Saturday, Aug. 23 was an important day at our house. We recognized Austin's 18-month anniversary of being clean from drugs.
In Narcotic Anonymous tradition, Austin celebrated the 18-month mark and going forward, his home group will join him annually in honoring his clean "anniversary" -- Feb. 23, 2013 -- the date he decided to wrestle control of his life away from addiction. Since the first time he picked up a joint at the age of 13, he's never gone this long without using something... until now, when he's 22.
When he received his one-year medallion back in February, Austin invited us to attend his NA meeting with him. As soon as I walked into the room, I felt the tears come on, tears I didn't expect because I thought that after all the years I spent crying over Austin's addiction, I had run out of tears.
But that night, my tears were different than all those others I've shed, because they were tears of gratitude. I looked around the room that night at his friends, some I know well and some I don't know at all, and silently thanked them for helping my son save his own life.
Since Feb. 23, 2013, there have been many signs that Austin was recovering from years of drug use... obvious ones like the much-needed weight he's gained, like the smile that's always on his face, like hearing him play the guitar again... and more subtle ones, like the day I found a few crumpled one dollar bills in his pants pocket as I was doing laundry. When he was using, I'd find rolling papers... or worse... but I had never found money carelessly left in his pocket because when he was using, if Austin had a dollar, it was hoarded for drugs. I held those dollars in my hand for a moment and savored knowing that he wasn't buying drugs anymore.
Signs of my recovery have been slower to see because even though I'm not an addict, the experiences of those awful years have affected me profoundly... and I'm old... and it's hard to unlearn the behaviors I adapted to cope with all the things I couldn't control.
The road to my recovery has taken me down a well-worn path. Everyone who's lived with and loved an addict relies on the same emotions that l did to get through the hell of addiction... emotions like my good friend, Anger.
Anger was my go-to guy the minute drugs showed up in my life. I spent years being angry with Austin, being angry with myself for all the mistakes I made as a parent, being angry that addiction made itself at home in my life at all.
When you spend a really long time being really angry and then you don't have anything to be angry about, it's quite an adjustment.
It was exhausting to hang around with Anger because he required so much of my energy that I was left without any emotion at all except for old, reliable Anger. For the past 18 months, I've been digging through all the layers of Anger, trying to find other emotions like my old friends Happiness, Enthusiasm and Optimism, and slowly I'm becoming reacquainted with them.
Enough time has elapsed that I'm no longer close friends with Anger, but his side effects are lingering... in the lines in my face, in the aches in my body... and there are still those moments when I feel myself reaching for Anger because he's easier to grab than other emotions that have been buried for so long.
How could I have gotten through these years without my reliable friend, Resentment? What else are you supposed to feel when you hear people talk about their children preparing for college, worrying over SAT scores or an invitation to join a fraternity when you are worried your son will be found dead on the floor of his dorm room?
Resentment comes in handy when you wonder why addiction chose your family, when you allow yourself to think about how unfair life can be and how even with the best of intentions, you can find yourself so far off the mark.
And then there's my other trusted friend, Denial.
If I pretend this isn't happening, then it isn't. If I ignore this, it will go away. If I say and do nothing, someone else will step in and fix it.
What would you do without Denial when people try to tell you what's really going on... people like therapists or doctors?
Because if you don't rely on your friend, Denial, you'll be forced to invite your friend Fear to the party, and no one wants him around.
Fear that your child will die... or spend his life in prison... or be in a car wreck that will hurt someone else... or the Fear that you will never get to know who your child will be as an adult.
I can't forget Guilt and Shame, that matched set that moved into my heart and wouldn't leave.
Guilt and Shame told me that this was my fault, that I brought this on, that my son wouldn't be an addict if I'd been a better mother or if I had just done something differently. Guilt and Shame told me to keep everyone in the dark, told me not to let them in on the big secret that everyone knew but pretended they didn't.
Guilt and Shame convinced me that Denial was right, that I should look the other way and let the two of them handle things for me.
I created The Johnny Stallings Arts Program (JSAP) in 2008, right smack dab in the middle of the worst time of my life. I buried myself in my work with JSAP, where my volunteers efforts were honored and I was validated. At JSAP, no one lied to me or stole from me or brought me into contact with needles or pills or drug dealers demanding payment. In JSAP, I was the hero; I could "save" children with special needs even though I couldn't save my own child.
No one knew that Guilt and Shame went to work with me every day and actually came in handy because I felt so guilty and ashamed for having a healthy child who was intentionally ruining his life that I worked even harder on behalf of the parents I know whose children will never have the chances my son has.
I've said this a million times since 2008...
I've learned more from people with special needs than I've ever learned from anyone who is typical and if it weren't for the people in JSAP, I would never have survived those years.
The one bright spot in my life between 2008 and 2012 was our daughter's college experience, but the only time I glimpsed happiness was when I was with my students and observed their resilient, buoyant and abundant lives.
Guilt and Shame tried to ruin that party too, by telling me that I should feel bad that I had JSAP to sustain me...
because there are thousands of other mothers of addicts who have nothing to turn to when their children are slowly killing themselves.
So, as we celebrated with Austin back in February, I relished the moment -- in the moment, like my students do -- by allowing my long-lost friend Joy to come back to the party. Joy has been at JSAP every day, but I hadn't invited her back into my heart until Feb. 23.
It's been good to have her back with me these past six months. I apologized to her for leaving her out but she understood. Joy only flourishes where there is hope and she knew that for six long years, the only time I felt any hope was when I was with the kids in JSAP.
Joy says that she likes being back in my home again, that she used to wish every day as I left work that I would take her with me. I promised her that no matter what happens, from now on I will take her with me every time I leave my JSAP family.
My recovery will continue, one day at a time, just like Austin's. I will never forget the anguish of addiction, but now I know that whenever life hands me something difficult, my dear friend Joy will be with me.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.