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Seeing Myself on the Silver Screen

By Theresa Anthony, author, My 13th Station

Hollywood actually provided two very good films in 2018 with storylines that centered around addicted young adults. While this topic might not—well, probably won’t—appeal to the masses, for parents who have experienced the incredibly miserable and frightening nightmare of a child addicted to drugs or alcohol, these movies seemed to speak intimately to us.

Beautiful Boy, based on the memoir of the same title written by David Sheff, was a must-see for me. When I told my friends I was purposely choosing the fifth anniversary of my son’s death to go see the film they thought I was a masochist. Why on earth would someone want to place a big, fat exclamation point on such a sorrowful memorial date?

Hey, I get it. From the outside it is understandable why someone would question the effect this could have on a (forever) grieving mother. But what they could not comprehend was the deep meaning this book had for me personally. I discovered the book, “Beautiful Boy,” back in 2012 when my son, Matthew, was plummeting deeper and deeper into the vortex of depression-fueled alcoholism. Although Sheff was writing about his meth-addicted son, I could closely relate to his anguish, his fears, his incrementally diminishing hope. Different substance, but the same heartbreaking parent-experience.

So there I sat, Kleenex in hand, on October 23, 2018, all alone in a remote seat of the local movie theatre. I literally came straight from the cemetery, where I had dressed up my son’s grave with bright blue decorations (my nickname for him was Blue), his favorite candy bar (Butterfinger), and the single red rose that I always place between the image of St. Anthony and his name etched on the marker. Looking back, I guess that was pretty brave, or crazy, but since I had just finished my book manuscript (My 13th Station), seeing Beautiful Boy that day just felt right.

I braced myself, knowing the story all too well after reading the book twice through cover to cover. I also knew that Mr. Sheff’s son, Nic, survives his addiction and is now about 8 years sober, thanks be to God. At least I knew going in that things had gone in the right direction for the Sheff family. I loved the movie, the acting, and how it closely aligned with the memoir. But for me, personally, there were two particular scenes that really resonated.

Thank goodness I came prepared with lots of tissues. The scene when Nic, after multiple relapses and much chaos, calls his dad pleading to come back home, and the controlled tough love that the dad displayed in saying “no” to him before collapsing in tears right after hanging up the phone, immediately took me back to a similar phone conversation with Matt after he had left rehab long before he should have, and was wanting a soft landing back home. Saying no to my son, knowing he would likely end up homeless (which he did), was gut wrenching.

The other scene that resonated deeply involved the father’s attendance at an Alanon meeting. I, too, participated in Al-anon meetings, both in California and in Colorado. Hearing the anguished parents sharing in the movie, and seeing the Al-anon poster up on the wall behind Steve Carrel with its famous slogan, “We didn’t cause it, we can’t control it, and we can’t cure it,” just pierced my heart. I was immediately transported back to those rooms where so many of us shared our sorrows and sought emotional support in each other.

Ben is Back was released a couple of months later, starring Julia Roberts. I decided to wait until after the holidays to view this one, so actually ended up seeing it on pay-per-view in the privacy of my home. Again, different substance (opioids) but very similar parent experience.

While watching Ben is Back I found myself nodding my head in recognition of the mother’s initial hopefulness—both touching and pathetic to witness. I very closely identified with the mother’s naiveté as she grabbed on to the tiniest thread of hope that this time, for sure, Ben was going to be okay. How many times had I, too, pasted a fake smile on my face, boldly starring down anyone who dared express doubt that my kid would be okay this time?

As I share openly in the book, mothers are enablers by nature. We fix problems. We shield our kids from harm. We want only the best for them. And too often, when it comes to addiction, we are slow to recognize when it's time to just dust off our hands and walk away. Only in hindsight could I detect the many ways that what I thought were merely the actions of a loving mother, were actually helping Matt stay in his addiction. But trust me, it is extremely difficult to step back and allow your kid’s life to implode. Plus, I will never regret the motivation behind my actions—pure love.

As the mother, played very convincingly by Julia Roberts, she vacillates like a pinball between feelings of sheer terror, anger, resentment, and fear while an underlying tension positions the viewer for the next shoe to drop. I could feel myself being triggered, drawn back into that madness. A child’s addiction rips you right up emotionally. As difficult as it was to see myself in this character, I understood her. I knew her motives. I felt her pain.

While these two movies may not appeal to the majority of people, I hope that they will be widely viewed. Why? Because these films successfully captured the pain that a family goes through when one of its own suffers from the disease of addiction. And by depicting this unsavory reality in a realistic manner, I hope that people will be more compassionate and supportive of friends and family who might have a child caught up in the throes of this horrific epidemic.

@my13thstationmemoir #my13thstation "addiction", "addicted child", "beautiful boy", "ben is back", "dual diagnosis", "mental illness", "suicide", "grief", "grieving mother", "loss of child"

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