parenting advice
from a 24-year-old son

A few weeks ago, I called my son Jack for advice.

I’d been invited to California to speak to parents of teenagers, and I was just starting to think about what I could say that might actually be of practical use, especially to parents whose kids are giving them cause to worry. It occurred to me that the best person to consult was my own son, whose challenging adolescence is still fresh and raw in my memory.  (I imagine it’s pretty vivid in his memory as well.)

At twenty-four, Jack is sober, self-sufficient, and making a difference in the world.  Working full-time as a mentor in a residential treatment center for troubled teenaged girls, he’s been able to transform his own youthful experiences with addiction and recovery into a gift to others who are struggling.  Had he not walked this walk himself, he couldn’t extend his hand so whole-heartedly to the young people in his care now. He’s received extensive training on the job, first during a year-long stint as wilderness-therapy counselor and, for the last seven months, as a team member at this therapeutic facility in North Carolina.

But I think he’d  agree that his effectiveness at work is as much a product of his own first-hand knowledge as it is a result of his training.  In fact, it’s both, in combination with his innate curiosity, his sense of humor, his gift for listening deeply, and his calm demeanor, even when things get tense and crazy.  Jack isn’t attached to being right and he doesn’t get flustered, the way we parents so often do. Yet when he speaks of the young women with whom he works, I hear the pride in his voice, especially as he describes moments of growth and change and healing.  I couldn’t be prouder of him.

And as it turned out, Jack really was the perfect person for me to call.  “I figured you might have some thoughts about how parents can stay connected to their teenagers,” I said.  “I do,” he replied.  “Every single girl I work with has some kind of conflict with her parents. I think about these kinds of things all the time.” [continue…]

happy reports

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The other morning, I snapped the leash onto Tess’s collar and headed out for a walk. We followed our old route, down the hill from our house, onto the bike path toward town, and home again. Nothing too ambitious, yet this was the first time in two years I’ve taken this particular four-mile walk without feeling pain. It was also the first time since having both of my hips replaced last winter that I felt confident enough in my new hardware, and in my healing, to risk having Tess lunge unexpectedly or pull me off balance. I’m strong enough now to hold onto her, strong enough to hike back up the hill without pausing to catch my breath, strong enough to do the whole loop in under an hour. And so it is that a daily ritual I once took for granted has been transformed into an experience that feels special, one I’m grateful for.

IMG_8921So much of what I’ve struggled with, and written about, over the last couple of years has had to do with loss and grief, what Jack Kornfield so evocatively calls “the storm clouds of the heart.” Sitting alone in a quiet room, finding words that both pay homage to the richness of human experience while also acknowledging how vulnerable I often feel in the face of that experience, has given me a way to come to terms with some of the inevitable challenges of growing older — the illnesses and deaths of dear friends, concern for the struggles of a young adult son, life chapters ending, intimate relationships transforming, elderly parents facing their mortality, a body that’s showing the wear and tear of nearly six decades of hard use.

I’ve sometimes wondered whether “ordinary days” would ever return. Or if in fact the best days were behind me now and my own “ordinary” would forever more be tinged with sadness, a kind of constant, chronic, low-grade grief, like the slight limp I’m learning to live with as result of having one leg that ended up being an eighth of an inch longer than the other.

The answer, it turns out, is no. [continue…]

saving Jake —
a mom’s story & a give-away

51w9S21cSJL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Since writing last week about my son Jack’s addiction and first steps in recovery, I’ve been inspired and humbled and deeply moved by the stories so many of you have shared, both here on the website and in private emails. This conversation, still ongoing, is a beautiful, necessary reminder that we are all connected — not only by our struggles but also in our hope for our loved ones and in our compassion for one another’s challenging, complicated journeys.

Our culture is obsessed with perfection – and with hiding our problems. But what a liberating thing it is to realize that our private battles are, in fact, universal. And that they are also our richest opportunities for being able to fully share in both the grief and the joys of others.

And so, in that spirit of compassion, I would like to share with you an intimate, courageous book that made a profound impression on me.

Last May a reader of The Gift of an Ordinary Day wrote to say that my book had been “a balm” to her “roughened mother’s soul.” D’Anne went on to reveal that she’d come to cherish life’s quiet, mundane moments by way of a different path: “My 23-year-old son is three years clean from Oxy and heroin.” [continue…]

first steps

IMG_7679 (1)I just got off the phone with my son Jack. He touched in as he often does these days after school, to say hi, to tell me about the few questions he missed on a test, to let me know he’s going to AA tonight, where he’ll receive a 30-day sobriety chip.

It’s been a month since Jack had a beer or used any other substance, 80 days since he last smoked pot, his drug of choice.

At 23, he is meeting his own sober adult self for the first time. In a way, so am I.

These have not been ordinary days. But in all my years as his mother, I have never been so proud.

A month ago, on his 50th consecutive day of not getting high, Jack told me he was going to write a status update on Facebook to share what he’d been going through. My first response was concern for him, for his privacy and for the fragility of his still-new sobriety.

“Think carefully before you do that,” I said. He already had. He’d led a double life for years. And he didn’t want to do it anymore. So he put it out there, for all to see: [continue…]

finding goodness

kenesaw walkWhen I was child, my dad’s dental office was attached to our house. On one side of the door was our private, domestic world: home. Pass through the back room with its overflowing bookcases full of dental textbooks and journals, maneuver around the desk piled high with bills and paperwork, step through the small brown door by the laundry room, and you were in the reception area of my parents’ busy practice. Many afternoons I’d forgo the TV reruns my brother was watching in our den and slip into my dad’s quiet waiting room to read magazines. I loved the jokes in the Readers Digest, the photographs in Life, the lavish meals in Gourmet, and, most of all, the hidden pictures in Highlights.

There was a trick to solving those optical illusion puzzles with their lists of random objects hiding in plain sight. At first glance, all you’d see was the scene itself, a complex drawing of animals in the jungle, perhaps, or a crowded playground scene. But squint your eyes just enough to change the focus, and you could begin to discern the outlines of those other things: a slice of bread, a pencil, a teacup, a button. The only way to find the button amidst the tangle of palm fronds and swinging monkeys was to blot out everything else. You had to narrow your gaze and go in search of that one thing you most wanted to see.

My life lately has felt as complex as those multi-layered drawings of my childhood. On the surface, things appear orderly enough. But what I’ve experienced internally is a series of invisible, painful losses — each a challenge to my equanimity, to my sense of the universe as a fair and benign place. Feeling fragile and overwhelmed, I’ve been experimenting with an emotional version of that old eye-squinting thing. I keep thinking I’ll suffer less if I can just look more deeply into the picture. Somewhere, I know, goodness is hiding in plain sight. My task is simply to find it.

And so I repeat these words to myself like a mantra: “Look for the good.” And then I narrow my focus until I begin to see what I’m hunting for: the delicate outline of a blessing, some well-camouflaged scrap of goodness amidst the hurt, something to be grateful for.

“Look for the good,” was the intention I carried with me to Georgia last week, as I flew south to see my son Jack for the first time in six months. Six months! It’s still almost inconceivable to me that I could go so long without seeing one of my children. Since he left New Hampshire in May to change schools and begin working toward a degree in sound engineering in Atlanta, Jack hasn’t slept under this roof for one night. We stay in touch by phone and text, but I’d never seen where he lives, or met his roommates, or ridden in his car. He was about to turn 22. It was time to go. [continue…]