Thomas and Lauren brought Ben to Sam and Kitty’s
home. This was moving in day. The
inauspicious occasion had understandably provoked anxiety in Kitty and Sam, but not one of the four of them had even an inkling
of how na´ve they were about the strain and stress that were stalking them. The
many vicissitudes of drug addiction and family dysfunction had flourished for years, but now had culminated in a frightening
crisis. Wrong excels easily when right passively does nothing. Right triumphs over wrong only by a great and sustained effort. With
drug addiction, the amount of effort required is universally underestimated. “Just
quit smoking. Just don’t drink anymore.
Just say no.” Simple, right?
Don’t we wish? Generally, there will be several failed attempts
before the family or the addict gives in to defeat and turns to professionals. Many
families and friends tend to think there is nothing they can do. If they just
“stand back” and give the user time, it will somehow run its course and disappear as if it were an inconvenient
phase. They are consciously oblivious to the kindling factor: the longer the
addiction (or nearly any illness) is unchecked, the more it grows, and consequently, the less likely it is that there will
be a satisfactory outcome.
Tension was palpable as Thomas, Lauren, and Ben arrived,
bringing in two suitcases. Sam and Kitty had asked for a joint rules session
so there could be no mistake about what the goals and rules would be. They detailed
what would be allowed and what would not be allowed. Even Thomas was uneasy about
how strict Sam and Kitty might be with Ben.
Thomas thanked Kitty and Sam. He then self-revealed his difficult fight to overcome his multiple addictions. “I was what is known as a poly-substance abuser. I did
drugs, alcohol, tobacco -- whatever made me feel good.” He recounted how
difficult his life had been compared to what it could have been, including the family lifestyle that so permissively and stupidly
had allowed Ben to grow up thinking that they were normal. “Yet now we
realize that Lauren and I both were simply making excuses and enabling Ben just as I had been enabled.”
Thomas pointed out the difference in the accomplishments
in life and status, for example, between Sam and Kitty and himself and Lauren. He
noted that it was due strictly to his immediate and ever-present focus on one of his cravings.
Alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes -- each in some way interfered with family, jobs, school, relationships, and even his
spiritual health. He was only at this late date beginning to realize the need
to rekindle a satisfaction in all of these needs. He thought it important to
reassure Sam and Kitty in part by continuing his firm commitment to recovery. He
knew that it was also important for Ben that he continue his clean and sober life. Now
with two years behind him, his own confidence was building.
Poignantly and emotionally, he then said he was handling
himself with the help of AA and others, but he was lost with helping Ben and it was tearing his heart out to watch his son
screw up his life in the very same way that he himself had done years earlier. Thomas
noted that, like most addicts’ parents, he was blind for too long with denial about Ben’s addictions, symptoms,
and their escalation. He saw this as his last best hope for Ben before it was
too late and he wound up in prison or long-term rehab -- or worse, possibly even dead.
He and Lauren were immensely grateful to Sam and Kitty for helping in their family crisis.
“Thank you for all of that, Thomas.” Sam had not expected that prelude to the substantive conversation he was planning to have with them. He had definitely given thought as to what he was going to say to Ben. Conversation should always be fluid, and flow based on what has gone before. Therefore, this would take a little different tack than Sam had intended.
Life and its events follow a stepwise progression, and so should we in our thinking and discussions.
Sam began, “You mentioned the constant array of problems
that relate to drug and alcohol abuse. That is an important point. We must not forget the less immediate consequences: interference in schools, family, friends, finances,
and roadblocks to future possibilities.
“Some problems require long periods of time before
the damage is visible. Examples include my lung cancer from smoking, or cirrhosis
and dementia from drinking, and hepatitis from drugs. In our youth, we feel,
think, and act in the minute – the here and now. The future is somehow
sequestered safely away so that we will arrive there only at some later, more opportune time.
It is the meanest trick our mind plays on our youth, invoking the full comfort of denial as we collude with danger.
“So, Ben, if you are listening, you know by now that
your mom and dad and Kitty and I probably know you better than you thought, and likely better than you know yourself. We know who you are – an addict. We
know where you are – with one foot in hedonism and the other in denial. We
know where you have been. Like your dad said, he is sorry for his shortcomings
with you, but even so he had no control over the choices you made with your own free will – drugs, alcohol, cigarettes
and, probably, girls -- despite his and your mom’s warning. You, as we,
live in a permissive, complacent society and a dysfunctional family. That along
with your arrogant attitude, ‘I’ll do as I please,’ has brought you to this here and now time, place, and
Sam continued, “Okay, tell me straight, why now? I want to hear from each of you. Why
is this the do or die moment? Have you hit bottom, Ben?”
Ben quickly tried to make a plausible statement. “No, it’s nothing like that. Dad’s just
afraid that Mom will divorce him. She’s always after him to make me quit
drinking. He knows I’ve turned over a new leaf and I’m going to be
a responsible person from now on. Mom doesn’t believe me and says if he
lets me drink again, she’s going to leave him. I really understand that
things are bad and I’m going to be better, Mom.”
Thomas, following Ben’s lead, spoke before Lauren. “There’s more to it than that, Ben.
We have sent you to private counseling, the school has counseled you, and we’ve sent you to an outpatient rehabilitation
program. You haven’t listened and you haven’t changed. I’ve tried to be understanding, but I’ve been too lenient.
When our friend, Marty Keely, the policeman, rang our doorbell the other night, that was my lowest point. My heart skipped a few beats. I didn’t know if he was
coming to take you away or arrest me for child neglect. You didn’t know
it, but Marty originally arrested me. He sent me to Dr. Lita Clark, and because
of them I got started in recovery and I’m doing fine.
“He stopped by to tell me what he had done. They arrested your three friends. Vaughn,
only nineteen, is facing felony charges for possession. Felons lose their right
to vote, Ben. Most good jobs are unavailable to them. Wolford, only eighteen, was in the car and arrested and he’s also going to be in trouble. David Noble is seventeen, like you. A minister’s son;
how does that happen? He will go to juvenile court. He will likely be sent for treatment. Vaughn and Wolford snitched
on you. Yeah, they told him that you’d been in the car and they’d
just let you out before they were arrested. Marty decided to come get you after
dark and without the flashing lights and to take you to jail, which he did. He
wanted to show you where you could wind up and he told you about the legal problems that you just missed. He also told you that you were sure to be facing those charges or more or worse if you didn’t get
help. He locked you inside the jail cell for an hour. He did you and us a favor. Your mother had a right to put
her foot down on both of us. That’s why we’re here now.”
Sam took that opening to expand the dangers. “That was a one in a thousand favor, Ben. That alone
should wake you up. If those boys stay on their current path they will wind up
in prison or dead. You, Ben, are traveling that same path with them. You call them friends. I call them criminals and addicts. The Nobles are scared to death. We know
the Nobles, Ben.”
Now it was Lauren’s turn. “I don’t know if Ben hit bottom, but I sure did. When
you see a policeman take your son away in a police car, there aren’t enough tears or words to tell you how broken my
heart was. I forgot about the way you pitted me against your dad, constantly
triangulating us so that we were either mad at each other or resenting each other. At
that moment, I just loved you and felt hurt for you and wanted to protect you. We’re
lucky he brought you back. The other three are facing such problems that I don’t
know if your dad and I could have handled them, let alone you. I realized after
he brought you back and we relaxed and had time to realize that what your dad had been trying to do was to love you into quitting
while I was trying to parent you into changing. You saw that as nagging and not
understanding, rather than our love and concern. I wanted your dad to send you
to one of those wilderness treatment centers for six months or a year. I hear
they work pretty well. Your dad came up with this idea. I was reluctant and still am for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the imposition on Aunt
Kitty and Uncle Sam. Thomas talked me into giving it a try and that’s why
Sam had gotten more than he expected. “We won’t look at it as an imposition, Lauren. We’re
family. Ben, that was an awfully close call with the law, and you’re only
seventeen years old. You know and we know that you have two paths in front of
you and you have to choose. We will do all we can to guide you to the best choice,
but ultimately, it is your choice. We can guide, but we can’t force.
“It is difficult to change. It requires effort, desire, determination, and a focused goal. It
causes anxiety and pain. A simple example would be when you learned to ride a
bicycle. While you were comfortable walking, you were envious of the fun others
were having riding their bikes. At first, the thought of trying to ride a bicycle
makes one anxious and doubtful. The process took effort, work, and provoked laughter
from family and friends. It also likely brought the pain of more than one embarrassing
mishap. But the effort paid off; you rode the bicycle and can still ride it,
and it was worth it. The moral of the story is obvious. What we’re asking of you requires the same process. The
consequences -- that is, the stakes -- are much more serious. It is now life
and health and promising potential versus probable ruin of health, character, your potential contentedness, and even your
life and soul, Ben.
“You are welcome in our home. Kitty and I are wiping the slate clean for you, but we will not be forgetting who you are or who you have
become, and we will be ever-vigilant to be aware of what you are doing, to recognize the good that you do, but also any undesirable
behavior, attitude, or comments. Our observations could bring rewards or punishment. It is the nature of society and us to expect you to continue your current behavior. We will hope otherwise. If you give us
your word, we will honor it, unless and until you break it and we catch you lying, cheating, or deceiving us. If that occurs, we will be intolerant. You will be grounded
for the minutest infraction. You will be lectured until you confess to understanding
the consequences of wrongdoing and believably espouse the benefits of the right way to do things.
“You will be expected to follow all our house rules. Keep your room neat; lived-in is okay, but neat. Clothes should
be kept in their appropriate places and trash disposed of properly. You will
join us for meals and help with household chores. We expect you to converse in
an open and friendly manner and be willing to sit and talk about yourself, your life, your friends, your dreams, your fears,
and whatever is on your mind or on our minds, for that matter. Don’t be
alarmed -- we will not be unreasonable, but neither should you be. For starters,
you may go out once a week with selected friends for approved activities. You
may not smoke, drink, or use drugs, even on outings. Of course, your parents
may visit or pick you up for visits or church at any time.
“Grounded, by the way, means no outings, no TV, no
computer -- just books and one-on-one time with Kitty or me. You have to agree to our rules before you get a room and before
you are allowed to unpack your bags. We don’t have any way of predicting
how long this will take, but we have signed on for the duration as long as you are willing and we see you trying.
“If we say it’s over, there’s no second
chance. It’s over when we say it’s over. And Ben, you would need to go home or go somewhere. I’m
not trying to be mean or punitive, but we’re not your mama and daddy. We’re
relatives more willing to give you a chance than most of the world out there. However,
for you to learn how to get along and cope in the world and not be killed, or imprisoned by the laws and rules and societal
expectations that you disdain and ignore or break to live life your way, Aunt Kitty and I will need to be all of those things
for you. You need to know we won’t give you a pass, like your mama and
daddy. We will give you more than society or the law. We will give you love, caring, and understanding. We will
also give you punishment for infractions and we will give you the boot if necessary.
If you threaten to leave or quit, that is breaking your contract and will be an automatic week of grounding.”
“I’ve explained the seriousness of this opportunity
to Ben,” Thomas defended.
Sam further elucidated, “I don’t doubt that. What I’m concerned about is Ben’s sincerity and his determination. I’m not sure that he believes you anymore.
You’ve been telling him this all his life. Maybe he thinks he’s
immune to regular rules of life. After all, you do keep bailing him out. We won’t. Neither will judges. Better that he learns it here at home than in jail.
We won’t cover up for him like you do, Thomas. We will show him
what he can expect from the world as it is. But, like I said, with caring and
understanding and love -- not with intolerance, quick-tempered retribution, broken kneecaps, or worse.”
“You make him sound like a gangster. He’s a kid. He’s gotten in with the wrong crowd.” Parental denial seemed to be Thomas’ strong suit.
“Thomas, you are in denial. Who’s this wrong crowd? It’s other kids, Thomas,
just like Ben. Wake up. The police
and jail time are one step behind them and gaining. The more you let them get
away with, the more they think they can get away with. Before you realize it,
they are doing petty theft and before long they’re up to felonies and more prison time.
And Thomas, that’s probably after you’re about bankrupt with all of your efforts to protect him, bailing
him out and making excuses. You call his actions mistakes rather than crime. He feels exonerated. It doesn’t
work when there are no consequences. You should see that by now. And the sooner he learns, the better it is for him and everyone else.”
“I guess you’re right. It’s just, well; basically Ben’s a good kid. He’s
made some mistakes. I feel guilty that we’ve let him down.”
“Thomas, listen to yourself, ‘We’ve let
him down.’ You’re blaming yourself and sharing the blame with Lauren. All the while you’re minimizing Ben’s part by characterizing his criminal
activity as mistakes, as if he were totally innocent of conscious participation. He’s not dumb; he knows what he’s doing.
He likes the excitement, the attention from his peers, the show of caring and support from you. He’s not worried about himself or you. You’ve
managed to make everything turn out fine for him. He can’t believe you
are being so inflexible now.”
“Aren’t you being too harsh on Dad?”
Ben blurted out.
Both Thomas and Sam were surprised that Ben spoke. Ben had heard all he wanted to hear. He
needed to rescue himself. Uncle Sam was painting too bleak a picture. He started with a disarming technique. “Dad, it’s
all right. Uncle Sam’s right. Nobody
ever spelled it out like that for me. If I don’t get my act together, I’m
toast. I guess I sort of knew it, but didn’t want to admit it.” Thomas began to relax and swell with gratitude and newfound pride.
“I’ll have to ‘suck it up,’ be
more responsible, get my grades up, quit sneaking out, and give up my friends with dope.
I can do it, but I don’t have to impose on Uncle Sam and Aunt Kitty. I’ll
just go home and do the right thing.”
Thomas’ eyes were now moist. “Son, I’m so proud of you. Sam, I can’t
thank you enough. I could never have convinced him. I owe you a lot. Thank you.
Let me know if I can do anything for you.”
Ben was breathing a sigh of relief until Sam spoke up. “Ben, I know what you’re doing; your dad doesn’t. He’s feeling with his heart; he’s not thinking with his head.
He’s heard you make similar convincing pleas before, but he’s forgetting your failure to follow through
in the past. He wants to believe you. I
know better. He should, but he can’t get beyond the guilt-ridden, parental
gullibility. You would go home and be a model son as far as Thomas and Lauren
could tell for about two weeks, then you’d begin your little slide back into your preferred ways. A spade’s a spade, Thomas. You have to call them right. Ben, you may as well know right now how it’s going to be if you’re here. If you walk out that door now or if Thomas takes you out that door, that’s your
last chance here. And I predict your next chance will be in jail.”
“You think you’ve got me figured out, don’t
you?” Ben was taking a different tack now.
If he attacked Sam, Thomas would have to defend him and take him home, or Sam would become furious and refuse to take
him in and he could go home with dad. Either way, he would win. “You think you know everything -- what gives you the right to lecture me and my dad? You think Peggy hung the moon, but you have to know you’re no saint.
You smoked until you got cancer.”
“That’s enough, Ben,” Thomas admonished.
“No, it’s not.
He knew the risk and went ahead. If he didn’t care about his own
life, he should have protected his health for Peggy and Aunt Kitty. Where were
all his pious intentions? Did he just save them all up to dump on me and
you? Ha, ha. What a hypocrite!”
“You’ve said enough, Ben.” Thomas was stern. “Get in the car. Uncle Sam, I’m terribly sorry and embarrassed. We won’t
trouble you longer.”
Sam, noticeably calm, responded, “Thomas, I knew
what I was getting into. Sit down, both of you.
Ben’s right in many respects, so let the devil have his due. We
addicts are more similar than dissimilar. I hit Ben and you hard. Ben hit back, quicker and harder than I expected. He’s
defending his status quo and with good points. Notice he did not dispute anything
I said. He simply attacked me, and with good logic. He made the mistake of using anger, making it easier for me to tune out what he was saying and just defend
against the anger. I know that when he introduces anger, that he is uncertain
of the merit of his argument. So, instead he hopes to win by force of emotion. If I subdue my anger, I will appear more rational and credible.”
“Sure, Ben,” Sam continued. “I knew smoking was harmful to my health. Early on,
however, we did not know, and were thoroughly addicted before we knew. We stupidly
rationalized that since we didn’t know, somehow the danger would not apply to us.
After all, we could not see inside our bodies or feel the insidious changes.
Besides, if we got sick with cancer or whatever, we would have the doctors cut it out or otherwise fix it. For years I hid my cigarettes from family and they pretended not to notice.
I was devious and they enabled me, much like what’s going on with you and your mama and daddy.
“I did get cancer and had it cut out, and hope I’m
cured. But I live every day wondering if and when it might come back. It’s like daily Russian roulette with a death sentence. You’re
right that I was no saint. But the ignorance and stupidity of my youth continued
into adulthood, and the consequences I have suffered are no reason to forsake what life I have left, or prematurely give up
on today’s youth who don’t have to be ignorant or be allowed to continue acting stupid. If I spend the remainder of my life atoning for my waywardness, it won’t be enough as far as I’m
concerned. But Ben, if I get through to one person and truly make a difference,
I’ll be thankful. And it would be especially rewarding if it were you. You are family, young, and intelligent -- and have many years to enjoy freedom from
“The two of you have got me on a roller coaster. I’m identifying with you both.”
Thomas was pleading for more understanding, if not a resolution.
Sam was blunt, “That’s because you’re
an addict, Thomas, even a recovering addict and a parent of an addict. Ben, I
hope you don’t turn tail and run from me and your problems. You need to
face them and get them under control. We can help. Kitty and I are inviting you to stay with us. Give us and
yourself a chance that you may never again have offered to you.”
Ben knew that he had been bested by a master, but somehow
it was actually okay. He sort of even hoped it might work. He felt that something inside had been piqued which he had not previously experienced. He was even stimulated by the back and forth banter. The caring
Sam had shown came through with strength and authority, but unapologetically. It
was too early for him to grasp that what he was feeling was respect, something he was unaccustomed to experiencing.
Thomas and Lauren drove home thinking maybe, just maybe,
this would work for Ben.
Sam and Kitty, after retreating to their bedroom, felt
safely isolated. Sam asked Kitty, “What the devil have I gotten us into?”
“It was our decision, Sam.
That poor boy needs help. We’re going to do all we can and pray