Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Losing an Addicted Child -- Guilt Joins Grief

In my local network of grieving mothers there are a disproportionate number of us who have lost children to drug overdoses.

Most, if not all, were unintentionally fatal.

My son's autopsy, for example, says accidental overdose, although I know for a fact he intentionally overdosed, regularly. He just never expected to die from it.

For a while we wrestled with whether it might have been intentional, as he had made cryptic phone calls to family members during his last contact. But then again, when he was high most of his phone calls were cryptic in that we couldn't understand what he was saying or talking about.

Two facts blew that scenario out of the water. First, everything was always someone else's fault, so he would have been sure to leave a note with plenty of blame to be shared by everyone who he felt ever let him down. Second, his drug use had resulted in a certain level of psychosis in which he believed himself immortal. The fact that he had survived multiple Near Death Experience (NDE) overdoses, which are actually sought instead of being the frightening thing most of us would espect, and a car accident that should have killed him, only served to reinforce that idea.

All my personal baggage aside, loving and losing an addict, particularly when that addict is your child, carries a load of guilt and grief that is probably a common denominator.

The guilt can span a wide range of issues and is something I wrestle with in different ways regularly. At the same time, I expect I'm not alone when it comes to parenting and losing an addict. If you've walked that path, I want you to know you're not alone.

These are the questions we struggle with when guilt manages to find it's way into our thoughts. These are the questions we should be able to banish, but so often cannot.

"Why didn't I know?"

I knew he was using at the time he died, although I'm sure there were many times that we were together and he was high and I didn't know it. Initially, I thought he was just being a teenager and later I could no longer tell the drug moods from his own because I had lost the real person that lived in his body. I knew the drugs could kill him and I had told him as much, as kindly as I could and as often as I could. Sometimes I screamed it at him with tears. Sometimes it was a silent text message on his phone. Always it was with pain in my heart and with a belief that he would get better. I knew, but I didn't know, because I never really expected him to die. I thought he'd hit bottom and find his way back to living, but that never happened. I didn't know the reality of how that phone call would feel.

"Did I do all I could to help him?"

I never "sent" him to rehab. We all offered at one point or another, I think, to take him. We researched places and talked to him. But he never thought he had a problem, or at least a problem that he needed help to quit. Like any addict, his addiction controlled him and lied to him. He could quit for six months, so it wasn't a problem -- in his mind it was a choice. He wasn't even convinced it was a bad choice because he thought it made him smarter, godlike, better in some way. I suppose there might have been a way to force him into rehab, but it would have been a waste of energy and money. No one gets straight until they are ready to do so, as friends who have managed repeatedly tell me.

"What did I do wrong that caused it?"

That's one of those beat myself up questions that I tend to wrestle with way too often, even after I've successfully put it away time and time again. There's a million things I wish I'd done differently, but the simple fact is that I don't know that any of them would have made a difference. If that sounds like letting myself off the hook, then it's because I need to and so does any other person wrestling with that question. Despite addiction in our family tree that was not hidden, my son made the personal choice to experiment with drugs with his friends. They tried several things before he stumbled on the drug that did it for him and at least one of his friends and they became addicted. I don't think either of them came from bad homes or that as parents we considered each other's sons bad influences. Our boys grew up together and made bad choices together. My son died and I'm thankful her son was spared.

I could have lived somewhere else, taken him to church more, stayed in an abusive marriage to give him a father, not remarried, had a job with regular hours, put him in private school, more carefully monitored his activities, but all of those things are an illusion of control and I know it. I did the absolute best I could and if it was wrong, it was still his choice what to make of it. Parenting, at best, is often an illusion of control as though it were actually up to us how our children "turn out."

"Why couldn't I be enough?"

This one is tied closely to the previous one, but is more personal. If you love an addict, when they fall into addiction you feel like you should be able to love them out of it. That they choose the addiction over you, although in reality it isn't their choice. Even when I think I did the best I could with my life circumstances, I wonder if I gave enough of myself. Did I tell him how wonderful he was? Did I do enough to build him up? Did he know to the center of his being how much he meant to me? And if I did and he did, how was that not enough?

I caught myself with that guilt nagging at me the other night on my way home from the gym (alone in a car is a bad place to be sometimes). That's when my old Al-Anon training managed to raise its head and remind me that it wasn't up to me to fix anyone. That I had loved an addict before and managed to release the feelings of responsibility for his addiction and I had to do the same with my son, no matter how hard it was to do so. Reminding myself of that painful reality will eventually help free me.

As a sidenote, my first addict was my second husband, whom I'm often convinced God sent my way to prepare me to survive Ethan. Otherwise, I have to consider it all just a horrible waste of time and money. He went to rehab, but he didn't deal with his issues or overcome his addiction. I tried to do the things he wanted to do thinking I could make him happy and he'd quit. I bought into all the mind games an addict can play and was manipulated into being someone I wasn't a lot of the time. Al-Anon taught me that his addiction was his own and that I didn't control him. It also taught me that I'd know when I had had enough. I did, eventually find the time when I sent him on his way. (I'm sure he continued on in the same manner with his next wife. I didn't hear from him again until I got word he'd killed himself -- still wrestling with demons he could never let go.)

There's another kind of guilt I sometimes feel when relating to other mothers who've lost their children. Although no one believed my son had committed suicide, he did bring his death on himself. Sometimes I feel guilty because so many children die of disease while fighting to live, or are swept away in a tragedy no one saw coming. But while our circumstances of loss vary, how we feel afterwards is the same.

Grief at losing a loved one isn't unique. No matter how they left us, we are struggling to live with the loss.

There's a hole in our lives that is supposed to be filled, a person we're supposed to be able to reach out to and grasp with our hands, arms we should feel around us, a voice we should hear, even a smell that we'd recognize in a crowded room.

Grief at losing a child has a special edge. It's a loss out of sequence, as though there were rules to death. It's a future that we imagined that will never come to life, a family tree we expected to spring from our child wilted and cut down, leaving a wound in our lives that will never heal.