When your child is using — Mom learns to deal with emotions at Al-Anon

GLADSTONE – When Joan’s son began casual drinking while he was in high school, his aim was to get drunk because he hated the taste of alcohol. But his drinking actually intensified after he left the area to go to college.

“He was difficult to deal with when he was in high school, but I didn’t even know he drank,” Joan said. “He was an honor student, an athlete, good looking, and popular. It was almost as if he was born into the wrong family because it seemed like he got along everywhere but at home.”

Although Joan wasn’t blind to the fact that she and her husband had difficulties in dealing with their son, they attributed his problems to “teen angst.”

But it wasn’t until her son left home for college for his second year that he shared with his parents that he thought he was clinically depressed. A visit to his family doctor was followed by a referral to his student health service and then to a psychiatrist for treatment of his depression.

What followed was a variety of anti-depressants and varied doses to find the right one. Other meds were required to level him off. Some self-medication was involved and then more, eventually leading to stranger and even more dangerous street drugs, and finally addiction.

“I knew he started (college) off well and even had a job. But he later told me that even his professors were concerned about him,” said Joan. “Then he dropped out of college and was hard to reach by phone.”

The memory of those months were evident in the pained look on Joan’s face as she said, “It was like losing your child. He might as well have been in New York or even China as far as we knew.”

But still Joan was not aware of the seriousness of her son’s condition.

“I had shared my concerns with my sister,” she recalled. “While I could not always see the forest for the trees, her vision was sharper.”

After staying with Joan’s family for a few days, her sister shared her observations and told her, “I think he’s using.” Joan found herself reluctantly looking for evidence. She even looked in his backpack when he came home for a visit.

“I knew he wasn’t a diabetic so there was no reason for what I found in his backpack,” she said. “That got the ball rolling and the healing began. While it has been a long process of ups and downs, it has been worth every moment invested in the recovery process. There has been much growth, leaning and sharing.”

Joan and her husband checked their boy into a treatment center and began attending counseling sessions themselves at the facility.

“We had no choice,” she related. “I don’t think I could have been any lower. I knew it was safe for him, but it seemed strange to turn you child over to someone else to deal with. We learned a lot at the counseling sessions, and everything that was said it was like ‘been there – done that.'”

Coming to grips with her son’s addiction really took a toll on Joan and she decided to get help herself in dealing with the roller-coaster ride of her own emotions.

“I was really angry because I didn’t know what to do or where to go for help,” she said. She decided to attend an Al-Anon meeting because that was recommended at the family group and she discovered a meeting that met in the basement of the church she attend.

But Joan was dissatisfied.

“The general discussion was, ‘If only Charlie would stop drinking!’ or ‘If only so-and-so would stop using drugs!’ or ‘If only so-and-so would stop catting around!’ But one thing I learned through all that I was dealing with was that you can’t micromanage your loves ones. You can’t follow them around 24/7. If they’re determined to so it, they’re going to find a way to do it. Women, especially, try to zero in on ‘what did I do wrong?’ That doesn’t solve anything.”

Joan began attending meetings at the Delta Alano Club.

“It was composed of many people of varied ages and backgrounds,” Joan said. “At first, after looking around, I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ The folks seemed so different from me. But once I stopped judging, I realized that we had more in common than not. That was something that I had learned in family group. Then I actually started listening and I learned that we were dealing with the same issues and feelings. That became my home group.

Eventually I came out of my fog, listened and learned. I learned I couldn’t make my son well. I couldn’t love him well. I couldn’t nourish him well. I couldn’t enable him to be well. The only person who I could get well, who I could change, was me – one step at a time.”

Through regular meetings, the readings and steps, and the fellowship, Joan found herself getting better and stronger and was better able to cope with all aspects of her life.

But all was not going well for her boy. After the first unsuccessful attempt in treatment, Joan’s son entered rehab for a second time.

“At first I was dealing with anger because he had blown so many opportunities,” she said. “He had gone away to a good school and it seemed like it was a great spot for him. But with all my expectations, it just didn’t happen. The first time he was in treatment for a month. The second time he was among homeless men in a major city and was able to work. Actually it was kinda like boot-camp and very structured. He was there for two years.”

Joan said it took her boy many years to work his way back to a life of sobriety and free of drugs.

“Now its been almost 10 years since those days and he has a wonderful life,” she said with a proud smile. “But it’s been all baby steps. But he’s learned a tremendous amount and is now in a position to help a lot of people. At one time there were so many people willing to help him. There were lots of people there for him. He started out going to AA but felt more comfortable with NA. Even when he comes home for a visit, he attends meetings.”

Even though her son seems to be on the right road and growing stronger as time goes on, Joan still attends Al-Anon meetings to help her deal with life.

“What I learned in Al-Anon was not so much about my son – it was about me,” she said. “Believe me, it was a rude awakening. So often the loved ones of an addict are as sick as the people who had the problem. We become obsessed with getting out loved one well again. Making sure they are eating properly. Getting groceries for them. Doing their laundry. Trying hard to love them. Well, you can’t do it. I needed help, too.”

In the process of her son’s life of recovery along with her own self-awareness, Joan said they both are enjoying each other once again and are enjoying life.

“I’m not as guarded as I was or feeling like I’m walking on eggshells anymore,” she said. “He’s working full-time. He’s very fit. He’s even leading meetings at a hospital that has a detox unit. And he knows you have to give it away to get it.”

And so the Al-Anon meetings remain a weekly occurrence for Joan.

“These meetings are so different from what they used to be for me,” she said. “Each one of us has our own personalities. But most importantly, it’s very liberating. Now I listen and learn and share.”