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.