Let me suggest that whoever says “Where did I go wrong?” does not really want an answer. It’s one of those rhetorical questions asking for empathy, not a detailed reply. In fact, it asks for agreement that you are not the one to blame. You did your best, all things considered. And if you are a mother, you especially don’t want a bullet-point list of your parenting history to show you when and where you might have behaved differently so as to get a better result with your offspring.
No, the question directs attention to your plight, not your child’s. I’m suffering here because my son is caught in addiction. I’m sad/appalled/ashamed/confused/devastated/disgusted. I’m numb, flattened, and I don’t know what to do. It’s a question that is never more futile than when you’re trying to get it through your head that your child—now an adult in chronological age only, perhaps—has hit the meth wall. The one at which he no longer knows the difference between truth and lie, between right and wrong or organization and chaos, between self-preservation and certain demise.
Privately, these are the first things I consider when my son hits that wall: Is this my fault? What might I have done differently to usher him into wholeness? Why is he so hopelessly derelict? Where did I fail him? I ask these questions as if any of us has a direct line of admonition we can use to guide children into making the right choices and behaving in the most positive ways on their own behalf. We don’t, and they don’t. And none of it makes any sense in hindsight.
Who am I in his life now? Once I was his primary source of nourishment and love, his matrix, his guardian. He turned away and obliterated it all with methamphetamine. He removed himself from me and everyone else. I want to hate him for this trespass. I want to scream at his selfishness, contacting me only when he needs something, and then turning away again. I want to rage against his blatant disrespect—for himself and everything I hoped he would be.
But I don’t, not completely.
There is a Tibetan practice called tonglen. Buddhists do it in order to remind themselves that in life there is suffering. Everybody suffers, everyone experiences pain. Maybe we even come into this life with our own karmic dilemmas and proceed to act them out, sometimes compounding our own grief. Even we long-sacrificing mothers do. Compassion is called for, but we are not typically compassionate with each other right out of the primordial chute.
As one who appreciates the Buddha’s teachings, I recognize this basic state of suffering for what it is: attachment to wanting life to turn out a certain way. And I suspect that as long as anybody suffers, we all do. How can I think that my specific sad/appalled/ashamed/confused/devastated/ disgusted feelings are any more intense than anyone else’s? How can I possibly wish for the safety and well-being of my sons and daughters without also being concerned for all sons and daughters? We are in this together, whether we realize it or not. And as singularly devastating as it is to face my son’s wrecked life, I’m not unique, I tell myself. Everyone suffers.
Tonglen practice challenges perspective in this way; it trains us to get out of our small selves and be concerned with others. It works like this: You breathe in pain and suffering and breathe out relief and compassion. You start with yourself by naming your own personal desperation on the inhalation; then you name some compassionate form of relief on the exhalation. You go on to another individual—the president, for instance, or your addicted son—and continue to take in their suffering and extend to them the end of suffering with each breath, in and out. And if you are feeling magnanimous, you practice this technique on a grand scale, inhaling the suffering of all humankind and exhaling wishes for the end of suffering to all.
Why stop there? The earth is thrashing in bio-systems failure, it seems. Breathe it all in—the smog, the poisoned water, the dying trees. Send out a cleansing, restorative breath to the very planet under your feet, the one we seem to be hell-bent to destroy with our ignorance and our greed. Suck the life out of all the evil ever committed everywhere, and return absolute love and redemption on the release.
I try this. I start with myself.
- On the in breath: sadness and remorse
- On the out breath: relief
- On the in breath: shame, powerlessness
- On the out breath: peace
It feels mildly okay and vaguely positive, although it doesn’t take my mind off my son’s plight. We are separated by this drug. My heart goes out to him, but he may not even have the presence of mind to know it. So I focus on him, detoxing in a county jail three thousand miles away from me and a million light years distant in terms of his spirit.
- On the in breath: his alienation
- On the out breath: unconditional love
- On the in breath: his physical addiction
- On the out breath: restored health
- On the in breath: his psychological paralysis
- On the out breath: connection, acceptance
Does he feel any of this? Like I said, he’s in the throes of a forced detoxification and is doing it in an uncomfortable place. My imagination goes wild thinking how horrible it might be for him to realize that his life has come to such a severe loss of control. He’s incarcerated at the hands of a system acting to protect the rest of us from him. One the phone, he called his possession charge a “victimless crime,” but I am feeling the effects of his sin. I am his victim.
So, back to me.
- On the in breath: anger and insult at being lied to, being used by him
- On the out breath: forgiveness, understanding, more love
- On the in breath: deep disappointment
- On the out breath: release of expectations
- On the in breath: embarrassment
- On the out breath: tolerance
- On the in breath: more anger
- On the out breath: more forgiveness
And so on, for as long as I can focus on breathing, for as long as I can concentrate my thoughts. There is other work to do, other people to be with. Part of me stays stuck on him, and this impedes my full attention to any of it. I don’t sleep well. I stop communicating with friends. I try to imagine growing old without my son, the one I thought I knew. I drink too much wine every night in hopes that I’ll sleep. I usually don’t.
At some point I begin to understand that I’m not alone in my suffering; I get it at a deeper place in my gut. Mothers and sons everywhere are struggling at the effect of alienation and addiction. I am not the only one, and neither is he. Our existential quandary is shared by countless others.
Very probably, none of us expects our sweet, funny children to get caught in a battle with a bad substance, one that erases their ability, their will, to love and to live. No parent, good or bad, thinks their precious child will go off the deep end. Act out, maybe, but not this. Even if we see it coming in tendencies subtle or gross, none of us imagines our once brilliant sons and daughters could sink into a mire of self-abuse so degrading that they become unrecognizable to us.
I wallow in sorrowful sentiment. I think about his life—his miraculous birth, his safe and happy childhood, the good times, the hurts and wounds he carries with him, the ones I’m not even aware of—and I worry that he won’t be able to pull himself up and carry on. I can’t see how he will manage this, even if he wants to. And I don’t know that I’ll be able to carry on if he fails.
Or—I will be able to carry on, and what sort of mother does that make me? I am a woman who sits on a porch and gazes at trees. The forest is my sanctuary. Maybe the trees will tell me what I need to know. Maybe they will impart some wisdom about standing upright and hanging on. Maybe they will tell me about suffering.
If a tree falls in the forest, and I don’t hear it or see it…is it real?
He moved out at the age of eighteen. Joined the Navy, but it didn’t last long. Although he was performing with excellence in boot camp, he’d partied with some friends at the end of high school. It takes awhile for marijuana to leave your system. It took weeks for the blood test he’d had upon entry into the military to show up positive.
If I don’t know that it crashes down and makes a sound and appears to be a fallen, dead tree, and I have this story in my mind of the tree still standing…am I real?
After living at home for a year, he left again. This time he moved back to the state where he was born. He worked and went to school to become a motorcycle mechanic. Got a job at a dealership. Got a girlfriend. Started a shop with another friend. Lost the girlfriend; lost the shop. This is the short version of his story, of course. I’m sure it’s more convoluted.
What I’m not at all sure about is when his trajectory began to crash downward. When did he cross the line from using beer and pot as social grease to dabbling in methamphetamine? I don’t know.
If I witness a beloved tree, dead on the forest floor, is my own life over?
Something in my being came to a halt when he was arrested for possession. Not for selling. Not for cooking his own. Simply carrying. He entered the prison system at the county jail level. He was released on probation into a program that required him to stay clean, go to meetings and classes, get a job, and be an upstanding citizen.
But he’d lost his standing in society. He’d lost everything and only had his drug friends to turn to. I’m not making excuses for him. He could have gutted his way through the program and turned his life around somehow. Maybe.
After six months on the streets, he landed back in jail when, at a court appearance, he was remanded for having tested positive once again. This time his lawyer laid it out in terms that none of us could misunderstand: Our son is an addict, he said, who needs long-term rehabilitation. His only options are to prove himself worthy and be willing to enter yet another program or take a prison sentence. The first option, if he completes it successfully, will erase his felony charge. The second one brands him for life and offers him no rehab of any sort, except for the slim possibility of staying clean during his incarceration.
Either way, I don’t know how he will ever manage. I didn’t prepare him to face these kinds of challenges. I didn’t expect he’d fall so far, so hard. I didn’t get my job done.
If a tree falls anywhere under any circumstances, can I still call myself a mother? Can I still breathe when trees fall?
Back to me.
- On the in breath: self-doubt, recrimination
- On the out breath: forgiveness
- On the in breath: guilt
- On the out breath: freedom
And for him.
- On the in breath: his hopelessness
- On the out breath: courage to live on
I walk around, silent about my son and his dreadful situation. I have other sons and daughters, so when people ask me how everyone in the family is doing, I report about them. Because who would I want to tell, and how would I say it?
“My son is one of those low-life characters you see in movies, you know, one of those guys who are always either drugged or looking for drugs? He doesn’t speak the truth with me anymore, so I’m not sure how he is really. I hope he’s not stealing from people to get money for drugs, but I don’t know for sure. He’s not keeping up with his own bills; he doesn’t live in his own place; can’t pay for his truck to be registered and insured and can’t pay his traffic tickets. His brothers are upset with him. His sisters are worried. Our old friends in town must just shake their heads when they see him on the street. I don’t want to think about it. I don’t know how he’s doing. But thanks for asking. I’m fine. Just fine, you know.”
See how fine I am? I get dressed every day and do what needs to be done. Cook for my husband. Eat. Water the garden; do the laundry. Take writing assignments and get them filed on time. Care for my grandson when my daughter needs me to. He’s eight years old. I wonder how he will turn out, and I remember my son at that age. Who would have guessed this would happen? I stare into the sky for a clue.
We call his court-appointed lawyer to get a better sense of what’s next, what we should recommend he do. The lawyer wants our son to go into a faith-based program—a residential situation where he can fully utilize the 12-steps and align himself with God. We are told that’s the only way he will make it. We are told that if he doesn’t, he will surely die an early death from the drug life. We are told how many clients this guy has had in and out of the prison system that ended up dead because they didn’t find the way to stay clean.
The alternative is for him to plead guilty and go to prison, probably for a short period of time because the California prisons are over-crowded, and the governor has mandated the release of as many non-violent prisoners as is imaginably feasible. We are told again that in prison our son can still get drugs. The lawyer reiterates that he’ll get no rehabilitation there. He’ll learn how to be a prisoner, how to survive in that system, if he can. And when set free, he’ll be a felon for life.
These words travel 3,000 miles across the time zones into my ear and hit my heart like a stun gun. They violate my rights. They invalidate my motherhood. They make me feel entirely powerless. They make me angry. We never indoctrinated our children into the mythological God story, and now we are being told by an officer of the court that our son’s only hope is to live in a Salvation Army-run house and pray to a god he doesn’t believe in and turn his life over to Jesus. We try to explain why that plan might not work with our son. Without bashing religion in this already tenuous conversation, we tell the lawyer that a church-run program is not acceptable to us. We are not believers in that fairy tale.
I’m not concerned about my son getting to heaven when he dies. I’m concerned that he might not cherish his life until that day arrives. That, disparaging his plight, which is now grim-looking, he may never fully recover from it. I’m worried that he will suffer unduly and never forgive himself for this prolonged dive into degradation. Regret and self-loathing may lay him low, even if he does get clean and sober. I’m concerned that he’s missed his chance at living a good life, of enjoying good health and the love of his family.
People do come out of worse and triumph, so I hear. How do they do it?
I’m also concerned that we are unable to finance his recovery effort. We’re not wealthy. We are not going to mortgage the house to give hundreds of thousands of dollars to some privately owned and operated, sure-fire addiction spa where his treatment may be negligible at best—we just can’t—nor can we hire a better lawyer to represent him in court. This lawyer has hundreds of cases on his docket continuously. He knows only one solution. He is on a mission to scare people into recovery by faith. He doesn’t get who our son is.
I don’t get who our son has become. When he was arrested, he was high—so of course his plea to us to get him out of jail was frantic. He promised to pay us back by selling all his possessions if only we’d bail him out, but he’d already lost everything he owned by not paying the storage company where it was all stashed. Where he thought he’d go then was an unanswered question. He had no place to go.
When his options are spelled out to him now in harsh lettering, he says he wants to do the drug court thing and live in a facility for the duration, however long that is. By this time, his thinking is clearer. He doesn’t want to stick it out in prison. The food is disgusting, he says. The atmosphere is bizarre. It’s more than punitive. It’s like living under an extortionist police state—for him and for us. It’s expensive. Brief telephone calls to him cost us $15 a minute. Depositing a few bucks into an account for him to buy toothpaste and soap costs more. It’s all so unbelievable, so ludicrous, I can barely breathe.
My husband flies to California to meet his lawyer in person. Meanwhile, I kick into action on the Internet and by telephone to find an affordable sober living facility somewhere else in-state so that our son can still meet his drug court obligations there. My thinking is to get him far away from his druggie acquaintances. I find a place in a nearby county, a residential rehab that will actually pick him up by bus at the county jail and reel him in. I put a deposit on his rent there with my credit card.
The day before he is to be released, however, his lawyer announces that he needs to stay in his own county for the duration of his obligation to drug court. His case is not transferrable. We scramble to find another place for him to go, one not steeped in religious overtones and requirements to surrender to a higher power. Fortunately, an opening at a local sober living house gives us all hope; it’s one that does not cost a couple grand a month, and it has no cross on the door.
He enters. He agrees to the house rules. He follows the program. For many months, he occupies a room among other recalcitrants, also struggling to find their way. He goes to daily and weekly meetings and monthly court appearances, and responds to impromptu demands to pee in a cup to prove his sobriety. He gets a job and moves out on his own. He gets clear of it all and wakes up. “One day at a time” is what they tell him. I imagine his new-found focus to be incremental, a moment-by-moment choice. In this life, he chooses now. There is only now. Now he is not an addict. Right now.
The Buddha never promised redemption. His teachings don’t lead to heaven. This practice of watching the breath aims us at becoming fully conscious, and in so doing, becoming fully connected. “At one” with all. Therein lurks the hope: to realize—to make real—that my son and I are not separated, not really. In the greater scheme of things, we are just fine. We suffer, and so does everyone else. We still have each other. And everyone else.
I send him books and vitamins. We talk on the phone. He sounds surprisingly present. He seems like a different person than he was just a year ago. He is gentle and grateful, even when he reports having to appease his probation officer somehow—she treats him like a naughty child at times. She holds a lot of power over him and the others. The structure of his relationship to her and other officials in the drug court system is based in obedience and contrition. I encourage him to just do what he has to do to satisfy them. Spend his time reading. Find someone to talk with, someone who is not a self-righteous dominatrix or a religious zealot.
Just breathe in and out, I tell him.
Another lineage of the Buddha’s teachings, the Zen path, recommends a practice called koan study, which is meant to wrench the mind free from its relative cause-and-effect mode. Seemingly unanswerable questions, like “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” are contemplated on and off the meditation cushion until a breakthrough is experienced, one not reachable by logical, everyday thinking. Discovering the sound of one hand clapping or recognizing your original face is hardly a left brain activity. You can’t follow normal neurological pathways to an answer. In fact, logic is ineffective. Thinking about these obscure conundrums is perplexing enough to stop the mind.
In their provoking, unanswerable manner, koans stymie our attachment to the inexplicable condition that life is. It’s not figure-out-able, so they say. Just sit. Just contemplate your koan, and if you’re steadfast and lucky, it will point to the essence of the dharma and to the fact that all beings are, in nature, buddhas. Even once pitiable mothers. Even once drug-dependent sons. It’s all empty, and my big upset is just more temporary stuff to look at and let go of. And his predicament is just his predicament. Everything changes. Nothing is intrinsically solid or permanent. It all dissipates.
So, what is a mother to do? That’s not a helpful question either. The designation itself is problematic once a son or daughter is grown up. From any angle, the attachments of being a mother seem unending, but they aren’t. All drama ends. For now, for awhile at least, questions like this one or “Where did I go wrong?” are left behind.
“Who loves?” is my new koan, one more worthy, I think, of us. “Who loves?”
As he serves his time in this incarnation, learning to live un-medicated against his suffering, learning to appreciate the life he’s been granted, I will exhaust my mind with its resolution, which I suspect will bring me—as all koans are designed to do—to the feet of the Buddha in my son.
And we will both be forgiven, relieved of our suffering, set free.
Ann Hutton lives in upstate New York’s magnificent Hudson Valley. Her work has appeared in the Catskill Mountain Region Guide, Hudson Valley Magazine, Kaatskill Life Magazine, Green Door Magazine, Chronogram, Upstate House, Upstater.com, and in Ulster Publishing’s community weeklies: Woodstock Times, Saugerties Times, Kingston Times, and New Paltz Times. A graduate of Union Institute and University at Vermont College, Ann has also studied with author Martha Frankel, memoirist, entertainment journalist, and executive director of the Woodstock Writers Festival held each spring in Woodstock, New York, and with Abigail Thomas, author of memoir and fiction, and all around writerly inspiration. Her first book-length manuscript, Sitting in Motion: One Woman’s Midlife Adventure on Two Wheels, awaits publication.