by Norma Bourland
Our son started using drugs when he was 14 years old. We had just moved to another state for the second time in two years, after living overseas as missionaries for the first 12 years of our son’s life. This was a lot for all of us in our family to handle, especially for an adolescent. Because my husband was the pastor of a small evangelical church, we lived on a limited budget, whereas our new community was very affluent. Our son’s new high school was huge, with about three thousand students. He was the youngest one on his soccer team, and although he was very skilled because he had been playing almost from the time he was born, he had a bit of an accent and was unsure of American ways. So he kind of stood out.
In the early years of our son’s drug use I certainly didn’t suspect he was using. I just thought he was having difficulty adjusting to high school and to the non-Christian values of his new friends. I prayed and talked with him about being a good testimony to those he was with at school. I talked to him about how he could influence his friends in a positive way. A good opportunity for him, I said. I thought for sure that his little rebellious moments –broken curfews and drinking parties –would be used by God in my son’s life as a good learning experience for him. I completely expected that someday he would be a giant of a Christian preacher.
Slowly I became confused and frustrated as my son’s habits and patterns of behavior developed. I tried to make sense of the chaos in his life that was emerging. I preached to him passionate sermons. I punished him with endless groundings. I shamed him with my tears and my pleading. I tried hard to get my husband to “do something.” Why couldn’t we get through to him? Why did he continue this destructive behavior? Why wasn’t he listening to us? Why was he doing all the things we were telling him not to do? I became desperate and angry and very, very tired.
Four years later a turning point came for me, a point of beginning to regain a bit of sanity. When we finally knew for sure and accepted the fact that my son was abusing drugs and alcohol, it was a relief to stop trying to figure out what was wrong. We were able to let our desperate questions go. We were then able to get a little help for our son. We took steps to address the real problem instead of all the symptomatic behaviors.
The year following our son’s high school graduation we sent him to a private prep school with great hope that he would improve his grades so that he could go to college. But when he returned home at Christmas, we determined that he was using heavily. In fact, he was using cocaine heavily. He was deeply depressed and lethargic. After confronting him in a long and difficult session in our living room, we were able to get him into an outpatient treatment in our neighborhood. My husband and I also received some counseling there.
In the midst of all these difficulties, my husband decided to take a new position as pastor of counseling in a church in another state. This move had the promise of a new beginning for all of us and offered some relief for my husband from his senior pastor responsibilities and the scrutiny of a small church. Shortly after the move, however, we discovered that instead of progressing in recovery, our son had escalated his use. We found crack cocaine and other drug paraphernalia in our car one day after he had used it.
We didn’t waste much time confronting him. We called around and found that we had unknowingly moved to the drug recovery mecca of the United States. One of the centers in our city admitted our son, and our whole family was soon attending the center’s mandatory family week, which included drug education classes and some very painful, emotional group sessions with other families. All this was going on while we were just settling into a new pastorate and while our new church family was trying to be welcoming and hospitable toward us and get to know us.
I kept declining invitations from the church hospitality committee to attend a monthly coffee morning for newcomers, but I finally agreed to go. Reluctantly I pushed myself out the door that day and went to the beautiful suburban home of the hostess. I walked in and everything was absolutely perfect. The hostesses were wonderful and very welcoming. I sat down in a small circle with a group of women of varying ages and was just starting to relax when the hostess said, “Norma, why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about your family and yourself, and we’ll go around the circle.”
I died inside. I didn’t want to tell them about my family and myself. But I took a deep breath, smiled and said, “Well, we have just moved here. My husband is your new pastor of counseling. We have four children. Our oldest son is at a Christian college. Our second son is 18 and he’s in drug treatment at St. Mary’s. Our daughter is in high school, and our youngest son is in junior high.” Then I turned to the woman on my right and smiled, hoping she would jump in quickly so that nobody would remember what I said.
I sat frozen as the introductions went around the room. I really did not know who was there or what they said until the last woman, sitting directly across the table, looked at me and said, “My name is Carol, and I too have four children, and my second son was also in drug treatment at St. Mary’s.”
I couldn’t believe it. I’d been feeling like I was probably going to die from this horrible thing I was going through, and here was a woman my age, looking well manicured and fairly sane and sensible, and yet she had lived through this. In fact, she seemed to be functioning quite normally.
Suddenly I felt hopeful. I thought, Maybe I can get through this somehow. I thought of the verse in which Job says of the Lord, “He knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold'” (Job 23:10). And I saw my new friend Carol sitting there as gold. This woman became a friend at a desperate time in my life.
One of the ways I cope with any difficulty in my life is to talk about it. I talk it through, and then I talk it through some more, and then I talk about it again. So I was talking about my son to everyone who would listen to me. I needed my longtime friends to listen to me and tell me how they remembered what a good mom I was and what a sweet boy my son was and what a great family we were. I needed to be reassured that the past that I remembered was what really happened.
I guess I was hanging onto pride. I didn’t really want to face the issue that maybe I or our home life had anything to do with my son’s drug use. My friends were really patient with me.
Slowly I became angry, and especially when I heard Christians say things like, “I don’t know where my kids would be today if it weren’t for my prayers.” As if I hadn’t prayed or I hadn’t prayed enough or I hadn’t prayed the right prayer or God didn’t like me or my kids as much as them. And I got angry with God for not protecting our kids and not answering my prayers for them over the years. We had dedicated each one of our kids to God when they were little, and I had never expected them to be in this kind of destructive situation. I stopped reading Christian books and magazines, and I avoided group prayer meetings. I turned off the Christian music and the radio.
I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. Our family life felt like a mockery to me. I screamed within myself whenever I heard other people refer to drug users as losers or scumbags who should be put away for life or given the death sentence or shipped out of the country. I wanted everyone to know that one of those “losers” was my son, whom I had nurtured in my arms every night with stories and songs of “Jesus Loves You, This I Know.” Things had not turned out like I thought God had promised they would. A longtime friend of mine remembers all that anger, because she patiently listened to it.
My new friend from the hospitality morning took me to Al-Anon. It was there that I listened to my anger through the mouths of others. Al-Anon was painful for me, and I didn’t like it. Every time I went, I left saying, “I’m not going again.” I just didn’t understand what “letting go” meant. I didn’t appreciate having to share my personal feelings and stories with people who would give me only their first names. But each time I went I repeated the serenity prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” And I listened to others read the 12 Steps. From day one I began slowly, very slowly, to realize that the decisions my kids make are not mine. They do things for their own reasons. Even though our decisions affect each other, we are not the source of each other’s happiness or peace of mind. I cannot change my kids or control their choices. I can only change me and control my own choices.
Some days I had to work real hard not to allow my kids’ well-being, especially my son who was using, to be the focus of my life or the source of my happiness. My well-being has to be my own decision every day. This releases me from being enmeshed in my kids’ choices. When I finally realized this, I told my son, “You are not the source of my happiness.” He seemed shocked and a little disbelieving as he said, “You’ve never told me that before.” And he was right. I’m sure that all the tears and the ranting and the sermonizing and the punishing over the years had told him otherwise.
Somehow I had bought into the idea that I was responsible for my children’s choices. It hadn’t dawned on me that perhaps they make their choices for their own reasons, just as I do. I thought that if I taught them well enough and disciplined and trained them the way I was supposed to, they would avoid all the evil trappings of the world. They would be blessed by God and would be Christians who could live above the circumstances and experience only joy and goodness. It was what was required of me as a parent. Good kids had good parents; bad kids had bad parents. I was diligent and committed and determined in this task of parenting. Everything seemed clear-cut to me. Black-and-white. If I did what I was supposed to do, they would be good. So of course I was very, very disappointed and I took it personally when my kids did something I considered wrong.
One day I was sitting in a training workshop in the midst of all this going on in my life. The speaker walked to the podium and without introduction said, “God is God, and I am not.” And then was silent. In a brief moment something happened to me. I heard nothing else. Those words sank deep within my heart and I felt free. In that moment I gave God back his job of saving my children and making them into Christians. And I took on the job of mom, loving them for who they are, not for who I was trying to make them be. And that moment began a process of my trying to live this out on a daily basis. Letting go doesn’t change the circumstances, and the circumstances can be tough and painful. But letting go frees me from trying to fix or control circumstances or other people. It allows me to experience peace in the midst of chaos.
At one point when my son was 19 he became discouraged with trying to recover and ran away. During those months we didn’t know where he was. I exhausted all my resources in trying to find him. I even had a former FBI agent looking for him. I felt depressed most of the time and had to force myself to get up every morning. I cried a lot. I cried every time I talked about my son. I cried every time I tried to pray. I wrote in one of my journal entries, “Each day I wake feeling an urgent need to do something, and then I realize there’s nothing I can do. The emptiness just has to be.”
My son had been gone almost a year, without a word, when his birthday approached. As I sat in my bedroom chair, my “safe place,” I begged God to do something to make my son call, make him come home and make him stop using drugs.
On his birthday, my son called. He was in jail, in another state, thousands of miles away. He said he had been thinking about his childhood and how good it was. He thanked us and said he didn’t want us to think we had been bad parents. We were amazed and glad, and we felt reassured that God was working in our son’s life. Even in that jail. I stopped crying and I made his favorite cake in celebration of his birthday. Then I called a few friends and we had a small party.
Two weeks later I had a vivid dream. In that dream my son was bound in chains and was surrounded by all of us who were at his party. It was dark and scary; evil things floated around in the air like in a horror movie. But all of a sudden a light came, the chains fell off and someone said, “He’s free. He’s free!” And beautiful peace and light and soft music flooded the room and flooded over me. Then suddenly I realized I was awake. In fact, I was speaking. I said, “He’s free!” out loud. I lay there for a minute. I felt assured in a strange way that God was speaking to me. God was in charge.
Not many days later we received a letter from a friend we hadn’t heard from in a while. He knew that our son had run away. The friend said in his letter that he had begun praying recently for our son and had prayed for seven days. He said he prayed that our son would remember his youth and his home and that he would repent and call us. When the seven days ended he decided to pray seven more days and to fast a couple of days, too. He finished praying on the same day that I had the dream. God used this friend to encourage us just when we needed encouragement. God seems to know what we need when we need it and goes to any length to give us what we need.
Our son came home a little over a year later. It was Christmastime, and he had been gone for two years. He brought his girlfriend, who was six months pregnant, home with him. They lived with us for three months while they got some things sorted out. Then they moved into their own apartment. After their son was born we watched their roller-coaster life begin to affect our little grandson. And later we had our grandson live with us on two occasions because either my son was in jail or he and his wife weren’t able to take care of their son.
Our grandson is now nine years old and has a little sister. Our son has been sober, we think, for several years. But the consequences of his past continue to challenge him and his wife. He’s 30 now; he lost some valuable growing-up years during the 12 years he was using, and he has had to catch up on learning some basic life skills.
Facing My Part
I couldn’t have honestly faced the question of what was my part in my son’s drug use while I was hurting so badly and feeling so disillusioned. Only recently have I been able to ask myself that question, because I had to go through my emotional responses before I could separate myself from him. As long as I was enmeshed emotionally with him the question of what was my part in my son’s drug use felt like an accusation. It was too close to me.
But once I let go and let God work in my son’s life and in mine and I began to take care of my own well-being, I was able to see my son more clearly as a person. I saw what a heavy burden he must have carried, to be the evangelical pastor’s kid in an area where that wasn’t a popular affiliation. It must have been difficult for him when I pressured him to be a testimony to his friends and to be content with moving as often as we did. I began to see that I hadn’t had much empathy for my children’s feelings. I hadn’t even given them the permission to have their own feelings. I began to see that there was a reason for my son to rebel. I began to feel compassion for him. I began to want to hear his story and to support him in whatever he was feeling–not for my own purposes, but for his. My own pain helped me to understand his pain, helped me to grow spiritually and helped me to become a more compassionate person.
Our children are unique. They make their own choices for their own reasons, as we parents do. Parents are not to blame for their children’s temperament, personalities, character or choices. But parents do contribute. We choose how to contribute to their development, and even when we try to do our best, we fall short. We make mistakes. But God has trouble with his family too.
The anger in me has been quieted, and the disillusionment about God is gradually turning to ongoing insight. My deep hurt has turned into hope and anticipation and also appreciation for the journey that it’s taken us on. I still often sit in silence in the presence of God, in my chair in the bedroom, and let God hold me and quiet my fears. Although I often squirm in his lap like a two-year-old, he doesn’t let go. He reminds me that he looks at me with compassion as a father looks at his child. That he does not respond to me according to my failures or repay me according to my sins. And that he separates my sins from me as far as the east is from the west, because he knows what I am made of. That’s where I find “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can,” and the wisdom to let God be the Savior of my precious children.
Reprinted with permission of www.notalone.org. This is one of several excellent articles available at www.notalone.org. We encourage you to visit them online. This story is also published in Hit By a Ton of Bricks: You’re Not Alone When Your Child’s On Drugs, Dr. John Vawter, ed. (Little Rock, Arkansas: FamilyLife, 2003).