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The Silent Treatment

Man looking at sea

It took a couple of years to come out of the stress of everything that happened during the (almost) 6 years that my son, Elliot struggled with an addiction to painkillers following an injury in football. One thing I did not realize as I found my way forward was that in addition to my own emotional suffering from almost losing him, Elliot might be traumatized by the experience with addiction himself. Due to how it affected me, I didn’t lend much empathy or understanding to the impact it may have had on him. I couldn’t comprehend it. It didn’t register for me at all. I was too blinded by how much it had hurt and terrified me.

That is, until I learned a powerful, eye-opening lesson during a bewildering time.

A couple of years into his recovery Elliot and I had an argument. We didn’t usually argue once our lives calmed down, nor did we really argue before, other than problems addiction and codependency can cause. Therefore, when this conflict quickly became heated it triggered old worries of my son possibly relapsing. As was par for the course I “relapsed” myself and I relapsed hard. I spiraled out of my emotional sobriety, back down the rabbit hole of fear, worry, suspicion and shaming comments. Veering off topic, I slipped back into my old pattern of panic, hounding him with questions about his decisions, moods and of course questioning his sobriety.

Questions that at this point and at his age, are really none of my business.

For two weeks we locked horns and neither would budge. And then suddenly my son stopped responding. He shut down all communication, severed all contact. For months (five months, six days to be exact, not that I was counting) Elliot wouldn’t answer my calls, emails or texts. Every attempt I made to contact him was met with silence. After more than a month went by I realized it was serious. I was bewildered, full of sadness and fear over it. I didn’t know if Elliot would be restored to me anytime soon, if ever. His last message said “Listen, I’m doing well, you need to focus on how you are doing. Don’t call me.”


And then the silence. Soul-crushing, mind-rattling, heartbreaking silence. Months of it (five months, six days, not that I was counting). I know it could have been worse: my son was alive, healthy and well. It was five months not five years, and it was not forever. We had survived many intensely difficult things before this. But it was still excruciating. It was a brutal, bitter fog. I mourned our regular conversations. A day did not go by that I was unaware of his absence. My heart was broken over it.

I missed my son so very much. It is a complex and difficult thing when you endure silence from a child, even if they are grown and gone. You can’t seem to dull the ache and confusion—whether they’ve cut you off in anger,or they're off somewhere scary and unknown in addiction, or whatever the case may be. That silence is scary and painful.

A close friend and I talked about what to do with the silence. She walked closely through those months with me. We never came up with anything solid to make it less throbbing and horrendous. All we managed to conclude was that I would have to make the time as productive as possible and not give into despair. One afternoon as usual, our conversation turned to how long it had now been since Elliot had answered my calls. The grief overwhelmed me, I didn’t want to answer this question anymore. Sitting beside me quietly she said, “We have to figure out how you can conquer the silence until it’s over.”

I have to say, I never truly did. I might have occasionally come to terms with it; there were times of acceptance and peace. But not for long, the waves of sorrow and frustration always came back. I found myself up and down over it. It was a painfully hard time. Especially since I had never gone through anything like this with Elliot before, even when he was at his worst with a raging opiate dependency. We were still in regular contact, we could be comfortable and real with each other even then. This time was different. This was no contact, no calls, no texts, cold silence for months (by now you know how many).

During this time, I set some intentions that I resolved to stick to no matter how things felt. I set my heart to not lose hope. I continuously prayed for the very best over Elliot’s life as much as I prayed for our relationship to be restored. I intentionally only spoke positives about him and about the future and I prayed daily for a breakthrough.

One night I was looking at my favorite pictures of him, as usual pain stabbed my heart. I was wiping away tears I could never seem to hold back when it came to missing him when suddenly a light came on. It occurred to me that I didn’t want to just be right anymore. I came to understand that beyond the need to be correct, I needed to be fair. I needed to be kind. I needed to be more understanding of my son’s take on things. Regardless of the past, I needed to level out and come to a place of mutual understanding. I realized that I had been spending more time right-fighting than listening and connecting on a loving, human level. Oh my goodness what a disservice I was doing to our relationship!

Suddenly his silent position made more sense. The pain and anger I had been feeling about it melted away and I understood that he had a perspective all his own. And he had every right to have it.

I quickly became aware that I’d become stuck on the pain and aftershock, having been in crisis through those horrible years of my son's addiction. How quickly I’d returned to all the fears I’d had of him using again (and ultimately the fear of him dying). I had let myself get so worked up that I couldn’t (or maybe wouldn’t) stop to see Elliot’s perspective. To be brutally honest, back then it almost didn’t occur to me that he had a right to one. My focus was too hard fixed on what he should be doing and how he should be acting along with how it all affected me.

It makes me cringe to remember how stubborn my thinking was at the time. As heart-wrenching as not hearing from my son was, through it I stubbornly clung to the belief that I was the only one who was right. Have you ever been so right that you ended up becoming wrong? 

I would not have imagined that my son, who I felt had caused my misery and fear when he was in the grip of this disease, could himself be wounded and affected by it. Nor did I stop to think that accusing and questioning him was a trigger for him as much as certain things could spark dormant fear and pain within me. Oh what a difference understanding and compassion can make. My heart surged with the relief of a breakthrough.

There are times for the greater good when it’s critical to hug the cactus.

“Hugging the cactus until it no longer hurts”* is another way of saying, we need to get comfortable facing our flaws. We need to regard our own inaccuracies and examine our motives and behavior. Introspection is a powerful tool, necessary and healthy for every human relationship, personal or professional.

And just when I reached this place of introspection and compassion he called. Thankfully, Elliot and I have since been restored. We are again joyful and healthy in our relationship, if not more balanced by respect and kindness. What a hard lesson to learn, yet I am profoundly grateful for it. I absolutely needed to become more self-aware. Stopping to consider where someone else might be coming from can undo a lot of misunderstanding and frustration. And after it all, I now relate to my son on a much healthier level.

Often we come to the deepest truths in the darkest times. Life is brutal this way as much as it’s beautiful. Never give up, you never know what can happen in a day. Eyes can be opened, hearts can be softened, silence can be broken.

Relationships can be restored.

“With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world” ~The Desiderate by Max Ehrman


Annie Highwater is a Writer, Speaker, Podcast Host and Family Advocate. She has a particular interest in family pathology and concepts of dysfunction, addiction, alcoholism and conflict. Annie published her memoir, Unhooked: A Mother’s Story of Unhitching from the Roller Coaster of Her Son’s Addiction, in 2016. Her story sheds light on the personal challenges facing the affected parents and family members, and illustrates how family dynamics both help and hinder the recovery process. Annie’s second book, Unbroken, Navigating the Madness of Family Dysfunction, Addiction, Alcoholism and Heartache was published in August of 2018. She resides in Columbus, Ohio and enjoys writing, long distance running, hiking, the great outdoors and visiting her son in California as often as possible.



In your comments, please show respect for each other and do not give advice. Please consider that your choice of words has the power to reduce stigma and change opinions (ie, "person struggling with substance use" vs. "addict", "use" vs. "abuse"...)

  1. I love this writing. Makes so much sense. We put so much effort
    into fighting we loose ourselves. Loose focus of what someone else
    may be feeling. Isn’t it funny, how, when we are faced with a loved ones
    addiction that somehow it becomes ours. We have a tendency to feel as if in some way its our addiction now and then before you know it, we are feeling sorry for ourselves. How could you do this?

    I enjoyed reading the silent treatment. I understand, been there.

    1. Dear Bambil,

      Thank you so much for the feedback. I definitely remember losing myself. I remember thinking because I was the responsible one, I was the “sober” one…I had to be right and order him out of it. That was when I had no idea about the pull or the nuances of this disease. I was just so stuck in the trauma and emotion of it. Some of the adversity was the greatest “university” I could have been called into. As affected family, we too need to understand, awaken, and recover on our side of the house.

      I am so grateful for this site and for the many family members who are becoming more educated, and aware and as a result – more compassionate.


  2. Thank you for this post. I’m coming to realize my role in why our communication or connection has broken down or been damaged. Yes, the drugs and alcohol have created this situation, but my son is my son. He is still the beautiful, thoughtful, sincere, and funny boy I know.

    Your post helped me realize two things. One, I want to communicate with my son, and when we argue I’m communicating with the drugs (always a losing battle). Two, I want to be more intentional in thinking and saying positive things about my son. Enough of the negativity. Positive begets positive, right? Complaining and forecasting negative things is not going to solve our issue – it just gets me worked up and then I’m less capable of using CRAFT effectively.

    Your reunion with your son gives me hope that I can repair whatever damage I’ve caused by trying a million different ways to approach our situation before I discovered CRAFT and this site. Thank you for sharing your story and your insights.

    1. Dear Hopefulin2018,

      You are so welcome, and I absolutely love your name. I love that you are HOPEFUL. That is at times what we must prop ourselves up on. The Silent Treatment post is one that is still special for me. I still remember exactly what those dark days felt like. Such heavy despair, and wide open uncertainty that seemed unending.

      It was resources like Allies, books, safe friends to reach out to, daily prayer and meditation, and being intentional – just as you said, that stabilized me through it. Yes, positive absolutely begets positive! Just as shame and anger produce more of the same. We can make a healthy impact when we modify our responses. You are on the right track.

      I can’t say enough that it’s a process, I compare it to weight loss! Or turning a ship around. It takes time, and work. The work you do in the quiet times may not seem to produce results, but I promise it will pay off. The trajectory of a family is completely rerouted when abusive use of drugs and alcohol enters the scene. But, many times we find ourselves better for it, once the work has been done, and hearts and bonds are restored.

      Never give up hope, it is a powerful anchor!


      1. Thank you, Annie. I’m trying not to give up hope. I purposefully pick uplifting user names to mask the pain and despair I’m fighting. Don’t worry, I’m taking Module 7 to heart and working on my self care, now that I’m coming to understand the importance of it and the role it plays in helping my Loved One.

        I listened to yours and Dr. Simon-Levine’s podcast on attaching and detaching and recall one of the messages echoed reflects your statement, “the work you do in the quiet times may not seem to produce results, but I promise they will pay off”. At times I feel it’s difficult to sow seeds because my son is so resistant to us and anything we have to offer when we catch him being sober (time together, memory making activities, etc.) How do we sow seeds in these instances? It feels as though he’s shutting us out, particularly when we maintain our boundaries.

        Your story is one of hope and inspiration. I will forge ahead and embrace the good moments (and right now they are only moments). It’s not over, yet, right? Many thanks.

  3. Thank you for the reminder to approach this with love and empathy. As much as my son’s addiction is destroying me, this is a great reminder that it is also destroying him and the only way out for both of us is love. Only then can he get the help he needs, if he knows that I am rooting for him to recover but not trying to do the work of recovery for him. I am here with him, not for him. He needs to decide for himself how he wants to show up and know that he has support and love. That’s all, and yet so much, that i can do. Thank you for sharing.

    1. You are so very welcome. I know how painful it is. It’s sorrowful. Compassion, love and kindness don’t mean condoning and allowing wrong behaviors and then anarchy will ensue. I think we believe that. We are so PTSD, terrified and heartbroken that we close off our loving-kindness. Compassion and kindness are what actually made my son feel safe and relaxed enough to trust me to help him. He’d lost trust in me too. What damage this disease does to the whole family! Once I started responding with love and kindness (while still being careful to protect myself, my time, my things, my money etc), things started moving. The healthier the family becomes, the better chance our Loved One has. Hang in there, spend time on Allies – there is so much on here to help the families. And always remember you are not alone. Annie