Okay, I’ll come out and say it: my soon-to-be eighteen-year-old son has a substance abuse problem. At this point it’s primarily alcohol. I am grieving.
I have learned from my early life with two autistic brothers that the sadness one has for oneself is a piece of cake compared to sadness for the pain of loved ones. I think of Mary at the foot of the cross, the archetype of all such grief, and not meaning to be melodramatic or anything, I’d so much rather be up on that cross myself. “There is a crack in everything—“ yes, and one of the hardest is watching the child I love flounder with the kind of thing I know all too well is far more powerful than his youthful self can understand.
There’s the rebuttal that most kids drink at some point or experiment with drugs, and that I’m overreacting. Maybe so, or maybe this situation is more serious than most, apart from the fact that what other kids do and what one’s own kid does are experienced as entirely different things. What I myself have done and what my child is doing are also different things. I remember that I abused alcohol when I was young, and in the process endangered and even harmed myself. My parents were lucky not to have known about most of it. I turned out “all right,” although the things that prompted me to do it haunted me for years and many of them haunt me to this day. Still, in my own case, I have a sense of ownership over my actions and their consequences, however illusory. In the case of my loved one, all I can do is stand helplessly by, after having taken the necessary steps as recommended by the wisdom of whatever experts weigh in.
The Buddha says this kind of suffering is brought on by attachment. Like all suffering, it is governed by the equation Suffering = pain + resistance. I want things to be different. I want the path before my child’s feet to be smooth and easy, at least for the time being while he is still young and not fully formed, even though I know that this wish is impossible. I am attached to him and to outcomes I wish for him. Does knowing this help? Yes and no. In the thick of it, the suffering is still there.
The Buddha also teaches that to end suffering one must give up all attachments. Is this possible, or even desirable? Let’s look at it closely. My suffering does not help my son. He does not want to see it, to have to deal with it in any way. His problem is his own. So one thing I can do for him is keep my tears to myself as much as possible, establish boundaries with him, talk to him as necessary about our expectations as a part of this household, make resources for recovery available to him, and then demonstrate that I trust him to work things out for himself.
When I was his age, my mother and I were almost literally at each other’s throats. She made it clear that I had disappointed her, and that she took it personally. I got the “I carried you in my body for nine months” speech, which in my son’s case I could amend to “Your father and I traveled across the world to get you” speech. It had the effect of pushing me away and causing me to act out more recklessly than I otherwise would have done. What creates the hardship for the child, or any beloved person, is the parent’s message that the child’s life is not their own, that they will always belong to the parent more than to themselves. No free being can tolerate such a thing.
And so I realize that letting go of attachment is not the same thing as ceasing to love someone; in fact, it’s the opposite. My son has his work cut out for him, while I have mine. I cannot take his work on myself, nor should I attempt to pile my own work on him. That is all.
5 thoughts on “On Sadness for Loved Ones”
Thank you for describing so well the suffering we have about those we love. I don’t know what to say, want to give you a hug, want to say thanks. When my daughter was drinking too much, I didn’t know – and she recovered on her own. But I’ve watched that pain in others.
I’m going to share this, if it’s okay with y ou.
Thanks, Shodo. I want others to benefit from what I’ve learned in writing this.
Hi Laurel, today is the 4th birthday of my new life. I became sober 4 years ago with the help of A.A. And I’m sorry you’re struggling with your situation! I suggest Al-Anon for those who have loved ones who drink. And AA helped me to get real about my own spirituality (I’ve been on Dho for years though rarely visiting or posting). So maybe Al-Anon can be a further deepening of one’s own spirituality along with whatever one may practice already successfully. All the best, Sven
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Since I wrote that post, I and my husband have placed our son in a treatment program, and he is doing well. Turns out that standing back wasn’t the only thing necessary. It is still his work to do, but we have taken proactive steps to get him help to do it. Thanks for writing.
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Oh, and I’m also going to Al-anon. People like us, those of us on the sidelines, need support too.
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