An Addict’s Love Song to Her Son

By Jowita Bydlowska 12/14/18

He has seen me, his addicted mother, disappear into the night on wobbly ankles, drunken feet; he has seen me fall. "I love you" is my answer, my promise that I will not die.

Mother and son sleep in bed, addicted mother
I have let him go as if I didn’t love him at all, and I’ve left him for a terrible thing—a monster that closes my heart and opens my mouth, and drinks.

Our love for each other is overwhelming, addicting and addictive. The love starts as early as 5 a.m., when I sometimes wake up in pain from my body getting twisted into accommodating his— his long, impossibly thick, long hair and strong knees, and feet that keep on growing. He likes to sleep in my bed and I don’t mind—I know we’ve only a couple more years left before he stops coming to nest himself into that small space, with his dinosaur-printed pillow, and his dinosaur feet wrapping around my legs.

Some mornings he’s holding me so tightly, I don’t move and lie there with my bladder full, smelling his head—I can still get a whiff of the baby that he was only a short time ago. Hello: We will now open our eyes—he always opens his eyes right after I open mine; we’re like a wound-up toy.

The first thing we say when we wake up is “I love you.”

We repeat it a dozen times before we get to school: at breakfast, walking to the bus, on the bus, getting off the bus.

When I drop him off at school, he shouts it—“I love you”—so unabashedly, again, above the heads of boys his age—the cruel age that’s right on the brink of childhood and snarkiness.

He repeats his declarations whenever we are together and he texts me like a stalker boyfriend when I drop him off at his dad’s: I love you. Why don’t you text back. Where are you. I love you mummy. What are you doing. I love you.

In person, he is angry and superior if I don’t reply right away or just volley it back too blatantly absentminded, with my fingers dipped into my iPhone and its drama.

“Mummy. I said I love you.”

“I love you too. I love you so much,” I will often add if I realize that I need to make up for the iPhone.

Does this strike you as excessive and crazy? It is not. It is necessary, it is life-saving, life-affirming. Our words to each other are a spell we cast. So often, when we confirm that we love each other, it feels as if we’ve staved off darkness for another few hours. It seems we are safe: not from having our love unconfirmed and spent, but from losing each other.

We need this assurance.

“I love you” is a question.

“I love you” is my answer, my promise. I promise him me when I say I love him. I promise him a mom. I promise him that I will pick him up from school; that I will feed him; that I will not die.

He has seen me stumbling arm-in-arm with death too many times and I have let him go as if I didn’t love him at all, and I’ve left him for a terrible thing—a monster that closes my heart and opens my mouth, and drinks.

What he has seen was not actual death—I have never overdosed in front of him—but its possibilities: death proxies. He has seen me disappear into the night on wobbly ankles, drunken feet; he has seen me being calmed down by the police; he has seen me fall into the street. An ambulance has been called.

And lately, every time he looks at my right shoulder, he sees the pink burn scar from the road rash. I wish I could just bite off that shoulder—instead, I say “I love you” when I catch him staring at it.

“I will tattoo roses over it once it heals,” I say. Those are the only type of apology flowers I can offer my boy.

Big Feelings and Addiction

I look at my son for signs of addiction: his neediness and his possessiveness—I don’t know if those are signs but I recognize them from my childhood. I think of my old dog that I used to dress in doll clothing and squeeze and kiss and kiss (and kiss) while she’d try to squirm out, her golden-blonde body like too much sunshine trapped and exploding out of my girl arms. She hated being confined. She wanted to run. She was a dog, not a doll. She didn’t feel the same way about me. (They design dogs for people like me now—seemingly catatonic creatures that resemble small purposeless and curious furniture—that you can carry in your purse, dogs that have anxiety bred out of them when it comes to their owners’ affections but that react with fury to small things—small leaves.)

I know that addiction is not about the substance—it is about feelings. It is about the inability to regulate emotions properly. My love song with my son is loud and intense; we are consumed by the bond between us and although it’s a beautiful bond, I know that maybe we should dial it down. But we can’t. What am I supposed to do? Tell him to feel less strongly, less urgently? When I myself cannot model that, when I cannot repress the beauty of that?

My son has always had Big Feelings the way I did as a child. He has always been intense with his friends; he can play in groups but he is possessive of his closest friends, he is a little desperate. He creates deep bonds with his buddies the way I did, and as it was with me, his friendship is a gift of complete loyalty and an invitation to a mind that is creative and capable of creating universes that go beyond any video game. His friends follow him, his games and his rules and he dominates them, and he has a hard time letting them go—he is heartbroken when the play dates are over. I worry that once my son gets to the age when hormones take over, he too, will find the maladaptive kind of coping mechanism that almost destroyed me.

As a first-generation immigrant who had to leave her country behind, unasked, I’m unfortunately familiar with having to let go when I don’t want to.

I’m familiar with the internal destruction of an unexpected event, a strike my feelings go on, demanding explanation.

But what is the point of explanation? There should only be adaptation. But I did not adapt easily. I drank easily.

Any major change in my feelings still always sends a seismic shock through my sobriety—I might not react right away but by the time the shock registers, I’d better be ready to stabilize. In the past I have relapsed instead so I know how precarious the addict’s sanity is. Is my son as sane or as insane as me? Will my son be able to withstand the shocks?

Maybe I shouldn’t be so negative. Exercise helps. Exercise is good way to release your anxiety and he loves soccer. He is obsessive about it. He plays it all the time and he knows all the stats. He has found an outlet for now.

God, let him have his soccer, let him remain passionate about it, about the stats, the games, the intricacies of transfers of Neymar Jr or Ronaldo between different soccer clubs.

Don’t let a girl or a boy break his heart in the way that he will have to reach for a drink or a drug. Don’t let the memory of the horror divorce, my horror drinking, or moving away make him want to numb his sadness in a way that’s not soccer, that’s not innocent.

Don’t let him become like me.

For now we deal the best we can. There is still so much sadness but we have come up with a new strategy: When our “I-love-yous’” are not enough and he feels a bad feeling coming on, he squeezes my hand tight. He reaches for my hand and he clasps it till it hurts both of us. Most of the squeezing has to do with flashbacks of my drinking. Some of it has to do with the divorce.

I hold his hand and feel his grip, feel him not letting go. I squeeze back, unable to let go either.

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Jowita Bydlowska is a copywriter and author living in Toronto. She is the author of Drunk Mom: A Memoir. You can find her on Linkedin.