By Theresa Anthony, author of Hope Springs from a Mother's Broken Heart and My 13th Station
I remember my former self very well, although not without an ample dose of cringe. Back in the day, I was, admittedly, a tad smug, always so sure of things. I knew the difference between right and wrong, and was quick to make snap judgments. I had strong opinions on just about every topic and was quite certain that mine were usually the right ones. Yep, I excelled in human pridefulness and was definitely humility challenged.
And then my son died.
In an instant I was leveled, literally hobbled at the knees. That cocksure attitude disappeared and was replaced by an unnerving sense of uncertainty. Indeed, other than my belief in God, I would never be sure about anything in life again.
My beloved son died by suicide. He was depressed and alcoholic, and decided one day that he couldn’t go on. He was only twenty-five.
For some context, my three children had always been well-adjusted, healthy kids, including my son. They were “normal” and beautiful and thriving young people, and never gave us any trouble at all. Raising my family, I could have never dreamed that anything so horrific could ever befall one of my children.
Back in the day, I clearly remember spouting off with ignorant comments like, “Oh, come on, addiction is a choice,” when discussing substance abuse among friends, and I honestly believed that. I thought addiction was a sign of someone’s weakness, that they couldn’t control themselves, or that they made stupid choices that they then had to live with.
I am not proud to admit any of this, but by being honest it helps me make my point. I want to paint a picture, to illustrate the sharp contrast between my dumb, prideful self and my newly humbled self.
You see, my son, like many addicts, was not stupid or weak or deserving of his afflictions. Sadly, right around his 19th birthday he mysteriously developed depression—crushing depression that was so bad he was unable to even attend college classes for weeks or sleep for days. It was as if a darkness had invaded his very being and pushed out any remnant of joy or hope or faith that was in him.
My transformation toward becoming an enlightened person actually began that year, as I watched from the sidelines, utterly helpless. As his mom, I witnessed his increasing consumption of alcohol with equal parts disdain and fear. What the hell was he doing? I wondered.
Newsflash… it is called self-medicating.
Not everyone who self-medicates a mental health disorder with alcohol or drugs goes on to develop addiction. That is the mystery—why some people can drink and drink and never become addicted to alcohol, while others become hopeless alcoholics. Sadly, my son was in the latter camp.
Over the next six years as my son’s life imploded, my tendency toward arrogant know-it-allism began to fall away, little by little. Eventually, I was left not knowing anything about anything. My precious son had been stricken by an invisible monster, and I didn’t understand it at all, not one little bit. His big, beautiful brown eyes became glassy and red. His athletic frame turned soft and bloated. It broke my heart.
My journey toward awareness and humility included plenty of guilt, as all parents of addicts will recognize. As his mother, I beat myself up plenty, hurling accusations at myself for somehow screwing up my kid. Al-anon, a support group for the loved ones of addicts, fortunately helped straighten me out. I recited that famous slogan over and over until I believed it: I didn’t cause it; I can’t control it; and I can’t cure it.
Losing a child to suicide is about the worst thing you can ever imagine. Not an hour goes by that I don’t think about my son or long for him. I am writing this today to honor him, to share with others the hard truths that I learned during his illness.
The fact is that no one, no matter if you do everything right, are the perfect parent, and (think you) have life all figured out, absolutely no one is safe from having a loved one develop a mental health challenge and/or an addiction. These are mysterious and sorrowful conditions that science still hasn't figured out. You would never wish them on anyone you know, but addiction or mental illness may already impact someone you care about - whether you are yet aware of it or not. In other words, there is plenty more humbling to go around.
The hard life lesson I learned made me a kinder, more compassionate person. It knocked me off my perch and made me more human. My son’s illness and death truly humbled me.
If you are so inclined, please say a prayer for all the people who are struggling right now with mental illness or addiction - or both - as in my son’s case. Trust me, they didn’t do anything to deserve this fate, and they most certainly can use our prayers.
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Hope Springs from a Mother's Broken Heart: 11 Mothers Share How They Survived the Loss of a Child (self-help for grieving mothers)