Healing a mother's heart
The hardest part of being a parent is knowing when to let go. For the parents of children struggling with alcohol and drug addiction, it can be excruciating.
"I was knocking down drug dealers' doors to the point where I was scaring myself," says Tsawwassen mother Patricia.
She didn't realize she was obsessed with her son's addiction until she started going to counselling at Tsawwassen's Little House Society. The sessions she attended are called Heart of a Mother, a group therapy method focusing on mothers dealing with children in active addiction.
Patricia's son started smoking marijuana at the age of 11 and by the time she found out two years later, it was already a habit.
"I called one of his friends' parents and asked what was going on," she recalls. "And they said, what's the big deal? It's only marijuana."
When Liz, also from Tsawwassen, found out about her daughter's drug and alcohol addiction, she didn't know what to do. She knew nothing about drugs and didn't have the first idea how to treat it.
Her daughter was kicked out of school at the age of 15 and then out of the house by her father. That was when she tried to commit suicide for the first time.
"She said after that, if I try to commit suicide again I'll do it for real," says Liz, the decades-old memory still painful.
Liz felt her daughter drifting away.
"It was a nightmare. I couldn't let go. She was my little girl."
She killed herself in 1997 at the age of only 19. It was her little brother who found her body, a traumatizing event that caused him to vow he would never take drugs.
But when his father also committed suicide in 2002, he had nowhere left to turn but to drown his sorrows in substance abuse. Depression and anxiety has put the 31-year-old in and out of rehab ever since.
Jim Stimson, president of Little House, says with drugs, alcohol or suicide, there's a domino effect, and any one person can affect a number of people.
Such was the case with Liz. After her daughter committed suicide there were others in Tsawwassen that followed.
"I called us the suicide mothers. They didn't like that," she says.
Patricia says her son and at least 16 other children became addicted to crystal meth within a short time of one another at the age of 15. The symptoms were depression, anxiety, anger and insatiable hunger.
"I did everything wrong and everything right," she says, adding she tried unconditional love and then tough love. But nothing worked.
She had an epiphany one night when her son was 17. She went down to the beach and sat under the stars all night long worrying.
"I got the answer somehow in the morning. I realized he had to take care of himself. I had to let go."
Janine Nowacka, counsellor at Cobble Hill Recovery Centre on Vancouver Island and the facilitator for the Heart of a Mother series, says addiction can be a disease of isolation whereby parents experience a feeling of shame. There's also a stigma attached to mothers who have "allowed" their children to become addicted.
"And that's just not true. So, to have a group of women sitting in the same room connecting and sharing their stories, there's something very therapeutic and cathartic about that."
Nowacka says parents tend to think they can "fix" their children by saying or doing the right thing or showing enough love.
"You didn't cause it, you can't control it, and you can't cure it. And actually by trying to fix, manage and control, you're actually perpetuating this unhealthy dynamic."
Beth and David moved to Ladner when their daughter was in Grade 12. She decided she wanted to party like everybody else. That meant doing drugs.
"Kids will always tell you, well, everybody's doing it," says David.
They received a phone call from the hospital one day that their daughter, 19 at the time, had tried to kill herself.
"When I went to the hospital to see her was when she told us she was doing alcohol and cocaine," says Beth, adding the news was crushing.
"You're desperate," says David. "You go beyond anything you'd ordinarily do," finishes Patricia.
They tried counselling and promises were made. She got into rehab and was in a stable two-year relationship.
Beth grew up in alcoholic family. Going to Heart of a Mother helped her realize how much those experiences affected her.
"A place like Little House, they understand the disease of addiction and they help you with resources," says David.
Jean, from Tsawwassen, joined as a concerned grandmother.
"The idea of Heart of a Mother is to help heal myself because I was drowning and I didn't know which way to turn anymore," she says.
But she doesn't want people to think help is only available to women, adding the word mother more refers to a caregiver than a gender.
"This is where you feel safe. You don't have to explain because everybody's been there."