Got a call from someone yesterday who is dealing with her grown child’s addiction. My friend’s desperate concern for her kid—who is an adult now—made me remember my own desire to save my parents from the consequences of their actions. The need to “help” them was a kind of physical need, a feeling that squeezed my belly and choked my throat, made me weep.
Because my friend is recovering from her own addiction, the feeling for her is strong: she understands what it means to want recovery, and she knows the steps to take to get it.
“Can you make your kid want it?” I asked. I was thinking about my father. My mother, too, for that matter. And my son—who does not have an addiction, but who nevertheless I want to “help” all the time.
I can’t make anyone want anything. The time has long passed since I could “make” my kid do anything, and he’s only 13—14 next week.
My program of recovery from addiction tells me to “trust God, clean house, and help others.” Working on the first two seems straightforward; though I’ve always had trouble with step 3, I know what the project is: surrender to a power other than myself. And being my mother’s daughter, I bloody well know how to “clean house,” in all its meanings. (Cleaning the bathroom—the one bathroom in our house, used by five people, including two men—was my job when I lived at home. And my mother didn’t “believe” in rubber gloves. Blech.)
But “helping others”—that part plugs right into my compulsion to Fix People.
I worked an Al-Anon program for 10 years but didn’t grasp this idea until I came out of my own addiction three years ago. I had taken drugs because of the headaches and other physical pain caused in part by the strain of a lifetime of compulsively helping others. My mission in life: making sure my son didn’t experience the difficulties and pain I went through as a kid. Mission impossible.
I thought that, in taking the drugs, I was taking care of myself—helping myself to do my job, which was to Fix It for everyone else. (I wasn’t trusting God or cleaning house. If I trusted God and cleaned house, I’d have known I wasn’t in charge of my kid’s life, and I’d have known where he stopped and I began.)
I came to understand that I have this habit of sticking myself between a rock and a hard place. It’s where I spent much of my childhood and where I feel most at home: squeezed to death.
What if I didn’t have to live that way anymore? What would life be like?
In what other places might I be at home?
What if I could allow other people to take responsibility for their feelings and lives?
I’m at this point with my kid. He’s turning 14, and he made a pitch to buy himself “Call of Duty”—a shoot-to-kill video game that has been compared to video war-games the military uses to train troops. “All” his friends have it, he said.
We’re a Quaker family. “Call of Duty” doesn’t exactly fit with the testimony of peace, for which the Society of Friends was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
When my mother made a decision, she put her foot down: “Not in our family.” And that would have been the end of it.
On the other hand, my husband’s parents apparently allowed him to do what he wanted. “What would your dad have said about ‘Call of Duty’?” I asked him two nights ago. I loved my father-in-law.
“They never supervised me,” he said. This is a boy who was sent away to school at 7 until he graduated from Oxford at 22.
“They just let you do what you wanted? So if you had the money, you could buy whatever—girlie magazines, guns?”
“I had an air rifle, but I never bought girlie magazines,” he said. “They let me make my own mistakes. They trusted me to do the right thing, to come out right.”
I wasn’t allowed to dream, to experiment, to make mistakes. I’m making up for that now. Better late than never.
“It’s rated ‘Teen,’” my husband said, “I think we should let him do it.” We told him we’d trust him to do the right things in playing this game: to be mindful not to play it compulsively; not to allow it to feed into violence. It was an amends to myself to take my son to buy “Call of Duty” last night. I stood in the yarn store waiting for him to pay in the game shop next door.
Then he comes to the door, saying the staff needed me to OK the purchase since it’s rated “Mature.”
“We thought it was rated ‘Teen,’” I said. I got on the horn to my husband to make sure we were still on the same page, while my son stood in the shop, doing a tap-dance, telling me they had it “in the bag” on the counter and I couldn’t go back now. “You’re not seriously calling Dad,” he said. He could see his desire going down the drain.
“I can do what I need to do,” I told him. “As long as you haven’t given them money, they can put it back on the shelf.” Keep the focus on yourself, my Al-Anon sponsor has told me since Day One. Do what you need to take care of you first.
In the end we decided to let him do it. He came home and finished some work before going upstairs to try it out.
“Help” is an ancient word with roots all over Scandinavia, Germany, Denmark and other Teutonic countries. It means “to assist, to give aid.” There is a difference between Helping Someone and Fixing Someone. I spent years trying to fix my son, and I was invested in the outcomes. When I help my son, I assist him in seeing his options and then I give him the dignity of his choice and let him live with the consequences. The outcome is his. (It’s really HP’s.) One of the most difficult jobs as a parent: watching a kid deal with the consequences of his mistakes. Better done earlier than later, in my opinion.
But better done late than never.
On a lighter note: one of the best books I’ve read about parenting is Quentin Blake’s Zagazoo.