A Mother's Story

I'm here today to talk about my family and the effect my son's drug use and mental health issues, has had on us. I'm a single mum with a son Nathan, now aged 21 and a daughter, Lily now 15. I've been on my own with the 2 kids for 13 years. My relationship with their father broke up because of his drug and alcohol abuse.

I've had my own involvement with drugs as a young woman and was finding it very difficult to live with those addictive behaviours and didn't want my children to grow up in that environment. It was hard enough as a family unit anyway as I suffered from panic disorder/agoraphobia, which made me highly sensitive to the kind of life he was leading.

The first sign for me, that my son was having problems was in year 9 when he started having panic attacks and couldn't attend school. That scared me because of my own agoraphobia and I didn't want him to end up with the restraints on his life like I had. So I encouraged him to go to counselling through the school counsellor. I thought if he could get a handle on it quickly enough it would be OK. He was a very smart boy — scholarship, musically gifted, quiet and very thoughtful.

He managed to get back to school and I thought all was OK, then he started drinking and wanting to have parties. Because he always struggled with friends and fitting in, I went along with it, thinking if I controlled the amount and kept an eye on him, it would be OK. I would allow him and his friend to drink but checked how much they had, served food and stayed with them all night. But I always felt conflict over wanting his acceptance and supporting him in trying to fit in with his friends, but feeling too much responsibility with these young people and their risky behaviour.

By then he had a girlfriend which lasted 3 years and they were pretty intense. She had a brother who smoked dope and so he started hanging out there more, but I didn't realise what was really happening. I had my daughter to care for as she was only 9.

At the end of year 10, at the age of 15, my son and his girlfriend split up. It was a very trying time for him and he started self-harming and occasionally I'd find empty bottles of bourbon in his room and so I became very worried about him. The worry this was causing me had impacted on my work and social life and I had become more anxious to the point of not being able to leave the house — I had to take 1 year off work.

I thought we had a fairly good relationship and could talk about most things. I thought he was being totally honest with me and the things he told me made me feel really scared about where he was heading with his life. I became paranoid and would be on the lookout for anything that would let me know how he was doing. I would read his emails and msn messages which would only scare me more as he was talking a lot about his suicide attempts and his struggle to deal with the pain life was causing him. Of course he became more secretive.

He agreed to counselling again, much to my relief, which made me feel like the psychologist was a comrade in arms and I wasn't alone. But I found out Nathan wasn't being honest with him, which put the burden back on me again.
The cuts on his arms were getting deeper and more common and the writings on the walls in the bathroom and his room were darker with lots of talking of death and blood. By this time he had dropped out of school, was depressed and wouldn't go out or get a job. This is a child that had straight A's all his life with seemingly no effort. When we talked he would be angry and resentful and he told me how he'd felt as a child being bullied at school (I had no idea), and how he never felt like he fitted in and had no friends. He'd tried hard to be like the other boys but the more he tried the more they laughed at him.

It broke my heart to see him struggle so much because all I could see was a handsome, caring, intelligent and humorous young man with so much potential.

His dope smoking was very intense now, with the whole day being taken up with this. He'd attempted suicide half heartedly a couple of times, and I became very vigilant of him — not wanting to say or do anything to upset him. My own anxiety was becoming exceedingly worse and I was too scared to go out and leave him. I would not be able to relax each morning until I knew he was still alive. My whole world was consumed by him and it was having a debilitating effect on my mental health and my daughter. She was missing out on so much.

Lily was acting out with disruptive behaviour, getting thrown out of school, fights with friends and other very attention seeking behaviours. I can see now what was going on for her, but at the time my concerns for Nathan were overwhelming.

Nathan started stealing money from my purse and I had to hide it in my room at night. Then I noticed amounts being taken out of my bank account and my card went missing from my wallet. I would confront him about it but he always denied it. He would twist it around to make it seem like I was forgetting what I had spent. I was keeping a close eye on my finances and I realized it wasn't me. I had to face up to the fact that he was stealing from me and lying about it. I hated this behaviour in him so much but felt completely powerless about it. I didn't want to throw him out — I wanted him to change. I was frightened he would go down the same road as his father and me.
He finally agreed (after a lot of nagging) to do a detox. He had begun a music course at Leederville TAFE by now and so a home detox service became involved. I got to see my boy again for a short while — happy, sleeping, funny and loving. He lasted about 3 weeks and then he went to visit his father, who was supplying him with drugs and it all began again.

That was 3 years ago now and at the age of 21 he can't go a day without being out of it. If he can't score dope, he'll drink and if he can't do that he'll be angry and throw things around and smash walls and doors. The worst thing is I like him better when he's stoned — he's helpful, funny and gets on with his sister. So I've tended to let things be, thinking that one day he'll realize and do something about it. Now I am not so sure.

When we talk he mentions his anger about his dad leaving and then his beloved Poppa dying when he was 7, he had no other role model in his life, except me. ... I've made lots of excuses for him.

He has a job now and is earning decent money and as long as he has a stash of drugs, he's OK. He has a lovely girlfriend and has just bought his first house, so to most people it seems he's doing OK ... until he can't score.
Recently he couldn't score and so I gave him a valium to help him sleep. When I came home the next day from work, he'd had the whole packet of 10 — that was an eye opener for me. He says he can't sleep or eat without drugs and so therefore he can't work because he's too tired. I just close my eyes to it because I love him so much and can't bear to see him hurting.

I've been told the same thing over the years — don't enable him, and I didn't think I was. He did his own washing, he didn't ask me for money and he had a job. But I was not tackling the big one, making him uneasy, upsetting him. We were always treading on eggshells. I think it's a fine line between enabling and support and I really wanted to support him in his life to deal with his issues.

I realise how all encompassing it was and now there is some regret from it. He still is a part of my life and I ask him from time to time if he's ready to deal with his addictions. He says "not yet", which gives me a little hope that one day he might.

Now he's moved out and it's so much better at home, more relaxed, more comfortable. I realize how much I did to keep the peace at the cost of my daughter, who also loves it without her brother at home. Lily's doing much better now. She has a good apprenticeship which she loves and her behaviour is a lot more settled.

When Nathan comes to visit it's uneasy again and I realize how rude and insensitive he is. So I'm trying really hard to step back and not do too much for him, but it's difficult. I really have to stop myself from ringing him or buying things for him, in the hope he will have to deal with things himself. My fear now is that I may have to watch him lose his girlfriend and his house and I don't know how I'm going to manage that.

Of course a part of me is still there with him, but I'm getting on with my life — looking at new job prospects, getting fit and having some fun and I've found I've got a lot of support through the last 2 years by volunteering. It hasn't been easy and it isn't over yet.