I am the mother of three adult children. I am also the mother of an addict living the nightmare of denial and the consequence of said addiction. Like many, my family of origin is riddled with alcoholics and addicts. I learned to “detach” (not always in love) from their demons, drawing clear lines in the sand for my own future. I thought a geographical relocation in another state would give me the distance and perspective needed to live my own life absent the insanity substance abuse can bring. When I discovered my spouse of then seven years was an addict my world fell apart. For the life of me I could not understand how this could happen—again. What did I miss?
I began attending Al-Anon in the hopes of self-discovery and the necessary tools required to live with a recovering addict. Placing a healthy focus back on myself and away from the addict was liberating and healing. After a few years I drifted away from meetings, digging in to my marriage and the raising of our children.
Because of the safeguards of confidentiality I must be respectful and careful with what I share—which is the problem. How do I give words to the heartache of watching a child self-destruct outside the anonymous walls of 12-Step meetings? How does a mother navigate between the face of love while not enabling the habit? I find myself (again) attempting to traverse what would seem to be familiar terrain; only somehow it feels different in ways I struggle to articulate. This time I am not the spouse, daughter or sister, I am the mother and because of this the burden of loving is much more complicated. In some ways I suspect my child and I suffer from the same emotions of guilt, shame, and isolation. But what really binds us together is the stigma of addiction shared by the addict and those who love the addict.
As of late, many articles are appearing on addiction and how the addict is understood. While not without his critics, Johann Hari’s TED talk entitled “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong,” challenges how the addict/alcoholic is understood and therefore rehabilitated in the United States. The TV reality show Intervention demonstrates U.S. philosophy of treatment by bringing the mythical bottom to the addict through the threat of family loss and connections. Instead of threats, Hari points to the country of Portugal and its successful reduction of addiction.
In the year 2001 Portugal decriminalized all drugs, channeling monies once used for punishment to the rehabilitation of the addicts by reconnecting them with society through such programs as micro loans or job creation. After fifteen years, results support this shift from vilifying to compassion. Hari takes the same approach by offering a deepened connection to the addict:
I love you whether you’re using or you’re not. I love you, whatever state you’re in, and if you need me, I’ll come and sit with you because I love you and I don’t want you to be alone or to feel alone.
Reading Hari I am reminded of Father Grey Boyle, founder and CEO of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, the largest anti-gang and re-entry program in the world. In his book Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, Boyle chronicles the lives of former gang members as he “accompanies” them from gang affiliation to successful integration into society through kinship. Writes Boyle,
You stand with the least likely to succeed until success is succeeded by something more valuable: kinship. You stand with the belligerent, the surly, and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear.
~Tattoos on the Heart
Reading Hari and Boyle relives me of the burden of the stigma and shame I feel when I think of my child as the addict. As a mother it is all too easy to bind myself into the many unanswerable questions of what I should have done differently. In my past dealings with the alcoholic and addict I have been encouraged to make decisions I was not comfortable with. While I understand and respect the danger and even entrapment of behavior that enables the substance abuser, I find myself (after all these years) leaning into the language of kinship and connection instead of ultimatums, at least for now.
While I have felt anger and even rage toward my adult child, I have never been comfortable with the insistence on rejection as an option for their sobriety. As Hari notes, “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, the opposite of addiction is connection.” The challenge, of course, is the discernment of what connection via love actually means in the wake of the addict’s selfish behavior. I have been warned relapse is built into recovery, that the stigma of shame to self-love can be an exhausting process. Boyle recognizes the worth of this waiting when he quotes the prophet Habakkuk, “The vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment and it will not disappoint … and if it delays, wait for it.” For, “Ours is a God who waits. Who are we not to? It takes what it takes for the great turnaround. Wait for it.” (Tattoos, 113). And so, like the long labor of this child’s birth, I wait for it.
Cynthia Garrity-Bond, feminist theologian and social ethicist, is completing her doctorate from Claremont Graduate University in women studies in religion, with a secondary focus in theology, ethics and culture. Cynthia taught in the Department of Theological studies at Loyola Marymount University and the Religious Studies Department of Mount St. Mary’s College, Los Angeles Her research interest includes feminist sexual theology, historical theology with particular emphasis on religious movements of women, transnational feminism and ecofeminism.