☼ Crying Is Okay Here

crying, addiction, grief, mom of addict

Photo by SSG Robert Stewart

A child has died. Not my child, but the child of a friend. Technically, he was no longer a child. But still, he was her child. She was supposed to have her child forever. Except forever didn’t last.

I didn’t know this young man. My friend’s son. I don’t know if he liked basketball or if he wore his hair parted on the side or how he preferred his steak cooked or on what day he was born. My arms don’t cuddle the memory of his tiny heft and softness as though years haven’t flown by since his birth. I don’t know the feel of his hand — if it was calloused or smooth — or the sound of his voice curled around the name Mom. Like silk. Or wind. Or leather.

No, I don’t know the things, the essence, the him that filled the space in his mother’s universe like stars, filling and fitting like only he could. But I can imagine.

I don’t know what dreams her child had for today and tomorrow, or what dreams my friend kept polished up for her son. I never looked through their window of hope to the future. But I feel the slam. And the crumble.

He was, now he isn’t.

His mother has to find a way to live with that.

This mother is a puddle of tears.


Sandra Swenson is the author of The Joey Song: A Mother’s Story of Her Son’s Addiction . Her forthcoming book, Tending Dandelions: Honest Meditations for Mothers With Addicted Children will be published by Hazeleden in October, 2017. An accompanying app will be released spring 2018.

‘ASK’ Documentary–Addiction, Codependency and Love

Addiction is only a maze if you don’t ASK for help.

“I’m the mom of an addict, and I’m not ashamed to say that anymore. There’s a time when I was…..” My interview with the ASK team about love, learning, and letting go.

Sandy from Kurt Neale on Vimeo.

Please watch and share this beautiful documentary with anyone who might benefit from it—anyone who might need help navigating the maze that is addiction: “ASK is a film about how both the addict and co-dependent relate to one another, love, and how both need help.

ASK – Can Love Survive Addiction and Codependency? from Kurt Neale on Vimeo.

☼ Love Is Pretty Quiet

IMG_0660One hug, once a year. That’s all that’s left of my relationship with my son (for right now), but it’s a powerful thing, this hug.

It carries a quiet message.

This year, faced with Joey’s (very loud) silence, I made the trip to Florida anyway, hoping to show him that I will show up every year, full of love and open arms, no matter what.

Hoping to show him that my love is constant. (In case he ever wants to come back.)

I stayed for four days, even when faced with more deafening silence, sending out messages, letting him know where I would be having breakfast or catching sunshine in case he wanted to join me. Finally, on my last night, Joey met me for dinner. I didn’t ask questions about drug or alcohol use (I never do, anymore). Instead, we enjoyed the moment, and made a new memory to hang onto.

All I can do is love my son.

And love is pretty quiet.


I’m giving away ten signed copies of The Joey Song: A Mother’s Story of Her Son’s Addiction. Enter to win via Goodreads! https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/135217-the-joey-song-a-mother-s-story-of-her-son-s-addiction

☼ Addiction: Letting Go Is Not The Same As Giving Up

Sandy Swenson

Sandy Swenson

One hug.

Once a year.

I hold you tight, my son. Probably too tight, but I need the strength of my love to soak into your soul, and my arms must absorb the love I know you have for me. I memorize this moment.

As you grew from boy to man, child to addict, I had to let go of the things I could not change and the things that weren’t mine to control (after trying for so long to change and control them). I had to let go before the ugly words and behaviors slithering in on the underbelly of addiction did irreparable damage to the relationship that had once been so good. Or killed the boy I was trying to save.

My love is all I have left to give you.

(That, and one too-tight hug for each of the past seven Aprils.)

I hold you tight, my son. Wrapping you in my arms, I feel the power of our dusty bond. A silent exchange of hope and strength and eternalness, of a love that has been bruised but never broken. I kiss your cheek, leaving a lipsticky mom mark, and now, again, I must let you go. I open my arms — empty but now full — arms which will keep you snug and close to my heart, until next time. Next year.

In letting go of you, Joey, I’m holding on tight to so much.

In letting go of you, I’m letting you know that I believe in you. I believe you will find your way back.

One hug.

Once a year.

I’m keeping your place warm.

Letting Go is NOT the same thing as giving up.

Enter to win one of ten signed copies of The Joey Song: A Mother’s Story of Her Son’s Addiction on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/135217-the-joey-song-a-mother-s-story-of-her-son-s-addiction


☼ My Son Is An Addict (Sometimes I Feel So Alone)

Public domain image, royalty free stock photo from www.public-domain-image.com

My son is a stranger; an addict wears his face.  Everyday I must wake to the loss and horror of this and still put one foot in front of the other; everyday I must climb a mountain no mother should ever have to climb.

Sometimes I feel so alone.

My son is now invisible, but my heart still holds his place. Rarely does anyone mention Joey’s name. After all the trouble and trauma no one knows what to say anymore; no one wants to ask when I last saw my son or spoke to him or if he’s still alive. Family and friends want me to be okay, so I act strong for their sake (and mine). But I hurt. Time doesn’t heal all wounds… at least not yet.

Sometimes I feel so alone.

My son is an addict, relegating us to a shamed and lonely place. Ours is a world where drunken car accidents, intravenous speedballs, and drug overdoses are not understood. A world where addiction is hushed and shushed and hidden away, snug and comfy in the illusion of sweet dreams and happy endings and the power of a mother’s love. A world that believes — because it must — that children do not self-destruct randomly and therefore this mother’s love must be tremendously flawed.

Sometimes I feel so alone.

My son is in the grips of a tragic disease, even though it may look more like a disgrace. I’m afraid for Joey. He is sick, maybe dying, yet I can’t hold his hand.

Sometimes I’m not as strong as I look.  Ask how I’m doing and I won’t feel so alone.

The Joey Song: A Mother’s Story of Her Son’s Addiction  is available in bookstores and libraries.

☼ The Addict May Hate Me, But He’s Not The One Who Matters

addiction, rock solid

There was a time when I was tricked and manipulated and hated into helping (loving) the addict. Desperate, placating, and fearful, my love crouched behind a mirage of wishful thinking. But not anymore. My love is no longer confused by delusion. The addict’s hatred no longer has the power to get me all muddled up.

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.

Once I stopped caring if the addict hated me, the addict hated me even more. He didn’t like the word ‘no.’ He yelled and cursed and threatened, viciously pulling on heartstrings and fears, trying to trick me into betraying my son. But I didn’t. My love is a rock solid foundation for my son to stand on (or take his next step), not the addict. And now they both know it. Eventually the manipulative gyrations completely stopped, but that’s not the end of the story.

“Hi Mom. I was thinking of you and just wanna say ‘I love you.’ I feel like I’m missing out on my amazing mom because I don’t call very often. Hug toss.”

For seven years, the only thing I’ve been able to do for Joey is love him.

Love him.

The addict may hate me, but my son doesn’t. And my son is the one who matters.

                                                                           * * * * *

The Joey Song: A Mother’s Story of Her Son’s Addiction  is available in bookstores and libraries.

☼ All I Want For Christmas Is My Son Back (From The Addict Who Stole Him)

All I want for Christmas Is My Son Back

Joey, with visions of sugar plums…

Do you see what I see?

A child, a child, stolen from my life.

Do you hear what I hear?

A very silent night.

Do you know what I know?

My son drags around his addiction like Marley’s chains, but only he can turn things right.

‘Tis the season to be jolly, and I’m trying, but while roasting chestnuts and jingling bells, I grieve for Joey and his very tortured life. The joy of the season and the pain in my heart are like a tangle of tinsel, or competing garlands of flashing lights. 

This year, yet again, my youngest son will be home for Christmas, but my eldest son will not.

Joey’s stocking is no longer hung by the chimney with care, and none of the gaily wrapped presents tucked under the tree are for him. Long gone are the days of toy trains and blocks, pjs and robes, iPods and iTunes. Long gone are the days of giving gifts safe for an addict―gifts Joey couldn’t sell for cash, or fall off of while drunk, or cut himself on while high. Gone, even, are the days of giving a gift certificate for addiction treatment; Joey refuses to go to treatment ever again (and has repeatedly walked away or been kicked out in the past).

The last time Joey was in rehab, I collected photos of the people and places Joey loved more than anything in the world (well, until he loved the things that fed his addiction even more). Happy memories, warm memories, I carefully placed them into an album, hoping my gift would touch something deep inside Joey. Hoping to pull him back. But, before I could send my Christmas gift off in the mail, Joey walked away from the addiction treatment program, turning his back, yet again, on the help and the hope and even the order of the court. The album sits on a closet shelf collecting dust.

Sadly, visions of sugar plums are no longer what dance in Joey’s head. On Christmas, he will be far away. My heart cracks a bit just thinking of this. But Rick, my younger son, will be here; we will tear wrapping paper and toss bows and eat too many cookies and watch movies and play games―we will be making new memories, and these gifts of time are the ones that really matter. I don’t get to make new memories with Joey, though. The memories I have of him, of us, are old and dusty like the photo album abandoned on the shelf.

All I want for Christmas is my son back from the addict who stole him, but that’s not a gift I expect to find under the tree this year. Instead, I will wrap myself up in the peace of the season.

My wish is for you to do the same; find the peace of the season.

(And, Joey, if you are reading this, I wish the same for you, too.)

The Joey Song: A Mother’s Story of Her Son’s Addiction  is available in bookstores and libraries.

☼ Loving An Addict On Thanksgiving: A Different Kind Of Stuffing

Joey and his grandpa.

Joey and his grandpa

When my boys were little, they hovered about the kitchen on Thanksgiving morning, eager to get started with stuffing the turkey. We tied on aprons, washed our hands, pushed step stools over to the kitchen counter, and discussed who, exactly, would need to touch the pale and pimply turkey flesh.

Joey dumped bread cubes into a large bowl and Rick stirred in the onions and sage; they took turns scooping stuffing into the hollow center of our holiday bird before we slathered it in oil and popped it in the oven. Our home was full of pleasant aromas and anticipation and things to be thankful for. 

Norman Rockwell picture-perfect.

But things changed once Joey became an addict.

Thanksgiving became a day stuffed with unspoken disappointment, anger and fear rather than too much pie and good cheer. Joey’s brother, dad and I would wait for Joey to show up (or not show up at all), while our turkey and sweet potatoes shriveled away in the oven. Retreating to different parts of the house, we avoided the sad festivities and phony smiles until tradition beckoned us to sit down at the table across from Joey’s very empty place. Thankful, I was not.

It has been seven years now since Joey even pretended he was coming home for Thanksgiving dinner. (I don’t know where he has turkey. Or if he has turkey.)  I’ve had time to adjust to Thanksgiving the way it is and stop wishing for the way it should be, but time hasn’t taken away the hurt — or the hole where Joey should be. I suspect it never will. Instead, over time, I’ve grown stronger. I’m strong enough to face the hurt rather than stuff it away (more often than not), and I’m strong enough to fill the hole with things that make the day better, not worse. That means facing reality, not trying to re-create what can’t be re-created, starting new traditions, and spending quality time with some happy old memories.

This Thanksgiving I will spend the holiday weekend with my youngest son, Rick, and good friends. I’m thankful for that. And I’m thankful that Joey is still alive.

(This is me filling, not stuffing.)

May your Thanksgiving be filled with things to be thankful for, too.

The Joey Song: A Mother’s Story of Her Son’s Addiction  is available in bookstores and libraries.

☼ The Joey Song: A Mother’s Story Of Her Son’s Addiction — An Interview


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.

☼ I Can’t Control My Son’s Addiction Recovery; Let Recovery Begin With Me

Sandy Swenson

Sandy Swenson

“I don’t know when I last woke up happy. I don’t know when the great hollow vacancy began to take up so much space in my emptiness. I don’t know, because I’ve been busy putting one foot in front of the other. But this morning the simple motion of lifting my head off the pillow is too much. Just. Too. Much. All because a rogue ray of sunshine slips through the window blinds and does the cha-cha on my face, taunting me, teasing me, with all its shiny brightness and the promise of a better day. The liar.

“A little ray of sunshine. And suddenly life is impossible. Suddenly my whole family is washing down the drain unless I put the stopper back where it belongs. Because that stopper is the only thing between my grip on Joe’s and Rick’s ankles and our slide down a deep, dark hole.

“If not for Rick’s still-occasional need for me to play a maternal role in his life, I might not be able to do it. But he deserves more from me than I’ve been giving, and so does Joe. Joey’s addiction must not be allowed to chip away at Rick’s last year at home or erode twenty-three years of marriage. Joey’s addiction must not be allowed to destroy our whole family. The poison seeping into our household passes directly through me—sneaking in, I think, on the umbilical connection. Joey may be the one consuming the poison, but the poison is consuming me.

“The spread of this disease must stop.

“Right now.

“With me.

“I will get out of bed. And tomorrow I won’t get back into bed after Rick leaves for school. I will get myself dressed and brush my teeth. I can do this. I can go back to pretending that everything is normal. Even as my child busily gnaws off his own foot. I will put on the dressing of normal life in the same way I shove myself into my jeans—take a deep breath, swallow the pain, and paste on a smile. I’ll smile when I put dinner on the table. I’ll even tuck a smile in my voice when I pass Joey’s new address on to the next debt collector that calls.

“I will re-emerge from the house, step back into the world I’ve been unable to face. A world where people do not, cannot, understand drunken car accidents or intravenous speedballs. A world snug and comfy in the illusion of sweet dreams and happy endings and the power of a mother’s love. A world that believes, because it must, that children do not self-destruct randomly and therefore this mother’s love must be tremendously flawed.

“But, on this, the world would be very wrong.”

 The hardest thing I’ve ever done is to acknowledge that I can’t control my son’s addiction recovery; maybe the most important thing I’ve ever done is to let recovery begin with me.

No more shame, no more silence.

Excerpt from ‘The Joey Song: A Mother’s Story of Her Son’s Addiction’ by Sandra Swenson. Now available in bookstores and libraries.

See Also: Dear Joey: A Love Letter To My Son The Addict