Mom's a pothead

Her 15-year-old says he'll move out if she won't stop smoking.

Published July 9, 2007 9:43AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My best friends have been married nearly 20 years and have two boys, 13 and 15, who have been brought up with love and purpose. They are family to me, and I to them. And that is how we all talk about it. Aunt, nephew, sister and brother, though no blood runs between us.

I'm a professional, once widowed, once divorced, never childed. I like to have my fun, but I pretty well managed to grow up, if not on schedule, then eventually. She has the stability of a suburban mom, but is also a tie-dyed-in-the-wool, latter-day hippie. She's barely had a serious job, let alone a career. (Her husband's career has been steady, corporate and successful enough so that she hasn't had to.) So along with rearing the boys and occasional stints of work, she's spent a lot of time following the Grateful Dead and then the tide of post-Dead jam bands that have followed in the wake of Jerry Garcia's death.

I think you now see where this is going. Yes, drugs. Her husband has tolerated her prolific pot use, but it's become a huge problem for the 15-year-old, my sweet, perceptive, loving nephew. This kid was steeped in the DARE program -- he came home from kindergarten one afternoon with an "I'm Drug Free" button pinned to his shirt (jeesh, you'd hope so!). He pretty well freaked out when he first figured out his mom was smoking lots of dope. At 11 or 12, he threatened to go to the police. Discretion simmered things down, though there have been occasional flare-ups since. A few months ago, the latest flare-up turned into the full-blown crisis I knew might one day come. When he was sorting the laundry, the son discovered a pipe, in-your-face evidence that Mom still smokes and brings the stuff (or at least the paraphernalia) in the house. He threatened to leave. The dad, laid up recovering from foot surgery, told the mom to leave for a few days, to give some space and to come back with some ideas about how to make things better.

Since my friend returned home a few days later, she's proposed, tried out and discarded a batch of different fixes. She'd finally see a therapist. She'd quit, or try to quit, for, say, six weeks. Well, she'd at least try, but has fears that she'd become a pill junkie to deal with pain (she suffers unholy back problems, a complication to this story for sure). She'd even pee in a cup to prove to her son she was sticking to it. She'd get her medical certificate so her son would see her marijuana use was "legal," whatever that might mean.

The six-week trial balloon lasted just a few days. Worse, she's convinced herself she's staked out the moral high ground: It's not up to the kids to run the family, and the parents need to reinstate the rightful order of things. She fully expects her husband to support her, and if not, to not interfere between her and the son. Now, with the medical certificate, she's resumed smoking with even less discretion. To her, a smoke in the backyard qualifies as not smoking in the house. Needless to say, her son found her out again and now, for him, she can change or he can go.

She has as recently as a month ago told me that my opinion about all this means the world to her and she hopes I tell her what I think. Yes, maybe.

I can't imagine losing her friendship, but more than that, I can't stand by and see my nephew in this position.

You see, my friend and I are a lot alike. We'll find a way to redefine any argument so that we win, so that we can have our way. Our lousy parents did a good job teaching us how to win arguments at any cost. I can tell her this lovingly and gently. I can tell her this really isn't about restoring parental order. It's not like the son set out to dictate what happens in the house. He is truly anguishing about the contradictions and deceit he sees. I can tell her I'm worried about what she's willing to give up so that she can keep smoking pot. I can tell her the lies, justifications, sneaking, self-medication, blame-shifting and defiance don't seem all that different to me than an alcoholic's little tricks. I can tell her what I see is self-destructive and reckless. I can tell her how lucky she is her son has lived his young life trying to live up to his parents' expectations, to make them proud. I can tell her I think he has earned the right to expect her to take responsibility for her mistakes. I can tell her I know the one thing she never wanted to do was repeat the mistakes of her parents, that I know she's tried damn hard not to, but that I'm afraid she's coming precariously close. I can tell her I think the gig is up, and it's time for her to really decide what she values or risk having, 20 years from now, an adult child who, like us, knows that his parent chose other priorities over him.

I know that if it comes from me, she might actually hear what I have to say. Can I? Should I?

Do I Dare?

Dear Do I Dare,

Yes, by all means, tell her. Pour your heart out to her. Tell her exactly what you feel.

And I will tell you exactly what I feel.

This kid wants his mom back. That is what I feel.

She has gone off somewhere. She is lying and evading. She is not available. He just wants her back.

That is what she needs to face. She needs to face her son.

Why can't she face her son? Is she already full of shame? Is she already so afraid of what she will see in his face that she cannot come into the house from the backyard and look him in the eye and say she's sorry for wandering off?

It could be that what awaits her, her own storehouse of childhood pain, is too great already.

So she finds solace in her pot, the little bag in her purse, the tiny, fragrant bud flaring up in the pipe, the sweet leaf rolling up into solace, rolling up into relief, the leaf of relief, the bud of beginning, the pot of gold. Yeah, we all need something.

But it's a question of the pot or her kid and what she's going to choose. It's down to that. If she chooses to keep smoking pot, she is telling her kid to fuck off.

That is what she is saying. That is what it feels like. It feels like Mom is saying, Go fuck yourself you little piece of shit. Go fuck yourself. And that is likely what he will do with his pain. He will fuck himself with it. That is, he will turn it inward, just like his parents and their parents and their parents. And so the cycle of infliction will continue, unspoken pain transmitted generation to generation on carrier waves of silence.

Yeah. That's real sweet. That's changing the world for sure.

So yeah, here I am getting in touch with a little of that kid's anger myself. Yeah, we just want our mommies. It's not complicated. We just want them to come down out of the trees, out of the clouds, out of the stores, out of the car and the jewelry store and the backyard or wherever the fuck they are and come into the house and look us in the eyes. That's all. It's not complicated. It's not about the drugs. It's just what we need. We're not trying to take over. It's just what we need. We just need our moms back.

And though in her case it is about a substance, it can center around anything. It can center around the TV, the job, the nervousness. It's about the same thing: It's about the disconnectedness. It's about feeling alone. Teenagers sense their parents' fear. We feel their evasion, their emotional blankness. We long for one uncomplicated face, one clear moment, one frank, settled exchange. We long for emotional connection. It's not complicated. It's just real.

So get real with this friend of yours, this mom. And try to get her to get real with her kid. Remind her what it felt like to be a kid. Remind her of that.

What I mean to say is that you and she never got what you wanted from your parents, right? And so you have gotten along the best you can. She is replacing what she never got from her parents with this pot, this best friend of hers. Naturally. But in making that replacement, she is repeating. In filling that void, she is perpetuating the cycle of deprivation. It is hard for someone who is using a substance for that purpose to see what she is doing, because the reason she is using the substance is to avoid seeing why she is using it. She will have to stop using it to see why she is using it. That will hurt, no doubt. She will have to start feeling again that original deprivation.

Maybe, with your urging, she can find the strength to do that. But probably not on her own. People need help to get through something like that. It is too painful to do alone. It is like losing your best friend, to give up the pot. It is hard. It is really hard to do with will power alone, or through insight or the urgings of a friend.

So if you can urge her to do anything, urge her to get help with it. If your urging can accomplish anything, it can perhaps accomplish that one thing.

It takes courage and strength not to repeat, because repetition feels like repair. We focus so hard on not being like our parents that we become just like our parents. It is our tragic fate. In fleeing our childhood, we return to it. Yeah, and blah blah blah, more pseudo mystical babbling. But you know it's true.

It's not too late. It just takes staying in touch with that pain, that emptiness, not trying to fill it or blunt it but honoring it, being grateful for it, using it like wisdom and memory because that's what it is, that pain, that's what it's there for. It's knowledge. It is a reminder what not to do. It is the psyche's way of saying stop it right here, in this generation. Do not continue that awful strange blankness for another generation. Leave the bucket empty. Do not carry that bad water. Leave it at the spring where you found it.

She's got to choose between her kid and the pot.

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