Worry Buttons: Do They Serve a Purpose?

by Sarah McDade
November 18, 2019

Jigsaw puzzles used to be my therapy when I waited up long nights for my teenage son, who repeatedly broke his curfews. The cat used to keep me company during those hours by jumping onto the puzzle and rolling around on it. Obviously, things were out of control in my house, and I had no idea how to fix them, but my worry button was in good shape because I kept pushing it, and it always worked. My son’s activities while breaking those curfews were a mystery to me, but I eventually learned that large quantities of alcohol and drugs were involved.


After a long search, we found a good treatment center for our son, and I was obsessed each day with worry about him. Would he finish treatment? Would he get kicked out of treatment? What would we do if he came home and had to finish high school here? Surely that would mean he’d be exposed to his dealer again, who preyed on teens at the fast-food restaurant across the street from the high school. The “what-ifs” took over my mind. I did not want to return to the life I had just six months prior, when I had found his school backpack stuffed with five fifths of alcohol while we were on vacation. Worry was my middle name, and I said the Serenity Prayer about a hundred times a day.


Al-Anon’s welcoming language talks about the peace and serenity of its program, and I am so grateful that thirteen years ago, my son’s rehabilitation therapist repeatedly urged me to attend an Al-Anon meeting. This therapist could tell that I was getting good use out of my worry button. Eventually, the peace of Al-Anon enveloped me, and I was able to slow down my tapping of the button. It was so gradual that I can’t pinpoint when the shift happened. My son’s second long-term rehab also helped me recognize that he had to figure things out for himself and that I wasn’t his solution. So my worry converted to hoping he’d make wise choices and periodically offering thoughts when he considered different options on his life course. This isn’t to say that everything was rosy, but the worry escaped my soul, even when two catastrophes befell him. The evaporation of worry allowed me to live in the present and go about my days doing what “normal” people do.


Over the years, I’ve become extensively involved with numerous support groups, some Twelve Step and others hosted by courts or treatment centers. I’ve come to know hundreds of mothers whose offspring have been severely affected by alcohol or drug use. Worry, fear, anxiety, education, experience, and strength dominate these meetings. Many of these parents have become close friends of mine, a blessing that arose out of the destruction of addiction. 


Two weeks ago, one friend called to say her son had been arrested for breaking into a state liquor store and committing larceny because of the great quantities of alcohol he stole. He was in jail, and she was picking my brain about how to retrieve his belongings from his sober house. Her husband, however, was a wreck worrying about his son in jail. The father wanted to bail him out, and the mother wanted to let him stay in jail and wait to learn what the judge would say in three days. The mother had regularly attended support meetings and Al-Anon meetings for a year. Her husband would attend a support meeting about once every four months. I had witnessed that their “worry levels” were very far apart. The judge agreed with the family’s action plan, and the son is now in a highly regarded long-term rehabilitation facility. The mother is relieved. I wonder if the father is still worrying. It’s quite possible. I know numerous fathers who have worry buttons.


One mother from a favorite group has become a good friend. We’ve known each other for about four years. We’ve had three-hour breakfasts and lunches together. One time we even sat through both the breakfast and lunch hours at a restaurant. Her son was an opiate user. Over the years, he went to four highly regarded treatment facilities, some short-term and some long-term. Widowed at a young age, my friend had raised her two children alone, guiding them with love and a solid work ethic. During the relapse after the second long-term treatment, I found myself deeply concerned for him. Was my worry button becoming reactivated? I preferred that it stay out of my sight. I never voiced my concern to my friend, but it lingered because of his reluctance to change his old habits or connect closely with new sober friends. What good would it do to tell her I thought he might have a fatal overdose someday? She knew, as all of us do, that a fatal consumption of alcohol or a drug could happen at any time. She and her son were very close. She was so hardworking, always figuring out how to have a job that could provide health insurance for him. She attended local addiction programs and urged schools to carry naloxone. She went to about four support groups a week and amassed many new friends.


And then, after three-and-a-half months of abstinence and a fun dinner with his sober coach, he used a fatal dose of heroin. He was discovered hours later, behind a locked door, by his sober housemates. His mother broke the news to me via phone while I was shopping in an out-of-town grocery store. No, no, no. Oh, my goodness, what I had been concerned about actually happened. No, no, no. It took me forever to get out of that grocery store. I didn’t know what I was doing. Only the beguiling disease of addiction knew what it was doing.


Does worrying have its benefits? By and large, I’d say no. Is there a downside to nonstop worrying? Yes. Worrying robs us of enjoying the only time we have, the present. Worrying might pop into our lives in different forms, so it has many faces, but is it helpful? Perhaps only to help us get things in order or to be prepared with contingencies, or perhaps to inspire prayer. My friend who lost her son used her concerns to develop action plans to support his recovery efforts, and she surrounded herself with ongoing addiction education and the support of so many friends in different groups. Her faith, her family, and her friends are now surrounding her more than ever.


For me, I really prefer to disconnect my worry button. It’s had a lot of use. It’s worn out. It’s so nice not to feel compelled to push it all the time, although it did almost come out of retirement when I sensed my friend’s son wavering in his new recovery. I kept trying to push it away.


In Al-Anon’s Courage to Change, there is a passage from the June 17 entry. I love this, and I hope someone can discover a new comfort in the simple phrases. “I cannot know what the future will bring. My best hope is every bit as likely to occur as my worst fear, so I have no reason to give more weight to my negative assumptions. All I can do is make the most of this day.”

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Sarah McDade

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