This is excerpted from my book, Tending Dandelions. It is dedicated to the parents living in the place where love and addiction meet—a place where help enables and hope hurts.
For parents trying to figure out the difference between helping their child live and helping their child die.
For parents grieving the loss of a child who is still alive. For parents needing to find a recovery of their own.
You are not alone.
Hugs and hope,
Misrepresented, misjudged, and mishandled. Addiction is a misunderstood tragedy, too often hushed up. Well, no more secrets. Not anymore. My child is dying a slow death from the disease of addiction, enticed as a young teen to drink and do drugs by the very same culture that now looks with shock upon his addiction as a moral failure or reckless choice. Shame and blame and disdain. So, for his sake, for my sake, for the sake of my family, I’m stepping out from the shadows.
When addiction is understood as a disease, it will be treated like a disease—but this is an understanding that will happen only when those of us who love an addict stop hiding addiction as though it’s a disgrace.
We have the power. We have the power to change the way addiction is perceived. We have the power to change the way addiction is believed. We have the power to change the way in which our beloved addicts are judged and treated. Our voices, together and unashamed, are fierce. We’ll know we’ve succeeded once comfort is baked into bundt cakes—as it is for every other disease.
If my child were dying a slow death from cancer, the world would reach out with comfort. But with addiction, stigma gets in the way.
Addiction is big; it takes up a lot of space.
I’ve heard it said there are four lives affected alongside that of every addict. Considering the damage left in my child’s wake, that seems really low, but it indicates that at least half our population suffers with the pain of addiction in some way or another. That’s a mighty bundle, equal to every single person from Minnesota to Texas and all the way—east or west—to beach and shining sea.
Well, there’s just no room in this crowd for stigma and secrets. Too many of us are carrying our burden in silence while walking through hell all alone. Too many of us are hiding under shrouds of shame. And, too many of us are trying to contort a glaring truth into a camouflaged lie.
Addiction is rowdy and rude and unruly. It is rarely, truly, a secret. It’s hard for our friends, neighbors, and coworkers not to notice all the shadowy goings-on. Our lies, avoidance, lowered heads, and averted eyes only perpetuate the notion that addiction is something of a scandal and something to be ashamed of. Something worthy of stigma and secrets.
The pent-up beasts need to be released.
It’s so common, it could be anyone. The trouble is, nobody wants to talk about it. And that makes everything worse.
— Ruby Wax
Once upon a time, I was very ashamed of my child’s addiction. I was ashamed of him for what he was doing, and I was ashamed of me for being a lousy enough mom to have caused it. I was afraid of what people would think of us, of what they would say. I was afraid of the looks and the whispers, so I kept quiet about what was happening in my family. I hid the shameful secret, dying a little bit inside every day.
Until the day I realized this approach was stupid. Once I shed my shame—once I began to say out loud that my child suffers from the disease of addiction— people around me were, for the most part, warm and supportive. They were generous with their kind words, extra hugs, and efforts toward understanding.
As for those who weren’t supportive, well that just wasn’t my problem. The truth set me free. The truth set us all free. Once the truth was out in the light where it belonged, so, too, were life’s most golden friends and the conversation.
I could talk until my mouth is dry and my lungs are empty, but still I know that you will never be able to fully understand this pain unless you have to go through it yourself one day. And I sincerely hope that never happens.
I had hoped he would fly. I had expected him to fly. I was determined my child would fly when I gave him the nudge (the boot) from the nest.
But he didn’t.
His landing was exactly what you’d expect from a bird gliding through the air without ever flapping its wings. He could have flown . . . he should have flown. He was born to fly!
There’s only one reason that my son sank like a stone: he was already an addict, and the disease of addiction had clipped his wings.
Not long before, my son had been a good student with plans for college and a career. The world was his oyster. A pearl just waiting to be plucked. Instead, his potential was squandered. His hopes, his dreams never had a chance to take off.
Yes, I nudged (booted) my baby bird out of the nest only to discover he couldn’t fly. This is heartache beyond description.
You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice.
— Bob Marley
Sandra Swenson is the mother of two sons—one of whom struggles with addiction. A voice for the loved ones of people suffering from addiction, she first documented her experiences with her son's addiction in the critically-acclaimed book The Joey Song. An advocate for acceptance, education, healing, and recovery, Sandra can frequently be found sharing her story. Her first Hazelden-published book, Tending Dandelions, is full of honest meditations for mothers with addicted children.