Editor’s note: Ever since the Whig concluded its “Voices of Recovery” series in 2015, many have asked the paper to continue discussing recovery and addiction. As an extension of that focus, we now present “Shift the Focus” a periodic column by Lorri Irrgang, a local author, recovery advocate and mother of someone in recovery. Join us as Lorri discusses many topics pertinent to the recovery movement.
ELKTON — As I reflect on past holidays, I cannot help but be grateful this year. My son and many people I have surrounded myself with are healthy and sober. Was this always the case? Absolutely not. While supporting families I often share that I, too, walked in their shoes. My days were filled with fear, anger, and upset. My lived experience started out as a nightmare, just like theirs. Today, I can honestly say, this journey has become a blessing in my life.
Six years ago, I sat in a place where many of you are this year. The holiday season was approaching and I had no ambition to do anything. No desire to decorate a tree, no desire to shop for presents, and no desire to celebrate with family and friends. My son was using and that was consuming my every thought. How was I going to get through Christmas and pretend I was happy?
I remember being overcome with immense sadness. Christmas was not going to be one filled with the same kind of joy as in past years. I lacked the hope that my son would find sobriety in the months ahead. At the same time, I knew I had to muster up the energy to create a happy holiday for my healthy child.
At that time in my life, I had not heard from my son in seven months. Every couple of weeks I sent him a text to remind him that I loved him and that I was here for him when he was ready for help. I did not expect a response but I needed for him to know that I did not abandon him.
The reality was, he abandoned my daughter and I when he chose to use drugs. These chemicals took over his life. He was not available emotionally. He was isolating and withdrawing from our family. I had lost my son and my daughter had lost her brother.
With this void in our life, my denial left me still considering that I might see him on Christmas that year? Should I hang his stocking on the mantle? Should I reach out and invite him to come and join in our family traditions? Should I buy him gifts just in case? What gifts would I buy him?
It occurred to me one night, “Should he be rewarded for the choices he is making?” This was a simple question. Why had I not thought of it from that point of view? The choice to buy him gifts was not a behavior that would help the situation. In fact, it had the potential to hurt him. Anything I would buy for him he could sell to someone for the money or trade it for more drugs. I did not want to contribute to this.
I did not want to live with my choices leading him to an overdose. I had to be aware of and take responsibility for my actions. I made up my mind that year that I was not going to buy him gifts. I had to be strong and not provide him with any means of obtaining money to support his habit.
I decorated my tree, put the lights up outside, and hung the stockings on the mantle (even my son’s.) I did not buy him one single gift. Yes, this was uncomfortable, but I knew it was best for my son.
On Christmas morning, we followed through with our morning rituals and opened gifts. Although my family enjoyed our morning, there was an unspoken sadness amongst us all. An emptiness that filled our already hurting hearts.
Later that evening, we were sitting by the fire when I heard a knock at the door. Excitedly I went to the door expecting to see a friend dropping by and ... it was my son! I was hesitant, but gave him a hug and invited him in. He stayed and talked for about an hour. All the gifts under the tree were opened. His stocking was empty on the mantle. It was awkward, to say the least, and yet there was a familiarity to his presence. As he was getting ready to leave, l feared I would not see him again.
That night I was disheartened. I realized my son had not come bearing gifts for anyone in the family. He had come to “collect” his normal pile of presents. At that moment, my feelings changed. I experienced a sense of gratitude toward my decision. I had the courage to not buy anything for him. It sent a clear message that I was not going to condone his behaviors and his choice to come and go in our lives. I was not going to give him anything he could trade, exchange or sell for more drugs.
This was one of the hardest decisions that I had made. As time went on, I grew to learn that the hardest decisions for me were the best decisions for my son. I also learned that if I upset my son or made him angry, I was doing something helpful for him. My thought process and parenting style shifted that year. It was changing my behaviors that ultimately contributed to my son changing his behaviors.
As difficult as this was, this action seemed to be a turning point in my son’s substance use illness. He started to reach out and, little by little, communication grew between us. The many months filled with hopelessness, despair, and gloom soon became part of our past; part of our journey; part of our story.
For those of you who will not be spending the holiday with your loved one, I can assure you there is not a single day that goes by where they will not think of you and how much they love you. Knowing this was my most memorable gift of the holidays that year. I saw the power of this disease. My son’s surprise visit reminded him of what he was missing by isolating himself. He came with an ulterior motive in mind, but he felt the love that he was missing. He remembered the connection that he once had.
My gift to you this holiday season is to share a part of my story that deeply touched my heart. It is a story of strength and courage. It helped me to find gratitude within a holiday season whose course I could not have predicted when I brought my son into this world.
With or without your loved one present this holiday season, try to continue with your family traditions. For those of you raising grandchildren, enjoy the holidays through a child’s eyes. Allow their innocence and excitement to be contagious.
For those who are experiencing the holiday after the loss of a loved one, start a new tradition in their memory. Buy a special ornament for the tree or frame a favorite holiday picture of your loved one. Find time to feel the loss and allow yourself to grieve. I wish for you to find some moments of peacefulness within.
For many of you, the holiday will be different this year. It may bring feelings of sadness, desperation and fear. I am blessed to spend holidays with my son. Much gratitude is felt that he is now present in my life. Keep your faith alive. My story is living proof, there is hope.
If I can be of any support as you enter this holiday season, please feel free to contact me at Lirrgang@mdcoalition.org or (410) 688-9317.