Russell Brand Knows

“It is difficult to suffer the selfishness of a drug addict who will lie to you and steal from you and forgive them and offer them help. Can there be any other disease that renders its victims so unappealing? Would Great Ormond Street be so attractive a cause if its beds were riddled with obnoxious little criminals that had “brought it on themselves”?”

—-Russell Brand


I didn’t know Russell Brand was a wise man.

The above quote sums up how our family—immediate and extended—-has come to feel about C. We love him. We have (and continue to) go to great lengths in order to help him. (A question for another day: How does one know the difference between enabling….and taking care of a sick person? Or co-dependence. I am never quite sure if what I am doing is mothering with this fierce maternal flame of intense and visceral love that took hold the moment I looked into my baby’s eyes moments after he was born….or if I am being co-dependent. But whatever the answer is —-and maybe it varies from day to day—-I hate the feeling of shame and defensiveness that I feel when I am told I am ‘co-dependent’. By an acquaintance in Al-Anon. Or by my sister. By the doctor I went to because my damn eyelid wouldn’t stop twitching.

Most of the time, I just feel like I am trying to keep him alive. Because I am his mom. And that is what moms do: they keep their babies alive. If they are the luckiest kind of mama, the babies thrive. They have their senior portraits taken and think about college or apprenticeships or the Peace Corps or jobs or gap years. They have friends and hobbies and they are starting to spread their wings. I used to think that was just What. Happened.

It is not. There are so many people whose experience is so much different. But nobody’s talking about it. And that just makes us all feel alone. Why? If it’s an illness and no one should feel ashamed, why can’t we talk about it? But I digress.)

The love and care and hope of the past 18 years is why we brought Son with us on vacation at the end of July. He called up, 2 days before we left, “I really want to come. Please let me come. I won’t use—you can search all my stuff.”

We let him come. And then, it dawned on us (but not until we were firmly ensconced in our vacation rental on the beaches of South Carolina), that an addict is an addict wherever he goes. He did not want to be there: it was just the best option he had at the time. He asked for things. We gave them to him. We payed for everything, included him in restaurant meals and sightseeing. He was not grateful. He was barely communicative. He stayed up all night and slept all day. He ate by himself whenever possible. And then one afternoon, he wanted more cigarettes. I said, “No.” And he called me a bitch. In front of my elderly mother and my childless, cerebral and introverted sister who both travel with us every year.

Blah blah blah. I could go into the scene that just seemed to organically burst from this brief interchange. But I won’t. Suffice it to say that nearly everyone ended up crying. My sister contemplated leaving the vacation early, because she could not handle the emotional whiplash. Once again, the addict was running the show.

Eventually, we put him on a greyhound bus back home. This helped other members of our party feel more comfortable with the rest of our trip. But for me, and for his Dad, he was still running the show. He just wasn’t doing it from the living room anymore.

And we felt apologetic for allowing him to come.

We felt embarrassed that he fooled us again.

We felt regret that our younger children had once again witnessed a family melt-down.

We felt distracted.

We felt worried.

We felt hopeless.

We are torn up inside with sympathy (because he IS sick, we know) and impotent rage at how carelessly cruel the addiction makes him.

We wonder what will come next. And next. And next.

Update: Next, he overdosed on Xanax and alcohol at a friend’s house several days after arriving back home in Milwaukee. Woke up wearing someone else’s clothes. Had been robbed. No shoes. Had no memory of the previous 24 hours. It scared him. He called me from a friend’s phone. I met him at McDonald’s and we went to the hospital to make sure he was medically stable before he went into back to the psychiatric ward to detox safely before boarding a plane to an inpatient rehabilitation program in another state.

Already Gone

“My ma is on my case all the time because of the Xanax but I still got high every night since I got home from the hospital.”

So reads one of the texts that I read on my son’s phone 6 days after was discharged from a 5 day in-patient stay in the adolescent unit of the psychiatric hospital in the city near our home.

It’s like a physical punch in the solar plexus; I lose my breath for a moment.

He’s been getting high every night since the hospital?

After 3 years of my teenager abusing drugs, I thought I was pretty savvy about detecting evidence of use.

But he still managed to fool me, trick us. And I feel foolish and defeated for believing he was clean.

“Playing video games would give me something to do during the day if I get bored or start to feel anxious.” This is what Son told me on the eve of his hospital release.

So I call in favors and borrow somebody’s old PS3. We go to the mall twice to get games for it. I buy him an extra controller so he can have friends over.

“I want to put my bed over here (by the window). You know how I like fresh air over air conditioning.” (It’s true, he does. Or he did, back in our Old Life.)

So we move the bed. Although of course, it’s clear to me now that he wanted his bed near the window to smoke a bowl somewhere with decent ventilation.

“I really want a little spending money so I can go to movies with my friends and buy PS3 games and stuff.”

So I make calls, arrange several jobs around the neighborhood, the first one occurring on the very afternoon of his release from the hospital.

He ended up there because he was abusing Xanax and weed and alcohol and using psychedelics. He lived away from home for 16 days. On the day before he was admitted, we went to therapy together. I pleaded with him to come home. Bargained. Offered incentives. He agreed.

The next day, he threatened to slit the throat of another boy who accused him of stealing a pipe. He tore up a Kleenex box, shreds of tissue and pieces of cardboard all over the room. Took liquid body wash and sprayed the bathroom with it: floors, sink, mirror, ceiling, toilet. I didn’t recognize my son. This other person is never someone I would have willingly spent time with. After he swore he would slit the other boy’s throat, I called 911. That was how the intake started.

It took a long time. I had no idea how long. Six hours after we walked into the hospital, we left him there with the nurses and a molded plastic bed in his room. There were fish painted all over the walls. It was supposed to look cheerful, I think. Instead, it looked ominous. Subterranean because of the lack of windows and the special ‘safety’ window treatments. When we left, we took his shoelaces and his belt with us (house rules). He was shaking and looked angry and afraid. Later that night we brought him the comforter from his bed and some ‘authorized’ snacks (no cans, no glass, no caffeine). He begged us to take him home. It felt a little like nursery school with the paper-bagged snack and blanket. If he was smaller, he might have clung to my husband’s leg and shrieked with terror. It was a little like nursery school in that a parent KNOWS nursery school is safe and necessary and GOOD for the child. We knew all those things about leaving our son at the psych hospital. Still gut wrenching to leave.

Five days later, he was discharged. Sober. With a dual diagnosis of depression/anxiety and substance abuse. A brand new cocktail of medications to help stabilize him.

While he was gone, we cleaned and readied his room for his return. Hung his pictures and put fresh sheets on the bed and got him a new lamp and some books.

At the exit therapy session, we learned there was no ‘step down’ program that was appropriate for our son: too old for one, not AODA certified at the other, doesn’t qualify for partial hospitalization. “It’s definitely a gap in service,” cheerfully agreed the ‘family therapist’ whose best idea for C was to make himself a daily schedule. We protested and argued; I even burst into tears: “He is not ready to be on his own and just seeing a therapist once a week! He’s barely SOBER. If you release him now without a plan, I can promise you we’ll be right back here in a month. Or worse.”

As Jeff Goldblum wryly observes in Jurassic Park, “I sure do hate being right all the time.”

It didn’t take a month.

He is sick and he’s an addict and he’s a teenager.

He left again yesterday after we became suspicious that he was high. A search of his pockets and wallet revealed a new pipe, a dime bag of weed, a lighter, $20, and some skittles. His phone revealed many conversations like the one listed in the beginning of this post.

I called the therapist and told her their ‘gap in services’ resulted in a relapse. I told her I was furious and that we’d be contacting administrators. Maybe a step down program wouldn’t have helped. But we’ll never know now.

I have decided that I have to let go. Son will be 18 in 3 days. He is already gone. We’ve been losing him slowly since 2013. Now he has left the building. I used to have three children. Tonight I have two.

“I know you are sad that C left again, Mom,” my 11 year old says gently as we are weeding the garden together this evening, “But it’s also a little good. Because now we don’t have to worry like we do when he IS home. We don’t have to worry about whether he is trying to steal stuff. And there’s a lot less fighting. Those are good things about C being gone. So the next time you feel sad or miss him, think about that part.”

I used to have 3 children. Now I have 2.

Two wise and observant children who used to have a brother they adored.

We are all in mourning. We will take care of each other.

Don’t Water The Weed

“Don’t Water the Weed” is what the therapist told me when we first started talking about C and his drug use.

“The Garden of C is full of beautiful flowers. They are all being blocked out by the weed, which soaks up all the nutrients in the soil, and blocks the other plants from getting enough sun. Focus your attention on the other parts of the garden. Don’t water the weed.”

Of course, I instantly pictured this as a giant marijuana plant. Because THAT used to be the biggest and baddest weed. Used to be. Made C lethargic and red-eyed, indifferent to most of the stuff in his life, except….scoring more weed. Friendships changed, grades floundered, family relationships changed.

He started using at age 15.

Now, 3 weeks away from his 18th birthday, the summer BEFORE his senior year of high school, my son is no longer living at home. He has been arrested twice. He left his part time job. He has evolved from smoking pot a couple times a week to using it every day. He uses psychedelics. He drinks. He smokes. He has begun to use Xanax. Probably other stuff.

My son is an addict.

This terrible reality sits like a heavy stone on my solar plexus. I alternate between desperation (we have GOT to get him help! How? Call the doctor, call the psychiatrist, call the family therapist; learn the hours of treatment programs, talk and talk and talk and talk.) to cool detachment that has more than a little bit of it’s roots in anger. HOW did this happen? How dare he steal from his siblings’ bedrooms, how dare he steal my sleeping pills to sell, take jars full of change, blow off school, sneak drugs into our home, call me a fucking bitch. Isn’t this the same kid who couldn’t spend the night at a friend’s house because he was too homesick? The same kid who brought me a cup of coffee if he thought I looked sad? The same kid who got so excited about having his favorite books read to him out loud (he has dyslexia) far past the age most kids outgrow it?

This is a game-changer. Although I hate the expression ‘the new normal’, that’s a version of what’s going on here. Because, no matter what happens, if things get worse, even if things get a little better, we can never go back. We’ll just have to find a new way to BE.

So, we try NOT to water the weed. We try to water the other parts of the garden: all C’s other amazing and original traits, his sensitive soul, his single-minded curiosity about random things (“Mom, have you ever really examined the British Monarchy from it’s beginning until now?”….”Mom, did you know that cancer is actually uncontrolled cell growth? What if there was a way to HARNESS that power, for good? Maybe I should be an oncologist.”….), his excellent work ethic, his sense of humor, his intelligence and weirdly specific and detailed memory, etc etc.

But now he is just gone. And I feel like I am already grieving for a person that is still ambulatory. A character from the Walking Dead who occasionally stops by for a meal. Stoned, of course. Tells us to ‘chill’. Tells us to ‘not make things weird.’ His eyes are blank and his hygiene terrible. He smells like cigarettes and pot and body odor. He has a deep cough that makes me wince. He shovels in food without making eye contact. His brother and sister are subdued and watch him with wary eyes. His little brother goes upstairs to hide his favorite things. When he uses the bathroom, I wonder what he is stealing. We all cry when he leaves. And tucked alongside of the goodbye is relief: he is gone again and the chaos and discomfort this new version of C creates has gone with him.

The weed seems to have consumed the garden. It’s choked out the other plants and blighted the flowers. The garden is dying, leaves grey and shriveled and crackly like an early frost has come. We didn’t know the weather would change so fast.