by Juanita Ryan
Children are some of our best teachers. They teach us, experientially, to open our hearts. To give of ourselves. To seek wisdom. To set limits. To embrace. To let go. Children never stop teaching us. But as with most of life, the greatest lessons often seem to come during the toughest times.
The year our oldest son dropped out of high school and became an addict was a very dark and difficult year for us. It was also a time of deeper exposure to life’s most important lessons. I didn’t fully realize it until much later, but it was during that anguished time that our son taught me a greater understanding of humility, honesty, courage, trust and grace.
Humility is, in many ways, the opposite of shame. Shame causes us to judge and attack ourselves for our limits and weaknesses, leaving us scrambling to hide or pretend or try harder. Humility, on the other hand, does not make negative judgments about our limits and weaknesses, but instead embraces them as reality, as simply what is. Shame pushes us to say “I should” even in the face of our powerlessness. Humility frees us to say “I can’t” when we are faced with things that are beyond our control.
When our son was using, I thought I should be able to do all kinds of things that I could not do. Intellectually I knew better. Even experientially I knew better. But this was my child. Everything in me seemed to scream that “I should.” I should be able to figure out when he was using and when he was not. I should be able to reason with him. I should be able to make him stop. I should be able to keep him away from his using friends. I should be able to get him the right help. I should be able to protect him from harm, including his self-harm.
I tried. For months I tried. But I could not. I could not do any of these things. Believing I should be able to do what I could not do, and endlessly trying to control what I could not control, left me in my own insanity. It was only when I grew sick and tired of my own insanity that I was able to recognize that my life had become unmanageable. And it was only then that I was ready to learn new lessons in humility.
Humility helped to restore my sanity. I could not do for my son any of what I, as his parent, wanted so desperately to do. I could not. That simple truth was excruciatingly painful. Yet it was wonderfully freeing. And it ultimately was what opened the door for my healing and for our healing as a family, because healing could occur only as I lived in that humble truth and got out of God’s way. I stopped trying to do what only God could do when I humbly admitted, “I cannot.”
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus taught us, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” We open ourselves to receiving God’s healing in our lives when we come to the end of trying to control what we cannot control. Every time we acknowledge our spiritual poverty–our creaturely dependence on our loving Maker–and live in the truth of our need for God, the kingdom of heaven is ours. When we let ourselves be who we are as God’s much loved children and we let God be God, the doors and windows of our lives are thrown open for us to receive God and all God’s love and life and goodness into our lives. This is the amazing grace of true humility. It is the central dynamic of the first three steps of the Twelve Steps.
Honesty is the capacity to tell the truth about ourselves. It is the ability and choice to let ourselves and others know what we are observing, what we can do and what we can’t do, what we are thinking and feeling, what we are wanting and what our behaviors have been. Honesty is reality unadorned, the truth with no spin. What Jesus taught us about the truth is that it will set us free.
Honesty is a twin sister to humility. It is the freedom to let go of attempts to manage what others think of us. It is the relief that comes with being real about our limits, our flaws, our poor choices, our sin, our fears, our shame, our longings, our love. It is the joy of being able to let go of the self-image we may be attached to and to allow ourselves to be an ordinary human being.
The truth we need to let ourselves know and speak is, most importantly, the truth about ourselves. The first step of honesty that I had the opportunity to take when our son was using drugs was to stop focusing on his insanity around drugs and to focus instead on my insanity about him. In my attempts to control what was beyond my control I was playing God. As a result, I became increasingly out of touch with reality, obsessed and irrational. I had to admit my own insanity before any positive change could take place.
The second step of honesty became possible for me once I admitted that I could not control what was out of my control. Paradoxically, this admission allowed me to take a much clearer look at the significance of what was happening. There was a problem. Our son was in trouble. I had to stop minimizing and denying this truth. I had to see and admit to myself, to God and to others the existence of this problem. And I had to let myself see clearly its enormity, its progressive nature and its life-threatening reality.
The third step of honesty I needed to take was to acknowledge that I was a part of the problem. This can be tricky territory because we often want to take either no responsibility or total responsibility for other people’s behavior. And because usually neither of these is the truth, we end up in confusion and continued chaos. I had to sort out what was my part and what was not my part of the problem.
The clarity that humility brought me made it easier for me to see that the choices my son was making were not my doing. I was not forcing the drugs into him. He was doing this; I was not. I did not cause these choices; I could not control these choices. His addiction was his problem.
There were ways, however, in which I was a part of the problem. First, I was part of the problem because I had passed on burdens of shame, fear and guilt to my son long before I knew that I carried these burdens myself. Like all parents, there were ways I had hurt my son and had failed him. The inherited burdens of shame, fear, guilt and unresolved pain that he carried were, in part, what made him more vulnerable to making self-destructive choices.
Second, I was part of the problem because I continued to try to fix or control my son and his problem. In doing this, I continued to slip back into minimizing or denying his drug use, wanting to avoid the truth because I didn’t want to face the pain.
Third, I was part of the problem because I was not taking good care of myself. I was so busy with all the insanity of the situation that I neglected some of my own basic needs.
Telling myself and God and a few other people these basic truths helped to free me from adding more shame and fear and guilt to my life or to our son’s life. Honesty freed me from getting lost in self-blame or from needlessly blaming others. Shame and blame only add to the problem. Telling the truth, however, is like shining a light in the dark. It brings a simplicity and a clarity. The simplicity and clarity that were evident when I told the truth was that there was a problem of great significance; our son needed help; I needed help; our family needed help. Truth, when we find it, is always freeing.
Courage is the capacity to take action in spite of our fear. Courage does not feel like freedom from fear, because it is not. The fear is still there. Courage is choosing to not allow the fear to decide for us what we will do and what we will not do. Courage is the God-given strength to make decisions based on the wisdom we have gained from humility and honesty, rather than based on our fear.
The serenity prayer teaches us to pray for the serenity to accept what we cannot change, the courage to change what we can and the wisdom to know the difference. Accepting the truth about my son’s problem and the truth about my inability to change or control him led me to see the things I could change. I could not change him, but perhaps I could, with God’s help, change myself. I was a part of the problem. Perhaps I could also be a part of the solution.
One thing I could change was to take better care of me. It took some courage to begin taking better care of myself, because in this situation I sometimes confused self-care with selfishness and was tempted to berate myself for even the most basic acts of self-care. But self-care is always a gift to ourselves and to other people in our lives, because it fosters self-respect and respect of others and because it allows us to live more sanely.
For me, at the time, taking better care of myself meant not living my life obsessed about our son’s choices, but allowing myself to pursue my own life. It meant spending time alone with God and time alone with my husband. It meant spending time with our other son and spending time with friends. Taking care of myself also meant getting all the help and support I needed, so that I could continue living in humility and honesty. All of this took courage, because I was afraid that if I moved my primary focus off our son and onto my life, I was in some way abandoning him and that might make his problems worse.
When I took better care of myself I began to notice my limits. Our son was living in our home, and he was often up all night. His behavior was erratic. He had days of paranoia and times when he lashed out at us verbally. All of this was not only painful to watch but very disruptive to our lives. I began to see clearly, because of my ongoing self-care, that I could not go on living that way.
One day my husband and I agreed that we could not continue to live that way any more. We contacted a treatment center to secure a place in their program, and then sat down with our beloved son, who was terribly paranoid by this time. We told him that we loved him and that we could not continue to live with his drug use. We told him that he needed to either go to this treatment program or move out on his own. We knew that moving out on his own would mean he would be on the streets, loaded and paranoid. Our fear was so great that we felt like our hearts would stop. And yet, by God’s grace, we found the courage to do the sanest thing we had done in months. God granted us the courage we needed to change what we could change, the courage we needed to tell the truth and the courage we needed to speak from humility rather than from shame or blame.
If we had allowed our fears to be the guiding principle of our decision making, the chaos and insanity of our lives and of our son’s life would most likely have continued. But when we humbly told the truth about our limits, when we accepted that we could not stop or control our son’s drug use, and when we were granted the courage to change what we could by asking him to go into treatment or move out, new possibilities for healing were opened for all of us. This particular act of courage required that I learn another vital life lesson, the lesson of trust.
Trust is the ability to rely on or depend on another person’s help and support and care. In the second step of the Twelve Steps we come to believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity. In the third step, we make the decision to turn our lives and wills over to the loving, capable care of God. We make the decision to trust God.
I had heard this short catch phrase–“Trust God”–all my life. It had been said all too often in my hearing as a kind of magical spell, a quick fix. It seemed to be thrown out as an easy answer by people who hadn’t even bothered to listen to the problem. Trust God. What did it mean? How does one do this? What does it change? More often than not, it seemed to lead to shame and confusion rather than to restored lives.
When our son was addicted to drugs, lying about his use and growing more and more paranoid, the phrase “Trust God” took on an entirely new and desperate meaning for me. It sounded like I was being told, “Let go of your son even though it feels like he will fall to his death. Let go of him and trust that God will catch and hold him and care for him.” This seemed impossible to me. I felt like I was being asked to do the impossible.
But it is what I had to do. I could no longer put my trust in my abilities to fix the problem. Only God could restore our son. My work was to entrust myself and our son and our entire family to God’s loving care. Every day. Multiple times a day. Trusting God was no longer a simple slogan. It took on urgent meaning. It became something visceral. At first it was like performing a high-wire act, expecting to fall at any moment, but choosing to believe that there was a safety net beneath us even though I could not see the net or understand how it could catch us.
So what steps did I take as I inched my way out onto that high wire? I took steps like praying. Not long, theologically correct prayers, but short, urgent prayers for help, for guidance, for courage. I took steps like asking others who knew us and loved us to pray for us as well. I took steps of facing and accepting the seriousness of the problem we faced as a family, and of facing and accepting our powerlessness to cure addiction. Ultimately, we took the step of requiring that our son go into treatment or move out. That was the moment when we actively, fully let him go and entrusted him to God’s care.
A friend who was praying for us told me in the midst of our darkest days that she sensed that God was inviting me to rest. Rest! The word startled me. It seemed so bizarre in my circumstances. And yet I could feel the difference it would make. I could climb down from my imaginary high-wire act and crawl into God’s loving arms. And rest. For me this became the deepest, truest meaning of the word trust. And it, too, was visceral–this sense of being securely held in the arms of love, this sense that everyone in my family was being held in God’s loving arms. I did not have to let my son fall; he was already being held. Letting him go simply meant that I stopped getting in God’s way, that I quit acting as if there were no God who was powerful and loving and able to heal. Letting go meant resting in God’s powerful love for me and for my son.
It was a great grace-fullness that our son agreed, reluctantly, to go into treatment. This might not have been the outcome of our intervention. He might have decided to spend time on the streets before he became willing to end the nightmare. There is no way to know in advance how long the journey with addiction will go on. It is not something we can control. But, fortunately, that was not his choice. We found out later that he decided to go to treatment partly because he had become so paranoid that he wanted to get away from the people he thought were after him. God used the insanity he was experiencing to help him make a sane choice.
The outcome of the story is that we let our son go and we got him back. God held us all in arms of love and brought healing to our son and to our family, one day at a time, day after day after day. “It is a story of redemption,” our son said a few years later. It is a story of redemption, a story full of grace.
Grace is the healing, saving, blessing activity of God in our lives. Grace is God being God. It is God with us.
I learned grace in new ways while our son was still using. I experienced God with us in that dark time. God did not wait until we figured things out. God did not wait at all. God was with us through it all, in it all, extending healing, and blessing to us all. It was God’s grace that drew us into humility and honesty. It was God’s grace that gave us courage when our hearts grew faint with fear. It was God’s grace that taught us to entrust ourselves and our son to God’s loving care.
Sometimes people define grace as “unmerited favor” and then go on to talk about grace as if it is something God extends to us in spite of our lack of value in God’s eyes. I experienced deeply that this is not what grace is at all. Unmerited favor (or unearned favor) means that grace is something we cannot earn because it is already ours. God’s grace, God’s love are ours. Already. Always.Unmerited favor means that God’s loving-kindness toward us does not change as we change. It is constant, unchangeable, and therefore absolutely reliable. Grace is God always seeing and knowing our infinite value. Grace is God actively seeking to awaken us to God’s love for us and to our everlasting value to God.
When our son was at his worst, his value, his preciousness, in our eyes never changed. We loved him and treasured him. If we, being broken parents, could extend that kind of grace to our son without even trying, how much more does God’s love and valuing of us never fail. This is the grace I experienced in new ways while our son was still using.
Jesus told a story in which God is a parent whose child has lost his way. This is the familiar story of the father whose son has taken his portion of the inheritance and quickly spent it all, most likely on mood-altering behaviors. The father looks down the road day after day, filled with longing for this son he loves and values beyond measure. The father endlessly scans the horizon for his son, waiting for the day his son will return. The father never forgets for an instant his son’s infinite value or his own endless love for his child. So when the son first appears far off down the road the father runs toward him with arms outstretched and joy in his heart. The father does not listen to the son’s rehearsed speech about not being worthy; instead, the father demonstrates to the son the son’s great value. The father throws his arms around his son, embracing him in love and gladness. Then the father places his ring on his son’s finger, his coat on his son’s shoulders and tells his servants to prepare a party in honor of his son. This is grace. It is God’s extravagant, unshakable valuing and loving of us. This is God’s grace toward us as parents. This is God’s grace toward our children. This is God’s never ending grace toward each and every one of us.
Humility. Honesty. Courage. Trust. Grace. These lessons were hard won. These lessons were pure gift. I am grateful beyond telling for our son’s recovery and for our recovery as a family. And I am deeply, daily grateful for the life lessons God taught me while our son was still using drugs.
May the God of grace keep you in all peace. May you, by God’s grace, know the freedom of humility and honesty, and the possibilities of courage and trust. May God’s grace bring full healing to you and to those you love.
Juanita Ryan is a therapist in private practice. Visit her web site at www.juanitaryan.com .