I fought back the urge to totally explode and beg this person to impart more insightful wisdom they have racked up in their seven years of parenting on how to effectively insulate my children from the dangers of "those bad kids". My mind somehow managed to keep my mouth from pleading for an explanation on how I could pick those kids out, since it was something so glaringly obvious. The ignorance of that entire 10 second exchange made my hands sweat, my jaw clench, my stomach churn and my heart pound. I knew if I opened my mouth in that moment, there would likely be a torrential outpouring of angry words and foul language, and an impending outburst of that caliber wasn't going to do anyone any favors, especially in a public place. I decided to take a deep breath and excuse myself instead. It's been eating at me ever since.
I will be the first one to tell you that I never thought drug abuse would be something that, outside of my own history, would ever weave it's way into my family. Like most parents, I always spoke to them in age-appropriate terms of the dangers they might face on their own journeys toward adulthood. They both went through the D.A.R.E. program in elementary school. I have never really thought that program was effective, and as someone that has and continues to battle drug abuse, I have a lot of problems with it. I can honestly say that while well-intended, the only thing it really taught my kids was one could get high off paint, household cleaners and sharpie markers. I am convinced that when Midge goes through it next year, she will come home and insist every sharpie, bottle of kitchen cleaner and can of paint in the garage be disposed of immediately. I did, however, continue the conversation with my children. As they grew older, we would talk about different things they had heard, friends they had concerns about and why I didn't have a glass of wine with holiday dinner or beer at family parties. I did all the things that are generally agreed upon that supposedly lessen the likelihood of your children getting caught up in a scene you never hope they end up in. In eighth grade, Banana was student council president. Her freshman year she transitioned seamlessly from her eighth grade state-champion winning junior cheerleading squad to the high school Junior Varsity squad. A few short months after that, a phone call from the high school on a warm April Friday afternoon was was the first snap of the last straw that announced that our lives would irrevocably be changed forever. Less than two days after picking my child up from the police station, where she was taken to when they arrested her at school, I began my search for an adolescent inpatient substance abuse facility while she waited in limbo in a locked psychiatric facility.
My kid is one of "those" kids.
The one thing that still blows my mind when I think about it is how, on the surface, utterly unremarkable there was about any child that was in rehab with Banana. Preconceived notions and preemptive prejudice are unfortunate truths about human nature. Cliché as it may sound, no parent in their right mind would allow their child to go for a car ride in a windowless van with a creepy looking older guy that offered them candy at the park. We all interpret visual clues, put that information into context and make decisions accordingly. It's the first step in the process of self-preservation. Not a single one of the kids that shared the third floor of the nondescript brick building during Banana's five week stay would have raised a single red flag to me had I seen them out on the street. They were sons of affluent lawyers, small-town athletes, funny and insightful girls, boys from good homes on the North Shore, talented and artistic students with a vibrant energy, gifted musicians, avid skateboarders and diminutive and beautiful former student council presidents. I promise you, on the surface you would be very hard pressed to pick a single one of them out of a line up to finger as one of "those kids". Even as I heard them tell their stories of battling with everything from alcohol to prescription pills to cocaine and heroin, my mind had a hard time wrapping itself around the fact that these stories came from them. The only telltale sign that came from them was the fact that they were in rehab.
I can appreciate that parents would want to keep their kids away from bad influences. When Banana was in rehab, part of her release plan included drawing up what is called a home contract. It basically lays out behavior expectations, consequences, rewards, acceptable places to be and acceptable people to be with. It also lays out where she was never to be, and whom she was no longer allowed to spend her time with. This was by far the biggest source of contention in our meetings. While she was gone, I went through everything I possibly could to piece together where and with whom she used. She was furious that names of people I had never met and had no previous knowledge of appeared on my offer of the home contract. She knew I went through her phone as well as her social media to get those names. I'm sure the fury she felt for what I had done was equal to the fury I felt when I happened upon pictures of her completely obliterated at a garage party, bottle of liquor in one hand and a Newport in the other. She told me those people were her friends and I didn't know them. She was right on half of it, I didn't know those kids but I was absolutely certain that not a single one of them was anyone I would call a friend. We finally agreed on all the terms of the home contract before she came home, but it was a screaming, crying battle of biblical proportions.
We were at a meeting a town over a couple of weeks after she came home. One of the concessions we made was we didn't expect her to give up smoking right away. Truth be told, I picked it up again with renewed vigor when she went to rehab. I know a lot of people saw her with cigarettes and I am sure thought we were terrible parents for letting her smoke. Quite frankly, I didn't have the energy nor the inclination to give the explanation that she was fresh out of rehab and Newports were the equivalent of baby aspirin in the grand scheme of things in our world now. I didn't even have the energy to tell people to fuck off if they didn't care to walk a mile in our shoes before busting out with the judgy bullshit. So there we were, outside having a smoke after breakout was through and a baby faced teenager wearing a long-sleeved tshirt, shorts and sandals came up and gave Banana a hug. He introduced himself with a smile and an extended hand, and offered his name, a name I already knew and could place with a face because he was one of "those" kids that was placed into the forbidden column of the home contract. The judgment I so despised in the parent I had this conversation with a few weeks ago was something that was deeply present in myself not too long ago. Within the first minute of meeting this boy, Banana told him point blank that he didn't make the cut to the approved people on the contract. He didn't need to have the contract explained to him because he had already been to the same facility and was well-acquainted with it. He laughed a little at my embarrassment of being put on the spot and told me he hoped it would be ok to see him at meetings because he was trying to get his shit together. I would have never guessed his demon was heroin unless Banana pointed out that he must be starting over with the sobriety if he was covering his arms in the middle of summer in a long shirt.
Our paths cross on occasion. Banana and I saw him up at the mall before Christmas and I would see him quite a bit up at the gas station he works at when I would buy cigarrettes before Banana and I both quit a few months ago, and before he switched to graveyard shift. We do keep in touch on the phone, though. I have forged an unconventional friendship with this boy, who really isn't a boy I suppose. He's 20 now, but he is still a kid in my eyes. Recovery-based friendships are a very unique thing. There is little time spent on superfluous bullshit, and more times than not, a simple "How are you doing?" gets anything other than a simple reply. We immediately lay out the truth, unfiltered thoughts and reactions, knowing this kind of interaction is what helps us keep our sobriety and hopefully helps others keep theirs. He has provided an interesting, if not at times heartbreaking parallel to Banana's recovery. While I am still afraid of jinxing it by saying it out loud, Banana has had a remarkable recovery. He's been in and out of a few different rehab facilities, and while he is off the heroin, he still isn't completely clean. It's so frustrating in some regards, because he is so very close to getting there and then he backslides. He loses a little ground but to his credit, gets back up and gains it back every time. It's an imperfect process, and some of us take longer than others is what I've told him. What I haven't told him is what remains unspeakable to mothers of addicts. Having an addict child is like having a toddler that is precariously navigating a long and unforgiving staircase. When they slip, you gasp and try to catch them before they crash and hurt themselves. It's the same concept, but when an addict slips, more often than not you risk having to bury them. Fear like that is a constant companion, even if it quietly festers in the back of your mind. It's always there. It gnaws at your peace of mind when your addict is having a bad day because addiction is an irrational disease. Truth of the matter is we lost almost 80 people to overdoses last year in my county. Some we lost were no more than a year older than my own addict. If we lost that many to a flu variant or West Nile disease, people would be frantic and we would all be very aware that there was a potentially fatal epidemic. The only time addiction garners any passing attention around here is social media chatter when another one of our children dies, Red Ribbon Week or maybe a short blurb in the police blotter or obituary of the local paper. And that needs to change.
There are basically two schools of thought in terms of addicts. One of them was pretty well illustrated in the anger of people online when Amy Winehouse died. I can't tell you how many posts I saw lamenting that a junkie that killed herself got any media coverage. How could anybody have any pity for someone that wasted their lives and talent in such a spectacular fashion? Why should anybody have any compassion for someone as selfish and willfully neglectful as that? These people believe, as they have every right to, that addiction is merely a choice, and addicts are simply too weak, too selfish or too stupid to get themselves clean. I can't say I blame them for thinking that way. Addicts are generally a really shitty group of people. I speak from experience. We lie, we rationalize, we manipulate our environments and those that love us in unforgivable ways. I completely agree that it's practically impossible to identify a single redeeming quality in anyone that is actively using. I, on the other hand, maintain that regardless of how unsavory it might be, addiction is indeed a disease. Lung cancer and emphysema might be the direct result of making the choice to repeatedly light up cigarettes and inhaling their smoke. Diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attacks and stroke are all known possibilities for those that eat a lot of shitty food and sit on their asses instead of getting up off them. Regardless of causation, it doesn't make these things any less of a disease. The same holds true for addiction. There are a number of factors that come into play that make up the whole of addiction. There are physiological processes such as chemical dependence, withdrawal avoidance, and the basic neurological mechanisms of dopamine and serotonin saturation and reuptake depending on which drug is being used. There are also behavioral processes such as rationalization, compulsion, denial and obsession that come into play. Each one of these processes in and of themselves would be daunting, especially if the behaviors are present in our children. All of these behaviors combined are the mother of all nightmares, and even more so when you come to realize that even if you get your child treatment, and they choose to be willing and committed participants in their own recovery, they will never be cured. The best outcome is a management of symptoms and relapse prevention. The price we pay for our sobriety is lifelong vigilance. If you do not believe that addiction is a disease, there is likely nothing that I can say that will change your mind, and that's ok. I can agree to disagree if you can.
The truth of the matter is that anger is a secondary emotion. I didn't act on my anger that day I had the conversation about "those kids" a few weeks ago because I knew it was simply indicative of something else. It has always been easier for me to be angry about something than it has been for me to admit that I feel pain. Even though I would never think it about someone else, I have always felt that admitting hurt and vulnerability makes me weak. I can count on my fingers the amount of people whose opinions of me as a person and a mother actually matter to me. It wasn't that I was concerned what this parent, had they known the storm bubbling up inside me that day, might think of me. I truly do not give a single flying fuck about most people's opinions about me. I'm the first one to tell you that I am a very difficult person to like. What bothered me so deeply was knowing that the implication was that those kids, that my kid, was the embodiment of a lack of goodness. That she was lacking. That she was lesser. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
In a few short days, it will have been two years since we got the call from the school telling us that my daughter had been taken into custody. Those weeks that she was gone were, quite honestly, the absolute worst weeks of my life. Her absence ripped a hole in my soul that every ounce of fear, heartbreak, anger and grief I felt couldn't even come close to filling. It took a very long time even after she came home to restore the sense of normalcy, which was probably because what our lives were would never again be. The first few weeks she was home were no less stressful and terrifying than the ones she was gone. As time went on, however, our lives began to take shape into something that at least, on the outside, would seem like a normal family.
Many addicts use certain phrasing when talking about their sobriety. We use the words "I have" in terms of how long we have been sober. I think the significance of this phrasing is sometimes overlooked. I think it is significant not just because it's a verb, but the simplicity of it stated being in present tense is really astounding if you stop to think about it. These days and months and years that we speak about having are a claim. We've earned them and we own them, but there is no implication that we are them. Just like every other possession anybody owns, there is no guarantee that they will always be. Sometimes we lose things, sometimes we give them away, and sometimes we horde them. Whatever it is that happens to them are of our own choosing, and I have watched this child own and accept responsibility for every single one of her days of her sobriety. It hasn't always been easy, and it hasn't always been pretty, but I am deeply humbled by what I have seen this girl of mine accomplish.
She has grown from someone that had little cognizance of her own mortality to someone that not only thrives but plans to do so in her future. Her relationships with not only me and her father, but her sisters too, are things that she pours her heart and soul into. She exudes a warmth and energy that is impossible to not be drawn to. She's funny and a little outrageous, quick to laugh and quicker to smile. She's affectionate and it's rare that she doesn't take an opportunity to tell someone she loves them. She's genuine and forthcoming. My time with her here at home is getting smaller by the day, and I would be lying if I said the fact that she is graduating a term early this upcoming winter doesn't bring me a little anxiety. I know that most parents freak out a little when it's time for their kids to spread their wings and make their way into the world. Since she is my oldest, I don't have anything to compare it to but I have to believe that I have concerns that other parents might not have. I have to have the same faith in her that she has in me that she will continue to do the next right thing. After I published my last blog post, she came downstairs and joined a discussion that her dad had already started with me. They were understandably concerned that I might have been struggling a bit, and since we no longer turn a blind eye to even the smallest of potential problems we immediately got down to business. She opened her mouth and five of the most important gospel words outside of "I love you" that are spoken in this house reaffirmed to me one of the most important things I have tried to impart on all four of my kids.
"We are in this together." Words to live by.
It has been an honor to be this child's mother, especially these last two years, eleven months, three weeks and five days, and I will continue to support her quest to have a limitless amount more of those days.
Congratulations on every single one of these days that you've earned, kid. I'm proud to call you mine.