The blurred boundaries of mothering an addict

By Erika Sauter
@erika_sauter 

“What did you do with the money?” I asked. My 21-year-old daughter rolled over on her bed, turning away from me. I willed her to answer, but she didn’t.

I had just discovered that $400 had been mysteriously withdrawn from my savings account.

This wasn’t the first time my daughter had stolen from me.

After a few moments of silence she finally spoke. “I can’t look you in the face. Is it okay if I text you? I’ll explain. Please?”

Ten minutes later my phone beeped. I looked at the message. “Someone once told me that drugs are like a cruel mistress,” she wrote, “that they are jealous and don’t want you to have anything in your life aside from them. They slowly start to chip away at the things that matter most.”

I wanted to text back, but I couldn’t bear to acknowledge that my daughter had done this—again.

*

We had recently moved to a small-town farming community in Iowa from Phoenix, Arizona. After her failed attempts at treatment, we’d hoped escaping the chaos of the city would offer my daughter some solace, and a fighting chance to stay sober. But her substance abuse had only become more difficult to manage since we’d arrived.

She was resistant to our new home, and she was suffering from withdrawal. At seventeen she started abusing Percocet, by twenty she was using heroin. Now that we were away from the city, she was forced to face herself and I was forced to face her too. She had become intolerable, cruel and combative, and each day was a struggle to get through.

She had emotional breakdowns, moments when she’d sob and feel remorse, when she’d plead for forgiveness. So I consoled her and I forgave her. I wanted to believe that my daughter was ready to get clean. But our lives continued to revolve around her addiction, despite countless promises to stop using, and our family started to fall apart. It had gotten to the point that her stepfather and I no longer wanted to be in our own home. I swallowed my heart.

When we made the decision to relocate, my daughter had no other option but to come with us. She hadn’t followed through with college courses, and would spend any cash she had on drugs. She was clearly in no position to live on her own. My daughter claimed she wanted to get a job and save up money for her future, so we gifted her a car when we first arrived—a 1997 Saturn. She never found a job. Instead, she found out where to buy drugs in Iowa City.

She would get up in the morning and make any excuse to leave. She was going to the craft store, the pharmacy, to see a movie, to job interviews. She said anything and everything to get out of the house, and then wouldn’t come back for 12 hours, or more, and sometimes not until the next day.

*

One night she came back, tearing through the house, in a state of hysteria. She was screaming and crying—“Don’t look at me, get out of here!”—slamming the door of her room behind her. The rest of us gathered round to see what was going on. I was afraid.

“What happened?” I asked, following her into her room. “Are you okay?”

She screamed again, this time throwing objects toward the door.

I could see that her room was trashed, garbage and piles of dirty clothes lay on the floor. I could smell the vomit in the garbage can from her being dope sick. Her bedroom was no longer filled with teddy bears and posters hanging on the walls like it was when she was a child.

She went into her closet and crouched in a corner trying to hide from me. She was crying so intensely she seemed to be on the verge of hyperventilating. I sat down next to her.

“I don’t want you to see me like this. I need you to leave.”

I handed her a tissue and tried to reason with her. “I’m your mother. My love for you is far too deep to allow you to suffer this pain alone.”

It took her a few minutes of trying to push me away, but she managed to calm down.

“It’s like I’m climbing a mountain and kicking everyone I love off on my way up,” she said. “Help me. I can’t do this alone.”

*

The next morning I asked her for her car keys. She put up a fight saying I had no right, but I insisted. She’d have to choose between having the car and living in our house. She chose living in the house, with us. She had no means for survival if she left.

Why had I been tolerating her addiction and behavior for so long? The lying, stealing and coming home high had worn us all down.

When you’re a mother you have to believe that no matter what your child does or says, they still deserve to be nurtured, to be loved. But I had an entire family to think of; I had to do what I thought was right for all of us. Once and for all, it was time to draw the line.

“You have one month to get into a treatment program or you’re going to have to move out,” I told her.

“You’re giving me an ultimatum, Mom?”

“It isn’t an ultimatum, baby girl. It’s an opportunity.” I walked away.

Four weeks later, she hadn’t left my sight. If she wanted to go anywhere I went with her. In a sense, we’d both become prisoners of her substance abuse: I made a commitment to her that we were in this together. She was taking psychiatric medications, under the care of a doctor, and seeing a substance abuse counselor. Progress is progress and I believed in her because I wanted to. I desperately needed to.

She was convincing and so I slowly let the reins go. I thought it was the right thing to do in order to give my daughter a sense of self-worth, and to empower her. She was still staying up all night and was withdrawn from the family, but she was sober and at the time that’s all that mattered.

And then a few weeks later, my husband and I were checking out at our local market. “The total is $56.19,” the cashier said. I opened my wallet to pay, and all my cash was gone.

There I was, kicked off the mountain all over again.

Erika Sauter is a freelance Literary Journalist/literary journalist with a degree in Creative Writing. She is currently writing a book about her family’s experience living with addiction.

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