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The Blurred Boundaries of Loving an Addict

The hope and hopelessness of mothering a child through addiction

Erika Anne Sauter
Jan 8, 2019 · 5 min read
Photo: Erika Sauter

“What did you do with the money?” I asked. My daughter rolled over on her bed, turning away from me. I willed her to answer, but she didn’t. I had just discovered $400 had been mysteriously withdrawn from my savings account. It wasn’t the first time she’d stolen from me.

After a few moments of silence, she finally spoke. “I can’t look you in the face. Is it okay if I text you? I’ll explain. Please?”

My phone beeped 10 minutes later. I looked at the message. “Someone once told me,” she wrote, “that drugs are like a cruel mistress, that they are jealous and don’t want you to have anything in your life aside from them. They slowly start to chip away at the things that matter most.”

I wanted to text back, but I couldn’t bear to acknowledge that she had done this—again.

We had recently moved to a small-town farming community in Iowa from Phoenix, Arizona. After her failed attempts at treatment, we’d hoped escaping the chaos of the city would offer her some solace and a fighting chance to stay sober. But her substance abuse only became more difficult to manage after we arrived. She was resistant to our new home, and she was suffering from withdrawal.

At 17, she started abusing Percocet; by 20, she was using heroin. Once we were away from the city, she was forced to face herself, and I was forced to face her too. She had become intolerable, cruel, and combative, and each day was a struggle to get through.

“It’s like I’m climbing a mountain and kicking everyone I love off on my way up. Help me.”

She had emotional breakdowns, moments when she’d sob and feel remorse and plead for forgiveness. So I consoled her, and I forgave her. I wanted to believe that my daughter was ready to get clean. But our lives continued to revolve around her addiction despite her countless promises to stop using, and our family started to fall apart. It had gotten to the point that her stepfather and I no longer wanted to be in our home.

When we made the decision to relocate, my daughter chose to come with us. She hadn’t followed through with college courses and would spend any cash she had on drugs. She was clearly in no position to live on her own.

She claimed she wanted to get a job and save up money for her future, so we gifted her a car—a 1997 Saturn. She never found a job. Instead, she found where to buy drugs. She would get up in the morning and make an excuse to leave the house. She was going to the craft store, the pharmacy, to see a movie, to job interviews, and then she wouldn’t come back for 12 hours or more and sometimes not until the next day.

One night she came back and tore through the house in a state of hysteria. She was crying and screamed, “Don’t look at me! Get out of here!” and slammed the door of her room behind her. The rest of us gathered around to see what was going on. I was afraid.

“What happened?” I asked, going into her room. “Are you okay?”

She screamed again, this time throwing objects toward the door.

Her bedroom was trashed; garbage and piles of dirty clothes lay on the floor. I could smell the vomit in the garbage can from her being dope sick. The room was no longer filled with the teddy bears and posters on the walls like when she was a child.

She went into her closet and crouched in a corner, trying to hide from me. She was crying so intensely that she seemed on the verge of hyperventilating. I sat down next to her.

“I don’t want you to see me like this,” she said. “I need you to leave.”

I handed her a tissue and tried to reason with her. “I’m your mother. My love for you is far too deep to allow you to suffer this pain alone.” It took her a few minutes of trying to push me away, but she managed to calm down.

“It’s like I’m climbing a mountain and kicking everyone I love off on my way up,” she said. “Help me. I can’t do this alone.”

The lying, stealing, and coming home high had worn us all down. When you’re a mother, you have to believe that no matter what your child does or says, they still deserve to be nurtured and loved. It’s a disease. But I had an entire family to think of; I had to do what I thought was right for all of us. Once and for all, it was time to draw the line.

The next morning, I asked her for her car keys. She put up a fight, saying I had no right, but I insisted. She had to choose between having the car and living in our house. She chose living in our house. She had no means for survival if she left.

We’d both become prisoners of substance abuse; I’d made a commitment to her that we were in this together.

I told her, “You have one month to get into a treatment program, or you’re going to have to move out.”

“You’re giving me an ultimatum, Mom?” she asked.

“It isn’t an ultimatum, baby girl. It’s an opportunity,” I said and walked away.

Four weeks later, she hadn’t left my sight. If she wanted to go anywhere, I went with her. In a sense, we’d both become prisoners of substance abuse; I’d made a commitment to her that we were in this together. She was taking psychiatric medications, under the care of a doctor, and seeing a substance abuse counselor. Progress is progress, and I believed in her because I wanted to. I desperately needed to.

I slowly let the reins go. I thought it was the right thing to do in order to give her the sense of self-worth she deserves and to empower her. She was still staying up all night and was withdrawn from the family, but she was sober, and at the time, that’s all that mattered.

A few weeks later, my husband and I were checking out at our local market. “The total is $56.19,” the cashier said. I opened my wallet to pay, and all my cash was gone.

There I was, kicked off the mountain all over again.

A version of this essay originally appeared on Motherwell in April 2017.

Newspaper reporter in Eastern Iowa. The views expressed are mine alone.

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