The other day one of T’s relatives wrote to me and said “It’s so great he went to treatment. The hard part is behind him now.” Uh, not at all! I thought. The hard part is coming back to all of us and maintaining his self-determination! The hard part is continuing to live truthfully, hanging on to the wisdom that’s inside him in the midst of other people's denial.
I had the chance to experience a little bit of the pressure of other people's denial this spring when I was starting treatment for thyroid cancer. When I had surgery to remove my cancerous thyroid, people kept saying “It’s great that it’s all over now,” and “I’m so glad it’s taken care of.” Even when I explained that surgery was only a first step, and it might be several months or even years of ongoing treatment before I could finally be declared cancer-free and manage the side effects of treatment, it didn’t matter. They wanted to think that the hard part was past, and so they did. I suppose ambiguity and mortality make us uncomfortable. As a result, after the initial drama of surgery, I felt somewhat alone. I didn’t want pity or angst - I've adjusted to living with the disease and its treatment. I just wanted to be able to tell the truth about it.
I see a similar thing in T’s situation. The people in his life who believe the hard part is behind him now are well-meaning, but they are not well placed to be helpful. This is only the first step for him. It may not even be the hardest step. He may face his darkest hour sometime later. He has acknowledged--even wholeheartedly embraced, at the moment—that addiction is a problem for him. But living through life's inevitable difficulties and losses without the anesthetic he learned to rely on so early in his life is going to be really hard. He has a terrible time managing stress. He is not able to sooth himself effectively, no doubt because he was not soothed in his early development. Ordinary daily conflicts and problems hit him with an unfiltered force and confusion. There's no easy fix for that - it's a life project. It's not fair that he has to work so hard, but he does, and he needs friends and family to back him up and stand by him.
His treatment program is a wonderful respite for the moment. I feel like they are a strong eggshell protecting the soft yolk of his newly sober self. For the first few weeks, he was so proud of himself for being able to abstain from drugs that he felt like it was going to be a cakewalk. Then it got hard - he got into some conflicts with other kids, he lost his temper with an administrator, he refused to cooperate with some of the coursework. He demanded to come home, and raged at them, displaying the common stress-driven behavior that plagues him at school. But of course, they know what to do. They sat with him, calmed him, reminded him that he's there to work on this behavior and if he doesn't do it there, he's going to end up working on it in a less favorable environment. They didn't shame him or threaten him. And so of course he calmed himself down, and even proposed in the end that they enroll him in an anger management class. Such initiative!
He continues to be so emotive and alive. He writes the most beautiful letters - the one today said "I can honestly say you are the best parents I ever had and I never had real parents who were there for me me the way you guys are." I am so happy that he understands that in being apart right now, we are there for him more than ever. I am as proud of him as one could ever be.