Mom to Mom: Thanksgiving (when your child is addicted)—Filling Not Stuffing


Mom to Mom: Thanksgiving (when your child is addicted)—Filling Not Stuffing


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.

My oldest son dumped bread cubes into a large bowl and his brother stirred in the onions and sage; they took turns scooping stuffing into the hollow center of our holiday bird before it was slathered in oil and popped 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 my oldest son became addicted.

Thanksgiving became a day stuffed with unspoken disappointment, anger, and fear rather than too much pie and good cheer. His younger brother, dad and I would wait for my son 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 my son’s very empty place. Thankful, I was not.

It has been ten years now since my son 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 he should be. I suspect it never will. Instead, over time, I’ve grown stronger. Over time, I’ve learned a few things that have helped me to get through and even enjoy the holidays again.

1. Make room for your feelings and let go of old expectations.

I’m now strong enough to face the hurt rather than stuff it away (more often than not), and I’m strong enough to fill the holes in my life and my heart 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.

There’s a lot wrapped up in this big day that rolls around one short day a year. A lot of hopeful hopes, fears, disappointments, and stress—when holiday tradition and expectation meet addiction it can be madness. But it’s possible to look at things differently, to do things differently,especially if the whole family is recruited to open their eyes and minds. And when the spirit of things leading up to the big day is giving thanks, that spirit is contagious.

Thanksgiving is meant to be a day for gathering together with loved ones and having fun. So simple—and beautiful—if left simple. A performance, it is not. And living up to unrealistic expectations, I will not.

I no longer spend the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving trying to pretend that everything is fine, that addiction hasn’t consumed my son (and therefore my whole family), and that we can still pull off a pretend-perfect performance.

I no longer stuff down my sadness, putting on the dressing of normal life in the same way I shove myself into my jeans after a big meal—by taking a deep breath, swallowing the pain, and pasting on a smile.

Instead, I plan ahead. I take the time to face my feelings—I take the time to grieve and cry for what was and what isn’t—and then, acknowledging the pitfalls I don’t want to fall into, I figure out ways to make the holiday work. And one of those ways is to ask for help—from friends, family, a therapist or counselor or any of the hundreds of support groups, like Al-Anon, Families Anonymous, or The Addict’s Mom.

2. Celebrate those who are at the table and let go of perfection.

I have Let Go of thinking that I’m the only one who can make the day (any day, actually) perfect, for anyone. Or that I can please everyone. Thanksgiving is made all the better with family participation—which means asking for everyone’s hands and hearts to be in the right place at the right time. Together we can prepare and adapt to the fact that our addicted loved one might not show up (or worse).

But, who is not at the table shouldn’t take up more space than the people who are.

There is no end to the room I have at my table. And in my heart. But both my heart and home have rules. Before the big day, I set my boundaries (and set up escape hatches), knowing that it’s possible that not everyone who shows up is going to behave. I can’t control the actions of anyone else, but what I can control is me (and even that is no easy task.). By facing reality, my actions don’t need to be reactions. My boundaries don’t need to be rough, they just need to be strong.

3. Try something different; open your heart to something new.

When the holiday hurts, maybe it’s time to try something different—something smaller, or bigger, or somewhere new. The meal, the menu, an old family recipe, the way (or the place) that we’ve always celebrated Thanksgiving…. the little traditions mean nothing compared to the meaning of the big tradition itself. There was a time when I would spend weeks shopping and chopping, mixing and rolling, cleaning and decorating, for a meal that, for all of its hype, actually took less than thirty minutes to eat (not counting the time spent talking). But I enjoyed all the creative chaos. Until things changed. And then I didn’t. I felt a bit guilty at first, serving store-bought pie or stuffing from the deli, but the reality is, that isn’t what matters. And no one ever noticed—or if they did, they didn’t care.

4. Share your gratitude and give back.

Who is at the table is more important than what is on the table (or where the table is). In the holiday hubbub, it’s easy to forget what the holiday is really about.

Giving thanks.

So I’ve learned, having grown in my own recovery, to make every effort to live in the moment. To give thanks for the moment. To give thanks for those around me—those people who matter, and who deserve to feel like they matter, no matter what else is going on. I take the time to soak in and appreciate everything I have to be grateful for. Of which there is a lot.

My need to fill the hole that addiction has left in both my heart and life is big. And I’ve found that helping others keeps me moving forward. It may be overwhelming to add one more expectation to a day already laden with so much, but giving thanks by showing thanks doesn’t have to fall on one particular day in the fall. I’ve got 364 other days of the year in which to do what my heart needs to do. It helps me to help kids whose moms, for whatever reason, are unable to do mom stuff for them right now. And maybe someday someone will do the same thing for my son.

5. Accept what is, one day at a time.

Yes, I’m finally strong enough to fill the hole in my life where my son should be with things that make the holiday better, not worse. I’m strong enough to face reality—to accept what is—to start new traditions, and to spend time with some happy old memories; those are mine to keep and enjoy, forever.

Old memories still have the power to bring tears to my eyes, but I’m finally able to treasure my memories for what they are: gifts. I am blessed to have had so many years of such happiness, and not even addiction can take that away. After everything that has happened, I still have my sons’ smiles, the sounds of their voices, and the feel of their hugs, no matter how far away they may be. So, in giving thanks, I take the time to remember what was before embracing, fully, what is. I laugh, I cry. I allow the movies in my mind to fill my soul.

This year I will visit my 91 year old mom in Memory Care, then my dad and I will have our Thanksgiving dinner at the home of friend I grew up with and her parents, people we’ve known for about 55 years. Friends like family–I’m immensely grateful for that.

Many years ago my oldest son sent me this message:

“Happy Thanksgiving, Mom. Hopefully, someday I’ll give you a reason to be thankful for me. I love you. Thank you for still loving me.”

No matter what, I have always been thankful for both of my boys. And I’m thankful for what I have now. And I’m thankful that they both know how much they are loved.

This is me filling, not stuffing.

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


© Sandra Swenson 2015. Author of ‘The Joey Song: A Mother’s Story of Her Son’s Addiction’, ‘Tending Dandelions: Honest Meditations for Mothers with Addicted Children’, and ‘Readings for Moms of Addicts’ App [Hazelden]



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The Dandelion Shop is a curated gallery of Dandelion Designs created in partnership with an array of ETSY artists especially for moms with addicted children.


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3 thoughts on “Mom to Mom: Thanksgiving (when your child is addicted)—Filling Not Stuffing


    I’m reading this blog 2 years after it’s been posted. Its touching and so relevant to my like at this exact moment. My 33 year old son with Bipolar and a long history of meth addiction was released after a 7 year sentence with the MO Department of Corrections on March 23, 2020. Since that day, I’ve been fighting to regain something that resembles my former life. After years of life coaching preparing to renter society, we were confidence he had support and a plan. Within a week of him returning home I was already handling his challenges to make sure he didn’t stumble. My money, time, efforts, were all put to work with managing his “new life.” On week two I was cleaning the bathroom and discovered he return home from prison a heroine addict. I was crouched down getting toilet paper from under the sink when I found a spoon with a brown substance and burnt on the under side. Once I realized what I was holding I dropped it and my heart was beating out of my chest. Anger poured over me and I tore the bathroom and his bedroom apart. He was gone at the time but returned to find me sitting at the kitchen table with the spoon and two dirty syringes.

    Flash forward to November 2020 . He lives in a car that he doesn’t own, a deal he made with his dealer. He is stealing and hustling to make drug money. He’s racking up court dates and fails to appear and now has warrants. He roams the known drug area in the city an hour from my home. He was high yesterday when he met me at his appointment for social security. (TBI, Bipolar, and deaf on one ear) He nodded out twice during the interview.

    The realization that I will be saddled with this mentally ill addict the rest of my life has caused me to derail in my personal and professional life. I resent my ex-husband that wiped his hand of him 15 years ago. I have worn out my girlfriends with unbelievable tales of his addiction. I have become flakey with holding back the extra drama from everyone. Or not sharing what crises I handled today. Because it’s embarrassing to acknowledge my enabling. .

    So I got help before he stole any more of my mental stability. I’m in therapy and learning how to deal with guilt, fear, anxiety, anger, grief, and all the other in between emotions. Being the mother of an addict isn’t for sassies. I’m still currently broken but I’m coping with a plan.

    So the plan is this holidays is not going to be shadowed with anxiety of whether he will attend Thanksgiving or not. I have told my significant other (Jim) and my other son that we are not going to be held hostage on Thanksgiving. It’s a day of giving thanks and we will do just that. I will of course wonder if he is ok and will he have a thanksgiving dinner somewhere. But I will be present and there for the rest of my family.

    Rural Missouri

  2. Catherine Lyon

    My dear Sandy, I have not been here in a long while …It’s Cat of “Recovery Starts Here” and your tweet pal @LUV_Recovery ~ Catherine Lyon. I came to say this post is so touching and uplifting as I read from my newsletter you sent out. I hope you don’t mind if I share it on my recovery blog and of course, link back and credit to you! No one writes like you, not EVEN ME! LOL… And the message is so deep feeling.

    I hope you and your family have a Blessed and very Happy Thanksgiving Day xoxo … Ours is always quiet and a bonus, I don’t have to cook. Hubby’s sisters are at the house! Hope all has been well your way. Can not believe the Holidays are already! Lol. Cat

  3. Marie Mello

    These words are real. The heartache Lives in the background of my courage, has taken over a piece of my heart and in the quiet darkness of night it craddlrs me as I weep. For all that recovery is and the enormous feeling of gratitude for my child’s life; the scar of addiction runs deep and continues to bleed even when healed. So Thankful for your wisdom and how it gives me strength. Blessings to you and all those you touch.


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