Jill Swenson: So, did your dad tell my dad, or did my dad tell your dad? After 35 years, how is it that we rediscovered one another and decided to work toward preparing your manuscript and a proposal for submission to acquisition editors one year ago?
Sandy Swenson: I’m not sure which uncle brought up which cousin first, but I think it happened over brunch in Minnesota as our dads shared family news. You had started Swenson Book Development in New York and I had recently completed my memoir down in Maryland. This coincidental discovery led to a flurry of excited phone calls and a wonderful reunion and collaboration.
Jill Swenson: Your working title of your book is “The Joey Song.” It’s about your son Joey. What is the song and what made it Joey’s?
Sandy Swenson: When Joey was a toddler, I would sing to him the only song I knew all the words to: I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart, down in my heart…. He called it the Joey song. Well, my son is now all grown up, and he is an addict. I like to think Joey remembers that song and knows he is down in my heart to stay, no matter what.
Jill Swenson: Your book is about the heartbreaking place where love and addiction meet. Where is this place you live with your son’s addictions compared to where you began this journey with Joey almost a decade ago?
Sandy Swenson: The life of loving an addicted child is hard to explain. It’s like grieving my son’s death and fighting for his life at the same time. All the while hated, helpless, and alone. Hope and belief don’t dare come out to play. It’s a one-way street of trust and open arms. Empty words, broken promises, shattered dreams, and tarnished memories. It’s watching a ship slowly capsize in a storm, and then waiting anxiously for it to right itself. It is nudging the baby bird out of the nest only to discover it can’t fly. Addiction turns parenting upside down; it becomes a place where ‘helping’ harms and hope hurts. It took a lot of heartache and mistakes for me to recognize the difference between helping and enabling. I learned to love my son enough to bear the toughest love of all; I learned to Let Go. Determined to stop the destruction of addiction, I try to put joy where Joey should be.
Jill Swenson: What do you mean by the phrase “Let Go”?
Sandy Swenson: It’s been a long, painful journey coming to the realization that sometimes love means doing nothing rather than doing something, and Letting Go is not the same thing as giving up. Only Joey can do what it takes to survive. Only Joey can do it or Joey will die.
Jill Swenson: In the typical addiction memoir, the addict either gets sober or dies. Your story is unique in that the addict does not recover. Your narrative arc follows the structure of a symphony. You have a Prelude. There are movements instead of sections and verses instead of chapters. Describe how you structured and tightened this narrative arc as you revised your manuscript. The outcome of Joey’s story is unknown, even today. How did you find the right ending to this story of heartbreak?
Sandy Swenson: I was able to pen an end to my story only once I discovered where Joey ends and I begin. When I started writing The Joey Song I expected it to end differently than it does. The dissolution of that expectation changed the trajectory of my story; it changed everything. In revising my manuscript, The Joey Song became the story of one mother’s struggle to survive her son’s addiction—even if he does not. The Joey Song is a tragic symphony of destruction and loss and burgeoning strength. More than a title or a long-ago song, The Joey Song is a call to action: love the addict while hating the addiction.
Jill Swenson: Only one of your two sons is an addict. Tell us about your other son. Is he in the book?
Sandy Swenson: I am so proud, relieved, and thankful for Rick. He is a college graduate, hard worker, devoted, funny, and solid. He always does the right thing. Maybe he learned to avoid trouble by watching his brother. Or maybe it’s just who he was going to be no matter what. Rick is in the book, but only peripherally. Sadly, that reflects the reality of the time; I was consumed with Joey and his addiction.
Jill Swenson: Kathleen Wheaton featured you in her story, “Letting Joey Go,” in the March/April issue of Bethesda Magazine. You helped establish an innovative program called the Bistro Boyz in Bethesda. Tell us about the work of the Junior Women’s Club of Chevy Chase and your Bistro Galz.
Sandy Swenson: In partnership with the National Center for Children and Families (NCCF) in Bethesda and the Junior Woman’s Club of Chevy Chase (JWCCC), I created the Bistro BoyZ program benefiting the young men in their Greentree Adolescent Program. Displaced from their own families and neighborhoods, these teens pass through our own backyard on the way to their future. We can make a difference in the steps they take next by reaching out to them while they are here. For whatever reason, the mothers of these young men aren’t able to do mom stuff for them right now. But I can. And maybe someday someone will do the same thing for Joey. JWCCC Bistro GalZ go on weekly grocery-shopping trips in small groups with the BoyZ (ages 13-20) — followed by a trip to McDonalds — in addition to another evening each week spent cooking, planning our next menu, budgeting, and sharing the meal we prepared together. Every Friday, Baking Buddies deliver goodies for the BoyZ to enjoy over the weekend. To support the Bistro BoyZ programs, the JWCCC published Pie In The Sky, a cookbook full of yummy recipes contributed by local restaurants, businesses, D.C. area luminaries, and JWCCC members. For those young men interested in pursuing culinary arts as a career, The BenefactorZ for Bistro BoyZ Scholarship Fund was recently launched. And for the Boyz moving on to independent living we provide boxes full of kitchen supplies like pots and dish soap and spices and a George Foreman grill. Something to get them started. Something to remind them of a happy day in the kitchen. Something to remind them they matter.
Jill Swenson: When you publish a book your writing and ideas undergo critical review, but when you publish a memoir, your entire life is under review. Why did you decide to make your personal circumstances public?
Sandy Swenson: My story is full of personal imperfection. I made so many mistakes in trying to fix Joey’s addiction and the destruction it wrought. But that imperfect journey is exactly what needs to be brought out into the open. Too many people suffer in their imperfection all alone. 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. 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. Like Joey, I have choices. And I choose life. I’m a whole lot stronger than I was when Joey’s addiction began and my world started falling apart. And, I’m much more aware. Telling my story may bring my life and imperfections up for critical review, but nobody can give them a harsher review than I already have. And still do.
Jill Swenson: You recently built your own website with WordPress and I am awed by how quickly you did it, how beautiful it looks, and how well it works. Your tagline for SandySwenson.com is Find Joy On Your Journey. What can readers expect from your site?
Sandy Swenson: I hope it will be a place to find some comfort and understanding. A sense of compassion and community. Of strength. Of purpose. And a reminder to find joy, no matter what.