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Visions Journal

What We Did

Discovering our son through the elephant in the room

Pine Siskin

Reprinted from the Families, Friends and Substance Abuse issue of Visions Journal, 2024, 19 (2), pp. 31-32

stock image of two people hugging

It’s never over. You just learn to cope. You hear the words: OCD, anxiety, depression. You’ve felt the depth of it yourself. You can see how he’s like you. In his grandmother’s day, it was called “a nervous breakdown.” He’s inherited all that generational trauma. From both of you. Right now, he seems normal, maybe even content. 

How can I summarize these past three years and what we’ve learned about our son, our family and mental health? Before, I had these conversations with him, desperate-lifeline moments of despair. I could hear the panic in his voice. He always came to me as a last resort. I sensed the thin line that held us together across the wire. So I dropped everything and held on when he couldn’t imagine a way out. When he was boxed in by his own unspeakable fears, I listened.

Then I would grasp for some thread, a string of hope to throw out in his path—how creative he is, how hard working, how determined. Never that anything was, only, or is always, in his head. Listening for what I knew to be the sound of his hope, relief; something to hang onto. 

In one of these conversations, when my son was in his early thirties, I agreed with him that to take one particular job would be too much. A prestigious job in his chosen field. Yet the very nature of it would trigger his trauma. So I asked, How are you going to tell them you can’t do it? And he surprised me. I heard his listening silence, felt his energy shift and the next thing, he was going to take the job. He’s been at it since then, managing it in spite of the expected minefields that crop up. After all that fear, he did it. 

He’s works so hard to get it right. Now, he can see that things shift; he’s gotten through it before and he’ll probably get through it again. He has his necessary rituals. His support groups. Prescription drugs. Sometimes, cannabis. Walks in nature every day. We notice if he’s hungry or tired. Things can pile on in a hurry, and you have to take heed. He likes to plan. I realize how alike we are. 

In the early days of the COVID pandemic, smarting from the breakup of a six-year intimate relationship, he came to live on the property in his own space. But his issues outnumbered us; we all felt the tension, looked for relief, a cure—something! We found nothing. A frustrating lack of resources. A sense that nobody really cared. Over the years, the lack seemed to have entrenched itself. A friend overdosed. And at his Vancouver job, one of the employees died right there in the bathroom. It was everywhere. But healing was nowhere that we could grasp. He had to lead us to what would help him. 

There had been a lot wrong for a long time. Bullying since middle school during seven of his formative years, when his brain was still forming. Constant humiliation, every single day. Even a popular teacher had piled on in front of the class. I knew this after the fact. I suspected it, but my husband, who comes from a time when any kind of mental instability was scorned, told me to step back and let him work it out. I believed him when he said, “He’ll come back.” But I saw the furtive efforts of my son to hide his shame. When his suffering manifested, I saw his father’s fear that, if you coddle it, if you validate the feelings, then “it” will gain a foothold. We stood back when he came home plastered with alcohol, and I knew it was getting entrenched.

Years later, now, at 37 years old, he was still carrying this thing around with him—all of it. And substance use wasn’t the cause, it was a symptom, an unreliable force with its own power. Every time we talked, confronting the big ugly bully in the room between us, my son went away relieved. For a moment perhaps. For a day, maybe. But I could see it was better to talk about it than to ignore it. 

When he arrived, traumatized, in March of 2020, we put him on any list he qualified for. The wait was three months, minimum. The calls, the emails, the promising-sounding websites—and in the end, only money would do. How do people in crisis cope? There was nothing else. We are a family of artists. Money is not what we have. We had to figure it out for ourselves. 

A local counsellor asked us what we felt we could pay for an hour and a half. I knew from my own experience that regular counselling and exercise put a dent in the black hole, could help sweep it into remission. We accepted her safe space, where we were able to address what our son could confront. One day, I observed his fundamental fear: that perhaps he didn’t have the capability to concentrate on a given task. Because of the daily bullying as a young teen and how it formed his beliefs about himself, he doubted his ability to keep his mind on the job. Without distraction. Without having to look over his shoulder for someone who might push him around, judge him, make fun of him. 

As soon as this was verbalized, we each found examples of how and when he did concentrate on the thing at hand. Moments when he forgot his anxiety in favour of the required task. This discovery was a huge milestone in his healing.

And we couldn’t ignore the sidekick, substance abuse. Making the link between how he functions during the week after he drinks. He knows he’s vulnerable to alcohol. Now it’s all about fizzy water and kombucha and alcohol-free beer. Before he goes out, what is his plan for getting back safely? Just talking about it beforehand makes a difference. Each time he comes home sober, he feels the accomplishment. 

This isn’t everything. Listening is essential. Patience. Cognitive-behavioural therapy. Counselling. Exercise. Working together in the garden. Family meals. Tea on the deck at sunset. Bocce on the crispy lawn. I’m determined to provide a stable family environment so that he understands viscerally that he is accepted and loved. So that he can come and go with agency to create his one unique and wonderful life.

About the author

Pine Siskin is a creative whose current work manifests appreciation of the present moment. She has been a writer all her life. Her writing has been produced on the CBC and appeared in the Vancouver Sun, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times and Smashwords, among other publications and venues 

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