For Parents: Working with an Addicted Child

After a public presentation on addictions, a mother approached me, in that familiar way — hushed, conspiratorial, a sliver of shame buried in the hopefulness of her manner — and asked me what she can do about her son. Her boy is fifteen, plays online games for countless hours each week, hides himself in his locked room, screams at her when she tries to enter, seldom attends school, and seems to be sliding ever farther from her. She is terrified that he will simply forget everything and everyone, will become a ghost, and will disappear. She has heard these stories, and the many others that twist within her. And she is terrified. But she knows that most people will blame her for what has happened — her parenting must be at fault, they will say — so she downplays, even to herself, the seriousness of her son's predicament. She tells me about her family coming here from abroad, when her son was seven, and his subsequent struggles at school. She wonders if this might have played a role in what has happened. Possibly it has. Not only the exodus itself, which must have been terrifying for them all, but what came before and after: the tension and suspicion and hiding, then a long and uncertain journey, then a new culture, clashing values, poverty. Yet if they had not come, if they had not fled on motorcycles at night across the mountains, into a safer country and then across the sea, that boy would now be dead, or in prison with the rest of the family, or an expert, by now, in the firing of rocket propelled grenades.

She describes the ways in which tension between her son and his father pushed the boy toward defiant and reckless peers, how his academic struggles led to problems with discipline and attendance. Down to the smallest detail — an altercation between the boy and his mother at the mall, about the purchasing of shoes — her story is exactly like countless others. She has come here, to this community forum on addictions, to get some firm guidance about how to proceed. She needs to know how to save her son.

And because her story is like all the others, I experience my own familiars: anxiety, uncertainty, trepidation. The answer she craves is not one that I can give. I do not have a panacea for her, no amount of reassurance from me will mollify the truth of her situation. It is a hard truth, which cannot be annealed by affirmations or false promises. And it is this: she must wait, and offer what support she can, and keep strong her tether to him by whatever means she is able. Cutting him from computer and perhaps from the life of the family, which is what her husband has proposed, may simplify the entanglements; but such strategies provoke emotional turmoil and typically lead to more and greater challenges.

As she leans closer, as people circulate around, looking at the various tables with their brochures, I can hear the deep cracking of her voice that she is trying to conceal. She does not want to break down here, become a curiosity, a madwoman. Despite the avalanche of tension within her, she cleaves to her dignity, her clarity, her purpose. She has come here to ask one simple question: what can she do?

I think of the slow climb of those on the paths of healing, the untangling and resolving of old wounds, the switchbacks and setbacks and fragile confidence that seems at first to be absent, then glimmering, then strong and persistent. I consider the ease with which the raw statistics can be corrosive and debilitating. So few seem to make it all the way home.

And yet, this is how I answer her: many, many people come through. I have known thousands who have made it. But they cannot be forced out of the labyrinth of their addiction. They must instead be called, by something inside their own inner life. And it is impossible to predict what that call might be, when it might come, how it might deliver its clarity and compassion.

This mother, who has herself come through turmoil and pain, who has traveled across the world to raise her family in safety and peace, reminds me of the goddess of compassion who inhabits almost all spiritual traditions. For Chinese Buddhists she is Kuan Yin; in Christianity she is Mother Mary. The Tibetans call her Tara. As far back as the skein of spirituality runs — to the Egyptians, for whom she was Isis, and to others, long before history and writing — the goddess of compassion has extended her welcoming touch to the lost. And her reflection, in this mother searching for a wandering child, comes here today to ask what the goddess within her already knows: hold fast, wait, invite, don't give up.

She is already doing all that she can do: by seeking resources, and assistance, and finding the path so that her son, when he straggles in from his own wilderness, will have signposts to follow. Places for support groups, and treatment, and counselling. And later, programs for school, and vocational planning, and the piecing together of a recovered life. And she knows that such resources cannot be made conditional — she cannot force him into any kind of recovery, for example, by threatening to kick him out of the house — but neither would it be wise for her simply to accept his behavior as inevitable. Stay in it, I tell her: assert for what you need, what you will and will not accept from him. Remind him that even though you cannot negotiate his movement away from addiction you are still involved in the countless details of parenting. Addiction does not remove him from the spheres of daily life and love.

I suggest that it might be a good idea to continue talking to her son about his behaviors, and that she remember to frame such discussions in the context of care and not of judgement. Probably it's also a good idea to share with him what she discovers in her addictions research: programs, challenges, tendencies. What she learned here, at this forum, and at other places she has been. She cannot walk her son's path, or coax him this way or that; but she can illuminate his way, somewhat, as the goddess moon shines upon the spinning earth.

She stands here, uncertain and frightened, keeping an eye on the milling crowd, her courage muted but clear. No doubt she would be willing to do much more than come here — walk through fire, wrestle a dragon, descend into the molten earth — to save her son. She possesses strength sufficient to such tasks. If only she could lend that strength to him, for a single moment of unvarnished decisiveness. It might be enough to carry him through. And she wants to lend it, indeed to offer it without reserve or condition. She would give all that she has for him, and then give more, and be lost to herself so that he might be redeemed. I sense the way in which she extends herself toward him, beseeches him, begs him. Yet he turns from her, and follows his own trammeled track. Besides, she cannot give him what he needs: to find his own way.

I hope that he does. And I am grateful, on his behalf, that his mother has chosen to approach her son's technology addiction — which is a dilemma shared by the whole family — with thoughtfulness and receptivity. She has not imagined herself an expert, an arbiter, a judge. She is trying to learn, she remains open, she refrains from blaming the boy or his peers or his school or society. Despite my initial trepidation, I find it refreshing to speak with her. Many parents are bitter, and blaming, and so sure of their own questionable strategies — surprise interventions, forced treatment, tough love — that they succeed only in making the plight of their child immeasurably more fraught. The parents of those struggling with addiction tend to fall into two distinct camps: disappointed, distancing, dismissive on the one hand; supportive, empathic, solution-oriented on the other. Addictions counselors speak frequently with the former group: parents who mask their anxiety with cynicism, whose strategies with their kids are defenses against their own vulnerability. The latter group are fewer in number. I do not often see them, but sometimes they show up at events like these. Occasionally they enroll in counselling classes, where I am privileged to work with them. Such parents — aware of the psychological and emotional aspects of addiction, open to their own growth and learning, willing to face whatever the situation demands — are a great, unacknowledged blessing in the life of an addicted person. Sometimes the parents are buffeted by their distress for many years, holding open the gate, calling into the wind in search of that lost child. There is no guarantee for those parents, no sure return on their sacrifice. Yet they persist, and endure, and sometimes the child returns.

Often, indeed, the child returns. They respond to that call which is beyond easy explanations: psychological, spiritual, medical. The call speaks from a place beyond such definitions. It is a force, and a great mystery. We all live inside its glow and flicker — may it last as long as the earth keeps rolling.

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