My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. (2 Corinthians 12:9)
“Your son’s addiction will become a blessing to your family.”
I didn’t buy it at the time, of course. I have a vague recollection of staring back at this sympathetic Deacon, mouth agape, utterly confounded by his words. After the overdose, my son – and the entire family – had gone through a lot. Although he was now living in the Cenacolo Community, I still felt woozy from the roller coaster ride my life had felt like for the past few years. The roller coaster ride that just kept going, with no exit.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see more clearly the truth in the Deacon’s statement. It wasn’t spontaneous, of course, but I have learned a few things through this most challenging journey – and I’m still learning. Here are just a couple takeaways:
Recovery Is Possible
I’m honored to know many people who, by God’s grace, have kicked all manner of addictions. It’s inspiring. It’s possible. There’s hope.
At the same time, it’s a fact that some people don’t recover. Some people die.
Yet even in the case of unexpected or tragic death, (like my uncle who suffered a stroke and died right before receiving an Academy Award), I still think there’s a case to be made to hope and pray. This doesn’t make any sense unless it’s considered in the context of faith in a God whose ability to bring good out of even the most tragic of circumstances is a hallmark. I’m reminded of a friend, Rachel Muha, whose son was murdered – and through this tragedy built an amazing program for inner city youth.
St. Augustine said, “God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us.” (CCC 1847) Recovery is indeed possible, but just like becoming ensnared in addiction in the first place, the path to recovery requires the cooperation of the addict. No matter how much I love my son, I can’t do it for him.
Forgiveness Is Critical
Before I could move on, I needed to forgive – at multiple levels. Forgiveness is often a challenge in the midst of deeply emotional difficulties, but I was surprised at how it played out in this case. I knew that I had to forgive my son, and determined to do so. I love my son, and all my children, to the depths of my being, so this decision was the first step.
Then I realized that I was still distressed – not on my own behalf, but on behalf of other family members and friends as well. In particular, my son’s addiction had hurt my beloved wife, and her mother’s heart. Yet it occurred to me that this wasn’t for me to forgive – my wife had already done so on her own. Who was I to retain a grudge on her behalf? Once this became clear, I let go. That was the second step.
One step remained, and it was the hardest of all. I had to forgive myself. The dad guilt, and self-accusatory “shoulda, woulda, coulda” reverberated through my consciousness in a seemingly endless loop. Yet I came to see that the root of this was pride. I often vacillated between feeling like a terrible parent, and the likely cause of my son’s problems, and a hapless dad whose son had the gall to go down a bad path in spite of my efforts at a good upbringing. My emotions conspired against me, often taking twists and turns just as sure as roller coasters go up and down. As you might surmise, this was a trap. One day, it finally hit me.
This wasn’t about me, it was about my son.
We believe that God forgives (particularly through the wonderful sacrament of confession), so who was I to withhold forgiveness from others, or myself? Should I hold myself to a higher standard than God? As the journey progressed, forgiveness turned out to be the catalyst for the healing process to begin.
Tough Love Is Still Love
I learned that there’s sometimes a fine line between supporting someone and enabling their bad behavior. In my case, I began saying no, with love. This was remarkably difficult, and simultaneously liberating. Addicts are master manipulators, especially given the fact that they are often bright and sensitive people. I learned to give my son freedom – because I couldn’t save him from himself – but to set clear boundaries about what I would or wouldn’t do.
I remember thinking I could somehow “fix” my son’s addiction through superhuman efforts. It didn’t work. I remember attending an Al-Anon meeting early in the process. Those people know a thing or two about dealing with family and friends in recovery, and they have some great, pithy sayings. One of them hit me like a brick in the face: “You didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure it.” Implicit here is a modicum of humility – and I remember finally, in a state of exhausted emotional agony, abandoning my son to God even unto death. I couldn’t be my son’s savior. It was only after getting to this point that I had any internal peace.
If you have an addict in your life, don’t expect others to understand this. Most of us, especially in the early stages, think that our extraordinary efforts will be enough to save someone else from the clutches of addiction. This is why addicts often go from friend to friend, or family member to family member, draining one after another of resources and goodwill to feed an insatiable addiction. In the long run, this can be counterproductive.
In God We Trust
One of the things I love about being Christian is the hope that’s baked into our very identities. God has a habit of transforming bad circumstances into victories. Jesus is crucified in the most heinous manner possible and dies. Bad circumstance. Jesus is raised from the dead and is given power over death. Victory. This happens over and over again. Case in point: the bad circumstances of my son’s addiction actually have become a blessing.
In fact, a phrase that continues to go through my mind is “Oh, happy fault.” This is a line we sing at Easter Vigil each year, referring to the original sin of Adam and Eve, and how because of it, we were sent Jesus as our Savior. In other words, we’re better off because of their original sin.
Now don’t get me wrong – I don’t wish the long-suffering of addiction on anyone. But through my son’s experience, I believe that both he and the rest of our family are actually better off. We have been taught many valuable lessons, and have grown in our love for God, and our love for one another. If sainthood is about embracing our baptismal promises and growing in holiness, persevering until the end, this journey through my son’s addiction has left us better equipped us to do so.
In the end, I’m incredibly grateful to God for leading us through this difficult situation, and have confidence that He will continue to be with us. I am also grateful to my son, for his efforts to kick his addiction and the adventure that resulted. I learned yet another valuable lesson along the way: there is nothing my son (or any of my kids) can do to make me stop loving them.
I am also grateful to the wonderful people of Comunità Cenacolo both here in the U.S. and in Europe. Through this extraordinary community, we continue to trust that God can turn the darkness of addiction to light, our despair into hope. Thank you, Mother Elvira, and all who have sacrificed so much for the benefit of others.
Let’s pray for one another, and for all those struggling with addiction.
Resources: For more information on Cenacolo, including for families, entering, or supporting community, click here. Also, here’s a great book written by another dad of a community member called Returning to the Light. It’s a gripping story, and well worth checking out. I’d also like to cordially invite you to read my latest book, How God Hauled Me Kicking and Screaming Into the Catholic Church, which will explain why I’m so grateful to be Catholic – despite being anything but a choir boy in my youth. Thank you!