It is nearly impossible for me to pinpoint when problems with my son began, but I vividly remember the time when his road to recovery started. His problems had accumulated to the point that I was not sure if he would survive another day. He was kicked out of school, angry and defiant, disappointed with life, fuelling himself with drugs, alcohol, and adrenalin wherever he could get it. He ruled my life while I had no control over my own life at home, let alone his actions. I loved him so much; and the pain of seeing the destruction and hopelessness of his everyday existence was unbearable.
All the local resources had been exhausted; and I spent hours, days, and weeks reading all I could about programs and interventions. Some information terrified me: accidents and maltreatment, complaints of parents and traumas of kids. But some were positive and encouraging, giving me a hint of hope. I did a lot of research; after all, I had years of graduate education and good research skills. I looked at my list of pros and cons and realized that every day I am basically gambling with the life of my son, I made a decision and started to act.
I used all the manipulative tricks I could think of to convince my son to get help. Finally, he agreed to go to a wilderness program. It was hard for my husband and me to make him believe that his situation was serious and about to explode in his face, but we did it. I believe that he wanted out, even though he could not admit it to himself. Proud and arrogant, he ignored me all the way to the airport. He was going to show me and the rest of the world that this wilderness thing would be a walk in the park for him. He anticipated a triumphant return in a few weeks time and he looked forward to being showered with everyone’s admiration and respect. I was glad that he did not want to talk: I hung by a thread, clinging to the choice I made, not allowing my mind to second-guess it. Staying in the moment was important. One wrong word, a glance, or move, and he could change his mind. Or I could change my mind. Feeling and thinking locked away until he was on that plane. My face was a mask; my heart was a muscle, nothing more. He did not look back when he went through the security.
I remember the ride home – I felt empty. I did what I did, and I needed to reload. I remember that every few minutes I would ask myself: did I do the right thing? Did I? What else could I have done? What else can I do now? When I got the call from the wilderness program that my son arrived safely and was being enrolled, I started to come alive again. This was terrifying and invigorating at the same time. And then the feelings and thoughts came rushing.
Guilt. I failed as a mother. I could not help my son; I sent him away to be ‘fixed’ to people I don’t even know… Fear. What if something happens to him out there in the wilderness? It is dangerous; and he is defiant and angry. What if he puts himself in danger? What if…? What if he comes back hating me even more? What if this does not work, and he will come to believe that he is unrecoverable? Helplessness. I had no control over the situation whatsoever. All I could do was waiting. No agency, no power…
When I could not stand these feelings for one more heartbeat, I asked my husband to come with me to the café nearby. We got coffee and sat outside looking from a distance at the group of teens who were our son’s ‘friends’. Some seemed high, giggling and “hanging out’, some were arguing and looking ‘cool’. Then we heard an ambulance siren. We looked at each other and realized that for the first time in many months we were not afraid of this sound any more. The ambulance was not rushing to save our son from overdosing, a knife injury, or a car accident. Then slowly, in the coming days, weeks, and months I began to deal with my feelings.
Guilt. I did not fail as a mother. I did not stop fighting for my son. I used all the resources I had to help him. It meant sending him away and reaching out for help from people I did not know. But it had been the right thing to do. Fear. His everyday life back home had many more dangers in it. His lifestyle and life choices were toxic and killing him. Life will always be dangerous; and I needed to accept it. Taking risks was scary, but not taking them was deadly. I learned to embrace my fear and learn from it. Then it stops being paralyzing and becomes an incentive to change. Helplessness. I was not helpless. I continued learning about helping my son, other programs that can help him. I found a great one where he continued his journey. I also had to learn a lot about myself, my damaging patterns of communication and behavior and how to change them. Sending your kid away to be fixed does not work. I had to enter a ‘parallel process’ and take control over my own life. I had to understand when I was enabling, fearful, overbearing, and unaware and learn how to do better. And I had to find people who could help me on this path.
This was more than 3 years ago. My son is now in college. I am happy for him and proud of many things he has done and is currently doing, even though I don’t always agree with his choices. His journey has been his; he was not ‘fixed’ by the wave of a wand or a miracle pill. He worked very hard to get there and is still working hard. But this story is not about him. It is about a Mom and her own journey, my journey. It is hard to send your children away. It is heartbreaking, but sometimes it is the only way to give them a chance. And there are people out there who know how it feels. They are in the struggle together. Find them. I am so lucky that I did.