A raw account of healing and revealing — one mother recovers from people-pleasing and unworthiness through her son’s journey to sobriety
With reminders of every fault, limiting belief and mess-up we’ve ever made on the tip of their tongues, our teenage children seem to almost effortlessly touch our core wounds. For years I lived in the painful shadow of this reality until I was able to shift my vantage point. Is it possible that our children can be our greatest teachers? What I discovered when fear and heartbreak forced me to be vulnerable and reflective is that yes, beautiful lessons are there for us.
At Home in His Home
Tears come at the most inconvenient time as I sit in the comfortable, but basic seat I strategically selected. Not in the front row, that would be too intense for him. But not at the back because I really want a front row seat to witness this. I feel a welling up as he walks on stage with the worship team and he takes his place on the left. He doesn’t make eye contact with me, but that’s nothing personal. He’s just in his zone, preparing to serve.
I am in His house today, and my son Cam’s house. It’s not mine but that’s a big part of why strong emotion has pushed its way up from my belly and turned into tears of healing this morning. I feel like this is a private concert just for me as I allow the salty tears to trickle. I’d hold them back but they feel so damn good; happy tears; cleansing tears; washing my soul of yet another layer of shame and hurt.
It was 4 years prior that the best friend of my oldest son Cam, sent me a text. I found it strange as I wondered how he got my number. I opened and read and felt instant overwhelm. It was short and to the point,
“I think you should know that it’s not water in Cam’s water bottle when he leaves for school. Check your liquor cabinet.”
What?! I didn’t even need to check the cabinet; I knew that it was true. But I did check and my heart sank.
We have a decent stash of bottles for when company comes over and I rarely, if ever, check them as I’m not really a drinker. Like my dad, alcohol doesn’t agree with me. An occasional glass of red wine with a nice meal is the extent of my consumption. On this day I discover nearly empty bottles, a few of them including the water look-a-like, vodka.
“Are these emptier? Maybe they aren’t?” I knowingly try to convince myself for a couple minutes. I even grab a marker and make discrete marks on the bottles so maybe I can be wrong if I come back again in a few days and the levels haven’t changed.
I feel so alone. Ashamed. “How has it come to this? How have I failed so badly as a parent?” I desperately begin, in my mind, to go back in time to see when it happened, when I messed up and Cam turned to alcohol to numb his feelings and cope. “When did he stop coming to me? How had I made him feel that he couldn’t come to me?”
Shame. Shame. Shame. I’d been so wrapped up in the busy of my own life I had a hard time pinpointing when it happened. And then I realized it had been happening gradually and I just didn’t want to admit it; didn’t want to face the pain and the mess. Cam had been dropping breadcrumbs behind himself for most of high school.
An eternal optimist, I see now that I convinced myself it would sort its self out. Clearly that hadn’t happened. I congratulate myself, sarcastically, for being ‘Parent-of-the Year’ and begin to assess my options.
I could ignore it and keep pretending. As a people-pleaser I was a master at pretending. I could go, in a reactive rage, bust his bedroom door open and tell him what an idiot he was and that he must stop immediately. I could try to reach him in conversation, just like we used to, although this seemed unlikely based on how much he’d withdrawn lately.
The truth is I did a mix of things; I watched him closely, I ached when he would be destructive with his behavior, I tip-toed sharing suggestions, I didn’t replenish our liquor cabinet and I started to worry and feel guilty, a lot.
Kevin Nealon, a comedian said “I’m a people-pleaser with a knack of letting people down.” That was me. And this was maybe the first time I realized that my years of people-pleasing had deep-seeded scars. A painful lack of worthiness stemming back to my feelings of not being loved, as child.
My being nice and saying yes all the time meant I failed to teach my kids how to create healthy boundaries for themselves.
There was no malice. I was doing the best I could raising two boys by myself. But that didn’t soothe what was now a constant flow of negative self-talk and shaming in my head.
For several years after this, we continued with one step forward and two steps back. I tried to be calm when my son struggled even though I was terrified of what might happen. I became a best-selling fiction writer with all the stories I wrote in my head when he didn’t come home from a party or when he’d stay in his bedroom for days. Counselling, days of detoxing, little wins — but more steps back than forward.
At work I kept up quite the charade. I was VP of Corporate Communications for a growing company, a team to manage, travel, bills to pay at home and aging parents to tend to on weekends. But the people-pleaser knows no boundaries when it comes to shoving down feelings and moving forward. In a warped way, I actually wore it like a badge of honor.
In fact, one day I recall my team was organizing an event. We had a big-name band playing a huge celebration party. VIP passes were issued for those who would require access to the celebrity green room. I had been running around all day and got back to my desk only an hour before the event started. One of my team had left my VIP badge at my desk. Get Shit Done Weber. That was the name on the badge. Not Amanda Weber.
While my oldest son was struggling with borderline depression and using alcohol to cope, I was recognized at work as the person who made sure everything happened as it should. If only they knew.
It deeply saddens me to see how I dishonored myself day after day, but at that time I recall so clearly seeing the VIP badge and thinking, You’re damn right, you can always rely on me!
Have you ever lay in bed, in the dark, as night falls and the veil between worlds seems thinner and prayer invites you in? I have. It was around this time in my life where I would often fall asleep praying for divine intervention — for a hand that could reach my struggling son and support him in a way that I didn’t seem to be able to. I was exhausted doing all the wrong things to help.
If I’m being honest, I was more of an enabler than a strong parent because it soothed my own pain.
Divine Intervention Arrives
Cam had been distant for several days on this sunny August morning, nothing new. I was heading out to the grocery store and invited him to come along. He agreed and I thought, Great, we can load up on healthy food and maybe this will be the day it all starts to turn around. I was right about one thing; change was coming but by this day, it was already in motion.
Unbeknownst to me, my son’s girlfriend of 4 years had broken up with him a few days prior. I didn’t know for sure but I imagined it had a lot to do with his drinking, moods and overall unhappiness.
As we sat in the car, in the grocery store parking lot, I felt a deep mama-bear intuition wash over me. With tingling in my head and pounding in my heart, I looked over at Cam and gently said, “Honey, you seem really low today. Can we talk?”
That was all it took. He hung his broken head and began to weep. This was something I had never seen from him before. To this day I recall exactly how I felt; I was so deeply sad for him but along with sadness I felt hope that for the first time something had cracked him open, just a sliver, and he was allowing emotions other than anger and self-hatred to flow.
I would find out that day, as we sat and talked, that he was on the third day of sobriety. He was struggling but he carried a determination that I had never witnessed before. He was deeply sad that his girlfriend had finally given up on him — and yet more sad that he had been such an unkind person to her. He had remorse, he had disappointment in himself, he had a lot of emotions tumbling out. I wouldn’t say he was hopeful, it was more despair, but he began to talk about being tired of letting God down. And how he just needed to do better. God, I thought. What about the rest of us?
And then I felt a wave of gratitude. God wasn’t available to me, but if he was available to Cam — I welcomed that opportunity.
An Abrupt Education
I was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. A city which was, and still is, fiercely divided by religion. For generations Catholics and Protestants fought. Vicious fighting, terrorist fighting before the world used the term ‘terrorist’ in daily headlines. Car bombings, politically motivated violent rallies, not a safe place to raise family. Or so my Dad decided.
At the age of 3 (with my bothers 6 and 12) we immigrated to Canada. I was young and didn’t take in any of the reasons for our move but at 10 I got an abrupt education.
I had always wondered why we didn’t go to church, but as a kid you don’t often ask what seems like such logical questions. I had been playing with my best friend one Sunday morning. Her mom said it was time for her to go to church, which was a across the street at her Catholic school. We were besties, didn’t want to separate, so I went with her. I apprehensively walked in beside her, a people-pleaser who didn’t want to disrespect, into the school gymnasium they had converted for a church service. I would learn soon that they did this every Sunday morning as they raised money to build a dedicated church.
I sat, observed, pretended to mouth words of prayer when people, who clearly knew the script, were responding to the words of the Priest with conviction. I pretended to fit in. I wanted to fit in.
I’d never experienced so many people coming together in unity. It felt like a club of belonging. Do they notice that I don’t belong?
When my best friend walked up for what I would later discover was called ‘Communion’, there was no way I was getting left behind, so I went. I observed what everyone was doing. I copied, I took communion. Seemed like no big deal. Afterwards I asked my friend what that was and she told me. I felt shame. I felt like an impostor. I hoped that the Priest wouldn’t find out and be mad at me.
When I went home, I casually mentioned at the dinner table what I had done and my Dad, who literally NEVER raised his voice instructed me never to go back again. “The bloody Catholics forced me out my country, there is no damn way any child of mine is going to church!”
The truth is that he was equally as angry at both sides thus explaining our no-church-on-Sundays upbringing.
This was the time in my life when I began to feel very alone and scared when I thought about anything to do with God or life, for that matter. I felt that to pursue any kind of more expansive inquiries around “where do we go when we die” or “what is life about,” I was being disloyal to my parents. Missing this dimension of my being in the way that it happened, always left me with a sense of being less than and not worthy.
Around the age of 35 when my life was a mess with stress and busy and being reactive with my two sons, I remember making a list of things I wanted in my life. One of them was the freedom to explore types of spirituality that would fill this void of unworthiness.
The seed was planted.
Although God, in the traditional sense, has never really connected for me, being part of a divine Universe, the idea that we are all connected and were created in the essence of love — this did and continues to guide me every moment.
Cam continued to fight with all he had to be the person he knew he could be, for himself and for his God. And me, right along-side, with my Universal Divine, we have learned to accept each other’s beliefs and often muse about how similar they actually are. I never wish he would come to my side, but I often wonder if he prays for me to join him.
So here we are. I sit, mid-pack, in Cam’s house of worship and watch him walk out on stage preparing to serve as guitarist in the worship team. I release soft, healing tears.
I am comfortable with having no ultimate control, while over and over again Cam teaches me how to love him for who he is, by loving myself for who I am.
He strums his guitar strings, I take in a deep nourishing breath and together we celebrate Cam’s 952nd day sober.
You may also enjoy reading From Motherless to Motherhood: A Journey of Addiction, Relationship & Love, by Jan Hiner