“Told with warmth and wit, ‘The Joey Song’ may jolt you; it may bring you to tears, and it may shatter every assumption you ever made about the family of an addict. No blame or shame from others can surpass the suffering an addict can inflict on the ones who love him best. Yet author and mother Sandra Swenson discovers life lessons she needed to learn in the experience no mother should ever have to endure. Endure it she does, and not only that, she survives to tell this tale, which has already helped thousands of others.”
Interview with Lisa Frederiksen Breakingthecycles.com. Posted on June 12, 2014
By the age of twenty, Joey has OD’d, attempted suicide, quit college, survived a near-fatal car accident, done time behind bars, and been kicked out of rehab—more than once. The Joey Song,written by Joey’s mother, Sandra Swenson, tells the heartbreaking, frustrating, too-familiar story of a defiant, delusional addict and the mother who won’t give up on him, until finally it hurts more to hang on than to let go.
Sandra Swenson shares her story in “The Joey Song,” to be released September 9, 2014.
This is a mother’s story of her son’s addiction – a voice from the family side of this family disease – a voice we often don’t hear because of the secrecy and shame that surrounds the disease and the perception that to tell one’s story as a family member is to break the anonymity of the person with the disease. Not only that, the the societal perception is that you fix the person with the disease of addiction and you fix everyone else. Both perceptions are incorrect, and it is my great pleasure to share this interview with Sandra Swenson, for as she writes, ”The perception of addiction will change with our words, our stories.”
Why did you write this book?
In writing The Joey Song, I was writing the book I had been looking for when I started on this journey (and the book I had wished everyone who loved my addicted son and me could have picked up and read, too). I had wanted to read something that was brutally honest, yet full of love and inspiration. Something that would leave me feeling more understood and less alone. I hope this is that book. Most stories written about addiction end in recovery or, sadly, death, but for too many of us, there is no closure. Written from the place where love and addiction meet, The Joey Song is the story of a disease that breaks bonds and hearts and all the rules—a misunderstood tragedy too often hushed up. It is an imperfect journey, full of thoughts and feelings and truths rarely talked about, laying bare emotions universal to all parents, all mothers, even to those who don’t know the pain of loving an addict. It is the journey to “Letting Go” while learning to survive a child’s addiction and 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. The perception of addiction will change with our words, our stories. And so, I write. No more shame, no more silence.
You share how Joey’s early use moved onto abuse and then addiction and how confusing that progression was for you because the son you love and know is there, but comes and goes. In hindsight, what would you encourage other parents who find their child abusing a substance do if they suspect there’s a problem?
Trust your instincts. If you think there is a problem, there probably is. Talking about drinking and drugs and addiction with your child from an early age and keeping an eye on your child’s friendships and activities are very important tools in keeping substance abuse at bay, but this isn’t enough. The reality is, our children are exposed to so much — ‘just saying no’ isn’t easy, we can’t watch over their every move as they navigate the path to adulthood, and experimentation can lead to addiction in anyone who walks through the door our culture holds enticingly wide open — so parents need to be prepared to do more.
It took Joey’s dad and I a few years to understand that Joey was displaying troubled, not teenaged, behavior. By the time we figured out Joey was an addict he was eighteen. If it’s hard to make a teen do something they don’t want to do, it’s nearly impossible once the teen becomes an adult. In the courts and in the hospitals, our influence was severely restricted.
Take action. So, if you suspect your child is abusing drugs or alcohol, don’t second-guess yourself. You know your child best. Don’t listen to those who say you are over-reacting (we heard that from almost everyone, including our beloved addict himself). Taking action is more loving than taking none — even if you turn out to be wrong — and even if your child hates you for doing it. Find an addiction counselor (keep looking until you find a good one) and take the suspected abuse seriously while you still have a chance. What happens in someone else’s life is really never in your control, but until a child is eighteen, you can try to steer the outcome in the right direction while sending a strong message of love.
You talk about Joey’s brother, Rick. What do you suggest parents do to help the siblings when so much of the focus is on the brother or sister who is in trouble as a result of their drug or alcohol use?
I do include Joey’s younger brother, Rick, in the book, but only peripherally. Sadly, that reflects the reality of the time; I was consumed with Joey and his addiction. I wish I could say I had done some things right on Rick’s behalf over the years of dealing with Joey’s crises, and I wish I could make some suggestions that I had actually put into practice. Instead, all I can say is that Rick was abandoned many-a-time, and that the ghost of Joey’s mistakes hovered over everything Rick did (and didn’t do) – and so did his dad and I, skittish and fearful and trying to learn from our own mistakes. Growing up could not have been easy for Rick, but he is strong and stable, forgiving and loyal, in spite of everything. Rick is a fine young man, walking his own fine path. Only he can take the credit.
The one thing we might have done right in our imperfect parenting was to be open and honest with Rick about everything. We kept no secrets. We fully explained his brother’s troubles as they arose. We told Rick that the love we had for our two sons felt the same although it may not have looked the same. And we always reassured him that his time would come again.
You talk about how you finally got it – there was nothing you could do to make Joey stop. Do you have any suggestions for parents to help them get to that place / understanding sooner?
I believe that in order to understand and accept this reality — that we cannot stop our children from being addicts — we, as parents, need to live and learn some hard lessons that no amount of reading or listening to can convince us of in advance, and so getting to Letting Go is going to be a painful journey, no matter what. However, if parents are already aware of and open to certain concepts, I do believe the journey to Letting Go (with love) can be shortened.
Some things to think about:
- Is what you consider to be ‘help’ actually hurting? Who are your actions truly serving?
- Do your actions honor the child? Or have you been duped into supporting the addict wearing your child’s face?
- Is it really possible to make someone do something they don’t want to do? Become something they don’t want to be?
- Is it possible for one person to go through the motions that will rid another person of their disease?
For too many years I struggled to recognize the difference between helping and enabling. 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. It was only once I realized I was helping to kill the son I was trying to save that I was able to bear the toughest love of all.
There was a time when I was tricked and manipulated and hated into helping (loving) the addict, but my love is no longer confused by delusion. 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 is the one I want to see live beyond tomorrow. 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. For many years now, the only thing I’ve been able to do for Joey is love him. The addict may hate me for this, but I know that my son doesn’t. And my son is the one who matters.
Sometimes love means doing nothing rather than doing something. But, Letting Go is not the same thing as giving up.
These realizations changed everything. I wish I could have come to them sooner.
What do you think are the top misconceptions about addiction most people have that keep those struggling with it and their family members so isolated, afraid to tell anyone or to openly seek help?
Misconceptions about addiction are so pervasive it’s no wonder that those struggling with addiction — and their families — suffer in silence, solitude, and shame.
Even though our society encourages substance abuse at every turn, when someone becomes an addict (often beginning in the teen years), society quickly treats him or her as a vile human being.
In general, people seem to use the term ‘addict’ for anyone who uses drugs, so they make a moral judgment. They don’t seem to understand there is a difference between drug abuse and addiction — that addiction is the place where dalliance ends and disease begins. People seem to view the addict as someone who behaves in a horrible way by choice and therefore is a bad person not an ill person. As a child – a child – substance abuse was a choice Joey made. But, why he started and why he can’t stop are two different things. Addiction snuck up on my son – picked him out of the substance-abusing crowd – and choked him. Substance abuse is a choice. Addiction is a disease.
Also, addiction is often viewed as a parental failing. People don’t seem to understand that I did not cause my son to become an addict. (As a parent, I do not possess that power.) They don’t seem to understand that addiction happens because a renegade sip or snort or sniff crosses an invisible line between want and need. True, I am an imperfect mom. Imperfect parenting, however, does not cause children to become addicts. (If that were so, every child would grow up to be one.) As a parent I made a lot of mistakes, but causing my son to be an addict is not one of them.
There is a widely held belief that only ‘bad’ people become addicts. The truth is that addiction can happen to anyone who takes the first sip or puff or snort or pill prescribed for pain. Even though my son has done some bad things while being an addict, my son is not a bad person. Addiction has nothing whatsoever to do with whether a person is (or was) nice.
Because addiction is so misunderstood, it is viewed as dirty laundry not to be aired. But I believe the truths about addiction need to be brought out into the open. (It is, after all, in dark corners that bad things grow most freely.) We need to think about, talk about, addiction as a disease, not a disgrace.
Tell us what you did to help yourself and what you suggest other parents do to help themselves so they can better help their child – especially those new to this journey?
I was just a regular mom, stumbling through parenthood like everyone else. Then I had to figure out how to be the mom of an addict. I had to figure out how to love my child without helping to hurt him, how to grieve the loss of my child who’s still alive without dying, and how to trade shame and blame for strength. To be the mom of an addict is to be an ambassador of truth and understanding.
“I am the mom of an addict.” Once I was strong enough to say those words aloud without shame or censor, I was strong enough to face down the addict who was killing my son. But, I didn’t get to that point on my own. I read books, I went to Al Anon, I went to family support groups, and I joined addiction support groups online. Most importantly, I (eventually) listened and actually did what so many before me had figured out worked best, even when it wasn’t easy (just as I expected my son to do in his own recovery).
I learned that in order to keep addiction from destroying our whole family I had to take care of myself. This is neither optional nor selfish.
I have the power to change the way I react to the disease of addiction. For too many years, I was trying to change something that wasn’t mine to change: Joey. The truth is, the only thing I can change is me.
Addiction is horrible enough without me making it worse, so I’m done with that. There will be no more ripping apart of hearts and lives ? not by my actions (or my neglect). Not by my words, thrown around like poison darts. I will not blame or argue. I will not get sucked into dramas or force issues that don’t belong to me. I will protect my boundaries, making room in my head for all the people I love. I will be calm not crazed. I will be positive. I will have reasonable expectations. I will change the tune and change the dance; I will change my family’s chance. 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.
As parents of addicts, we all feel alone, in a large part, because we are hiding. The truth is, there are a lot of us out there. In talking about addiction, we can find others walking the same path, educate the people who aren’t, and find — and give– support.
Attend a support group specifically for parents of addicts (which is totally different than groups for spouses or children of addicts).
Ask family and friends to educate themselves on addiction; steer them in the direction of some good books. If necessary, separate from those who cannot or will not be supportive. Just battling the disease is hard enough.
There’s no shame in being honest. Shatter the stigma. You have nothing to be ashamed about, and, if anyone is critical of your discussion of this disease, they do.
What top three take-aways do you hope readers have when they finish reading your book?
You are not alone.
Addiction is a disease, but not even the professionals have it all figured out yet — and they aren’t trying to figure it out while in a blind panic, running through the fires of hell with fears and dreams and parental instincts tripping them up. So, we, as parents, shouldn’t feel like total failures (even though we often we do). Our children, for the most part, became addicts in their teens, lured to drugs and alcohol by a culture that glorifies substance abuse — the same culture that later, so ignorantly and harshly, passes judgement. We are judged for helping or fixing or pushing (or not helping or fixing or pushing enough) our sick children who won’t be helped or fixed or pushed. We are judged for over-reacting and under-reacting, enabling and letting go, and, most hurtful of all, as parents whose love must be somehow flawed. Talk about addiction; shatter the stigma.
Addiction is a tragic disease not a disgrace.
Only the addict can do what it takes to survive. You can’t fix it for him. Just love him.
Sometimes love means doing nothing rather than doing something, and Letting Go is not the same thing as giving up.
Recovery can happen within the family even if it does not happen with the addict.
Thank you so much, Sandra, for sharing your story and this interview.
The Joey Song: A Mother’s Story of Her Son’s Addiction is available in bookstores and libraries.