The Joey Song
Cathy Taughinbaugh — Treatment Talk http://cathytaughinbaugh.com/interview-sandy-swenson-author/
I had the pleasure of reading Sandy Swenson’s heartfelt story of her son’s journey into addiction. Her powerful tale of parental love and hope is one of those books that will heal the hearts of others who so desperately want to know that they are not alone. Sandy’s story will resonate with those who love a child. Her strength, determination, and hope for a miracle will remain unforgettable.
Please welcome Sandy Swenson, author of The Joey Song: A Mother’s Story of Her Son’s Addiction.
What inspired you to write The Joey Song: A Mother’s Story Of Her Son’s Addiction?
When I first started to write The Joey Song, I was trying to heal. I was trying to understand the toxic corrosion of addiction eating away at my son, my family, my heart. I was also secretly hoping that one day my son would read the words I had written and be forever changed; I was hoping that by the time I got to the last chapter I’d have a happy ending to write about.
But, as it turns out, my story, like so many others, is a story without closure. So, I started to write the book I so desperately needed to read; I started to write The Joey Song for parents like me, parents whose beloved children remain in active addiction.
For parents living in the place where love and addiction meet—a place where help enables and hope hurts. For parents trying to figure out the difference between helping their child to live and helping him to die. For parents grieving the loss of a child who is still alive. For parents needing to find a recovery of their own.
I’ve heard it said that for every addict, another four lives are affected. That means there’s a lot of suffering going on. And, for too many people, stigma and shame have them suffering in silence.
When addiction grabs a child, it chokes a parent. I know the life-draining squeeze of its grip. I’ve never felt so incapable and helpless, so sad, so lonely. Such fear. My child has been stolen from me—stolen from himself—and I mourn Joey’s loss and suffering from a very lonely place.
There is no broad community empathy or support for the families of addicts. There is no rallying cry of solidarity, no pretty ribbon brigade, and none of the comfort that so often gets baked into meatloaf and muffins. Instead there are closed doors and mouths and minds and hearts.
I want addiction to be understood, not misrepresented, misjudged, and mishandled. Not hushed up or hidden away. Nasty things grow most freely in dark corners; the scourge of addiction needs to be dragged out into the light.
So, I share my story of love and loss and learning. And surviving my son’s addiction while coming to terms with the fact that he may not.
When addiction is understood as a disease, it will be treated like a disease ― but this is an understanding that will happen only when those of us who love an addict stop hiding addiction as though it’s a disgrace.
No more shame, no more silence.
How has your son’s addiction affected your life and what did you do to help yourself?
My baby grew up to be an addict. There was a time when I believed a mother’s love could fix anything, but it can’t fix this. So, there’s a gaping hole in my life where my son should be. Falling in the hole or filling it up are my only options, so I’m taking steps to fill it.
I choose to honor my son with my words and my actions―not the addict.
This doesn’t mean I don’t care. Or don’t hurt. Or won’t cry. It just means I will fill the hole in my life where Joey should be with goodness, not badness. Kindness, not madness.
I’m not ashamed of Joey. I’m sad for him. And, I’m not ashamed to be the mother of an addict. I will no longer behave as though addiction is a dark secret and I’m not going to live like a cockroach hiding under a rock.
I will be open and honest about what addiction has done to Joey and to our family, hopefully helping some people along the way, with my blog and my book, The Joey Song.
Like Joey, I have choices. And I choose to live life.
What are three things you’ve told yourself that kept you going during your darkest hour?
“I will not help the addict to kill my son.”
For years, I did everything I could to protect Joey from himself, until, finally, I realized it wasn’t him that I was protecting. I was protecting the addict. Making it easy for the addict. Giving the addict one more day to further consume my son’s body and mind. I was helping the addict to kill the son I was trying to save.
Once I realized this it changed everything; my motherly love would need to be contorted and redefined. There’s nothing about this kind of love that feels good, but I’m not doing it for me. It’s not called Tough Love because it’s mean. It’s called Tough Love because it is tough to do. But I will do nothing, ever again, to help the addict. Because, if I do, I have no hope of ever seeing my son.
I told Joey once to never underestimate my love for him, and this is what I meant—I love him enough to bear the toughest love of all.
To Let Go is to Love. I can do both, and I can survive.
“It’s not the addict I hope will be grateful for my love. It’s my son.”
My son is the one who needs my support. My son needs to see my strength. My devotion. My resolve.
My son needs me to face down his worst enemy, not help it.
My son and the addict may share the same shadow but they will not share my love. My son is the one I want to see live beyond tomorrow.
“Letting Go is not the same thing as giving up.”
The expression “Letting Go” implies, well, letting go—as in dropping or throwing away—and as any mother knows, that’s just not possible. There is no Letting Go in a mother’s heart—not of a hand once held. Even if that little hand grows into a big hand attached to a horrid addict. But that’s not what Letting Go means. I now understand. It means to let go of the things that aren’t mine to hold on to. The things that have anything to do with addiction.
In Letting Go of my son, I’m letting him know that I believe in him. That I believe he can do this. Like a hug, full of my love, I Let Go believing that he will find his way back.
If a parent walked up to you asking for your advice and you only had a few minutes to give them your best tip(s), what would it be?
“Sometimes love means doing nothing rather than doing something. “
Our children are not marionettes we can control with words or wishful thinking. Our actions are not their actions. Our pulling the strings isn’t the same thing as them doing the work. It took me a long time to realize that my enabling was giving Joey a stage to go through the motions of recovery and that if he was going to have a chance at real success I needed to clip the strings.
There’s nothing I can say or do to stop Joey’s addiction, but he needs to have a reason to stop. He needs to know I’m keeping the place where he belongs in my life warm. I will not give him advice or a sympathetic ear or even believe a word he says, but as long as Joey is alive I will find ways to leave traces of love along with my Letting Go.
All I can do for Joey now is love him. But he will know it. And that is something.
What do you want readers to take away from your story?
Addiction is a disease, not a disgrace. It is not an issue for moral judgment.
Addiction begins where dalliance becomes disease, and it can happen to anyone who has taken a sip or puff or snort (which our culture entices every young person to do), or even a pill prescribed for pain.
As a parent I made a lot of mistakes, but causing my son to be an addict is not one of them. If imperfect parenting caused addiction, then everyone would be an addict. The reason someone starts to drink or use drugs is not the same reason why someone cannot stop.
The only thing we have control over is our own reactions. We cannot make our addict embrace recovery but we can stop the spread of the disease. We can stop the toxic corrosion of addiction eating away at our family and our soul. Recovery begins with us.
Recovery can happen even if it does not happen within our addict. It is not selfish for parents to take care of themselves. Be the example you wish to see.
The Joey Song: A Mother’s Story of Her Son’s Addiction is available in bookstores and libraries.