On a sunny summer day a few years ago, I found out that my beautiful, intelligent, love of my life daughter was an addict. It came out of the blue as strange as that sounds and I thought that I would die. But here it is years later and I have survived.
The most significant thing I did to survive my daughter Natalie’s addiction was to allow myself to grieve.
Maybe it seems dramatic, but it really is as if someone has died. Because your loved one, the addict, is not the same person they once were. Or the same person that you thought you knew. That person, hopefully only temporarily, is gone. And right now, they aren’t capable of being the same person.
And honestly, a part of you, is gone too. For me, this, hurts, because I loved everything my daughter was. I kind of liked the old me, too. The tragedy and the heartache of all of this will kill you a little. So, it is worth grieving.
My initial reaction when finding out that Natalie was using drugs, I have come to find is a common one among other parents of addicts. My reactions were ones of shock and denial:
The very first time the thought that my daughter was an addict came into my head, the idea arrived like an electric shock that simultaneously struck me in my brain and in my heart. It radiated out from my chest and skull until I felt it in every part of my body. I was having trouble breathing taking long, gasping breaths. I’m pretty sure my pulse became weak. I know that my heart rate sped up. I felt confused. I believe that I looked pale. My skin was both clammy and moist with sweat. I couldn’t think, breath or function. And even though I didn’t, I would have if I could have made myself, collapse and lose consciousness.
These last two acts, I would have loved to do. Because falling into unconsciousness would have relieved me from my pain. I was completely knocked deer in the head lights down.
You would have thought that people would have run to my side and tried to revive me and bring me back to consciousness with smelling salts or something just like they do in old movies.
And just like the better actresses in old movies did, I would put the back of my hand to my forehead, throw my head back dramatically, act confused for a few moments, realize that it was all a dream. I would then feel grateful that the nightmare was all over.
None of this, of course, happened. And this was only the beginning of the bad dreams. Just like people do when they are in shock, I felt disconnected from the rest of the world. I felt closed off. My head spun with swirling ideas that rotated in frantic, fast circles. I couldn’t think clearly and was unable to grab onto and catch any of them.
My initial response when it was first suggested that Natalie was an addict was, “Oh no; no she’s not. Not her. That’s not us!” And the first time someone suggested that I was the mother of an addict, “Oh no, not me. I’m not that!”
But then the questions began haunting me. Was this really happening? Drugs? My daughter? My family? Me? Really? The answers to all of these questions, of course, was, “Yes. Yes, you. Yes, really
But even with the picture of the situation coming more clearly into focus, I clung to denial like a kayaker who has been thrown from his boat would cling to a branch lying across the water. I gulped, coughed and gagged on the reality like a drowning man would.
Most terrible realizations don’t come flying at us out of the blue. Instead, they often start as an inkling. That inkling causes a thought, which causes another thought, and those thoughts lead to the realization. And that realization arrives like a shock.
We have all watched an alcoholic or addict stumble around either in a movie or in life, denying that they are impaired or have a problem when they clearly do. I think the same often happens with the parents of addicts. The signs are there. And it’s pretty clear. But somehow, our first reaction is to defensively deny it.
Between me and my husband, Natalie’s father, I was delayed and late to the party. He accepted and faced the fact that our daughter was an addict sooner than I did.
I remember at first trying to make excuses for Natalie and her behavior. I tried to conjure up all sorts of different creative uses for the suspicious items I was finding. The lighters, the aluminum foil, the toothpicks and the Q-tips I found were all supplies for a science project she was conducting. She has always had a high aptitude for and interest in science, you see
I felt a little less committed to this opinion when I very secretly typed “lighter, aluminum foil, toothpick and Q-tips” into a Google bar, pressed search and watched as “How to Make a Homemade Bong” appeared.
Those syringes on the floor, plastic bottle caps and cotton balls for a while, were the components for another science project too.
Sometimes, everyone can try to rouse you but you don’t really wake up until you are forced to shake yourself.
The day I found out Natalie is an addict was a beautiful summer day. It was mid-afternoon and I was carrying groceries up to my front door from the driveway, complaining that no one ever helps me carry the groceries up the stairs when I stepped over a shiny, thin blue packet on the steps. It was glossy and it glistened in the sun. My thought was “litter!” I continued my way into the house, grumbling about how no one else ever cleans up around here either.
After dumping the bags of food on the kitchen table, I went back outside and retrieved the packet. Curiously, I read the label. Suboxone. I was completely clueless. I had never heard of Suboxone and didn’t know what it was or what it was for. I thought it might be some sort of medicine. I went back into the house and yelled up the stairs to Natalie, who was in her room, but she didn’t answer. God knows what she was doing up there. God knows what she was ever doing up there
When Natalie didn’t answer, I went out into the back yard and found Natalie’s best friend, opened the patio door and asked her what Suboxone was holding the packet up for her view. Her face blanched, but she pled ignorance and she excused herself up to Natalie’s room, where she spent only a few minutes before she disappeared out the front door.
I am normally one to face just about everything head-on. But sometimes I wonder if our minds don’t have some sort of protection mechanism that automatically activates and jumps up like a shield when we are faced with something that we might not be able to handle.
I then did the most bizarre thing a person could do when there was a clear emergency and they had an inkling that their house was burning down… I unpacked the groceries and started making a meatloaf for dinner.
But while I moved around the kitchen, I occasionally picked up the blue packet from the kitchen table where I had tossed it and reexamined it, reading and rereading the tiny printed words trying to decipher its purpose. Coming up with nothing, I decided to ignore it.
But unsuccessful with this and with the priority meatloaf safely in the oven, I called my husband, Peter—Natalie’s dad and a physician—and asked him what Suboxone was for.
My head spun and the words “drug addict,” “heroin” and “withdrawal” thundered and banged around in my head, keeping me from hearing all that Peter was saying.
I don’t remember explaining to him why I was asking but I must have because I was able to decipher the last four words he spoke before he hung up: “I’ll be right there.”
While I waited for Peter, I did what every person would do when they realized that they were in possession of an illegal substance—I stashed it securely in my pocket. I don’t believe I had ever seen, let alone touched, anything illegal before.
Then I checked on the meatloaf.
When Peter and I confronted Natalie, of course, she did what everyone does and says what everyone says: She denied it. She would never do anything like that, she said. She was holding it for a friend, she said.
Peter is not a sucker. But I am. So, I bought it all; I accepted all of Natalie’s lies and excuses and adopted them as my own. I became offended for her and defended her.
Later in the evening on the night I found the Suboxone, Peter bluntly said, “It’s hers.” I immediately went into lawyer mode and began to passionately defend Natalie adding that there really have been a few shady characters around here lately. And cue a close-up shot of the science experiments and let’s revisit how smart she is.
As I look back, I think that I was also offended for myself and defending me, too. How in the world could this be suggested about us? Peter was a respected doctor; I was a stay-at-home mom—one who made meatloaf from scratch. Natalie went to a Catholic school! We were not drug people! Whatever that meant! We certainly were not heroin people. Again, whatever that means.
I fumed and ranted and denied, but the truth persisted and followed me around, tapping me on my back during the day and nudging me from peaceful sleeps at night.
But for a while, I continued to dodge all the signs that were there, brightly illuminated and flashing before my eyes. I ignored that she had been distancing herself from me and Peter. I ignored the Visine laying around to hide the red eyes. And I justified the red nose as a symptom of allergies or a mild cold. I ignored the late nights out, the secretiveness, the locked doors, the phone calls that seemed to be spoken in code, the stories that didn’t make sense, the bolting out of the house, the being up all night and sleeping all day, the missing money.
I Googled everything I could about addiction to dispute it all. And I took online quizzes and filled in questionnaires clipped from magazines just to prove them wrong.
I did what I always tend to do when something is bothering me—I talked about it. I talked about it to everyone who would listen. My mother, my friends; heck, even a few strangers. I went on and on about how this was crazy, my daughter was not on drugs and let me tell you why not. People listened politely, looked at me with sad eyes and occasionally suggested that I listen, look and reconsider my opinion.
It is amazing how deep into denial a person can go and how strongly they can hang onto it before reality smacks them around enough so that they let go.
You could bury me in all of the stamp bags, syringes and other supplies I found before I began to let myself entertain even some of the truth.
And honestly, I don’t know how typical I am. But for a while I continued to only allow myself to see little bits of the truth a speck at a time as I peeked out between my fingers
When I moved on to allowing some of the friendlier—but still unwanted—bits of reality into my thinking, I convinced myself that maybe she had only dabbled. Yes, yes, that’s it: dabbling. What a friendlier word that is than using! Yes, let’s call it dabbling.
Certainly, she’s not a full-fledged addict. Let’s call her an experimenter. And she’s not doing this dabbling and experimenting with really horrible substances, after all. I’m sure it’s just marijuana. She’s not like one of those movie addicts who associates with unsavory people in unsafe places. All of those people hanging around that I called shady? Well, I take that back; they are just a bunch of kids who need to be cared about.
Besides, she doesn’t even know how to drive into the city. None of this stuff happens in the suburbs, right?
In fact, she was a committed, experienced addict, and she was using Fentanyl. Those lost children I wanted to mother? Those are called “dealers.” And Natalie knows how to find her way around the best and worst parts of the city and the suburbs because it all can be found in both.
When Natalie was recovering, I asked her who and where she would get heroin from if she had to right then. When she said Ryan, I shuddered. Ryan was the name of a clean-cut young man who had appeared in my family room one day, shaking my hand, dressed in a sweater vest and looking like a lawyer. I never looked at my beautifully landscaped upper-class neighborhood the same way again.
Finally, you realize that the alarm is ringing and you have hit the snooze button way too many times and it is undeniably time to wake up.
That’s when things will start to get better. Part of being able to stay in denial was being able to dispute every attacking question. I altered every memory and experience as needed. And I believed myself unconditionally; until I couldn’t anymore.
One day, I finally sat myself down and broke the truth to me.
I remember one day very vividly when I was cleaning Natalie’s bathroom. It was early on in my journey to realizing that my daughter was an addict:
“Ugh!” I groan crouching down and balancing on my knees. “There is no way that I should be doing this at her age!” I grumble.
I am trying to clean up Natalie’s bathroom. It is a pigsty. I think to myself that I have two boys and that they are supposed to be the messy ones. But if you take my two sons plus a few more, they are less messy than Natalie.
I have already mopped the floor, cleaned the tub, wiped down the sink and gathered all of the towels from the floor. As long as I am already cleaning, I decide to expend the extra effort and clean the vanity as well.
When I open the door and peer into the cupboard, I am confused as to what I see. I begin to pull out the contents. There are seven or eight lighters, aluminum foil, Q-tips, cotton swabs and a half-dozen spoons.
I pick up one of the spoons and examine it. There is a circle-shaped burn mark in the center. After further examination, I realize that the same mark is on all of the spoons.
What would Natalie be doing with so many lighters, aluminum foil, Q-tips, cotton swabs and spoons? I don’t know what to think or do.
I feel suddenly hot. My heart feels funny. I’ve decided that crouching like this is making me lightheaded.
I quickly wipe out the cabinet, and then I do the strangest thing … I organize all of the items into groups. I sorted it all out and place the items back into the bottom of the vanity. The lighters with the lighters, the cotton balls in a clump, the Q-tips gathered.
I clutch the spoons in my hand and tuck the aluminum foil under my arm, though, deciding to return them to their proper place in the kitchen.
As I head downstairs, I push the thoughts of bad behavior out of my mind and instead think about untidiness. In the kitchen, I toss the fistful of spoons into the dishwasher in a clump. I return the box of foil to the pantry and pick up my phone to send Natalie a scolding text about how I will not clean up after her again and that she is far too old for me to be having to do this kind of thing for her. And, of course, to keep the foil and spoons in the kitchen! And I mean it.
But instead of typing a text, I pull up google and type the words “circle burn marks on spoons” into the search bar and press “enter.” As the thinking swirl rotates, I am sure the words “no results found” will pop up.
I am wrong. After a flash on the screen, the words “Top Ten Signs of Heroin Use” appear, along with a photograph of syringes, foil, Q-tips, cotton swabs and a spoon that looks like it belongs with mine.
I blink and recheck the tag line for the result and verify that it matches. My mind is cloudy and I am feeling like I am about a hundred-fifty degrees, radiating heat from the inside-out. My head feels like it is now spinning like a stuck Google search, unable to find a place to land. I click off the phone. It is rubbish.
But I am unable to stop my racing thoughts from trying to make sense of it all. Logical sense that I am avoiding with every fiber in my being.
I close the door on reality for a little longer, deciding that this is why people say we should not Google serious life matters and illnesses because it only causes panic and needless concern. A headache becomes brain cancer. I tell myself I will not buy into all of this. I didn’t find any syringes after all.
Three days later, I do.
On another day, I am standing in the entry of a diner getting ready to grab a bite to eat. I cannot hear what the other person is saying because I am too busy making a mental list of all of the ways Natalie is “super.”
“Oh, she’s great!” I say. “Natalie is super!”
I haven’t gotten very far. So far, there are only two things on my list. Number one: She is still alive. (I know this because I checked her breathing this morning when I crept into her room before I left the house.) Number two: She is not missing like she was last week. She is home.
I am struggling to think of a third thing. I am taking a frantic inventory in my head, searching for one more positive. When I do this, I picture a tiny, harried, overworked version of myself dressed in cleaning clothes, babushka on head, broom and duster in hands searching through drawers and cabinets rushing around inside my head.
The other mother I am talking to is on—I think—number nine on her list of why her daughter, a former classmate of Natalie’s, is super, as well.
I wonder if she knows she is winning. When she tells me her daughter is applying to graduate schools, she knocks me out of the competition entirely, and I wonder if she knows she is the victor.
If she does, she is too polite to act as if she does. She was always one of the nice mothers.
When there is a silence, I realize she has been doing all of the heavy lifting and it is my turn to carry the conversation. But I can’t think of anything to say to make her believe that Natalie is even fine, let alone super.
So, instead, all I do, in a much-too-high-pitched voice, is spit clichés at her. “She’s great! But you know kids … there are ups and downs! But we hang in there!”
I am about to say something about rain falling in everyone’s life but I stop myself. I am exhausted and I don’t have the strength. Mercifully, she ends the conversation and after a slightly too-tight hug, I think I might have been subconsciously trying to absorb some of her good fortune, hoping that it will rub off on me. We part.
I watch her take a seat and I decide I will pretend I have already eaten and that I was going instead of coming, and I leave the restaurant.
On my way to my car, I tell myself that what we are going through is not that big of a deal and mutter something about storms and life. The problem is, I don’t think I am believing me anymore.
I think that the two most difficult emotions that I had to wrestle with while working through the grief of dealing with my daughter Natalie’s addiction, were the feelings of pain and guilt:
Realizing that you and your loved one are both suffering from the pain that addiction brings is difficult to process. It sometimes it is a draw determining who is suffering more. And there really is no need to determine this, because there is plenty of pain to go around.
I think it is this way with lots of conditions. Being the caregiver is not easy and it hurts. Being the one left pacing in the waiting room during a loved one’s surgery is not easy. Watching someone you love writhing in pain is excruciating. Witnessing a loved one become compromised from dementia is heartbreaking. There is a reason that people often express that they wish they could take on a loved one’s pain. They say it because they can’t imagine anything being more painful than what they are experiencing.
But why do you hang in there, why do you try? The same reason that you do for others, because they can’t do for themselves.
We all applaud when we see videos of one runner carrying another runner across the finish line. And we should. We admire that offering of strength and selflessness then. It is that same desire to help someone else. It’s empathy. It’s love.
Surviving my child’s addiction by allowing myself to grieve…
We find the feelings of pain and guilt that we feel when wrestling with the reality that a child is suffering from addiction by digging deep inside of ourselves
The only thing I ever cared about succeeding in, the only thing I ever wanted to be good at was being a mother. To feel that you have failed at the only task you ever really wanted to be the good at, to feel that you failed at the best, most important job you ever had, is emotionally shattering.
Don’t let anyone ever tell you that motherhood is not a competitive sport because it is. Women compete and compare themselves to each other so much more than they support, understand and encourage each other.
I try to be understanding because I believe at the root of all of the competitiveness is insecurity. I believe, for many of us, it is the only job we want to be perfect at. There is nothing like motherhood. We have the privilege of performing a miracle by growing an entire person inside of our bodies. And at the end of the nine-month trick that we just performed, we get to present to the world a human.
I have never met a woman, when being honest, who after first thinking “Thank God my baby is healthy,” didn’t next think, “I hope I don’t mess this up.”
So often, we refer to newborns as perfect. I would bet it is the most common word used to describe a screaming newborn by the doctor who just helped them into the world.
And when you are presented with something, perfect and flawless, the first thought that comes to mind is, I hope I don’t wreck it.
The pressure is instant, constant and forever. You have been presented with a blank canvas, a brand-new notebook; what will you paint? What will you write?
I, of course, felt this way too. It is all up to me, I thought. Whatever I make of my babies, that is what they will become. And this “what” is a reflection of me.
Now, part of the problem is that everyone knows that babies come out perfect, so if as they grow up and they are not, the first thing the critics ask is: Where was her mother? How could her mother not have raised or taught her better?
Feeling like a flop of a mother hurts. It is excruciating, in fact. Being a mother is the only job that I ever really, really cared about. The only work that I ever believed deserved perfection.
It was also, the only job that I had that I failed at. I’ve had a few jobs and done some better than others. But I never felt that I ever did poorly.
The day that I pronounced myself a failure at motherhood was one of the saddest days of my life. I am not trying to make Natalie’s addiction about me. But it is about me and about everyone who loves her.
It is not about us because we want to take credit for all of the good. It is because we feel like we should take the blame of the situation and her condition.
Remember, she started out perfect, so it can’t be her fault. Right?
It is delightful to stand on the bleachers or in the audience and applaud your child’s performance with a puffed-out chest. It is horrific to cower in the corner of the emergency room after an overdose, to hide in the last seat in the classroom of an addiction awareness class, or to slink out of a police station.
Your chest is not puffed in pride but instead feels sunken in, aching and burning because your heart is shattered.
Natalie has both challenged and accused me about whether I am ashamed of her.
The first few times she would do this, I would be adamant in my claims that this thought was preposterous while trying to hide my feelings that could not be described as anything other than embarrassment.
Then one day, when she confronted me, I was unguarded and wounded and unable to preview a scripted response in my head and blurted out my truest feelings.
“You want to know the truth?” I screamed, red-faced and shaking. “Yes! Yes! I am embarrassed! I am horribly, horribly embarrassed. I am ashamed and embarrassed. But not of you! Of me! I am your mother!”
Being Natalie’s mother means that I am the one at fault. I am the failure. I was the one in charge. I was the one who should have known. I was the one who should have taught her better, watched over her more carefully and made sure that none of this never happened. I have come to realize that this is far from the truth. But there were times, it felt this way.
Surviving my child’s addiction by allowing myself to grieve…
The guilt that a parent can feel when dealing with the fact that a child is an addict is suffocating. It somehow seems unfair that it is possible to make a choice that altars the rest of your entire life when you are still a child. It seems that this should not be the case.
In childhood, there should always be take-backs and do-overs. Just like we used to do when we were kids and were playing ball in the street and the play would be interrupted by a car.
We should be able to turn our faces upward and bellow to the sky “Do over!” in order to delete the last thing that just happened.
And because it seems that this negating rule only applies in neighborhood kick ball, But I kept coming back to the same question: Where was I? I should have been able to have stopped her from making such a choice or decision. I should have seen it coming. I should have stopped it all.
That’s where my guilt grows unmanageable. Right inside of myself. From deep inside of my middle branching out to every part of me.
Sometimes when people find out about Natalie, they ask sometimes innocently, sometimes with curiosity and sometimes with accusation. “Didn’t you notice?”
It is amazing how all it takes is a tiny change in inflection to make the same three words innocuous or venomous. And of course, the answer to the question is “No. No, I didn’t notice.” Except when the answer is. “Yes. Yes, unfortunately I did notice.”
I saw, but I didn’t know what I was seeing. There were signs, but they didn’t have clear-cut arrows pointing in definitive directions. And not surprisingly, looking back is clearer.
To me, pain and guilt appear to be cousins. They seem to belong to the same family and hang out a lot together. The guilt that I feel for so much of what has become of Natalie and the condition that she is in is painful. And because of the guilt, the pain that I feel is immense. There are times when I believe that the amount of pain and guilt I feel, is too big for just one person.
Pain and guilt seem to be dancing inside of me. And when they are dancing fast, it is difficult to separate them.
It is Easter and I have just found out that Natalie is an addict. In the back of my church, there is a six-foot-tall cross made out of cork. Below it are squares of paper and tacks and markers. The idea is for everyone to print a desire on one of the squares of paper and tack it to the cross, leaving it for someone else to choose and take home and pray on. After you place yours, you take someone else’s. Leave one. Take one. I am finding so much hope in this idea but I am feeling hesitant to write down my particular pain. The markers are black, and I am unsettled by this. Isn’t everything written in black marker permanent and forever?
I spend the entire 60 minutes of the mass trying to decide if I can be brave enough to write down my most heartfelt prayer. I decide I am, and march to the back of the church, to the cross, where I promptly chicken out and keep marching right out to my car.
I march out because I am terrified someone will see me and track the square I leave, calculating that my prayer is sadder and more tragic than all of the others. I sit in my car, angry at myself for not being brave. I wait for everyone to leave the church and sneak back in.
I spend a great amount of time trying to decide what exactly to write. I write and rewrite using only Natalie’s initials, her first name, her full name, I add the words illness, addiction and special intention. I worry that I am using too many squares of paper for my rough drafts. So, I take a random piece of paper out of my purse and practice. Finally, I neatly print “Natalie Anna, addiction and for me, too, her heartbroken mom. Please,” on a lemon-colored slip of paper. Not too much, not too little. I decide I want the person who is going to pray for Natalie to know her name.
“Ouch!” I shriek. It’s early morning and I am in the bedroom alone. But the dog has come running so now there are two of us. I grimace in pain and don’t know what is wrong. But I say, “I’m okay.” I say this bravely to the dog who was at first looking up at me in concern. But, because I have spoken to him, is now happily wagging his tail. I have just gotten out of the shower and have toweled-dried and am dressing for the day. I was pulling up my panties when I got an excruciatingly sharp pain in my private area. Trying to relieve the pain, I freeze and slide the underwear back down. I bend forward and look between my legs. Horrified, I discover that there is a syringe stuck inside of me and it is hanging and dangling between my legs. “Jeesuz!” I say, bracing myself and reaching down and pull the needle from my skin. I cringe at the pain and hold the needle up in front of me to examine it.
“I can’t believe this is happening!” I say in a horrified whisper to no one because the dog has already lost interest and left the room. I had just done laundry the day before. As usual, of course, I do the family laundry together, including Natalie’s. That stops now. I will have to wash Natalie’s clothes separate from now on. Obviously, there must have been a dirty syringe in one of her pockets and somewhere in the mix of doing all of the washing and drying, the needle attached itself to my underclothes. I discard the panties, choose another pair; I then limp to the closet and decide against the stiff jeans I was planning on wearing and instead choose a soft pair of leggings.
After sliding them on, I grab my cell and text Peter, “Call me!!!” Before I finish putting on the rest of my clothes, my cell rings. Peter’s name appears. I answer it before the first chime is done. I don’t say hello, instead, I practically screech into the phone: “You will not believe what just happened!” And then I am off in running with my story, pacing as I recount the experience in detail. Peter is sympathetic, but he cuts me off. He’s in the middle of something, he tells me, and says goodbye. I press the end button and Peter’s name disappears.
I am unfulfilled, feeling sorry for myself with no one to talk to. I turn to go out of the room and almost trip over the dog who, apparently sensing the tone of my voice, has come back into the room to investigate.
I look down at him; he looks up at me. And even though the usual expression on his cocker spaniel face is one of concern, I let myself believe that he looks a little more worried than usual. I am grateful that he has respectfully ceased his tail wagging, waiting for my tone to lighten to give him the go-ahead signal.
I finish telling the dog the story I had begun telling Peter, again with all of the ramped-up emotion. The dog listens attentively and seems appropriately horrified. Then, because I feel sorry for him, I purposely lighten my tone and tell him that everything will be okay. Consoled, he resumes his wagging. I just wish that my tone was genuine enough to console myself.