter with substance use disorder pleads for a certain amount of cash, like a kid who hears the ice cream truck coming. The story is embellished until the situation sounds dire. He needs the money so that the bad guys won’t get him. Or she hasn’t eaten in a week. “Just this one time,” they beg. “I’ll never ask for a dime again, I swear it. Just this once.”

Then, fireworks fly as “Just this once” collides with “Just say no.” My kids have called me terrible names. They threaten suicide or vow I’ll never see them again. Grandchildren become hostages. Attempts at holding them accountable evaporate as begging gives way to strong-arm tactics.

When they turn against me, I always wonder whom I’m talking to. Am I speaking to a boy who stopped emotionally maturing around age 11? Or is the person standing before me a cruel adult, willing to trash everything to get his way?

I don’t know if either is correct.

I’m sure each of my sons is at least two different people—one who’s kind and loves his mom and wants to do good—and another whose substance use drives him to do and say whatever is necessary.

Maybe there’s a third person in there too. This one is held down by the other two and rarely surfaces. He’s desperate to change, has dreams and goals, and loathes himself for what he does. He’s there on the cold winter nights when he remembers home or when he quietly cries himself to sleep on that stranger’s couch. That son is there even after he’s cussed me out for offering to give food rather than cash.

That third person—the true son I love—signals to me when he leaves a rose on my chair. He writes a note that says, I love you Mom, and everything else melts away. I’ll tuck these treasures into the Just Drawer for days when I need hope renewed. Days like today.

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Linda S Clare

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  1. Thank you. I really needed this. I’m in tears right now, but I AM dandelion strong! My 32 year old son is in and out of active addiction likea hotcake!

    • Connie,
      So sorry about your son. But as you said, you ARE dandelion strong. Keep Hoping. Stay Strong. Love Well.
      Bless you,

  2. This is beautifully written Linda – and so very very spot on! As a mom who truly understands every work you’ve written I will hold you all in my daily thoughts. Thank you for sharing yourself!

    • Joyce,
      Thank you so much. It means everything to me that you get it. Just this morning I woke to find that Middle is off on another meth binge. So sad.
      But your support is so appreciated.
      Keep hoping. Stay strong. Love well.
      Bless you,

  3. Exactly what I needed this morning. Thank you.

    • Rachel,
      So glad it helped you. We all need to boost each other up. Stay strong, mom. Keep hoping. Love well.
      Bless you,

  4. Thank you for this heartfelt essay of what we mothers of addicts experience. I get it. We will never be powerful enough to control their actions, fix this disease or change the course of their lives. This is an excellent reminder of why we need the support of Alanon or other similar groups. We carry so much pain, shame, hope, frustration and sorrow. Parents of children who appear to have matriculated into adulthood can never I understand. Their advice never helps. I rarely share anything with those people any more. While I do have moments and now a day or 2 of detachment, I still miss the real Young man every day. Take care.

    • Maureen,
      It means everything to me that you “get it.” I have attended AlAnon and NarAnon. Right now I’m working on the CRAFT approach. You are so right–we must find support, if only be commiserating with essays like mine. 🙂 Stay strong! Stay hopeful. Keep loving.
      Bless you,

  5. Awww, this vicious cycle……

    • Cathy,
      Awww, indeed. If only we could stop them. Alas we can only change ourselves. Keep hoping, stay strong!

  6. Oh my goodness, Linda. I’m in tears. I have 3 “adult” daughters. Your description of everything is right on point. I Love your depiction of the third person. I hadn’t thought it it in those terms. I long for that person to emerge and have a voice and return to her family. Thank you for sharing.

    • Carol,
      I’m interested in your situation–my daughter (one of a set of twins) is the only one in our family to not suffer the disease. Of course she has her own problems, LOL. But it sounds as if daughters and sons are pretty much the same in dealing with this heartache. Bless you for keeping on. Never give up hope. Sending love and hugs,

  7. This is written so well, and I can relate to all of it. Thanks for putting this down on paper – at least I’m not the only one who feels this way.
    One minute, my son is the wonderful young man I love to be with and in a turn of seconds he can be someone else. And other parents don’t get it.
    But I hear you!

    • Marie,
      At least I’m not the only one who feels this way–this is the reason I write this stuff. Because I’m always afraid I’m the only one. I pray your “real son” appears to you more and more. Sometimes that’s the difference between another awful day and one where you can carry on with a smile.
      Bless you,

  8. Long Live The Rose That Grew From Concrete,
    When No One Else
    Ever Cared..
    Tupac ?

    • Kelle,
      But we moms care. And like Sandy says, we’re strong! It’s still ok to weep but never give up hope.
      Bless you,

  9. Linda, your writing has captured the last 10 years of my experience with my son, Nicholas. I see the 3 beings you speak of in my son, who passed away on August 2. It’s shocking to think I will never hold him again, and that all my efforts to do the right thing have brought me to this point. It’s an exclusive club we belong to, we mothers of children who have this brain disease. No one outside the club understands… not even the other mothers. Not the medical professionals. Not the public policy makers. It’s lonely here.

    In the world we know, my child died from an end stage disease, not yet identified as such: worse yet, erroneously and tragically identified as a disease he could have said “No” to. Can you imagine saying to someone on dialysis for the rest of his life,
    “ Why are you doing this? Just stop it! You’re creating so much suffering for yourself and for the rest of us! You can’t be around us until you find a way to fix this.”

    Or, imagine whispering about his mother, “Look, her son has kidney failure. I could have told you he’d end up like this. She should have been a better parent.”

    Can you imagine that dialysis patient being treated with no compassion by the world throughout his life, until the day he dies?”

    Can you imagine the life insurance company refusing to honor the life insurance claim because this same patient died of self inflicted kidney failure? How ridiculous!

    Substance use disorder has a DSM code in the medical disease textbook, just as kidney failure has a DSM code. My heart breaks for me, other mothers, and for my son… that he was treated with less respect and compassion that if he had been suffering from kidney disease for 10 years.

    This primitive thinking must change. I didn’t have the energy before, but I’m gaining strength now. I don’t know where this energy will take me, but I am willing to be used in a way that opens our collective thinking to embrace and care for these worthy and valuable beings, these modern day lepers in our midst.

    • Libby,
      You are very wise. The two myths which hold all of us back are that it’s a “choice” and that we must punish that choice. Please accept my deep sympathy on the loss of your precious son. Sending love and hugs to you.
      Bless you,

  10. Only God can heal my heart

    • Jan,
      You are so right. He will carry you in the worst times. Bless you!

  11. Wow, I love this so much. The “Just” drawer is so true I can visualize it. This is the real reason why I don’t discuss my son’s life with a close friend because her 4 boys are doing well and I know that she doesn’t understand. My son is trying, its not perfect but that little glimmer give me hope. I got a text from him last night and I’ll put that in the Hope drawer. Thank you for writing this.

    • Becky,
      I too have a Hope Drawer. I’m so glad you can relate–I often write worried that nobody will get it.I think it’s part of the game to get isolated into believing that you and only you are the reason your child suffers. Especially when your friend’s kids are model citizens. It really hurts doesn’t it? So file away your disappointments into that Just Drawer, but go to the Hope Drawer every time you need a boost. The Hope Drawer is where your (and my) real son lives. Bless you!

  12. Linda, this is a beautiful communication to all of us who share your struggle. I’m gratified to read how your addicts are split down the middle. A number of my friends don’t see that at all, which is why I need these forums. And a third person? Yes, my “little girl” is now 41, and the third person who I pray will come out is a combination of it all. The disease takes a terrible toll, but many recover. Thank you for a wonderful share.

    • Marilea,
      Wow I’m humbled. Coming from you, this is high praise. I do pray that all of our precious children emerge as that 3rd option–the possibility of the hopes we moms carry for them. Thank you for reading. Bless you!

  13. The words you have written are all so true and very real. Your words really describe what we all have felt as mothers of addicted adult children. It is a fine line between being their for them and being codependent. I do know that it isn’t up to us. No matter how hard I tired to help fix my sons problem, I couldn’t. There is hope and their is recovery. There are no answers, but I do know that I could not give up on my one and only child. Keep the faith, pray, let them know that you love them. Pray that they make that choice and I have been blessed to see miracles happen. Thank you so much for sharing and stay strong. Many blessings. Elaine

    • Elaine,
      I can stay strong when I hear stories like yours. The recovery stories are great but what really keeps me going are moms who are still fighting to keep hoping, keep hoping, keep loving well. There may not be answers (that we can accept) but the one thing we are confident of is that we love our children. Thank you for reading!
      Bless you too,

  14. Wow! I felt as if I had written these words!! And also, I begin to doubt myself. Thank you!

    • Sharon,
      I’m glad you can relate but sorry you have to relate. 🙂 Thank you for reading and stay strong, keep hoping and keep loving.
      Bless you!

  15. Thank you for sharing, Linda. As a mom of a daughter with substance use disorder, I can really relate to what you have said. My daughter is one of a set of twins; her twin dies not suffer from the disease. This has caused even greater heartache in their relationship and in our family. I too find it difficult to talk to friends whose children have become successful adults. It is refreshing to hear from someone who truly understands this struggle and how lonely it can make you feel. Bless you.

    • Barb,
      Thanks for reading! I too have a set of twins. One suffers from alcoholism, the other doesn’t. I think we moms of multiples get a better view than most parents of how kids can grow up in the same house with the same rules at the same age and still wind up with very different lives. If anything, it belays the notion that you or I was/were a bad parent.One thing that has helped me: I took all the hopes and dreams and milestones I wished for my sons, wrote them on slips of paper and burned them in a ceremony of letting go. They would never go to prom or a lot of other “success” markers. But then I was able to see them as they were and love them there. Praying your precious daughter can find her way back to health. I know my son (the twin) feels doubly ashamed in light of all his twin sister’s success. Bless you!

  16. Thank you for giving me the words to the feelings and emotions that I have felt for so very long and could not find. Thank you!
    I have three sons and this reading resonates with me. I do not know where my oldest son is and I see and feel the pain of the other two. My oldest son has two young girls. I do not know them either. I met them when they were one and two years old when my son and his girlfriend needed a place to stay for 2 weeks. They were living in a van before then. I strive for my heart and mind to meet in unison. I know God forgives me for my wavering faith. He knows my heart. My heart is heavy.

    • Oh Amy,
      I am so sad that you are going through this. But I’m happy that you are here at MomPower and that you relate to my essay. It is in weakness that we are strong. Please let God carry you awhile. Prayers for your comfort. Keep hoping and keep loving. Stay Strong.

  17. this article surely hit home…so true. thank you

    • Sharon,
      For many moms like us, if we added up all the unhelpful advice we’ve received we’d all be buried. I’m so glad you’re here–MomPower really can help us stay strong, keep hoping and stay loving. Hope your family is on the road to healing!
      We are stronger together.
      Love and hugs,

  18. I truly feel your pain, as the mother of an 18 & 21 year-old. Just love them. That’s all you really need to do. If they know they are loved they will do whatever they do with the awareness that they are loved and other than that just take care of yourself and try not to worry yourself to death. Because of course you will worry and fret and torment yourself thinking of all the times you “gave in” or said the wrong thing or did the wrong thing. And listen to advice knowing that no one other than yourself really knows your child. I remember a pediatrician telling me that books on how to raise your children were good for one thing: kindling and making you feel bad about yourself. It sounds like you are a loving mom – thanks for making the rest of us feel less alone!

    • Connelly Stewart,
      Thank you so much. No matter how long I’m on the road, I never get over feeling the judgment or disdain others (outsiders) cast at the way I handle things. I would rather be the world’s worst enabler and have my sons close than to detach/tough love them and not know whether they’re alive or dead. I’m really good at loving and still suck at boundaries, but I keep trying. Bless you. Linda

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