I have a son who is an addict.

My beautiful blue eyed child who has so much within him to offer this world through his love and compassion and wacky sense of humour. Probably the hardest thing about addiction for family members is being open and honest with those around you. People are so quick to judge, point fingers and give advice. You are judged on so many levels as a parent as to not being strict enough, helping too much, giving excuses for bad behaviour, treating one child different to another etc, so when something as hectic as this comes along, you want to hide away from what you expect will only be accusing fingers.

Surprisingly, I can’t think of condemnation from those I have shared with, but pity, yes. So it becomes easier to share the more you talk about it and there’s healing in sharing too, and suddenly you find yourself hearing stories from others who have either travelled the road themselves, or have a family member or friend who has been there/is there. Now that was very unexpected. I have come to realize that addiction is a huge issue that touches many lives and families. I have a passion to speak to young people and share our story and implore them to not go down that road. It’s one thing sharing with those you know, it’s another thing going as public as this. I have learnt so much through this road that I feel it is beneficial to share the journey with others, while at the same time withholding some parts of the story that I feel only my son should share when he is ready one day. So this is more of what it has been like as a mom and what I have learnt along the way.

We were a place of safety to our son at 15 months, then foster care and eventually adoption at 5 years old. Yes, there is addiction in his biological family, and no, we would not have done anything differently. We love and accept him completely and are commited to him for life. Addiction is the great leveler – it does not matter what age, race, religion, financial bracket, area you live in, male or female, whether you are part of your biological family or an adoptive one, it can touch your life if you choose to go down that road.

He excelled in Primary School, gaining merit awards for academics, but struggled to stay a part of things consistently, so sport never really featured. We had assessments done that revealed we were dealing with a genius IQ, but the signs of ADD were strongly visible, so we went the Ritalin route for a few years. Not one specialist could ever give an accurate diagnosis as to all that he was struggling with, and we had varying ideas presented to us. I knew there was something not right and so was very protective of him and often shielding him from trouble and making excuses for bad behaviour. At the onset of adolescence, trouble started big time and we struggled for years with a defiant, rebellious teen. In the 2nd week of Grade 9 he announced he was not going back to school. You cannot believe how we tried and then eventually gave up the morning battle of trying to pull this huge kid out of bed. We came under heavy criticism at this stage from people. How I wish I knew then what I know now. I don’t know if we could have stopped the drugs, but we would have had understanding as to what we were dealing with, and we would have coped better as a family. He eventually finished Grade 9 at a Home School. He is such an amiable person and very well liked in all circles, so people often did not believe us as to what life was like at home. We moved Provinces when he was 16, and that’s when we believe the drugs started. He basically did nothing for 2 years and then somehow managed to get his Grade 10 at a Home School while doing drugs at the same time.

Addiction is a behavioural disorder and the drugs may follow only years later. The first part is called dry addiction where you see the behaviour, but there are no drugs. That’s why we never saw the change-over to when drugs were added in the mix until 6 years later!

You know what an idiot you feel like when you have made the comment ‘he displays so many symptoms of someone taking drugs and yet he’s not taking them!’ We just didn’t see it until I found a small empty ‘bankie’ (small plastic bag that dagga is sold in) on our toilet floor – I knew straightaway what it was, but your mind doesn’t want to accept it. Within the week I confronted him and he confessed to it. Just writing about that time brings tears to my eyes – I so did not want this to be true. I even went as far as giving him activated charcoal that day I found out because he said he had just tried LSD for the first time the night before – I was just desperate to give him something to get this poison out! I could not understand why you would want to put acid in your body and that this stuff was in my son’s body! Little did I know that there are always lies when it comes to addiction and LSD had actually become his drug of choice.

My son’s counselor said to me last year that moms were not made to parent an addict. It should never have been this way. Moms love and care and nurture and protect – all of that gets ripped away, other than the love, when you land up with your son in addiction! You have to think addiction first and son second. It is all very hectic to deal with. So many emotions – anger, hurt, betrayal and yet a love so deep that just wants him to get better.

Dreams for the future are dashed. Facebook posts about his peers graduating from High School, university etc, getting their driver’s licence just break your heart in 2. While I want to celebrate with my friends, and I do, at the same time, I mourn the loss of what could have been. Recalibrating is the order of the day.

Co-dependency becomes a common household word and you have to realize that you played a part in making it easier for him to stay in addiction by always rescuing him. What you thought was good, was not! It’s a whole mindset change, a whole new way of loving and parenting. The three C’s help a bit in that I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it and I can’t cure it.

Healthy changes in your thinking are vital. I am so thankful for the training my husband does as, alongside the support group, it has been invaluable in helping us get stronger and able to deal with all the challenges and changes in a life with an addict. The training he does has got to do with how our minds work and how we set goals etc. One specific help has been the statement ‘think and say what you want, not what you don’t want.’ Another help has been the acronym CHIVE which stands for having the courage to live lives of humility, interdependence and vulnerability in order to live a life of excellence. Number one thing for any addict or supporter to learn is humility – to see your fault and start to deal with it without defending, justifying, denying, blaming or rationalizing. It is no easy road, but the journey makes you stronger and it’s so worth it in the end.

My son went from Primary care (1 month) to Secondary care (1 month) to long term rehab for a year. He is now volunteering at the rehab at 23 years of age and at the same time doing his Grade 11, with the plan to do matric next year. So many people have said the length of time in rehab is a waste of time. I strongly disagree – the way he was living before rehab was a waste of time. Now he has his life back on track with a feeling of hope and purpose for his future. If he had stayed as he was, the only other 2 options were jail or death. It has been a tough 1st year of rehab with a relapse in the middle that had us all reeling, but it was that very rock bottom that he needed, and from then on he started to climb towards health in body, mind, soul and spirit. He found God again and it has been amazing watching his spiritual relationship with God blossom and grow over the last year. One of the steps (in a 12 step programme that the rehab runs) is about realizing that you are powerless in your addiction and need God to help you through.

Biggest help to us as a whole family has been attending the HEAL addiction support group on a weekly basis, where we learn about addiction, hear other families stories and get to chat to recovering addicts and ask them questions we might have. Our daughters attend from time to time. It’s a family disease as each family member is affected and needs recovery. My husband and I have held onto each other for support through this, and I am thankful that it drew us closer together and we worked towards being on the same page with regards to our son. That’s why long term rehab is important as it gives time to all involved to process and heal.

Addicts are told not to go back to old places, faces and things – we need to learn and change so that we are not the same when he visits – we cannot afford to be a part of the group of ‘old faces’ that could trigger a relapse. You learn that co-dependency is basically doing for others what they can do for themselves, living their lives for them with more passion than your own. Before you realize what it is, you would do all that, thinking you are doing the right thing. It’s only through talking to others and understanding how destructive it is and how powerless it makes the person you are being co-dependent to, that you start working towards change.

The thing to realize is that we all do it to certain extents, and often moms battle the most as we honestly see it as caring and loving our children. But we land up with our children not learning how to stand on their own two feet and feeling entitled. It has benefitted us in further parenting of our girls and in general life living. All parents would benefit from reading the books ‘Boundaries’ in its various forms for different ages and settings by Cloud and Townsend and ‘Co-dependent no more’ by Melody Beattie. You learn how very vital chores are in the household, how consequences have to take place, threats with no back-up are no good to anyone and consistency in what you say and do is so very important and how giving your children everything they desire is so dangerous. They need to learn delayed gratification from an early age.

The concept of tough love suddenly makes sense. I think this is the part that people on the outside of your family battle to understand the most. Believe me, I battle too with the thought of my son relapsing and saying, that’s it, you are not welcome in this house anymore or to be a part of our lives. When you understand, that by saying ‘shame’ and maybe allowing him to stay with one more chance, you are taking his power away and making the chances of death or prison even stronger. Addiction is a one way ticket to death unless the person realizes their problem and starts to do something about it. They don’t even like taking someone into rehab who is not there by choice, because until the denial stops they are wasting their time and your money! It’s called the disease of denial and the way the road often starts is with the phrase ‘it will never happen to me!’

Addiction is a costly journey to all involved. It costs you emotionally, physically, spiritually, mentally, socially and financially. Rehab costs can run into the millions if you allow it. Long term rehab is the only way in my opinion and from our experience and also through listening to the advice of others. It often takes a long time to get into full blown addiction – there is just no way that a person will sort it out in a month or three. At least a year is needed for a good recovery. The other thing is that addiction is a lifelong journey. Relapse can happen with one glass of wine (the most common form of relapse comes through a drink), and so they are told no more drinking, ever! Sometimes I think that we should all live with that kind of vigilance in our lives and with the motto that is used in AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and NA (Narcotics Anonymous) ‘just for today!’

For me, as a mom, it has been the toughest thing I have ever had to deal with, but I am on the road to recovery and so thankful that my son is doing so well. I have to learn to live without going on the ups and downs with him as that is not helpful in my recovery. This is one of those experiences that at this stage I can say that God really does work for the good in all things to them that love Him.

[For other stories involving struggles with Addiction, click here]