I was competing in my first cross country race, a freshman in high school, when I hit the notorious ‘wall’ going up aptly named Cemetery Hill in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. My legs felt like lead stumps, my breath was short and effortful, and utterly defeated I decided to walk. Then I heard a voice, it was my Coach Mitch, yelling in his Queens accent, Come on Fuller, you can do this!!! I didn’t even know he was there, yet somehow he appeared, clipboard shoved in his armpit so he could clap his hands and wave me up the hill. As I trudged past him, I used the little energy I had to swear at him.
I had to keep going
At the time I didn’t understand it but looking back now it’s clear I was furious at Mitch because I wanted to give up and he wouldn’t let me. His words meant someone had faith in me and was expecting me to finish, so I had to keep going.
We are both the runner in this story AND the coach
As parents, we know that standing by our children during their darkest hours requires a special kind of endurance. We are both the runner in this story AND the coach. We have to endure the pain and take the brunt of our children’s stress, anxiety and even anger at the challenges they face.
Do you remember that feeling of intense love and simultaneous dread when you first became a parent? For me it sounded like this, “from here on out, I will, without question, jump in front of a bus for this human.” My children would forever be my priority.
But it wasn’t until son #2 was in high school and became addicted to vaping, then drugs, that I realized the depth of inner strength I’d need to endure this level of challenge for my child.
Parenting calls upon the limits of human endurance
If you’ve ever loved a child suffering with addiction (or mental health issues, learning differences, social challenges or any of the other tough situations that young people face), you know how hard and painful it is to let go while also being present and not giving up. Parenting calls upon the limits of human endurance.*
As a mother, my first instinct was to fix the problem. I fed him nutritious and delicious meals. I monitored who he hung out with, where he went. I tried, through lengthy discussion, to talk him out of it. And we even went to hot yoga together twice a week at 5:30am (confusing I know but it was part of his effort to convince me that he didn’t have a problem). But nothing fixed it or got him to stop using drugs. Nothing fixed the tension in our home, the silence, the anger and sadness.
Finally, with resignation and relief, I let go and focused on what I could control: myself. I knew the only thing I could do was to continue showing up for him. Continuing to show up for someone you’re sometimes afraid of and other times furious at isn’t simple. Equally, if not more difficult was to continuously muster the courage I’d need to have faith that he would get through it, that he would make it up that hill alive.
Most of the time I felt like a failure and also a person who was doing her best.
During these three years my father died, my grandmother died, my dog died and I was diagnosed with skin cancer.
As a parent we endure what our children go through while juggling the complexities of our own life.
During these three years, I was in disbelief, not that this was happening in our family, but just at how extraordinarily painful life can be.
I questioned if I could keep going through my grief and fear, but I knew that giving up was not an option. It felt like that bus I’d imagined 20 years ago was heading directly for me.
With some combination of good fortune and persistence, my son and I survived, which is a story for another time. Everyday I’m grateful and everyday I know how lucky we are because there are so many families who continue to suffer or don’t make it.
Today he’s working as a counselor with young people facing addiction while attending college. He tells me that what made the difference for him was knowing he had a family that loved him and didn’t give up on him, even when he gave up on himself.
You can read my specific strategies for supporting a child in the throes of addiction below.
If you’re facing a hard situation as a parent I’m here to remind you:
- You’re not alone and that the isolation that parents feel during such a struggle adds immeasurably to the pain… so even though it can feel impossible, I encourage you to reach out for support.
- While you feel like you’re forging your way up your own Cemetery Hill, you have the power to tap into the special kind of endurance despite the sadness, anger or fear you may be experiencing, you can do this. You can hang in there when it hurts and when you mess up and say the wrong thing. Your child will know you tried your best even in the worst of times.
You can do this!!!
Endurance of mind, heart and body for loving an addicted child:
- Establish firm boundaries around safety: I did not leave his younger sister alone with him, nor did I let him drive the car.
- Don’t be afraid to enlist help: I met repeatedly with the vice principal to discuss strategies to make drug use at school more difficult, and reached out to teachers and coaches for support.
- Allow for natural consequences: I did not call the school to excuse his tardiness, absenses, missed work, or neglect for sports practice or competitions.
- Take care of yourself: I made imperfect efforts towards attending weekly (sometimes daily) Al-Anon meetings, reaching out to friends for support, writing it down, exercising, eating healthy food and trying to get enough sleep (this was particularly challenging).
- Cultivate self-compassion: this level two in self-care is a key to how well we treat ourselves and others. Kristen Neff has exercises to help cultivate true self-compassion and one of those is writing.
- Strive for consistency: I maintained predictable meal times, regular communication, and continued to literally tuck him in at bedtime each evening, despite the pain of facing his condition.
- Be present for the recovery journey: I researched school and treatment options, accompanied him to programs, picked him up when he failed, found other options, and kept walking the road with him towards recovery.
- Share your struggle with others: I didn’t keep his drug problem a secret or let it become a cause for shame for him or myself. I reminded myself that drug addiction is an all too common issue for families and I could lean on others for support.
To learn more about how I might be able to support you, schedule a time to meet.
This post was inspired by a quote by George Yeoman Pocock that I first read years ago as it was the epigraph to The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. I was teaching parenting classes at that time and the words jumped off the page. His insights into the special kind of endurance needed for rowing described perfectly the predicament we parents find ourselves in.
Rowing is perhaps the toughest of sports. Once the race starts, there are no time-outs, no substitutions. It calls upon the limits of human endurance. The coach must therefore impart the secrets of the special kind of endurance that comes from mind, heart, and body.