For 23 years my son Nathan struggled with a devastating heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine and meth addiction. He suffered many abuses and incredible trauma throughout his years of addiction. His journey was a devastating one for him. As a family who loved him deeply his journey of pain was also our journey.
Supporting, encouraging and loving my son unconditionally throughout his devastating addiction, with all the ups and downs, the better days and the most difficult of days, I have also been privileged to have been able to support others struggling with this devastating disease. Volunteering thousands of hours with organizations supporting those struggling with drug addiction, chronic alcoholism, brain related illness and homelessness and for several years I was also employed at night in a shelter housing those needing a warm place to sleep.
There are only two reasons someone mis-uses drugs or alcohol. The first is curiosity. The second is pain.
We all understand curiosity. That is not complicated. Unfortunately that curiosity, can for some, lead to a lifetime of addiction.
Early on I came to realize, addiction whether it be to drugs or alcohol, is more often about pain.
We can all relate to physical pain. A broken bone, perhaps injuries from a motor vehicle accident or a sports injury or an injury from a slip and fall.
We recognize physical pain and we sympathize with it. We hold open the door for someone on crutches. Send flowers to someone recuperating in hospital.
But the pain that is most devastating, the pain we rarely divulge, is our emotional pain.
Everyone of us has dealt with some form of emotional pain. Some occasionally. Some continuously.
Emotional pain may be the result of living in a home with domestic violence.
Maybe you were sexually abused as a child or sexually assaulted in your teen or adult years.
Perhaps you have feelings of neglect or abandonment.
Perhaps you were a victim of unrelenting bullying or that you experienced racism.
Perhaps you are part of the LGBTQ2+ community and had no family support. Or, you lived in a home with constant criticism.
There are many reasons for emotional pain and the most tragic thing about it is, we so often keep it a secret because of fear of being judged. Fear of rejection. Stigma. Feelings of shame or blame.
So we keep the cause of our intense emotional pain a secret and we put up walls we think will protect us but all they really do is keep us trapped.
The thing about emotional pain is that it is almost always caused by someone else. Someone you should have been able to trust, hurt you. Someone who should have supported you, didn’t. Someone who should have taken care of you, failed to keep you safe.
And we try and bury that pain.
Let’s talk about feelings for a moment.
As women we are more comfortable talking about our feelings. That is not to say we always do. But we will more often talk to a girlfriend, a trusted co-worker, our mother or sister, then say, men will.
Guys will talk about the hockey score, the football game, the fish caught that was really ‘this big’ but will say was ‘that big’. They’ll share a beer and have a barbecue and laugh with buddies.
But how many of you men talk to your buddies about how you are emotionally feeling?
How many of you ever say to your buddies, “Lately I’ve feeling so overwhelmed and sad, I just can’t shake off this dark feeling”. Or “I seem to have this fear of failure that has become all consuming”?
Men in particular are suffering emotional pain in silence out of fear of being judged because of the stigma around male masculinity.
And how do we know this?
Because numbers don’t lie.
75 percent of suicides deaths are men.
82 percent of overdose deaths are men.
That tells us far too many of our sons, brothers, fathers, partners, husbands are suffering in silence. And far too many of those loved ones are dying.
But we all keep secrets. And those secrets keep us hurting, feeling damaged, feeling broken.
We have to stop keeping secrets. Those secrets are keeping us trapped.
I kept a secret for a very long time.
We were experiencing a period of some extremely hot daytime temperatures and the nighttime temperatures only dropped slightly. It was incredibly uncomfortable.
That particular night I suggested my children all take cool baths and then sleep in their bathing suits. I placed the fans we had in each of their bedrooms. Once they had settled into bed, I too had a cool bath and put on my bathing suit. I then opened the living room window hoping for a bit of breeze and stretched out on couch with a book.
At 2:00 a.m. I awoke to a man standing over me. He immediately covered my mouth with his hand and told me if I did everything he said and did not make a sound, I might survive the night.
He had climbed through that open living room window.
Terrified I quietly pleaded with him to leave. I begged. I promised I would never say anything. But he had other plans.
I could not yell out. I had to stay absolutely quiet because I knew if I made any noise, my children would wake up and I had no idea what else he was capable of.
I had to keep my children sleeping in order to keep them safe. I did not make a sound.
Over the course of four hours, I was repeatedly sexually assaulted and beaten. I knew there were times I lost consciousness because I remembered his hands around my throat choking me and the next thing I remembered was him standing several feet away just staring at me. So there was clearly a time lapse.
After four hours he left the same way he came in. He climbed back out the living room window.
Terrified and shaking I locked the window and immediately went into the bathroom running the water as hot as I could possibly tolerate and I started scrubbing myself from head to toe.
In spite of all the scrubbing, I could not get the smell of him off me.
Logically I had to be clean – my skin was almost raw and yet his smell lingered.
I called in sick to work that morning but as a single Mom I needed to get back to work the following day.
In spite of the continued heat wave, I wore a turtle neck sweater to cover the hand marks and bruises on my neck and arms. You see, he was pretty calculating – he never hurt my face. There were no visible bruises, but my neck, arms, chest, stomach, thighs, and buttocks were bruised.
I did nothing wrong that night. I was a Mom at home with my sleeping children. I fell asleep with a window open and someone else’s actions changed my life. I went back to work and pretended as if nothing had happened.
And I kept the secret. Why?
Because of fear. The feeling of shame. Embarrassment. Being judged. I blamed myself because I had left a window opened endangering my sleeping children.
And I built up walls to stay safe.
But for years after that incident, anytime someone came up behind me, a friend, even my own children, and touched my shoulders, I felt a rush of panic. No one knew it. I covered it well.
The thing about trauma, about emotional pain is it doesn’t just go away because we want it too.
Far too often as parents we blame ourselves. What did we do? What didn’t we do? What could we have done differently. The thing is, you didn’t know.
So often those we love may be struggling with emotional pain we had no idea about. They didn’t share the pain they were feeling. They tried to cover it up. They never let us in. Their decision kept us in the dark. We couldn’t help them through a situation if we had no idea they were going through it.
We cannot un-see what we have seen. We cannot un-hear what we have heard. We can’t un- feel how someone has made us feel.
And that is emotional pain.
The problem with trauma is if we don’t acknowledged it, confront it, talk about it, seek help, it damages our essence. It hurts our souls. It leaves us feeling that somehow we must have done something wrong and it causes un-relenting pain. Emotional pain caused by someone else’s actions or in-actions.
So many people struggling with emotional pain turn to drinking or drugs, to lessen the pain they are carrying if even just for awhile. And eventually that escape they are seeking takes over their lives.
We are loosing far to many people in the prime of their lives to drug abuse, chronic alcohol abuse and suicide – and the under-lying reason very often is emotional pain caused from trauma, never addressed.
We have to encourage those we love to talk. And that includes ourselves as well. The amount of pain and trauma parents who have a teen or adult child addicted to drugs or alcohol go through is monumental – it’s a steep mountain with no apparent end and far too often we climb that mountain alone.
We need the support of those who understand our journey. Organizations Like Moms Stop The Harm. Naranon meetings. Parents Forever meetings. We need to be comfortable and feel safe reaching out.
Likewise, with those we love struggling with addiction, we have to be willing to listen to encourage dialogue during those periods when they are willing to talk, with no judgement. We don’t know what walls they have put up. What secrets they are carrying.
We all process life differently. We can’t judge another based on our life experiences and no one has the right to judge us – we all perceive life through our own eyes. Each one of us is moulded by our own journey. We may not know what emotional pain anyone else is carrying. And so we have to treat those struggling with the disease of addiction with compassionate. And we deserve every bit of compassionate care as well.
The walls we put up to keep us safe in fact succeed only succeed in keeping us trapped. Let’s all bring down our walls.
No one knows emotional pain more than a parent with a loved one struggling. Be kind to yourselves and to each other. And remember to reach out for support from those who understand your journey.
Take care of yourself and reach out to those who understand. You are not alone. I care.