I can never protect him from the real threat — the threat of an addictive brain.
After more than 24 hours of labor, I'm exhausted and barely awake; yet, I recognize the baby screaming from the nursery as my own. I'm a mom. The nurses bring him to me to soothe him. He continues to scream as I try to latch him to my breast.
"You've got a fighter there," the nurses tell me.
And at barely a day old, the fight begins.
He's 14 years old, leaving for school in the morning. I ask, "Why do you have to fight with me all the time?"
"Because you're a f*cking b*tch and I hate you."
I have enough composure for the seconds it takes me to respond, "But I will always love you."
It's not until I close the door that I sit on the floor and cry giant anguished tears.
He's 16 and in an escalating shouting match with his alcoholic father. I physically put my body between them. I stare down his dad's angry fist, all but daring him to hit me.
"You will not hurt my child without getting through me first." They know I will not be the one to back down, and the two soon go their separate ways.
As I watch my son walk away, I realize he has been burdened with the sins of his father.
They are attached to his soul as much as to his DNA.
My son walks like his father. He talks like his father. His angry outbursts scare me in the same way as the angry outbursts of his father.
In moment's of my own anger, I accusingly yell at him: "You're just like your dad! Why would you want to be like that?"
It's a late summer night with a thunderstorm raging outside. This time, I'm the one fighting — fighting to keep breathing as I listen in horror to his confession of addiction.A call from his work supervisor asking me to meet he and my son after his shift is the first sign something is wrong.
"You need to tell your momma what's going on," he says.
I remember very little of what is said after that. I remember wondering: How? How did I not know? What is wrong with me as a mother that I didn't see the signs that this is a problem beyond teenage pot experimentation?
How did we get here?
Where is my baby? Where is my little boy who likes baseball and comic books? Where is my high schooler that failed algebra because he was too busy reading Homer's The Iliad?
I see in his eyes the uncertainty going on inside him. Should he fight me when I say he goes to the hospital or he doesn't come home? Or is he ready to surrender?
He's 19 — almost a man but still very much a child. The nurse leads me in to the family visiting area where my son is waiting for me.
He is at least 5 inches taller than me, but as soon as he sees me, he clings to me as if he were a scared and hurting toddler.
He buries his face in my shoulder and cries. He doesn't let go as the sobs escape him. I'll never let go of him.
As we sit in the waiting area, more confessions come. He's angry. And hurt. And scared.
He asks if I'd like to see his journal, a peace offering of sorts. As I flip through the pages of manic writings and drawings I begin to see a picture emerge of a hurting soul.
His journal entries are sometimes funny and too-often times heartbreaking. I'm taken aback by the detail in his drawings. When did he learn to do this I wonder?
As I sit fascinated by what I'm reading, he sits next to me with arms wrapped around himself, as if protecting him from the demons he's released onto the page.
I'm undecided whether what I'm seeing in this notebook is madness or creative genius.
I feel as if I've been holding my breath for years and only now can I allow myself a huge exhale. Perhaps now we can stop fighting.
His journal entries paint the portrait of a hurt and angry little boy. I just now see how deep his anger is towards his father, a man who, once we got divorced, failed to even utilize the limited visitation schedule he was given.
I understand that anger. I feel it, too. There is also some anger toward me, for what he sees as me not protecting him.
That is a guilt I will take to my grave.
Counselors remind us the past is over and we need to find a healthier way to move forward. In reality, he's beginning an all new fight. A fight against brain synapses that are used to outside chemical stimulation which has resulted in massive mood swings and heavy depression. His brain now needs time to heal and learn to regulate emotions, desires and motivations on its own. A fight to find a new way of living, of coping, of facing his past.
He will continue to fight with me once he moves back into my home and adjusts to rules, schedules and counseling appointments. "I'm getting a job and moving out!"
"So do it!" I yell back on more than one night.
As much as I want him to grow up and become independent, I still want to protect him.
I want to keep him far away from the boogey man, the drug dealers, and the mean people of the world.
But I can't. I can never protect him from the real threat — the threat of an addictive brain. This isn't my battle to fight; it's his.
Through family counseling, I've learned that accusing my son of being just like his father was akin to me saying to my son, "I don't like your father. And I don't like you, either."
Those words only reinforced to my son that he was becoming someone he hated, too. We had to learn a new way of communicating.
At now 20 years old, he is no longer a child. I can't parent him like a child any longer. We are two adults finding our way together in a new world.
Thanks to wonderful counselors and regular 12-step meetings, we both now realize that what lies ahead is a long and difficult road. And the lions share of that work falls to my son.
I will do anything I can to help him, but I will not be a part of anything that will harm him.
My son is healthier now. We are a healthier family. Yet, I'm well aware that with just one phone call, my world can again be changed.
The only thing I can do is continue to love him as only a mother can love a child.