September 20, 2012
Addiction and substance abuse affect almost every family in the country. If you don’t have someone in your family afflicted, or a relative, chances are you know someone. Growing up I didn’t realize this. Back then it was the kind of thing that was kept hidden. That uncle who was so hilarious was only that way to us kids—we didn’t have to tend to him later on.
Long after I got married, my wife and I started having problems with our youngest son. We thought it was us. What did we do wrong? We felt alone, isolated, embarrassed. Went to bed every night with new prayers, hoping to be answered. We had no idea so many other parents were experiencing the same thing, and so we tried dealing with it ourselves, tackling the problem the only way we knew how.
◆ We insisted he stop hanging out with his friends. They were a bad influence—didn’t work.
◆ We implemented strict curfews, followed by even stricter grounding—didn’t work.
◆ I engaged in father/son talks—didn’t work.
◆ We sent him to a “military institution” for troubled youths—didn’t work.
For years the issue seemed to come and go, but unless it reared up in our face, causing problems that could not be denied, we avoided it. I avoided it in my writing, too. The subject was too close—with a son who was an addict and a brother who died from alcoholism. Then, when my son almost died, and I spent weeks in the ICU waiting room, it made a different impression. I realized that being embarrassed about substance abuse wasn’t good enough. I needed to talk about it, and perhaps help someone else. Another parent. A kid in trouble. Someone.
It sounds strange to say but spending all that time in the ICU helped my writing, too. It made me realize that characters can be grieving and hurting and still find things to laugh about. Sitting in that waiting room, night after night, I noticed how each person handled the situation in their own way.
We were at the intensive care unit from early morning until late at night. We didn’t know if my son would die, or if he’d live and be brain dead. We didn’t know if he’d walk, or would require care for the rest of his life. All of these things passed through our minds every day, every hour. We found it difficult to deal with. I was getting business calls, and I tried to answer and deal with them—“the show must go on” right? But I couldn’t put any enthusiasm in my voice no matter how I tried. The excitement couldn’t be manufactured. I couldn’t laugh.
Then one night, my wife was in the room with our son and I was manning the ICU waiting room with my six-year-old niece, Emiliana. She asked for my iPhone so she could take pictures. After a few seconds I heard her squeal with delight, the way only little kids can.
I looked at her and said, “What’s going on, Emiliana?”
She ran to me, a smile as big as Christmas morning on her face.
“I finally found it, Giacomo.”
“The perfect hospital water fountain. Look! I can’t believe it.”
I looked at the picture—the starkness, the simplicity, and then looked at the wonderment on Emiliana’s face.
I have to tell you, there wasn’t much that could have put a smile on my face that night—my son waking up would have been the first but, “The Perfect Hospital Water Fountain” came in second.
While I sat and stared at the picture, my wife came out and told me our son was conscious and had talked. So Emiliana was right—it was the perfect hospital water fountain.
I have learned to appreciate the simpler things in life since that night. Especially the wonderment of children.
So How Did This Help My Writing?
It taught me to trust my feelings, not hide from them. In the past, if I had a character with a problem that too closely mirrored one of my own, I glossed it over, or ignored it. Now I know different. Now, I know I should share those feelings. So if one of my characters gets in trouble, I pour my soul into it. Not only does it make for better reading, but who knows, if I’m lucky, it might even help someone.
Has substance abuse touched your life? Or your family? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section, or if you prefer, write to me privately at email@example.com
If you know someone who needs help, have them contact a professional. My son Tony, clean now for three years, runs a rehab center in the Houston area. People are welcome to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you know someone with a substance abuse problem, or a family with a loved one who is suffering, please share this post.