I sat in the back row of the courtroom as the officer read the charges brought against Kyle, my oldest son. The alcohol Kyle reportedly consumed before he drove could have stocked an executive's mini-bar. The judge looked at me and said, "Your son is an alcoholic."
This wasn't my first courtroom experience with Kyle or the first judge who had spoken those words. I fought back tears, desperately wanting to help my son but feeling powerless to do so. What did I do wrong? Could I have prevented this? How did I fail as a parent? Unlike the jail Kyle frequently was incarcerated in, mine was not made of iron bars and concrete walls. My prison was in my mind. Guilt, fear, and shame kept me captive in a dungeon of despair.
My life had not always been out of control. God blessed my husband, Steve, and me with four healthy sons. Our greatest desire was to raise our children to love and follow the Lord. We faithfully attended church and asked God to give us wisdom as parents. As former teachers, we decided to homeschool our boys, hoping to give them a strong Christian foundation and the wisdom to resist the temptations that deceive young people today.
However, when Kyle was seventeen, we realized our plans had failed. The phone rang in the middle of the night and my heart stopped. It was the police! Kyle had been drinking at a friend's party and had been arrested for possession of marijuana.
We went to the jail, bailed Kyle out, and hired a lawyer. The judge sentenced him to 250 hours of community service, which he had to complete within five months. Unable to accept the seriousness of Kyle's situation, I minimized the problem. It's only an adolescent stage, I told myself. We treated the party as an isolated incident and hoped our son had learned a lesson.
Kyle finished his community service and headed overseas for a six-month performing arts program. However, what seemed like a great step for his acting career only accelerated his addictive behavior. He stayed in youth hostels where alcohol was the beverage of choice. Drinking became his way to make friends and influence people. Days and nights melted into a never-ending party.
When he returned to the U.S., the party ended. Living in a small town, he was soon labeled a troublemaker by the local police. Kyle was a misdemeanor magnet. He got arrested for shoplifting, disorderly conduct, underage drinking, giving alcohol to a minor, fleeing arrest … the list went on. He would hardly finish with one probation officer before he would get a new one. He was frequently in and out of jail. We knew the bondsmen on a first-name basis.
Steve and I wanted to help Kyle but we didn't know what to do. I had never used alcohol or drugs and did not understand his problem. Steve had been raised by an alcoholic father and spent his teen years drinking and getting in trouble with the law. When he was in college, my husband had accepted the Lord as his Savior at a Billy Graham crusade. Kyle used his father's dramatic testimony as an excuse for his own behavior. "I'm just like Dad, and he turned out all right."
Kyle wasn't the only one who made excuses. Steve and I thought if our son had a better job, different friends, or a more understanding youth leader, Kyle could get his life back on track. We took his side in conflicts at work, school, and church and made up reasons for his absences.
Finally, our family moved to another state. We hoped getting Kyle away from his old environment might give him a fresh start. For a while, this seemed to help. His drinking became more manageable and he wasn't on the policemen's "list."
Then Kyle moved in with some friends who drank and the old patterns returned. I once again found myself in the courtroom. Terrified, I listened as the judge told Kyle he should serve a lengthy prison term. I wanted to scream, "No!" but I knew my outburst would only make matters worse. The Lord heard my silent cry. Instead of jail, the judge ordered Kyle to attend 90 consecutive days of Alcoholics Anonymous, participate in a drug and alcohol outpatient program, complete 100 hours of community service, attend a victim impact panel at MADD, do five months of probation, and pay a large fine. Where I had been unable to let Kyle face the consequences of his behavior, the judge stepped in. God worked a miracle in that courtroom.
Kyle began going to AA and realized he had the desire to stop drinking. He decided to move back home. I called my aunt, a recovered alcoholic, who has been active in the program for 27 years. She suggested I let Kyle's AA sponsor and group mentor Kyle. If I tried to help him, she explained, the program wouldn't be as effective. This seemed strange to me. I felt I should be the one responsible for my son's recovery. After all, I was Kyle's mother!
Soon I realized she was right. After Kyle finished the mandatory 90 days and met all the judge's requirements, he continued attending AA. I decided to study everything I could about the program. We went to a "Came to Believe" retreat together, and my perspective on alcoholism and "Kyle's problem" did an about-face. I had gone to find out what I could do to help my son and learned I was the one who needed help.
My small-group leader introduced me to Al-Anon, a support fellowship for families of alcoholics. I met other parents and discovered I wasn't alone in my feelings of guilt and shame. Not only did I find fellowship; I also found hope that our family would weather the storms of addiction. I felt like a castaway on a deserted island who suddenly discovers there are other inhabitants. The best part was they knew how to get off the island!
Through AA and Al-Anon, I learned that alcoholism is a progressive disease. The only successful method of stopping this illness is total abstinence. For alcoholics, the first step is admitting they are powerless over alcohol. This is a decision only the alcoholic can make. No one can make that decision for them. For me, my first step was to accept that I was powerless over the alcoholic. I discovered an inner peace when I realized I didn't cause my son's addiction and I couldn't control or cure it.
When I stopped trying to control Kyle, the fog lifted and I could see my family again. I realized the time and energy I had spent taking care of Kyle had been at the expense of the other members of my family. I had become physically and emotionally drained and could not meet the needs of my husband or deal with the less-threatening issues my younger sons faced. As I showed renewed interest in their lives, tension dissolved and we began to function as a family again.
My compassion for Kyle grew when I understood he was battling a disease. I had previously wondered why he didn't quit drinking when I told him to. That would have been like telling a cancer patient or diabetic to "get over it." He had no more control over alcohol than other patients have over tumors or insulin. Sometimes people I loved and respected were critical of our family's situation. I felt hurt and isolated until I realized they had not been exposed to alcoholism and couldn't comprehend what we were going through. I learned to appreciate the friendships I made at Al Anon and not to be judgmental of the people who didn't understand.
Often, it is hard to imagine what our children face when they give up alcohol. One mother decided to eliminate sugar from her diet when her son stopped drinking. She said it helped her understand the constant temptations that bombarded her son (media, friends, and old habits) and helped her remember to pray for him whenever she was tempted to eat a desert at a potluck dinner or sweets at the office.
As a parent of an alcoholic child, I've struggled with finding a balance between my responsibility and the responsibility I must give my child. Previously, I had tried to protect Kyle from the consequences of his drinking, but this had only further diminished his self-esteem. Every time I rescued Kyle, I was enabling him to avoid responsibility and keep drinking.
Now I set realistic boundaries for all of my sons. They respect me more when I am able to lovingly say, "These are the rules. If you break them, these are the consequences."
As I give Kyle freedom to make his own choices, I have to let go of my fear that he may drink again. Daily, I need to remind myself that Kyle is God's child and God loves my son more than I can comprehend. I am learning to practice detachment with love as I prayerfully entrust Kyle into Christ's care.
Through this journey, I'm discovering how to love myself and Kyle unconditionally. My peace is not based on my feelings or Kyle's sobriety, but on God's grace and sovereignty. Kyle has been sober for six months, and I thank God for each day. But just as I can't blame myself for my son's illness, I can't take credit for his sobriety. God alone has the power to give the alcoholic the strength to stop drinking.
In Acts 12, the Bible talks about Peter's miraculous escape from prison. The angel of the Lord appeared and woke Peter, and the chains fell off his wrists. Peter followed the angel past the guards and sentries and walked out the prison door. He was free!
Each day, I am learning more about the freedom only Christ can give. As I turn my doubts and fears over to God, he unlocks my chains of despair. I'm no longer a prisoner of guilt and shame. Like Peter, I am free.
Kyle and I found strength and encouragement through the experiences of others. It is our prayer that if you or your loved one struggles with alcohol, you will know you are not alone. There is help and hope. AA and Al-Anon offer the Twelve Steps program. Many churches provide support groups for families who have loved ones struggling with addictions. The psalmist writes, "Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God. He upholds the cause of the oppressed … The Lord sets prisoners free" (Psalm 146:5-7, NIV). We cannot free ourselves. Only God has the key.
*The names in this article have been changed.
Karen Meddows is a pseudonym.