Messenger Goodbye

On August 20, 2019, this book was born. As I sat alone in my little condo wondering about and fearing for my son’s safety, I wrote from the depths of my heart and from my pain as I felt it. And so my story begins in what I thought would be a short lesson on inconvenience. I was about to find out, in real-time, how daunting a path lay ahead of us all.

“I don’t know if my son is alive tonight. It’s a Friday night. He lives 400 miles away from me. I haven’t heard from him all day after not seeing him online for sixteen hours. I know most people don’t keep track of their grown children for days or maybe even weeks, so why do I? Because with substance use, worry is raised to a whole new level because of the risk factors involved. Every moment, every action could be life-altering. Any minute, like hundreds of other moms, I could receive “THE CALL.” This self-torture is grueling day after day and even year after year, for some families. I know the question of why don’t I just call him? Well, I could. After all, I just ordered him a new phone from Walmart’s pickup service a few weeks ago because his previous one broke. That’s three phones in three months, but that’s a different story that only moms of addiction know.

I don’t call him because, frankly, he probably won’t answer. Worse, the call may go straight to voicemail, meaning the phone is not charged. Then do you know what I’ll do? My resolve that I’ve held onto all day will break and I will lose my mind. Again. I will immediately burst into tears. Then I will check the booking reports for his county to see if he was picked up on one or two current warrants. If I do see him on there, it will ignite the cycle of tears and the fear for his life that I have endured for months.

He has been in the legal system since early this year, 2019. He was pulled over by the drug and task force for reasons he told me developed after he was trying to help a girl whose boyfriend was not treating her well. He said he saved her life. (The ‘boyfriend’ is now serving years for federal drug trafficking.) That’s all I know. I’ve learned that it’s better for me if I don’t get the details. The lifestyle, with all its risk-taking, is foreign to me. I still can’t fully admit that my ambitious and successful son, the hero in the family, the guy everyone could count on, is labeled by society as an addict and now a criminal.

But back to tonight. If Mason actually is in the booking report (which I sadly have bookmarked on my home screen), at least he’s safe, right? As a professional nurse, I know the risks to his health if he’s living on the street, so jail may be the safer option. However, I also know how overcrowded jails are. Many are understaffed. It must be annoying as heck, for guards to hear countless inmates say they are sick and dying from withdrawals. Until one does. Then they must cover their behinds to make sure they weren’t negligent. That is just one of my worst fears these days and I have a lot of them.

The absolute worst fear, and the main reason I cannot call, is what happens when I can’t reach him. I wait and pray and cry and call again—sometimes twenty times—just begging God to make him answer. I send text after text to please be okay because I just cannot bear to have him gone. The thought of it is too painful to bear. Losing a child is tragic enough, but losing a child over and over in your mind is torture also. This ambiguous grief is emotionally exhausting. It’s like a roller coaster whose operator went home and you can’t get off. Should you jump? Just when you see a green grassy spot to land on; up, up, up you go; the anticipation builds to a pleasant crescendo of peace; a feeling that maybe just maybe, this is all a dream and you can go back to your regular life stressors. Alas, the rattly steel and sparks fly off the track and you are tossed and turned as your stomach drops again. This ride is a sure recipe for emotional upheaval. If only you would have been given the deets to all of it when you walked into the park of parenthood.

Sooner or later, the green light of life on messenger will magically appear again. It might be a few days before he reads my many messages and even longer before he replies, but at least I know he’s alive because I can see that he has seen my words. The relief floods through me, and suddenly I can actually get on with my day and maybe smile or laugh at a joke someone tells. Seeing him alive online means that maybe I was overreacting. Seeing him alive online there’s more time to save him.

This scenario has played out over and over since December 2018. Maybe I should have learned to not cry wolf, but any parent, child, sibling, or spouse of a person struggling with addiction understands. We are conditioned to think the worst, especially after reading or hearing about one more (famous or not) overdose death.

I soon found the previously unknown world of support groups for moms of those addicted! There are thousands of members. The similarities across the stories are shocking and heartbreaking. Some may wonder what these mothers did wrong. What kind of childhood did they provide? Many will say, “My child had a solid childhood with both parents, safety, nutrition, education, sports, music, play dates, a trampoline, a wooden play set, a dog, etc.” On the other end of the spectrum, parents will admit to broken homes with generations of addicts and some parents went through addiction themselves. It doesn’t matter the background. What matters is the current, daily pain and damage, the churning chaos and disappointment that addiction creates for everyone involved with the person who fights a substance use disorder.

The stigma of addiction is still rampant, as those who have zero experience think it’s just a matter of poor upbringing, weak character, or lack of discipline to “just quit.” The irony amazes me. If people could “just quit” anything, then no one would be obese. Or anorexic. Or dishonest. Or promiscuous. Or obsessed with his/her smartphone. If people could “just quit” there may be no casinos because people would realize their odds. If people could just quit, no one would be murdered because people would understand the consequences. There is no “one reason fits all” explanation.

I believe that those addicted are a unique brand. If you can think of the weakest, most pathetic person you know who is not addicted to drugs, imagine him having a horrible flu, a rumbling stomach-churning garbage out both ends, a spinning head ready to explode, blurred vision, hallucinations, hot flashes followed by freezing, sweating then shivering, and so on. Now imagine him driving, or even walking, miles to find a “doctor.” Your loved one is then told there’s a one-hundred-dollar cash fee and a five-hour wait to be seen. Would he have the strength or fortitude to do it? You may say that would be stupid to do that.

What if the problem is not stupidity? What if it’s actual strength? What if it’s fortitude, persistence, or loyalty (even if it is to an evil substance)? What if it’s actual, raw, will-to-survive strength? How many weak people do you know who couldn’t survive one day of that misery? There are worse things than being a drug addict, but a lot of those things aren’t as blatant. In other words, people with substance use disorder aren’t inherently bad people just because they couldn’t stop at a few beers or they chose a different stress reliever than current laws allow. In fact, Jeff Cloud stated about people society shuns:

They don’t realize that the people they are restricting access to society are those who are:

  • Creatives – willing to find ways to live outside of the box, those who get inspired by challenges to find their own solutions.

  • Rebels – who have been misfits many times in the past so they are immune to being excluded.

  • The Wild Ones – with deep connection and reverence to the land, who know nature has everything they need.

  • Old Souls – who have seen this all before and have been persecuted over lifetimes for doing things differently.

  • Optimists – with an inner knowing of what really matters who can adapt their perspective to see the blessings that difficulties can bring.

  • The Stubborn Ones – who will not bend to coercion no matter how tight you squeeze, who will find ways to adapt to obstacles before going against their truth.

I would never justify chaotic substance abuse, and I will never wish the pain of addiction on anyone. I’m just saying that it takes a combination of strength, personality, bad luck, timing, and a set of circumstances to create a full-blown problem. It also is a problem that can be ‘fixed’ (in my opinion). At least someone on drugs has an excuse for being a jerk. I know guys whose personalities will never be fixed and they are as sober as the morning rooster. As Sam Snodgrass writes in his article “Opioid Addiction and the Myth of Powerlessness,” “We’re not narcissistic hedonists. When we hurt the ones we love, we hurt too. And what is sad is that we don’t understand why we do the things we do … We don’t understand because no one has explained to us that the changes within the brain at a cellular, molecular level, what we call opioid addiction, is an acquired disease of brain structure and, thus, function, which is manifest not as compulsive drug seeking and use but, rather as behavior directed towards the survival of the individual.”

Back to the topic of raising perfect children who would never do anything to ruin their lives. Frankly, I thought my family was in the clear. All five kids came from the same dad. We raised them in the open country, surrounded by mountains, rivers, and trees, with lots of room to explore and play and develop self-confidence, pride, and curiosity. There, they could imagine for themselves lives beyond their wildest dreams. We provided sports out the wazoo in hopes of keeping them busy as far into their teenage years as possible. I repeatedly told them of my brother’s death by suicide after he was involved with drugs in 1981 and said so many times, “Addiction runs in the family, so make sure you watch that.” Other than the devastating effect my brother’s death had on me for decades to come, the only other “substance issue” experience I had was my paternal grandpa being an alcoholic. I warned my kids. That was enough, right? They could just ‘choose’ moderation in all things, or better yet, abstain. Case closed. Right?…