Addiction’s Seismic Effects on a Family
A mother confronts the painful truths of trying to save a son who’s a danger not only to himself, but to the rest of the family as well.
Sarah Evans | Longreads | December 2019 | 9 minutes (2,405 words)
“Get the fuck out of my life.”
Sam’s voice wobbles and cracks, confessing to youth and vulnerability that his venom-filled words otherwise mask. The door slams in my face, as my youngest child runs — literally runs — to meet his drug dealer. I heave a sigh and head to bed for the night. We won’t see Sam again tonight, and maybe not tomorrow either.
It wasn’t always like this, but I can construct the map that has led us here. Snippets of his childhood haunt me. Tonight I get lost in a memory of a hot summer night when my kids were spinning around like tops in the backyard under the strings of light that crisscrossed our backyard. I can still hear the peals of laughter escaping Sam, barely out of toddlerhood. His pace picked up, making my stomach flip-flop just watching him. His older sister, Mia, came to an abrupt halt and sat down next to me.
“I don’t like that. It makes me feel out of control.”
My littlest whirling dervish tilted on his axis for a few more rotations, before collapsing in a sweaty heap next to me on the grass. He put his head in my lap and squinted up at me.
“I like it. I like out of control.”
Retroactively, I question everything. I poke and prod at every memory and every parenting choice that I made, in an effort to understand how we’ve ended up here.
At 16, Sam is tall for his age and his scrawny frame has about 50 pounds on me. When I try to get him to leave for school on time, I look up at his patchy facial hair and feel like I’m the child. When he jokingly ruffles my hair and kisses my forehead, I’m reminded of the days when I reached down to do the same to him. And when Sam storms out the door as I flush contraband pills down the toilet, I’m reminded that — no matter how lost I might feel — I’m the adult here, and I need to figure out how to be one in this situation.
Sam is smoking pot by eighth grade. His childhood stuffed animals still stand sentinel over his bed, while he sleeps off his excesses in a bed covered in faded Spiderman stickers. I admit with some guilt that I’m not too worried at first, although it is a bit younger than I expected. I smoked the occasional joint in high school, as did my husband and most of my friends. I know countless adults who tell the same story. But for Sam, it is different. He has never known a middle ground; he is a stranger to moderation. When he was in second grade, he was all about Pokemon. His teachers would take away his cards, tell him to focus on the lesson, and five minutes later they would dance the same dance. In sixth grade, it was baseball. Sam could recite the stats for every player on his favorite team, but he couldn’t sit through a math lesson. If Sam is into something, he goes full tilt it’s all or nothing.
By ninth grade, Sam is barely passing his courses and comes home after midnight most weekdays. He drops out of baseball and his friends no longer come over after school. We notice personality changes as well, as his second toddlerhood hits our household, resplendent with defiance and tantrums. This time around, I can no longer put Sam on “time out” and ask him to take deep breaths until his storm has passed. I can no longer contain him when he can’t contain himself. Unlike the typical power struggles of his toddler years, Sam’s adolescent tantrums are epic and terrifying: He punches walls, throws a chair, and shoves his father.
Sam is smoking pot by eighth grade. His childhood stuffed animals still stand sentinel over his bed, while he sleeps off his excesses in a bed covered in faded Spiderman stickers.
I’m afraid of Sam when he’s angry, but afterward he’s sweetly sorry, so sorry every time, and I kiss his forehead and tell him that we all struggle sometimes.
Sam starts dealing in 10th grade. The signs aren’t subtle, as nothing about Sam is subtle. He sleeps late, and I guiltily creep into his room to check his phone, desperate and afraid, because I know things are worsening, but I’m not yet sure how. The text messages — shocking in their lack of guile — offer kids weed, and the quantities paralyze me. We discover and dispose of scales and baggies several times over, before Sam moves his enterprise to a friends’ basement, a fact that I uncover only because his Instagram password is his birthday. We throw out baggies full of cocaine, mushrooms, and pills that I can’t identify.
My husband and I endlessly discuss, debate, and sometimes fight about the best approach to take. I talk to my girlfriends, my parents, and my doctor, searching for guidance. I amass a small library of parenting books, in my futile search for wisdom and guidance and something — anything — that will make sense of the chaos that has descended upon our household. We find a therapist for Sam and have conversations about harm reduction.
Things start to go missing around the house, so I buy a safe for my bedroom, and another for Mia’s.
Mia is not OK. This realization dawns on me slowly because I have been so distracted. I’m beyond exhausted between work and my anxiety about Sam. I’m acutely aware that I’m failing not one, but both of my children, and Mia is getting less of my attention than she needs. Her brother comes home high on her birthday, derailing her celebrations, and I promise to make it up to her somehow, at some point. Mia tells me that she understands and reminds me that it’s just a birthday — she has one every year. Her grades are impeccable, and she is the apple of every teacher’s eye. In her quiet way, Mia carefully controls the world around her, with a floral day planner and meticulous bullet notes made in rainbow pens. In the light of her brother’s addiction, people often comment on how mature and well-adjusted she is. How functional. Self-sufficient. I experience occasional ugly stabs of envy that my teenage daughter can continue to navigate her days with such apparent ease, when I’m crying in the bathroom at work. Eventually, the cracks start to show, however, and Mia begins her quiet withdrawal from the world. I promise myself that I’ll make it up to her somehow, at some point
By the end of 10th grade, Sam comes home three, maybe four, nights out of seven. When he’s not here, I try to sleep, but I fret more than sleep, as I obsessively check my phone.
2 a.m., Me: Are you coming home?
3 a.m., Me: Are you coming home? Please let us know. We’re worried about you.
3:30 a.m., Me: Can you please at least confirm you’re safe?
At 3:45 a.m., Mia wakes me up because she realizes that her brother hasn’t come home. I lay down in her bed next to her and hold her while she cries. I want to cry too, but I know that I can’t right now. I return to bed hoping that my lies of convincing reassurances provide her with the small measure of solace that I can’t find for myself. Sleep finally arrives for Mia, and I tiptoe down the hall into the darkness.
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At 5 a.m. my phone vibrates under my pillow. It’s Sam: ya, safe. not coming home.
My alarm goes off at 6 a.m. and I go to work. I pretend that everything is normal.
We try to reason with Sam, to appeal to his better nature, as I’m still convinced that he has one, somewhere hidden inside of his tough guy demeanor. We dig deep in our search for the child who had so much enthusiasm for the world around him, and we try to reignite old passions, now dulled by substance use, that might ignite a spark of motivation to do something other than drugs. It soon becomes clear, however, that Sam has given up on his future. He is comfortable living in the anesthetic cloud that envelops him, and he enjoys the street cred that comes with dealing. When we realize this, we try to appeal to Sam’s sense of empathy for the rest of us: It’s my birthday; Mia is in exams; his grandfather is in the hospital. Sam doesn’t care, or if he does it’s buried so deeply inside of him that it will take ages to unearth.
I haven’t seen Sam in more than 24 hours and he stopped answering my messages approximately 12 hours ago. We’ve tried calling a few of his friends’ parents, but as Sam’s use has worsened, his friends have become strangers to us. He hammers on our door at 6 a.m. on a Thursday. Happiness and relief pass over me quickly and I dissolve into angry, anxious tears. I ask Sam if he cares that he’s hurting us, as well as himself. As I look into his dilated pupils, my little boy looks down at me and says calmly, “Your feelings aren’t my problem.”
But his feelings are my problem and my responsibility — ones that I willingly signed up for and ultimately still cherish. I feel desperate in my need to make everything better for him, like I could when he was little. Our family needs help, more help than once-a-week therapy can provide. We try it all: harm reduction, tough love, individual therapy, family therapy, day-treatment programs, peer support groups. Nothing helps. Every so often I see a glimmer of hope, a shadow of the child I once knew within the stranger before me, but as soon as I blink, he is gone again.
A stern parade of experts assesses Sam’s physiological and psychological makeup. Our insurance maxes out, and we take out a line of credit against our house to pay for treatment. We continue to dutifully follow expert advice, until eventually, Sam stops showing up for appointments. Eventually, I too stop going to appointments. I’ve heard it all before. Despite our efforts to institute some semblance of normalcy for her, poor Mia continues to be dragged along for the ride, with a second set of experts counseling us, as we try to parent her through her brother’s tempest. We try to reconcile the advice given to us by Team Mia and Team Sam and eventually realize the futility of this, with bitter laughter. I realize a difficult truth: The best thing for Mia’s mental health (and mine, and my husband’s) may be if Sam lived somewhere else.
I’m doing Sam’s laundry and laughing at myself for doing so. Mr. Tough Guy, the 16-year-old dealing to half of our neighborhood, and his mommy still separates his whites from his darks. I find a knife in the pocket of his jeans and my laughter dies in my throat. Cold and heavy in my hand, I wonder if Sam has ever used it on another person.
My home is quiet when Sam is out, as the three of us retreat into ourselves, tiptoeing around the empty spaces that he has left behind. Sam’s addiction has sucked the oxygen from the rooms and we struggle to get enough air, even when he isn’t here. I realize with shame that I no longer like it when he comes home. The fear that I experience when he is on the streets is easier to manage than the prickly fear that comes with his behavior at home. We walk on eggshells and exist in a state of anxious readiness, waiting for something looming and indiscernible.
He is comfortable living in the anesthetic cloud that envelops him, and he enjoys the street cred that comes with dealing.
Finally, I admit the truth that I’ve been avoiding: We can’t fix this for Sam. I also realize that I’m angry that he won’t, or can’t, fix it himself. I have read countless books and been told by a lineup of professionals that addiction is a mental illness and being angry at Sam is as fair as being angry at someone for being schizophrenic or bipolar. Yet, to me, someone who is not an addict, a veneer of choice hangs over his actions. This leads to an anger that I’m ashamed to admit, yet this admission feels like relief after months of numbness and desperation. As quickly as it arrives, the anger passes, supplanted by lingering guilt, but even that is too draining to sustain. I watch my husband, like a mirror, as he oscillates between fear and exhaustion.
When Sam was a little boy, sometimes he crawled into my bed at night after a nightmare. I would sleepily kiss his sweaty hair and murmur reassurances as he settled in, little spoon to big. These memories cut deeply, but I hope that with time they won’t hurt so much when they flit through my mind. That sweet little boy is gone from me right now — as if taken or erased — and I need these memories, however painful, to help me through this nightmare that is our life. The memories remind me that I love Sam, and I need to hang on to that right now, because it is very hard to like, let alone love, the young man who is tearing our lives apart.
As Sam is 16 now, he cannot be forced into treatment against his will. Our only option is an ultimatum: Either he agrees to a residential program, or we tell him he can’t live with us anymore. I think if he stays here, Sam will take us down with him. My husband and I rehearse the conversation nervously in advance, trying to be compassionate and calm, as we lay out his choices. Sam is predictably angry during the conversation, then cries, begging for our forgiveness and understanding. I have no doubt that — in this moment — he means every word. He always does. And predictably, despite the alarm bells in my mind, my heart wells up with that most tender and fragile of emotions: hope. Sam loves us and he needs us to support him during his pain and his illness. He kisses my forehead. He makes promises, ones we have heard many times before, and he begs us not to abandon him. Through his crocodile tears, my little boy asks us yet again for one more chance.
And again, like fools, we give it to him.
Sarah Evans is trying to live happily ever after in Toronto, where she sometimes writes about her life.
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