Monday, December 30, 2013

I've Already Been Grieving A Long Time

When my son, Ethan, was found dead in his apartment two weeks ago he had been dead for several days.

Even though Dec. 15, 2013, may wind up being the date on his tombstone, what really died that day was hope. What died that day were the hard to kill dreams that someday, somehow my beautiful, talented boy would find a purpose in life that no one else could give him and quit killing himself a little bit at a time. What died that day were my still harbored hopes that he'd get clean and become the man he always dreamed of being.

Although there is no indication his death was suicide, Ethan had been killing himself for a long time and, little by little, the people that loved him had been forced to let him go. All we had left were our hopes, our dreams, our prayers, and when he was clean and in the mood to be sociable, little glimpses of the Ethan we so wanted all the time.

Addiction may end in death, but it is in reality a lot of little deaths. The death of personality, stability, contact, interaction, early dreams, relationships, health and so much more.

I've been saying goodbye to Ethan for so long, that I thought this last goodbye would be only a little more difficult than many of the others. I was wrong, the finality makes it far worse, but the fact remains that while it's another level of grief, I've been grieving a long time.

Ethan was a wonderful, caring child who never wanted to hurt anyone. He turned into an angry teenager who demanded my attention on his schedule, my support for his demands. He was verbally and emotionally abusive when it was just the two of us at home. He punctured his walls and doors with knives and fists, and had no regrets for breaking things that weren't his. Although he couldn't support himself or make all of his own decisions, he refused to comply with any standards outside of his own. Household chores (taking out trash and emptying the dishwasher) weren't done. He overloaded the dryer until he burned it out and I started doing his laundry. A HAZMAT suit would have been needed to enter his room. Still, sometimes we connected although I couldn't get him to see life from a different point of view; one where he needed to be responsible and think about a driver's license and job, where he needed to think about school as a step toward his dreams, one where he would always need to follow someone's rules to get ahead.

When he turned 16, he decided that since he was legally an adult in North Carolina, that meant he no longer had to do anything I wanted. He was, by God, grown. The drug use, which I think had probably only been spotty until then, undoubtedly increased. That was the year I feel like I began to lose my son. The young man I interacted with at times bore only a passing resemblance to the boy I had raised.

I've been grieving him for seven years now.

People who have never dealt with addiction cannot understand that special kind of pain. It comes from forcing yourself to let go, to realize that there is nothing within your power that can be done to change them. It comes from accepting that they must make the change if it is to be made.

You force yourself to stop running to their rescue, to stop giving them money (although I was always willing to buy food), to stop trying to tell them what's wrong because all it does is make for an angry conversation without changing them. You may stop mentioning their addiction, they'll lie or defend it and it's just another barrier that keeps away those few stolen moments of happiness.

You quit expecting them to behave like a non-addict. They often don't show up for family gatherings, they don't see the need to work, they don't bathe or do laundry. They don't answer the phone. They don't have regular contact with anyone. Their health deteriorates.

And each time you realize they won't do that little thing, you grieve. You grieve for the person that they were once upon a time, the person that they sometimes become again in your mind.

In the last two weeks, I know I've grieved as much for the Ethan who should have been as for losing my son. If you've not dealt with addiction, you cannot understand. I'm not grieving some perfect son, but the boy who slipped slowly away from us a little bit at a time. I realize sometimes when I beat myself up over something that I didn't do, that it was probably only the Ethan that has been largely gone for seven years that would have wanted to do that any way. That even in the moments between planning it and accomplishing it, he might have become someone who wasn't interested.

I've grieved over not taking more advantage of the sober times, not making more effort to pull him back into the family after he had forced or scared us away. I've grieved over not making the time to share his successes. I've grieved over hopes and dreams and all the "what ifs" that I can dredge up sometimes.

And then I remember him high in a fit of anger, when my normally docile lab suddenly stepped between us hackles raised and a threatening tone to his bark. I remember garbled conversations, the fact that he couldn't be counted on even with an advance invitation and a car at his door, the fact that I never told him he could not come to my home if he was straight, the fact that there were months at a time when he had a license and a car, but didn't choose to spend time with me.

And I grieve again for what we lost in bits and pieces to the drug that finally pulled him under one last time.

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