‘I found chewing tobacco stuffed in a couch cushion, bottles of mouthwash, empty bottles of vodka stashed in the drop ceiling. How did I not know?’: Mom recounts 15-year-old son’s battle with alcoholism

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“I used to think I understood what an alcoholic was; what they looked like and how they behaved. I grew up with a family full of alcoholics, all fairly well functioning, so I considered myself at the very least, not naïve to the world of alcoholism. We knew alcohol was a problem for some leading to many health issues and death for several, but they were older and had lived full lives (or at least it appeared that way). Alcohol was part of our lives and people overindulged at times, but no one was considered a non-functioning alcoholic.

My son is not a functioning alcoholic and the horrors involved with that statement are too much to bear at times. He is also not old by any means of the word. He just turned 22 and has his whole life ahead of him.

I had Devon when I was sixteen and I was not even close to a perfect mother. Young with more important things to do, I often left him with my parents or another babysitter. Spending hours out in bars trying to combat my own loneliness was my preferred activity, the rest of my time was spent working long hours to support him by myself.

A very quiet kid who took time to open up and trust people, he had a few close friends and took his time making them. Always a responsible child, more was expected of him than should have been. From the age of 8, left to his own devices early in the morning, he woke himself, dressed and made his way to the neighbors to walk to school. This responsibility only increased as he grew older. I had a daughter when Devon was 6, and he helped raise her.

With my own tumultuous childhood, the only bar I measured my parenting with was am I giving him a better life than I had been given? My children would never have to endure the things I did so they would be fine because I was fine. They would be better than fine and I had done a fantastic job as a single parent no matter the obstacles!

He says he started drinking when he was fifteen. The description of his first drink is similar to a heroin addict recounting their first high. Euphoria. All the pain, all the bad feelings, all the caring, just disappeared. All his self-doubt and social anxiety removed. Making friends and talking openly with strangers suddenly opened a window when so many doors were closed. This was a gift for a shy, quiet teenager.

Alcohol is readily available for anyone looking, at a friend’s house, relative’s house, my house or convincing an older friend to buy. He hid it very well from everyone, but not so well I don’t look back and see it more clearly. When he couldn’t get alcohol, he drank mouthwash, bottles and bottles of mouthwash. I cannot go to the mouthwash aisle of any store without feeling the sick rise up in my stomach.

Five years ago, I found chewing tobacco stuffed in a couch cushion, which prompted a bedroom search only to find a few bottles of mouthwash. This was strange enough to ask more questions, then he told the whole truth. He was scared and needed help, he had empty bottles of vodka and mouthwash stashed in the drop ceiling, so many bottles. I took trash bag after trash bag to the dumpster that night. How did I not know?

We tried outpatient rehab, he went back to drinking. I told him he couldn’t stay living with me if he was drinking. He left. At the young age of 17, he was out living in the world. I had no idea where he was or who he was with or if he was alive. The agony of this is only known by those with experience.

He sobered up on his own after a few months and wanted to come back home, out of money and nowhere to go. This is the only time he asks for help, when he has depleted every possible resource to get more alcohol and has nowhere left to turn.

This newfound sobriety did not sustain. I found him passed out on the basement floor with a bottle of rubbing alcohol. I called poison control and held his head as he vomited every thirty minutes for the entire night. This time it was inpatient treatment, 28 days and then to a halfway house.

He lived a few hours from us in the halfway house. We visited every month or so and he seemed to be doing fine. In hindsight he started acting differently, but you talk yourself out of things easily because you want to believe they are ok. He called a lot, always too busy to see us, working and ‘getting his life together’ he said. Then the call came that he needed help. We found him almost dead, living at a girls place. Yellow, frail, drunk.

He was 19-years-old with acute liver failure. As the hospital elevator doors opened, the words ‘Solid Organ Transplant Unit’ were burned into my brain. In all the time over the last few years, I never envisioned we would be here so soon. Sure it was a reality in the very distant future, but now? How can we be here now? He is so young with so much to life to live.

He recovered slowly, thank God. Each day his liver started to function normally again. Another 28 days in rehab and we took him home with us, to keep him close. One thing you learn very quickly is you will NEVER stop them from using. My only hope was to catch him drinking quickly after it started and get him back to rehab to keep him alive.

A year later he was still sober, but we had a pivotal birthday coming up, twenty-one. How could he abstain when this new world was opening for him and would be at his disposal? Liquor on every corner, in every grocery store, and right in your face at the convenience store. Temptation was everywhere and I prayed he could overcome his demons.

Alcoholics Anonymous was vital to his recovery and he began to embrace the program. He had a sponsor and he was staying sober, working the steps, and getting his life on track. Sobriety for two and a half years leads to a state of complacency. No longer did I stare into his eyes trying to detect if they were void of poison or smelling the air for the hint of sweetness that most certainly meant death. Our lives began to fall into a routine without fear and anxiety of his daily decisions. The nights lying awake for him to come home were fewer now. I was very much enjoying this newfound peace.

A summer trip to California triggered a violent relapse outbreak. It was one relapse after another, each followed by more rehab or detox. Being old enough to purchase alcohol came back to us with a vengeance. A few days of sobriety is all he has been able to string together at this point. He always wants to stop, for a little while anyway. Telling someone they will die if they continue drinking and then watching them continue to drink is my definition of insanity.

Stop enabling them is the message you receive in Al-Anon. Rock bottom is the only thing to make them see clearly and you cannot do it for them. I am confused, I thought liver failure was rock bottom? How deep do we have to go if liver failure at 19 is not rock bottom?

It is getting easier but you do not quit enabling ‘cold turkey.’ The art of not swooping in to protect your children is a slowly learned reaction to watching them suffer and not being able to ‘fix it.’ Sometimes taking years to fully perfect and even then we feel like failures. It is not my fault they say, but the way our children behave is always the mother’s fault. We constantly chastise mothers for the child throwing the tantrum or misbehaving. We blame them for entitled children who were the product of their overindulgent parenting. How can we not have some responsibility in the addiction?

He is no longer living at home and I don’t provide financial assistance. Asking questions only leads to answers that cause anxiety, fear, and pain, so I stopped. Praying for him is a constant part of my life, crying still happens often, and joy on occasion. Meetings with other parents of addicts is something I should participate in more, but I have struggled opening myself up to the raw emotion weekly. I have to believe he can beat this as the alternative is not something this mother can wrap her head around. Hope keeps me going because I see him in the future, with a family and he is happy. Stronger because he endured all of this, thankful because we never gave up on him, and living his life with the daily struggles and rewards we all experience. The grueling addiction that has him in the shadows of hell now will be a distant memory we recall periodically, with a chuckle like painful memories can sometimes evoke.

One morning I was no longer a mother to a young adult ready to head out into the world, I became an enabler of an addict. Each relapse sends me further from enabling. Each time I take another step back, but I never stop loving him. Hopefully, I get far enough back before I love him to death.

Things are so much better now. Devon has been sober since February of 2017. He found himself in South Carolina, he had crashed a friend’s vehicle while he was drunk and things were falling apart. I refused to fly him home as I was determined to not enable him further. I still remember vividly the fear and anxiety while I waited to hear he was safe.

A bus ride back to Kansas City and another stay in rehab gave him the opportunity to try a new program in Arizona. This program was for 6 months instead of the usual 28 days and we hoped and prayed this would be the one that stuck. It has so far and we couldn’t be prouder of the man who has dug himself out of the horrifying hole of addiction. A magnificent man became his sponsor and has been by his side for years.

Devon is an inspiration to our family and friends. The troubled boy we had just a few short years ago is now a strong, confident man who is more than any mother could dream of raising. He is an active member of the AA community and sponsors several individuals who are struggling, just as he was a short time ago. The tremendous pain of watching your child damage themselves to the point of death has been replaced with the immense love and admiration of watching them soar.”

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This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Anne Lofgren. For our best stories, subscribe to our free email newsletter and YouTube channel. Submit your story here

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