By Bruce K.
I’m awakened out of a deep sleep. I hear yelling. I look at the clock. It’s four in the morning. What now, I think, getting dressed. As I walk downstairs, the voices grow louder. Am I hearing this right? Josh, my son, is yelling at his girlfriend, babbling about her not having told him her ex boyfriend, who she was sexually active with, is a heroin addict.
“Now I’ve got to get tested for STDs” he screams.
The closer I get to the basement stairway, the clearer their words become. I stand at the top of the stairwell and listen. “I don’t have any diseases,” Terri, his girlfriend, says. “I wouldn’t do that to you.” I hear her crying. Her tears and denial make Josh angrier.
I want to intervene, help them both calm down. I turn the knob on the basement door and start walking down the stairway. “Everything okay?” I ask.
“Go back to bed,” Josh says.
I go back upstairs, grab a book, and sit on the couch pretending to read. I’m hoping the yelling and fighting will get better but it doesn’t. Now, I can hear Terri sobbing all the way from the living room.
“I just want to go home,” she says over and over.
The more Terri cries, the louder and meaner Josh gets. I walk to the top of the stairway and tell Terri to come upstairs, I’ll drive her home.
She hurries upstairs, welcoming my offer. Josh storms after her and positions himself between her and me. “Butt out,” he says. “I’ll drive her home.”
Something’s wrong, but I don’t get it. Josh seems different. We lock eyes. He looks like a caged animal. I tell him to not get in the car but he ignores me. Everything happens quickly, like someone put the DVD on fast forward. I feel helpless, paralyzed. Josh loads Terri into the car, starts the engine, and then jams the car into reverse. He steps hard on the gas pedal. The engine groans. The tires start spinning wildly on the icy driveway.
He pulls out, and I watch him roar down the street, veering from side to side in the car I bought him two weeks ago. I hear the front wheels spinning, trying to make contact on pavement covered with ice. Minutes later, Josh stomps back into the house.
“Now you have to give her a ride,” he says. “The car got stuck in a snow bank.”
After dressing for the cold winter night, I get into my car and drive down the street to Josh’s car. The engine is running. The lights are on. His car, stuck in a snow bank, blocks the street, while Terri sleeps, passed out in the passenger seat.
“Terri,” I yell.
She opens her eyes, looks around.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
Josh walks over to the car. “Asshole,” he screams at me.
I pat my pockets. I don’t have my cell phone with me. Why didn’t I grab it? Josh paces around the car, swearing and yelling at me. If I had my phone, I could call 911. Josh has a felony for drug-dealing. The police would arrest him. Things would calm down. I look around, hoping his screaming doesn’t wake the neighbors. I expect to see house lights flash on, people come outside to see what’s taking place.
By now, Terri is outside, crying and arguing with Josh. Then suddenly Josh calms down. “Terri’s acting stupid because she’s drunk,” he says to me. .
I ask Josh if he’s been drinking. He doesn’t answer.
“Yes, he’s been drinking,” Terri says.
I tell Josh to give me the keys. Surprisingly, he does. I suspect he knows he’s crossed a line. Now, I’m the one who’s angry — beyond pissed. How stupid can I be? I’ve been sober in Alcoholics Anonymous for twenty years and I can’t even tell when my son’s drunk!
I drive Terri home. When I get back to the house, I ask my younger son, Ben, to help me get the car out of the snow bank. It’s five in the morning now.
“Look Dad,” Ben says when we get the car pulled out. “Josh broke the bumper.”
Great, I think. I buy him this car two weeks ago and he’s already wrecked it. Damn it! I can’t talk to anyone in my family about how crazy my home life is. I’m too embarrassed and they won’t understand. Besides, I don’t need lectures about how I shouldn’t have bought Josh a car in the first place.
Around noon, Josh gets out of bed.
“You’ve got to find somewhere else to live,” I tell him. “I can’t take this insanity in my home anymore.” I’ve already told my wife that if Josh can’t respect anyone or anything, if he’s so selfish that all he cares about is himself, then he’s not welcome here. I say that either she’s on board with me about throwing him out, or I’m moving.
Still reeking of alcohol, Josh starts yelling. “She’s my mother, Ben is my brother. But you’re not my father,” he says. We lock eyes. “I hate you,” he says.
I try to remember some of what I’ve learned about letting go, detaching. I hold my ground, telling Josh he needs to move. He makes a few phone calls. Within the hour, a friend picks him up and they leave to go get Terri. The whole house relaxes. Finally, he’s gone and with him, that crazy, insane, addicted energy leaves. But sadness takes its place.
I try to not take it personally when Josh says I’m not his father, that when I die he’s going to piss on my grave, but his words cut into my heart like a knife. I tell myself that he’s hurting and he doesn’t have any self-esteem. I tell myself that it’s the drugs and alcohol talking, not Josh. I know intellectually that’s true, but his words still hurt. I can’t make the pain disappear.
I flash to yesterday, and the nonrefundable check I wrote for his college tuition. That’s great, I think. Now he’s going to blow off school. I just threw thousands of dollars away. One more loss in a long line of losses.
I feel angry and hurt. Josh is my adopted son. I want with everything in me to raise him right, to do right by him. But when he throws words at me like that, I feel like I’ve failed as a father. Then hurt turns into self-pity. I wonder why my got so screwed up, why I have to go through this.
Maybe it’s payback for what a jerk I was when I was a kid, payback for the disrespectful way I treated my parents, I think. When I was 15, I wanted a leather coat, a real leather coat like the other boys had. But my mother bought me a vinyl coat instead. I felt hurt. Angry. Cheated. I wore that vinyl coat once and then I wouldn’t touch it again. “Nice fake coat,” some of the kids at school said. I accused my mother of not loving me enough to buy me a real leather coat, said I wasn’t important to her. Then I constantly reminded her how much I hated that vinyl coat. Now I realize she must have felt that same pain I feel.
It’s hard to watch Josh act so crazy and mean. It feels awful when he punches me in the gut with his words. He had asked me to buy him his dream car, a Dodge Charger. Instead I bought him a Toyota Camry. The Toyota was the practical choice. All his dream car would have gotten him were a lot of speeding tickets. Instead of being grateful I even bought him a car, he tells me over and over how much he hates the car I gave him.
“Then give me back the keys,” I say. “Nobody’s forcing you to drive it. Get a job and buy your own dream car.”
That night, I take my wife to the movies. During the show, my cell phone starts ringing with phone calls and text messages. It’s Josh. He’s sorry, he says. He can’t find any place to stay. I focus on the movie and ignore the messages. Josh continues to call and text. When the movie ends, I read all the messages. Josh is back at our house. He knows the code to the garage. He let himself in.
My wife and I look at each other. We don’t have to say anything. We both knew he’d be back. We also know the temperature is below zero. We can’t toss him out, not in weather like this,
I try to find an answer, but I know the solution is accepting no solution exists, at least not now. It’s uncomfortable to live with unsolved problems but I’ve learned I can do some things. I can take situations one day at a time. In the end, that’s the only way this becomes manageable for my wife and me.
That night I take Josh’s car to a self-service car wash. I wash off the salt and dirt. Josh has had the car for two weeks. The trash from it fills half a 55-gallon garbage can — empty soda cans, plastic bottles, cigarette packages. In the trunk, I find an empty bottle of Captain Morgan’s rum. The filth disgusts me. I clean up the car anyway and put gas in it. When I get home, I urge Josh to go to school.
I tell him he can use the car for school or to look for work, but if he wants to stay out past nine at night, the car stays at home. I hand him the keys. “Josh, I cleaned the car because I want you to feel good about yourself and the car you drive. All I want from you is something positive, something productive in your life. My father and grandfather worked hard. They taught me how important it is to be a useful, productive person. Please go out in the world and do something good for yourself.”
Then I tell him I found an empty bottle of alcohol in the car. I say if I ever find a bottle in the car again, or if I ever find out he’s been drinking and driving, there won’t be another chance to use the car. I ask if he understands. He mumbles yes.
This story doesn’t have a happy ending. It doesn’t have an ending yet. I wish I had the answers but I don’t. This is what I know: my job is being my son’s father. When I see him going off the track and becoming abusive in my home, I don’t ignore it. I call him on his behavior. He doesn’t like it, but I don’t care what he thinks. I won’t tolerate verbal abuse.
I’ve learned I can do a few things to help me stay sane. I can write in my journal. Instead of isolating, I can reach out to people who understand. Talking about my problems with my closest friends in Alcoholics Anonymous and asking my Higher Power for guidance helps me make it through another day. It’s easy to lose myself when Josh blames me for everything that’s wrong in his life. I know the blame game well. In the end, what keeps me sane is the Twelve Step program. I’m fortunate to have a sponsor who’s going through a situation similar to mine with one of his sons. My AA sponsor is a caring, patient, and kind man who understands me better than almost anyone I know.
I feel lucky that there are so many AA meetings in the Chicago area. I can attend meetings morning, noon, and night if that’s what I need to make it through the day and keep my serenity. My sobriety is important to me. I’m not going to let Josh – or anyone – take it from me. I don’t know how to solve this problem, but I know that drinking will only make things worse. I know I don’t have to go through this grief alone.
I’m learning that letting go doesn’t mean we stop caring. It doesn’t mean we stop feeling. It means we accept who we are and what we feel, and we do the best we can with each day. It’s a process of learning to love other people and ourselves. At the end of the day it’s Progress, not Perfection that counts.
From the desk of Melody Beattie
Originally posted 2010
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