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Awakening the Dragon: Adolescents, Addiction and Parenting

An excerpt from a to-be-published book by Nita Gage, MA

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
William Blake

Drug addicts, my sons are drug addicts, how can that be? The question drove me to embark on a journey to my own healing. The first place the journey led me, was to a very different question, "How can I help my sons?" This book is about how my sons and I moved through despair to the joy of feeling blessed and grateful. Feeling blessed? Feeling grateful? Drug addiction is the tragedy of our culture, isn't it? How can anyone feel blessed that his or her child is a drug addict? The book will give you an insight into how my sons and I faced the unthinkable. Through grace and courage parents can confront the dragon of addiction.

The story that follows in this chapter is about my youngest son. At one time he was sullen, withdrawn, belligerent, verbally abusive, and deeply depressed. He had dropped out of school and was living a reckless life. As a single mother, despite my professional training and experience as a therapist, I felt helpless to stop the spiraling downward cycle he seemed doomed to follow. Through facing the truth, I found answers.

At the age of 21, he and the many young people in recovery are not just sober. They have found lives that are joyous, and centered. In many ways their lives are more desirable than young people who have not had to deal with addiction. Addiction is a life-threatening disease. As with many near-death experiences, recovery brings forth gifts from the soul. Treatment and intervention do work.

My son celebrated his first year of sobriety one month after his 18th birthday, so we celebrated both at the same time. He felt the most important birthday was his sober birthday; I agreed. I felt some sense of loss that he seemed to discount the last 17 years of his life, little did I know how wrong I was. Much to my surprise he agreed to let me take him out to dinner, not only agreed, but it even appeared that he was looking forward to it.

At 18 finding time to spend with his mother instead of his friends is a rarity to say the least. That night was unforgettable. He sat down and immediately gave me an overview of his life, and my role as his mother. I felt like the CEO of a company was doing my annual review about the most important job of my life. A job I felt that I had preformed at a barely adequate level at best. While my son was indeed sober, I was still in early stages of my own recovery from co-dependency and still blamed myself for the pain of his life.

I consider him my stiffest critic making his opinion all the more meaningful to me. He had chosen the restaurant in Mill Valley. "My friend recommended this restaurant. I asked him where he thought my mother would like to eat." While it was his birthday, he clearly wanted it to be a place I loved. The altruism at the time surprised me. We order antipasto and asked the waiter to give us some time to decide on the main dishes. Perhaps I imagined it, though it seemed to me that the waiter understood the poignancy of the moment, and displayed reverence as he approached us each time.

My son took a deep breath and relayed to me, fighting back tears of his own, how happy he is now, all of the time, no matter what he is doing. He described in intimate detail what getting sober and finding his spiritual self and community has done for him. He reported that it has given him language and validation for his pain and suffering. More importantly, he explained, recovery has taught him a methodology for staying in close contact with his feelings. He articulated with deep sincerity that he knows that just the seemingly simple experience of feeling his feelings is the key to true happiness. Before he got sober, his primary objective in life was to not feel his feelings, which led to overwhelming depression and anger that spilled out everywhere.

He repeated over and over during the evening, with great amazement, "It doesn't matter where I am, or what I am doing; I carry the happiness inside of me, inside of my soul." My heart was opened up as I listened. Tears quietly streaming down my face, as I thought back to the doubts I had, the questioning of myself. It all seems so clear now, that my son's soul did long for sobriety. Yet at the time that I took control and sent my son to treatment, there was no clarity, only pain and confusion.

"Mom, are you all right? Are those tears of relief?" He asked. I could only nod, the tears were still coming. He went on: "OK, Mom, now I am going to give you an overview of my entire life!" Braced, I expected the worse; here it comes the day of reckoning, where he talks about his unhappy childhood. Where I will be exposed as the cause of his unhappiness and learn all of the psychologically damaging things I did to him. "Could we order first?" I asked, stalling for time. Mercifully the waiter appeared in his humble manner, noticing the obvious signs of my tears, the mascara soaked cloth napkin, he replaced it and brought me a box of tissues, and a smile. Trying to regain my composure, I ordered "salmon fettuccine" my son ordered "filet mignon, if that is all right Mom?" The sweetness of his consideration in asking made me tear up again. During his using years, there was no consideration for me, ever. "Of course, order anything you want, it is your first birthday!" That brought a big smile to his face. "Thanks," he said, "for recognizing how significant this day is."

He took another deep breath, "So, are you ready?"

He began by telling me that until the age of 13, he was always happy. I could not believe what I was hearing. "Really? Even with all of the shuttling back and forth between your Dad's house and mine and the animosity between him and me?" I asked in amazement, still crying. "Mom, I am an addict, I am totally self absorbed, all I noticed was that I got two Christmases, two birthdays, and you were always giving me whatever I wanted, and doing whatever I wanted." And he said, "You took me to the spiritual groups who taught me to meditate, I loved that and it gave me serenity even before I knew what serenity was."

OK, I was taking it in, feeling like I had gotten away with something because for a change he was not blaming me for his unhappiness. I continued to listen. At thirteen, he began to tell me, however, everything changed. "Kids are no longer influenced by their parents at all," he said. It was chilling to hear that definitive proclamation. I knew in my bones that it was all too true. He went on to acknowledge, however, that you are still very dependent on your parents while not being influenced by them. Somehow from the vantage point of an 18 year old this declaration is extremely significant. He continued by saying was that it was a loss to him when this occurred, a loss that he had no mechanism to understand or cope with in any way. The liberation of becoming a teenager is fraught with confusion and duality. The loss of the ground under your feet is accompanied by a profound liberation that comes with no longer feeling your parents are your primary bond.

At 13, he found out, from his perspective, that the belief that your parents knew what was best for you was an illusion. He described the recognition that whatever he was going to learn about how to survive was going to come from his friends: "Until 13 your parents are everything, you rely on them for your sense of identity. After that, nothing they say influences you, it is a very frightening experience to suddenly know they can't help you anymore, you are at the mercy of your friends, and your cravings." He says he began to find comfort only in alcohol, marijuana and hanging with friends who did the same thing.

At 18, he says, he went through another transition that further released the parent myth. "It is really over now, mom. You can no longer buffer me or teach me anything, I have either gotten it now, or I won't." His matter of fact tone still rings in my ear. There is a line drawn under the hopes and dreams I had when his shining face first looked into mine. I knew I would always protect him and give him unconditional love. He would never be harmed and would thrive in the abundance of my love. That he was now 18 and recovering from drug addiction, was not in my dreams and visions. It is however, the greatest gift I have ever received.

I drifted off in reverie as I contemplated what he was saying. Of course, as he said this I knew that it was not actually the case; children continue to learn from their parents, the context just shifts. My role in his life from the age of 13 has been as a background and foundation for him to bounce and crash against. It shaped him profoundly just as crashing surf shapes rocks. And at times, I felt like I was the one crashing against his rock of resistance, and hence I too was shaped by the tumultuous years of my son's teens. What ever is unresolved from our own adolescence comes screaming to the surface as we attempt to parent our teenagers. At other times, I felt like a giant trash compactor closing in around him forcing him to thrash violently in his panic to escape. In his final moment of "defeat," when I would not back off, he surrendered, and cried for help, despite his rage, rebellion and indignation.

I said none of this to him, instead listened to his version of his life. Dinner arrived, we were in a bubble and unaffected by the strange looks we were getting. I didn't touch my food, as he continued describing to me, in heartfelt tones, his amazement and wonder over realizing that using drugs and alcohol and his inability to stop using, was the ?cause? of the pain that he thought he was using to "cure."

He recalled the moment, when he came to me, broken by life at such a young age, and told me he didn?t know how he could go on. He was deeply unhappy; he remembers having no friends and that he no longer had any meaning in his life. I remember the moment well. It was the end of a very long day. During the preceding hours I had confronted him with the knowledge that he had stolen money with my ATM card. This incident was the third in a denial-breaking process for me. The first two were my finding an empty rum bottle in his room and, a day later finding LSD. He had been using since 13 and he was now 17. His use had escalated despite all of my efforts to disincline and control it.

I was ready for this moment when he came to me for help. Even if he hadn't I was ready to take action. I had done my homework and had set up an intervention. It was such a blessed moment when he actually came to me, some part of his psyche was crying out for help. I had found an outpatient treatment program and I had an appointment for us for the very next day. He readily agreed as I described the counseling opportunity that would include a group of teens going through similar issues. I played down the drug treatment aspect knowing his denial was still fierce.

"Mom," he asked as he bit into the lovely dinner we had just been served, "remember when I came and told you I needed help, and you took me to the treatment program? Why did I resist it so violently, when I knew I needed help?" I took a deep breath, and told him, "I believe it was because in that moment you were in pain and wanted help, but didn't know what the source of the pain was. I knew that the first layer of pain was drugs and alcohol, and that you had to get clean before anything else could be addressed. In that moment, I poked the sleeping dragon. This dragon had been comfortable for a long time, living in you, eating your very soul, growing larger and fiercer day by day. He controlled you and got fed by ever increasing amounts and varieties of substances. The dragon knew what I was up to; I was planning to cut off its food supply to save your life." I watched him as he eagerly listened to what I was saying.

I went on. "The dragon then rose up in full hideous regalia of rage at the realization that the flow of life-giving poison was about to be stopped. It was the addicted part of you that night who, upon leaving the counselors office, threw himself into a violent rage in the streets. At that moment I was prepared to call the police to protect you and me from your internal dragon. The dragon psychosis that had been living in your soul was now erupting." I paused a moment, my son riveted. "I summoned all of my strength, centered myself, fueled by fierce compassionate, but focused rage, I confronted you in the middle of the street. I looked straight into your eyes which were blazing with rage, and said, "It is over, this is the end, you will go to treatment." A string of obscenities and violent gestures were flying out of you directed at me. You threatened to move back with in with your father. This threat used to stop me cold, but that night I was clear and told you, "Try it, I will hunt you down and have you arrested for possession of drugs and theft, I will revoke your driver's license, I will not stop, I will not give up on you, ever." I was shaking; my heart was pounding and I felt like I was going to faint. I somehow kept steady, my tenacity fueled by the crystal clear knowledge that it was your soul I was fighting for, and it was the dragon I was meeting face to face. Part of me had stepped aside and let the warrior come through for you. I was amazed that the police had not been called, the scene was extraordinary and disturbing, but no one seemed to respond." I paused and took a deep breath, aware that I had never shared my pain about this with him before. I didn't tell him that I was having flashes of him at 3 years old; as that beautiful cherubic golden hair child, now possessed by this hideous alien creature.

"The bigger and more hideous you became that night, the more determined my Kali-like* mother self became to meet the dragon and retrieve your soul. Finally, I thought you were going to become physically violent with me, and I had to surrender inside, I knew if you wanted to you could really hurt me. I said a quick prayer and let go emotionally, I was prepared for you to run away, or hit me, or break a window. Without a word, grace took over and you calmly walked over and got in the car. I turned to you and said, "So tomorrow night we will meet here for our first family counseling session?" And you replied, "You are not giving me choice, are you?" "No," I said, "you do not have a choice."

Catching my breath, taking a bite of dinner, I went on: "I knew that you were exhausted and had surrendered in the moment, but that the dragon was still alive and was only appearing to be cooperative and conciliatory as a manipulation. Still, I knew I had won the first battle, one of many more to come."

As we took the last bites of fettuccine, my son said with heartfelt passion, "You're right it was like a sleeping dragon that had been poked after possessing me undisturbed for years. I was very frightened; thank God you took control and made me go to treatment. I am so grateful for what you did for me."

And I thought to myself, "That's right, thank God," and I do that everyday. I thank God for the wisdom, courage and strength I was given to do what I had to do when it seemed impossible and hopeless. And I did it despite many people saying to me "leave him alone, you are overreacting, he's just experimenting..." Above all, thank God for my son's own Higher Power, for that is truly the source of his decision to cooperate. No amount of my coercing, or forcing would have made him respond to the treatment. It only got him to the door.

In the midst of our powerlessness over drugs, we do have power over our children. We can take charge, and make a difference; there is something parents can do. I am writing this book to bring hope to parents who are living with what seems like the tragedy of their lives. You can turn this tragedy into a gift. Miracles are possible.

* Kali is a Hindu goddess who uses her power to fight the demons of the world. She is revered for her ability to protect the highest truth through creative destruction.


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