By Carla Sameth
“So my son’s an addict. I guess at this point you might wonder what the hell his mom did to make him that way. Actually, I had to put him in a twelve-step program at three years old. NA—Nursing Anonymous.” My first standup set ever; I had performed at the Comedy Store in Hollywood. Lots of laughs. Asked back by the host to perform another set. My son, Raphael was 18 years old, six months in recovery.
I woke up the next day feeling like shit. I’d “outed” Raphael, as an addict. What kind of mom was I? Now in recovery for more than six months, he’d given me permission to write about him but just as with almost everything in my life, I felt so guilty I was nauseous all morning.
My therapist had suggested I try comedy. “You’re funny. Go out and do something new like stand-up or improv,” she’d said from the safety of her Zen-like chair. She wanted me to pursue other interests in addition to attending Al-anon meetings and visiting my son, Raphael, at the recovery home for young men where he’d been residing for six months.
I was glad that I could still be funny. My sense of humor together with my son’s has always been a strong tie between us. It kept us from becoming a den of feral dogs, his ability to make me laugh, even under dire circumstances. But that aspect of our connection had frayed over the last several years after Raphael started using drugs.
Over the years, I have erupted into distinctly un-funny states—crying violent tears, begging to be seen, pleading not to be abandoned. Don’t leave me. Don’t hurt me. Desperately seeking safety, for me, for my family. And time after time, I disintegrated further as I clung to this panic. I experienced Deshacer—my word for total undoing of self. Like molten lava pouring out of me. I had to stop the flow, but coming out from under the unnatural disaster of my life was not a linear process.
I was in this state about nine months ago, barely over pneumonia and feeling the PTSD of running in and out of ERs hearing that my son might die soon because of his repeated drug overdoses. For about three years, beginning when Raphael was 14 years old, he started using drugs.
A mother wants to fix things—to take her baby in her arms, rock and comfort him until all is okay. Even when he was 17, that is what I was thinking when he fell asleep, head on my lap, in yet another medical waiting room, waiting to see if he would be referred to another treatment center. He was referred to his third drug treatment program, his second inpatient treatment center.
Inpatient Treatment Center 2 had a holistic approach which included daily therapy, healthy meals (with a special chef), visits to the gym and empowerment group. Some of the time, Raphael and the other kids sprawled out in the living room area watching television, such as reality rehab shows which almost made me smile. It looked relaxing compared to the life I’d been living. I kind of wanted to join them.
Raphael had regular therapy sessions with his dad for the first time. I didn’t know what happened in these sessions, but having a relationship with his father was still a big priority for him. Occasionally, I also met with Raphael’s therapist. The sessions didn’t go well. Raphael was furious with me. He blamed me for his dad not spending more time with him, refusing to be with him when Raphael didn’t “act right.” I feared I’d caused his despair because of my desperate attempts to keep him from using drugs, and on track in school, but I was also upset that he held me accountable for Larry’s actions.
At 30 days, Raphael had reached our insurance company’s allotted time cap –even though neither Raphael nor I, his dad or his therapist there felt he was ready. He’d be leaving In-Patient Center 2 to attend a new intensive outpatient program (his fourth drug treatment program).
The director of the new program had given me specific instructions to pick Raphael up, take him home with me, and into their program the next day. I believed that if I didn’t follow his instructions exactly, I might cause Raphael to relapse. I was desperate for direction. The plan was to ease Raphael into his relationship with his father, Larry.
Raphael’s relationship with his father was erratic and at times volatile. Raphael had tried, when he was quite young, to institute a regular visitation schedule with Larry. He presented his father with a free promotional calendar which came in the mail to our house.
“Please, Dad, I need a schedule.” Larry insisted that his work at the labor union wouldn’t permit it. I had tried to argue with Larry that his fighting for a better quality of life for families, logically indicated that quality time with his son ought to be a priority too.
Larry said it didn’t work that way. And when he complained that Raphael got on his “last nerve,” asking for more than he was willing to give (time, activities, etc.), crying or finding it difficult to separate from me, his dad stormed out saying, “I don’t have to deal with you. I have members giving me shit.”
During the time that Raphael had been struggling with addiction, Larry had alternated between blaming me, being angry with Raphael, and sometimes with himself. And on another occasion, attempting to “beat the crap” out of Raphael after an overdose nine months earlier. Anger had usually been Larry’s “go-to” response. Raphael had continued to long for a relationship with his dad, and prior to the overdose, his dad and his girlfriend, had offered to “try out” letting Raphael living with them for a couple weeks. But they later rescinded the offer when he entered the first inpatient treatment center.
Raphael and I had always been tightly bonded and beginning when he was just starting to talk, we enjoyed singing together. One day when Raphael was three, he had overheard me telling a friend that I was a single mom and asked, “You’re a singing mommy?”
“Yes, I am,” I said, amused. I continued to sing with him until he hit the preteen years when he had become less enthusiastic about singing with me, though he did love to introduce me to new music he discovered. On our way to his first outpatient treatment program, he had composed a special “rehab playlist” including, “I’m in Love with Mary Jane,” “Cocaine,” and “Dispensary Girl.” I smiled gritting my teeth, letting out a hybrid of laughter and tears, and feeling some flicker of hope.
During these volcanic years of drug use, from age 14-17, Raphael switched between wanting to crawl into bed with me, and bitterly turning away. He told me that I made him anxious when I got upset about his drug use, his skipping school, failing classes or stealing money from me. In time, I grew to see how even my well- intentioned attempts to “help” him setting up tutoring lessons, introducing him to mentors, meeting with his teachers and pleading for them to understand him, provoked his anxiety. Our close relationship had become frayed, fragile, often at the boiling point. The threat of losing Raphael was never far from my mind.
That afternoon at Inpatient Center 2, when I thought Raphael was coming home with me, we were sitting in an office with Raphael’s assigned therapist as she prepared his discharge papers. I was intent on doing what I was advised by the director of the new intensive outreach program. Wanting to believe that if I followed these exact directions, he might be ok. But Raphael’s therapist told me Raphael said he wanted to go home with his father for the evening.
In parent and other recovery groups such as Al-Anon (for friends/families of alcoholics and addicts), I’d learned about powerlessness over people, places and things, and in particular over the disease of addiction. But I was still desperately clinging to the hope that I had some control over my son’s addiction. That by following these exact instructions, my son’s life could be saved.
I threw myself on the ground, begged his therapist to let Raphael come home with me. I watched Raphael’s face fall in disbelief at my wild, almost possessed convulsions, resembling a bride we once witnessed in a Baptist church, “getting the spirit.” I lost any ability to calmly explain that this hadn’t been part of the discharge plan. As Raphael insisted he wanted to go to his father’s, I fired back, “What do you want from me? I could kill myself, will that make it better?” Raphael ran out of the office toward the safety of nearby staff members who’d been sheltering and helping him recover.
I was crazy with fear: fear of losing him, fear he’d always blame me for his addiction, and fear that perhaps I was the cause. No matter how many times I was told “You didn’t cause it. You can’t control it. You can’t cure it”
While Raphael huddled outside in the protective womb of the center’s staff, I sobbed uncontrollably, running in and out of his therapist’s office to the hallway, and outside into the parking lot, then back in. I frantically called the intensive outpatient program Raphael was being sent to next. I still hoped that Raphael would come home with me. But the therapist at the Inpatient Treatment Center 2 told me they’d just called his father, and that Raphael definitely would not be going home with me.
I thought I’d hit bottom then, running in and out of the building, sobbing, while the staff, teens, and other parents stared at me. Raphael’s horrified expression conveyed I’d finally gone too far. But I continued erupting. I ran through the halls of the treatment center and found my son standing outside in the courtyard with staff huddled around him. I had to push my way in, asking permission to talk to him. Who were those people who felt they had to protect him from his own mom, I wondered? Who was I, this mom who had fallen apart this way, I would ask myself later?
“Mom, come here, calm down, let me give you a hug,” one counselor said to me. “Momz, it’s okay. Calm down. Everything is okay. You need to take care of yourself.”
Raphael stood his distance, seeking protection from me.
Suddenly, I wanted them to take me in. I wanted what Raphael had experienced for the past 30 days, though the staff were young enough to be my children. I was desperate to be taken care of by them, by anyone. I had just gotten over pneumonia and had been grateful for the excuse to rest for less than a week.
Raphael looked wary, scared, as one staff member held his arm and asked, “You okay, son?”
“Raphael, please come home with me. I didn’t mean it,” I said, as calmly as I could, but he heard the shaking edge and knew it was a temporary calm. Children are trained to hear the possibility of eruptions. I know, having lived through the emotional minefields of my own family. “Raphael, please, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I’ve just been so worried, so tired,” I said, pleading with him.
Underneath my panicked outburst, it was grief, it was fear, and it was loss. I didn’t feel that I could bear losing my son, not even for the night, without the possibility of ever recovering our close relationship. Without fixing things.
“No, No, No.” He shook his head and said, “I can’t go with you. I can’t.”
And then—just like that—the words tumbled out as if I was watching them in slow motion, in a speech bubble, unable to take them back. “What do you want from me?” I asked, my desperation turning back into crazy. “I’ll do anything you want. You want drugs? I’ll get you your drugs of choice!”
Staff stared at me. This likely was a first in their adolescent treatment center.
They led me out. Another counselor held Raphael as he stumbled away.
One young staff member, far closer in age to Raphael than me, put both arms around me. He hugged me the way I used to hold my son when he was younger and couldn’t contain himself.
“Mom, Mom, come here, it’s okay,” the staff member said as he tried to soothe me.
I had begged to be allowed to take Raphael home, but there was no taking back my words that lingered like a nightmare cartoon character. Caption: #Cray-Cray Mom.
Later, I spoke with the parent coordinator from the program. She was both an alcoholic and a parent of an addict. Both she and her daughter had solid years of recovery behind them. She put her daughter on the phone. The girl was only a year older than Raphael. “Oh, the threatening to kill yourself,” she said. “My mom did that with me.”
She explained to me, “We can’t stand seeing you—our moms—so early in our recovery. You only remind us of all the fucked-up things we did. Just looking at you makes us feel guilty. We want to use, and we can’t,” she said.
A week later, I was at a parent meeting and heard a mom say, “The doctor asked me what I might do if my daughter didn’t stop using, and I said I knew exactly what I’d do. I would drive my car right off a cliff.”
I had longed to create a safe, strong sanctuary for my family as an adult. First with my son’s dad (we didn’t; we separated when Raphael was eight months old). Then again with a woman (my second marriage when Raphael was 11). In the second marriage, I tried to create a place of happy chaos and blended family: two moms, two dogs. Black, Jewish, Mexican, Cuban. Even my stepdaughter, had admonished me over the years, “Carla, you know you can’t make everyone happy.” I certainly couldn’t make her mother happy, the second person I married. The one area I couldn’t compromise on was how Raphael’s stepmom treated him. That’s when our fights ensued. She would explode regularly at Raphael and then later blame her uncontrollable rage on her bad relationship with her brother, her anemia or depression or on Raphael for “just pushing too hard.” For being a kid.
One day during the marriage with Raphael’s stepmother, I scattered yellow post-its throughout the house imploring our family to “Breath,” “Love” and other hopeful platitudes. I just wanted, “everything to be ok.” And time after time, things disintegrated further, as I clung to this panic. My efforts to control the uncontrollable had always taken me to the same place, whether in response to a spouse’s anger, wanting my family to “be happy/get along,” or later, fighting off the greedy tendrils of addiction that were choking out the life from my son.
I finally left this second marriage to try to save my son, to try to save myself, and to try save my stepdaughter from this conflict ridden home. It was a violent un-blending. My son and I both had carried the fantasy that we would be able to continue to live with his stepsister, his only sibling, but she was another casualty of the war, and losing her had felt like losing a limb. My son and stepdaughter were 12 years old then.
My younger sister once performed a solo show about being caught in the onset of the Sri Lanka Civil War. She compared the experience to growing up in our childhood home. I remember it all—the laughter, the fun, the love, the violent eruptions. Yet I’m grateful for my spilling-out immigrant-like family that got involved in everything, viewing each illness or celebration as one that we would tackle together. My mom’s determination to fix things. A family meeting to solve each crisis. (It didn’t, just as these family meetings I called to deal with Raphael’s addiction didn’t.) My dad’s unyielding loyalty, hard work, and his life-saving sense of humor were what I cherished about him in the end. I can only hope that my son, too, will choose the good memories.
“What was your bottom?” Raphael, now 18 years old and living in a young men’s recovery house, asked me. I had just recently performed my comedy set. We had been starting to laugh again together.
“That time. Offering to buy you your drugs of choice at an inpatient substance abuse center.” Raphael looked at me and nodded knowingly.
That was my bottom, but I had cried so many times before, convinced I had lost my son forever. That I truly was to blame for his addiction. And that I could never get him back. Could never make up for all the losses: stepsister, home we’d remodeled, no perfect or intact family. The war zone with my ex. The rage and absence of his father. My own craziness in response. I have re-lived, regretted and re-thought every decision, every trauma, every battle I fought for him and lost.
Less than a year after my “bottom,” I sit on top of Haleakala, a volcano on the island of Maui in Hawaii. The volcano is quiet now. I still remember the volcano erupting inside of me. Threatening to carry my son away.
Author’s Note: As this story goes to press, my son has more than four years of recovery. I still cringe at the memory of my “bottom,” My hope is that others will read my work, maybe laugh, feel less alone and perhaps more hopeful reading about someone who has struggled greatly and survived.
Carla Sameth is a writer, mother and teacher living in Pasadena. Her work has appeared in several anthologies and publications such as Brevity Blog, Brain, Child; Full Grown People; Mutha Magazine; Longreads; Narratively; Tikkun; Angels Flight Literary West; Entropy; Pasadena Weekly; and La Bloga. Carla was selected as fall 2016 PEN In The Community Teaching Artist, and teaches at the Los Angeles Writing Project (LAWP) at California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA). Website: carlasameth.com, Twitter: @carlasameth