One: Meet guilt, your new best friend. Guilt will be there for you during difficult times: at 2am, for instance, when you don’t know where your twenty-four-year old son is, and haven’t for five days and know he’s using and in a bad way and his phone is off and you are tortured by images of his eating out of garbage cans, or lying on the floor high and mumbling nonsense in a filthy room with a bunch of other heroin addicts, or trading sexual favors for dope, or dead. Guilt will be right there because the only way such things might be possibly happening to the person you love most in the world is because you fucked him up royally. This is the easiest part about being an addict’s mother. Because you divorced his dad when he was small, you married and divorced again, and your son saw too much arguing and too much drinking. And, of course: he came out of your body. Who else’s fault could it be?
Two: Embrace alienation. As an addict’s mom, you will be so alienated that you’ll look at people like you talking about their kids struggling to keep up in law school or having started a new job, or breaking up with a boyfriend, and you’ll picture that kid dead in an alley so that you don’t pull your friends’ hair, kick her in the knees and say: Shut the fuck up. So, picture her kid dead in alley so you don’t hurt your friend. You should keep your acquaintances…although you are so alienated you can’t remember why. And don’t think Al-Anon will help much. Al-Anon is like your husband patting your hand after twenty hours of labor and pushing for three hours, though they said in Birth Class it would be forty-five minutes to an hour. But then, after the forceps guy came in, the baby and your body negotiated some internal agreement, and out he came, slimy, skinny, long, and looked at you openly, blindly and you looked back and thought I can’t believe you came out of me. My baby, my son.
Three: Be ready for the verbal abuse. When he catches you snooping in his room, down on your knees, your arm wedged behind the bookcase. Get out, you fucking bitch. What the fuck are you doing? I told you I’m clean. When you drop him off at college, after the third rehab, with his linens and suitcase and new clothes and he turns his back a minute and you peer into his gym bag and see something that says Quick Fix: Privacy Protection Kit and realize at once that, though he took a urine test yesterday as per the agreement about attending college, he has a kit with fake urine and hand-warmers (to heat the urine) to pass the test. When you point at it, he screams at you. He’s told you to go fuck yourself so many times. This time he’s yelling it at the college where you work. Someone around here may recognize you as Professor Wasson. Years later, when he says it when he’s living with his first serious girlfriend and she says Don’t you dare talk to your mom like that, you want to cry. You’ve gotten so used to this abuse, and are always surprised and grateful that he has never tried to hurt you.
Four: Prepare for out-of-body experiences. Of course there is no such thing as preparing for this, so just don’t be surprised—when, after he drops out of college you are standing in his dingy apartment with the shared bathroom, and you see a razor on his desk—if your body is no longer standing. You thought he’d been sober for two months, since the post-college rehab. The razor is used to mince what is probably Vicodin–for sniffing. You learned about snorting pills a year ago. He’s down the hall in the bathroom, and you feel yourself floating above the desk, the razor, the powder. The last two months slip through your mind: what were the signs you missed this time? The late night texts that are philosophical and confusing? The fact that he has a minimum-wage janitor job and doesn’t seem to mind? You thought those might be signs of sobriety. You don’t know where the ground is. You are floating above a scene you know little about, like a cloud, or a ghost, in your son’s life, observing and not understanding. Words swim around you: opiate, addict, recovery, relapse. You’ve been taught these words, but this is a dialect you don’t want to speak. And your son is coming back down the hall and suddenly your feet are on the floor and you are watching him glance at the desk and glance at you. You are back in your body. It weighs a thousand pounds.
Five: Enjoy the good times. When your son is in rehab, the social workers, other clients, and administrators will tell you that he is remarkable. Over and over, you will hear about how empathetic, thoughtful, emotionally aware, funny, smart, responsible, and just plain amazing he is. You bask in this. After what some teachers and neighbors have said over the years, here are people seeing your son in his glory. At rehab. When he’s first out of rehab, and you see him being sober and getting a job and treating his girlfriend with respect and telling you that he loves you and you are the only person who will ever understand who he is and what he has gone through, you will feel warm and glow-y and go to sleep thinking about what a good boy he is and what a good man he is trying to become. And then of course, you will need to learn to enjoy the times when he’s using too. So far it seems moderate, just alcohol and pot, and he’s keeping a job and paying his rent and eating well. You are in a bookstore together and he finds a children’s book about a mouse and a strawberry that you read to him one hundred times when he was five, and he brings it over to you in the new fiction aisle, and he says, “Mom! Remember this?” You do.
Six: Expect to lose yourself. Your decision to focus on yourself and move across country and meet new people and write and get new work is a story hijacked by the story of your son’s addiction, which reared its head two months after you moved. He got sober though, after you flew him out to a great rehab near you. His sobriety lasted for two and a half years, during which time you did some pretty amazing things like become a storyteller and meet cool people and have some crazy dates and get used to living in a warm, beautiful place and find a new job. But then he relapsed. In order to find yourself again you’re going to have to hold onto or dig up again—your story. In between driving out to Griffith Park at 2 am where he is wandering and mumbling drunk and high after driving into the freeway barrier making his car un-drivable, in between talking to his friends about how bad it is this time, in between buying him gift certificates at Ralph’s and seeing his new room in place for recently homeless men in a dilapidated, close-to-poverty line neighborhood, and in between listening to him tell you he is drinking but not getting high. Expect to lose yourself in wondering and worry. Which you deserve because this is your fault. He came out of your body. Who else’s fault could it be? And because he came out of your body you have been thinking that you are the one who can save him. So far that hasn’t worked.
Seven: Never say Never. At a certain point, you accepted, understood even, the daily pill-snorting along with vodka swilling and pot smoking. Your addict boy is a young man who never learned to handle stress since he was fourteen without abusing substances. He’s had a lot of stress—your coming un-hinged when your parents died within 6 weeks of each other when you were thirty-seven and he was six, his Type 1 Diabetes diagnosis at ten, your two divorces, and something he’s hinted at that he would never tell, something that might explain why “I’ve never felt whole, Mom.” Then you find out by checking his phone while he’s sleeping at your apartment on Thanksgiving night that’s he’s been doing meth. That’s something you never thought he’d do, just like you thought back in New York that he’d never use heroin. As he breathes and dreams on your klonopin online order couch you check the internet to look up the word “Chrissy,” which at first you thought was a girl but then see it’s a user’s term for crystal meth. He has promised to go to rehab again, which he does the next day but not before he becomes obsessed with finding where in your apartment he hid his last bit of “Chrissy.” You let him look because by this time you know that addicts almost always go into rehab fucked up on their drug of choice. Why did you think he’d never use heroin? Why did you think he would never use meth? Because you thought he was “better than that”?
Eight: Realize that there will be new and interesting characters in your life. Like John, the man who takes what you hope is a fatherly interest in your son after they meet at a rehab, then are roommates at sober living, and after they are tired of the sober living house, decide to stay together at cheap hostels in Venice. John’s light blue eyes and stubby fingers give you the creeps, but your son likes him and John is helping your son financially, which you try to appreciate without thinking about it too hard. When, after four months of living in hostels with John, your son admits to using and agrees to go back to rehab, John calls you, furious that he has paid rent which he says adds up to over two thousand dollars, and which you now owe him because things haven’t worked out as he planned. He calls you a sick cunt and says he knows things about you and where you live. After a few days of texts that say the same thing over and over you block his number and look into getting a restraining order. From rehab, your son orders a baseball bat and barbed wire from Amazon for you. He doesn’t realize the barbed wire is actually made of silk, a decorative notion for crafting. You send the bat back to Amazon, but keep the silvery thread, fingering it like a talisman. You will never actually meet Gaby, the over a decade-older woman who falls in love with your son at a Nar-Anon meeting and with whom he lives after a rehab two-month go ‘round. She is Japanese and her father, your son tells you, is in the mafia, the Yakuza, a bona fide assassin, and they are billionaires. Gaby’s ex-husband takes care of their six-year old boy in Japan. Gaby and your son live in a luxury loft downtown; she kicks him out occasionally and you let him sleep on your couch. He tells you she is crazy and mean. He gets a tattoo on his chest with her name on it. Every time you see him, he is thinner and always wearing brand new designer clothes. He looks like a well-dressed Ken doll, gorgeous and without internal organs. He admits they are shooting meth together. Gaby and he are together for five months until she says she is going to commit suicide because he doesn’t love her enough and then she disappears from their apartment.
Nine: Forget about enjoying holidays. On most Christmases, you buy him small presents like socks and books and he gets you a card. You cook dinner; he smokes cigarettes on the patio and you eat together with quiet reserve, separate resentments. The card he gives always says “I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, Mom,” and sometimes you feel touched and sometimes you think, Talk is cheap. While he is with Gaby, he does not call or text on Mother’s Day; this is a first in two decades. After he’s back in rehab after Gaby, who did not kill herself but went back to Japan, you book a flight to New York to see family and friends for Christmas. You spend Christmas Eve with him and fly on Christmas. He’s surprised and hurt that you’ve made this plan. On New Year’s Eve the rehab calls and says that for a week he has been acting in an agitated and belligerent manner, and when a counselor reported this behavior to the insurance company, they refused to pay for any more time. He has to leave in 24 hours. You reschedule your flight back to L.A., leave the next morning, then spend the next few days driving around the valley together trying to find a sober living home. He is agitated and belligerent, and it’s raining. Nevertheless, you laugh hysterically together in a Von’s parking lot during a freak thunderstorm when your son pronounces “this New Year’s really takes the cake, Mom.”
Ten: Be ready to practice your math and history. After the tenth rehab/sober living house, you will struggle to remember when, where, how? But not who. It’s always your son. And it’s always you. His father, snug on the East Coast, has never driven him to a rehab, even when he lived in the same town as you and your son. So forget counting because, does it really matter? And the history? Chaotic and much of it still invisible. What triggered that relapse? When, exactly did he start using? How did I realize? Does that help you understand this story that has, on and off, hijacked your own? You wish it would. You make lists and timelines.
Eleven: Love your fellow Mothers Of Addicts. You will meet them on FB sites that no one else knows about, or on planes when you notice the bracelet that says, tackily and beseechingly: SERENITY. No matter what they look like, dress like or talk like or how they have lived, you honor and appreciate them. These are the mothers who say “Good News: My daughter is in jail!” They are the mothers who sometimes wish that their child might die. One has to have lived many years wondering if their child will overdose today or next week before wishing this anguish could be over. One has to have felt there is no hope for their baby, the human being they breastfed and read to every bedtime, taught to ride a bike and how to sweep the kitchen floor, and helped them understand why their bodies were changing during adolescence. We were no different than most mothers, until we realized we were. The Mothers of addicts know what it means to have a child in the hands of a devil.
Twelve: You will come to believe in God and the devil. Not all the time because you have always been an atheist. But no matter how much meditation, nor how many spiritual retreats you attend, the only thing that will really speak to you when he relapses for the thirteenth time and he’s wandering shoeless on a sunny street in Marina Del Ray carrying a garbage bag of clothes, and is unwilling to get into your car because it’s “filled with cameras wired to the police department,” and you understand this to be full-on meth psychosis (never say never) is that there has to be a God. There has to be some metaphysical beneficent guiding force that will help your son. Or you don’t know how you will go on.
One Extra Step: Hope, maybe. When you see chubby infants and toddlers, or lithe adolescents goofing around in the pool you will think: he was just like those beautiful creatures. But was marked by something. A darkness? You will want to give birth all over again and do everything right. You can’t. He has to give birth to himself. And when it’s two months after the something-teenth relapse you will meet him at the new sober living (dirtier but more welcoming than the last one) and pay the rent and then take him grocery shopping. When he chooses vegetables and fruits with some care, and tells you that he knows you are broke, and does plan on taking care of you eventually, you want to curl up in the cart and have him push you up and down the aisles. And when he puts the bags into your car, then returns the cart to the place where responsible people return carts in the parking lot, you marvel at this newfound interest in order. For two years, he has put cigarettes in your potted plants, dropped paper cups on the curb, and left behind his precious art supplies, treasured gifts and books, as he cycled through one period of health-then-disease after another.
Through the rearview mirror you watch your son push the cart into a long line of carts, an interlocking puzzle piece sliding into place. He puts his hands in his pockets. He walks toward the car.