It was a day like any other, until it became the day my 24-year-old son called me and told me he was an addict.
No matter what the addiction, this ranks right up there with one of the most terrifying things a parent could hear.
As it turned out, my son's drug of choice was gambling. And even as I was reeling from this revelation, I was also proud of his willingness to step up, own his problems, and take steps to address them. After a lot of research, he bravely checked himself into Beit T'Shuvah, a residential recovery center for adults in Los Angeles.
He was scared -- hell, my husband and I were scared. But deep down, we were confident that full immersion into a recovery program was the best way for him to reclaim his life and rebuild the shipwreck of his soul. We knew that BTS would change the trajectory of our son's life.
What we didn't know is how it would change ours.
First, the Sh!t Storm
After checking my son into rehab, I felt completely untethered. It was a wild and unpleasant carnival ride of emotions ranging from denial ("He's just immature") and guilt ("Maybe he started pre-school too early") to shame ("I am the worst mother, ever"), fear ("What if he never recovers?") and embarrassment ("What will everyone think?"). Underneath all of them, I felt profoundly sad. This was not what I wanted for my beloved and precious child.
I wanted off this ride, but I felt as stuck on it as if I'd been strapped in. I didn't know from one moment to the next which feeling would present itself, or how long it might last. I knew I had to just ride it out, but there were times when for the life of me, I couldn't figure out how.
Being a life coach for the past eight years gave me an undeniable edge, and the skill set I needed to survive. Martha Beck refers to the aftermath of this kind of catalytic or dramatic event as Square One of the Change Cycle: Life is not as you knew it, and nothing is for sure. Each gust of emotion comes winging out of nowhere, and there's no energy left for positive action -- you're just hanging on for dear life. It's a completely normal reaction to having the rug of your life pulled out from under you.
Why, oh WHY?
Most people, including me, want to find a reason for our pain, assuming that figuring it all out -- assigning blame, even -- will bring back some measure of feeling in control. My brain scurried around like a rat in a maze, desperate to find the way out.
No one in our family gambled. There was no history of addiction or history of abuse. Unable to place the blame on genetics, I took to wilder and wilder theories. We didn't take our son to enough museums. We didn't make him do his own laundry. At one point, I decided that my obstetrician had delivered him too early.
It was great; it was terrible. It was a very effective but dysfunctional way to stay in denial of my own feelings by inflicting pain and blame on others. It was also utterly ridiculous. Even I knew my OB had nothing to do with my son's gambling addiction.
I also knew, in a saner part of my brain, that nothing is more disempowering than blaming past circumstances for things over which you have no control in the present. One of the most direct paths to peace is to become aware of the thought garbage we allow to litter our own minds, step up to our own authority, and question the validity of our thoughts. We get to choose how we interpret what happens to us. As author Brené Brown says,
"When you own your stories, you get to write the ending. When you're in denial, those stories own you."
My son has been in rehab for four months now. He has lost 25 pounds, and is training for the L.A. Marathon -- his first! He's leading a teen prevention program and hasn't gambled, smoked, or had a drink in 120 days. Together, we meet weekly for family therapy. Our son has grown, and our family has become enriched by this experience in ways we could never have expected.
This is my story, the story of what happened to me when I thought my world was coming to an end. Once I stepped fully into it and was present for what was actually happening instead of the drama I was creating in my head, I discovered, much to my surprise, that my son admitting to his addiction was one of the best things that ever happened to him.
It was also one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I feel more deeply connected to my son, my husband, to our extended family, and our amazingly supportive and non-judgmental friends. This particular ride hasn't always been fun. But the view -- well, that's been amazing.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-522-4700 for the National Problem Gambling Helpline.