A Room of My Own

He opens the door – and it looks like a lesser version of Hoarders: Buried Alive.  Cigarette butts and ashes, trash bags, pillows and clothes litter the floor. I gingerly step over the trash bags and peer into the kitchen. Empty Coke bottles and stained circles of cardboard that used to hold pizza.

This is my child’s heaven – his haven, his new home.

For now.

Ian is doing well in rehab – and part of the reason is this apartment, with the 10-foot Drug-Free vinyl banner, about a mile from the center. He walks – or is driven – to his outpatient sessions, then he comes home to this. He is happy.

Tonight, we made things a little more official. After sleeping on the floor for months, he moved into the second bedroom of a former roommate who left sober and seeking a new future (but fortunately left behind a table and an armoire). Unlike the rest of the apartment, Ian took out the asthmatic vacuum cleaner and swept the floor, picked up the trash, and dusted the furniture. I folded his clothes and placed them into the newly-acquired armoire while he arranged his computer, television and Xbox. He got a twin-sized bed – with box springs! – and was thrilled to have his foam mattress topper too.

I look around approvingly. The place, minus the trash, is bigger and, in some ways, nicer, than my first place, I tell him.

I too left my childhood home just two months shy of 18. Granted, better circumstances – I went to college early. But the desire to be free, to dance in my own space, and be surrounded by others Just Like Me – well, I get it. An hour after I was dropped off at the girls’ dorm at OSU, I pierced my ears – my first act of independence.

The first ‘home’ I had was a $100 attic room, with quaint dormer windows that I could throw open in the summer time and survey my uncool, high-crime neighborhood that bordered campus. Later, when an ex wouldn’t stop stalking me and wouldn’t leave my front lawn, those same dormer windows were opened – and I balanced a .22 caliber rifle on the sill to steady my gun sight on him. He left.

Moral of the story: Don’t mess with crazy, young Ohio farm girls.

But I digress. I shared a bathroom, and had my own shelf in the large open kitchen,   well stocked with Cheerios, peanut butter and cases of Tab.  I shared the house with about five other girls.

I loved it. I cannot tell you the layouts of the myriad apartments of my young adulthood, but I can still place the furniture in this room. The brick-and-board shelves that not only held my books, but my black guinea pig, who would whistle at me when I would unlock the door at night. The bed, the desk, the small chest-of-drawers – each one had significance.

It was all mine. The stuff, the experiences, the time. Mine. Unabashedly, selfishly mine.

And now, it’s Ian’s turn.

I’m excited for him, even though neither of us know where things are headed. We are truly living one day at a time. Serious issues lie ahead. How will he finish his high school degree? Will he go to college? Should he work at Starbucks down the street?

Will he relapse?

I don’t know the answer to any of these. But I do know that I was greeted with a tenuously joyous young man at the door. A strapping 6-foot tall teenager who has walked through hell and now has found a piece of heaven.

It’s his time. And I could not be happier for him.

It’s a new time for me too. I’m far, far away from that girl who would look at the moon from her dormer windows, being center stage in life. But I am glad to feel wonder again – from the sidelines now – over the simple pleasure of a room of your own.


Me and Mary

He spoke softly at the gratitude service at the Roswell Presbyterian Church – “Today,” he said with a wry smile, “we thank God for all the ‘A’s on our kids’ report cards.”

Long, long pause.

The reality is, most of us are here because we are thankful our children are still alive. In the middle of the gymnasium sits a Mongol Horde – a loud, boisterous ball of dysfunctional energy; more than 70 teens who have admitted they are addicts. Many of these kids have overdosed on booze and pills, others have contemplated suicide, some still bear the scars of trying.

Mine, hard to distinguish from the pack, sits in the middle – happier than he’s been in years. The whole point of this program is to make sure the moment a young adult decides to be sober, that he has a new, sober peer group – and that they do activities Every Single Day that show that life can still be a helluva good time without drugs. It also teaches them how to catch up and mature – because at the point they started drugs, their emotional growth stopped.

For Ian, I’ve learned, the magic number was 12.

He has been sober for 57 days. He wears a leather knot that marks his time. I wear a leather necklace with a wooden heart to mark my forced march in this journey.

I am so happy for Ian, but I am not happy. I do not want to be here at this gratitude service, I don’t want to be part of this club. Instead, I’m going through the stages of grief – mostly stuck in anger and bargaining, with daily car conversations going something like this:

“I hate you, God. I hate you so much.”

I’m afraid. While Ian knows he’s getting better, I still am reeling from the information I’ve learned. Twice in the past year, he’s told me, he overdosed in his bed. So it was not beyond the possibility that I could have brought up his morning tea only to have found a dead son.

I don’t understand – this is my blond blue-eyed firstborn who took piano lessons, was on the track team, blew the top off the PSAT. We have always been – and still are – ridiculously close. And yet, like so many parents, I misinterpreted the signs. When the rumblings began – my hubby, Richard, was first to point it out – I thought everyone was wrong. I fought viciously with Richard. Poor Ian was struggling with panic attacks and depression.

Um, no. He was struggling with prescription pills – sold cheap at Walton High School, awash in affluenza – and anything else he could get his hands on.

Any confidence I had as a parent has been swept away. As Jerry Maguire says in the movie with the same title,”I have become a cautionary tale.” Mothers, while patting my arm, try to find loopholes in my story that will reassure them that their own children are safe.

One mom of a 15-year-old asked me if we went to church regularly. Being honest, I said, “Not really. We’re really more of the C&E variety of Christian.” She nodded, and said, “We go to church regularly.”

“Oh so did we, every single Sunday,” a mom in my parents group said, laughing, after hearing this story. “And he’d get high right after service.”

And that’s the rub. I’m divorced (loophole) and remarried. But there are plenty of very-marrieds in the group, with my favorite couple being the ones who pass their one pair of reading glasses to each other to recite the 12 Steps.

Like many parents in the meeting, I don’t drink (except girly drinks on rarefied occasions) or smoke. I didn’t even realize our liqueur cabinet had been drained, because neither Richard nor I had been in it for more than five years.

Most of these kids come from middle and upper class neighborhoods (rehab ain’t cheap) where they went to Gymboree, got bedtime stories at night, and helped decorate the 9-foot Christmas tree.

These are beloved children – with parents who have stood by them in the centers, the jails, the hospitals.

These are also sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, who have blown the all-American family narrative of peace and harmony to hell.

But miracles upon miracles, these young adults are doing one of the hardest things for humans to do: change. One day at a time. And many of them are succeeding.

And us parents – as we come along – change too. The focus shifts: It becomes less about the scrapbooks and What Was – and more about the relationship Right Now. And most importantly, we’re learned that perhaps this is not where we want to be, but it’s where we need to be.

Christmas is coming. This year, we’ll be lucky if we see our son for a few hours. Because he needed to be away from his old East Cobb crew, he’s living in Alpharetta, near the rehab center. He comes home about once a week, receiving regular infusions of groceries and baked goods from me. He tells me that his roommates are impressed he knows how to wash dishes and occasionally vacuum.

It’s the first time in 17 years he wasn’t photographed for our Christmas card.

It was not what I had envisioned.

But this entire year has not been what I envisioned. And I can’t help but occasionally cry when I hear the carols that highlight Mary’s bittersweet experience (“Mary, Do You Know” comes to mind).

None of us, as we caress that newborn in our arms, really knows what we will face as parents. What trials and horrors we might endure – all for the love of our child.

Maybe it’s better not to know.

The path recently has been hard. But I know, this Christmas, as the pews grow still in candlelight, I will be grateful for merely the blessing of life. It’s still the greatest gift we all have – and cherish.

One day at a time.

Love you, son.
Happy holidays, everyone.

The Kids Are (Not) All Right

 As I watch the #OccupyWallStreet movement gain steam, I remembered a great little read by Jessica Stillman “The Entry Level Rebel” on BNET. The question: Will Gen Y – living through the Great Recession – be forever changed? A depressing yes, according to the research. It’s estimated that the Gen Y workforce – defined as those born between 1984 and 2002 – will make an estimated $100,000 less in their lifetime, because they’re starting their career in a downturned economy with lower salaries. Add on top of that, these depressing facts.

  • 37 percent of 18 to 29 year olds have been underemployed or out of work since the Recession began
  • 60 percent have cashed out their 401-Ks
  • 58 percent pay their monthly bill on time
  • Millennials are graduating from college with an average student debt of $23,000

Psychologically, they’re becoming a vastly different breed than the Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, who both lived through some of the most prosperous years in US history. This generation is becoming risk-adverse, more similar to their great-grandmothers of the Depression, than their parents or grandparents. They already were the most hemmed-in, monitored generation – with helicopter moms, organized sports and neighborhood watches – but the trauma of economic turmoil is likely to magnify their fear of failure.

As a mom of a 17-year-old, I hate to hear all of this. And specializing in internal communications, I think companies will have to work with their younger members to encourage them to take steps outside their comfort zones. Innovation occurs through trial and error – and too often, we all forget the “error” part of the equation. If you want a great example of how important this is, take a look at Honda’s Power of Dreams Campaign – Failure: The Secret to Success series of videos, where engineers, race car drivers and others talk about how it was only by pushing the limits ( and often failing) that they were able to ultimately able to succeed. (My favorite: The engineer who desperately pushed for an orange car.)

We need to make sure our culture is flexible and safe enough to provide similar lessons to our young adults. Because, risk-adverse or not, they are our future.

  The Honda “Power of Dreams” campaign. ‘Failure: The Secret of Success’

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The serpent in the Garden of Eden

I tend to like fur. Not on me, not on my men, but on our pets. But alas, after mice, hamsters, guinea pigs and dogs, David, my 10-year-old son, announced he wanted a snake. Now, I’m a happening Modern Woman and am not scared of snakes. One of my childhood memories was keeping a garter snake in a fish tank until it got out – and then discovering that it was wrapped around the vacuum cord like a lover. Snakes are not slimy, they kill bad things like rats. I love snakes.

Or so I thought. First the debate was on the type. He was fixated on pythons – but after reading about the growing problem (literally) of abandoned pythons in the Everglades and other places, i nixed it. But God – who apparently decided we needed a serpent in our little paradise – literally placed a friend right in our path who was trying to find a home for his … snake.

She’s a beautiful corn snake. I dutifully drove David, my middle child, to the apartment complex to get the snake. It came lightly packed – with a tank and a heat lamp and some ahem, frozen mice. Again, I’m a Tough Modern Woman, and frozen mice don’t faze me. Until she – named Pepe – tried to eat one. Apparently, we didn’t do something right. The frozen mouse was too big, too cold, wasn’t served with the right Merlot, who knows?

But she spit it out to the delighted horror of the children. We tried another mouse. David ran in, yelling that this warmed up mouse came back out with its guts spilling out. OMG.

I felt my resolve waning. And that’s despite the fact that I’m so glad I don’t have to put a live mouse in the cage anymore and experience The Discovery Channel in my kids’ bedroom.

I’m trying to follow the lead of  Anne Lamott, who tries to follow in the foot steps of Jesus, and love this creature whom I’m really starting to dislike. After all, the mouse had fur. In Blue Shoe, Lamott talks about struggling with her son’s reptile – which only stars blankly at her or spits up on her. One time, she thought it was dead, but it appeared it was only playing her. She couldn’t get mad, because her son was so elated. That’s the rub of motherhood.

I have to remember my snake can’t eat Cheetos. And I think its sheer carnivore habits is forcing me to face the uncomfortable reality that I’m a food hypocrite. After all, if frozen mice could be made into a tasty taquito for the snake, I’d probably be all over it. The problem, of course, is I really want “minced mice” or “mice  kabob” or anything that does not look remotely like a real mouse. Unfortunately, I still have to stare blankly into the PetsMart freezer next to the live crickets and pick: “pinkies” “fuzzies” “small” “medium” and “large” – and they all look like…frozen mice.

And we still don’t have success. Pepe the snake still hasn’t eaten, so I have the added guilt of this newest member of our family apparently not approving of my meal plans. It seems so unfair. I might try giving her Cheetos in a week.