My 19-year-old son is out of control

He's lost, he's getting locked up, he's tempting fate -- and I don't seem to be able to protect him!

Published September 10, 2009 10:15AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I have read a few of your letters and I like how you tell it how it is. So I decided to see what you think on my problem. I have a 19-year-old son who does nothing but stay on the Net all night. Of course it's more complicated than that. It all started about a year and a half ago when I moved to Washington state to get my son into a commercial diving school. He had to stay in Nevada until I could find a house to rent for a year that would take my dogs. The plan was for him to complete school and then travel. I was also going to do some traveling therapy jobs once he graduated.

Well, he met this older woman, age 30 with three kids, who was still married to a Navy SEAL in California. He told me he wanted to spend his 18th birthday in California with some friends. I didn't see a problem with that so I agreed, but little did I know he had met this woman and when it came time to go to Washington he refused to leave her. You see, he moved in with them, told the husband that I had kicked him out and he wanted to go to school there. Well, while the guy went to work they -- you know -- had fun.

To make a long story short, the woman messed my kid's head up so badly he wanted to kill himself and he committed himself to a psych ward where I had to drive down to get him. We had a long talk and decided to move back to Nevada for his peace of mind. Well, that was a bad move -- first it wiped me out financially and I was never able to recover because the economy tanked at the same time; secondly he turned into this monster who constantly belittles me like his father used to do. He tried to kill himself again after we had a huge fight about him finding a job and he ended up once again in a psych ward for a few days.

Due to my financial problems I took a job in Texas where it's cheaper to live and better pay, but my son still refuses to find a job. Before the move he said he wanted to go to college but that flopped soon after the move.

Of course some minor details have been left out of this story, but what do you think? Some people tell me to just kick him out of the house on the street but I can't do that. Help!

Confused and Lost

Dear Confused and Lost,

Since your son has attempted suicide and has been hospitalized twice for psychiatric reasons, I suggest you talk to the person who evaluated him in each case and find out if a diagnosis was made and if any medications were prescribed. Since you are his mother and he is living with you, you ought to be able to find out. You should know these things. You should know if he is considered to be a danger to himself or others.

But unless he is psychiatrically incapacitated and unable to live on his own, I think you do have to cut your son loose. You don't have to throw him out on the street but you have to cut him loose. That is, you have to stop taking responsibility for his well-being.

His life is chaotic and dangerous. Naturally you want to save him from harm. But it may surprise and intrigue you to know that what he is doing is actually necessary. He has to do this. He has to become who he is, and you are going to have to let him.

You couldn't stop him anyway. But perhaps you can make peace with it if you understand that it is a necessary stage of his life.

Let me quote for you from the book "Nature and the Human Soul" by Bill Plotkin, from the chapter titled "The Wanderer in the Cocoon":

"Young people everywhere and in all times sense, in their blood, the need for a passage, not directly into 'adulthood,' but into another and as yet unknown world. In our egocentric society, high-school-age and college-age youth are blindly attempting to access the mysteries and to uncover a loyalty to something greater than ordinary social life. Without elders or initiatory guides, they do whatever they can to shift their everyday frame of mind, to stretch their routine lives by risking them. The most popular pathways are alcohol, drugs, music, and sex, any one of which could actually help, especially with the support of elders or guides. But for our unmentored youth, these pathways usually go nowhere or worse. ... Some youth join gangs or cults. Some risk it all with extreme sports. Yet others attempt psychological border-crossing through spiritual practices borrowed from other cultures or based in self-designed rituals."

Your son is in trouble. But he is not an innocent victim. That woman didn't mess his head up so badly that he ended up in the psych ward. She isn't to blame. He is. He moved into another man's house, lied to the man and slept with his wife. The unconscious conflicts stimulated by such a situation may have been enough to render him out of touch with reality; he may also have taken a lot of drugs in order to handle the frightening reality of what he was doing: symbolically sleeping with his mother and living in mortal fear of his symbolic father's finding out.

When I say things like that, your assessment of me as someone who "tells it like it is" may be put to the test. I don't mean this in any literal way. But look at what happened. After you rescued him, "he turned into this monster that constantly belittles me like his father used to do." In other words, he turned into his father. He may have learned some of this abusive behavior from the Navy SEAL. Or he may have simply recognized the Navy SEAL as a man quite like his own father. The pattern is clear: He is working out his adolescent passions and at the same time searching for his lost parents.

This is a difficult and trying situation, but it is not "sick." Rather, it is his attempt to get well in a sick society.

Mythic images and themes are represented to youth in video games and movies but youth need to experience life in a mythic way. They need to encounter life-and-death situations; they need to meet real devils and feel the otherworldly fear we feel when we witness true spine-tingling evil; they need to meet real wizards and feel the elation and wonder the world abounds in. So they wander, letting the lines of force that operate in chaos guide them into patterns of mythic experience: the open road, the throw of the dice, chance encounters, meeting one-eyed con artists in deserted bars, riding in the back seats of cars driven by madmen, following a river as far as it goes, crossing deep chasms, attempting feats of balancing and strength, matching wits, going hungry, standing guard all night in the forest, watching dawn rise from the window of a deserted building.

He has to wander. He has to work it out on his own. That doesn't mean you can't be in touch with him. If he has to come stay with you now and then, let him stay with you now and then. Most likely he will be coming and going for a while.

You can have boundaries. You don't have to throw him out on the street. Nor do you have to lie awake at night as if his quest for manhood were some kind of tragedy. It's not. It's as old as man himself. Some young men take the smooth, clear, easy route. Others take the crazy, twisted road. As long as he can stay upright and keep moving, the road will take him where he needs to go. That might not be where you think he should go. It will be where he has to go.

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By Cary Tennis

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