When it seemed clear that our son was using drugs, we had few resources for understanding how profound the problem was. At first, it seemed a matter of recreational use and thus could be discounted as a kind of pervasive cultural practice. As we became aware that he was more deeply involved, we found new narratives to explain and rationalize his behavior.
Wasn’t this just normal activity? Don’t all kids experiment with drugs, etc.? I think we realized that things were really bad when we could never reach him on his phone or when he’d miss meetings or classes. He was out of touch for long periods of time, coming home late at night and keeping to his room. His appearance began to deteriorate, his hair wild, his eyes clouded and unfocused. We began to miss money; there were odd credit card charges. Then he was fired from a very good job and later, forgot to show up for another. I remember feeling that he had been taken over by an alien in whom we could not recognize our son.
When the trauma day happened—as it inevitably does to substance abusers—we all hit bottom. I say “we” because our whole family dynamic had been dramatically altered, and we had been stripped of our previous comforting narratives of communication and connection. Our inability to recognize him also involved our inability to recognize ourselves as an interconnected, supportive family unit. After taking him to detox and then to New Life House, we learned a new narrative, one that we call “recovery,” but that term has quotes around it for a reason. As we discovered, “recovery” is not a linear, sequential set of steps towards “health” but a constant renegotiation of expectations, one-day-at a time. For every sign of improvement and growth comes a concomitant awareness of vulnerability and danger. What would happen with a relapse? Are we kidding ourselves? After all, we kidded ourselves for years, and look what happened? Nor is recovery only the burden of the addict but is shared by all members of the family and community.
I’ve gradually learned, through the New Life program, that coming into self-recognition as a sober person involves more than simply getting oneself clean; it involves a reciprocal investment in one’s relationship to others. That’s a hard lesson to learn in a society that privileges independence and autonomy over things like community and selflessness. We want people to pick themselves up by their bootstraps, go it alone, and reject forms of dependency and obligation. New Life House has provided the scene of a new kind of recognition for our son, one that allows him to see himself by being accountable to others. Not only does he benefit from the support of other members of the house, he has learned a degree of empathy and solidarity that enriches his own self-awareness—and by extension, ours. And if this is a new narrative of recognition for him, it is one that produces a new kind of family as well.