Meet Voices InCourage community member Jeannie.
Jeannie teaches us an important lesson: “Our Secrets Keep Us Sick.”
In this conversation with KL Wells, Jeannie explains the importance of being your authentic self during difficult times and not “stuffing your feelings”. She also touches on one of Voices InCourage’s pillars in the “Five Acts of Courage,” which is “feeling your emotions.” Watching our loved ones go through tough times and experiences can be life-altering and unexpected.
Taking care of ourselves is a crucial part of recovery for everyone- including family members.
Jeannie reminds us of another “Act of Courage” – the importance of “prioritizing self-care.” Jeannie speaks of being intentional with her steps during what could be a difficult moment – visiting her son while in prison. These crucial and purposeful steps allowed her to be present at the moment.
Tune in to learn how Jeannie turned what could have been a challenging moment into a meaningful and joyful experience.
Watch the episode here
Listen to the podcast here
Our Secrets Keep Us Sick
We are with Jeannie Erickson, a mom dealing with a son in addiction, similar to my story. I was curious to talk to Jeannie to find out from her perspective what has the journey been for her. What has she learned lesson-wise and are there any resources she can share with our audience? Jeannie, I’m going to turn it over to you and ask you to share your journey with your son and start there.
Thank you, Kathy. My journey with my son started when he was about fourteen. We are a divorced family and I don’t know if that has any bearing. I have seen people with whole families have everything and still fall prey to addiction. Thomas started smoking marijuana and it was very casual. I knew he started sneaking things around the house as far as not being truthful and doing activities that I wasn’t aware of and was typically combating when I would address it with him.
Fast forward. He was in sports. He was very bright in school. He was doing well at wrestling and football in high school. In his senior year, as far as consequences, they did a camp for the seniors that looked promising for scholarships, so they did a football camp. He decided that it was okay to smoke marijuana in the dorm on campus. In the middle of the night was the first call that I got on this journey, saying, “You need to come get your son. This is absolutely forbidden. This is non-negotiable.”
He got kicked off the team. He got kicked back by the wrestling team. He was eliminated from any opportunity for scholarships. That was painful more for him than for me because those two were his passion. It didn’t stop him from getting a good education. He went off to Oregon State. He got a degree. He was a college guy sampling the adventures of life, living in a house with nine other young men.
I’m sure there were all kinds of great opportunities to try and sample different things. Once he got out of college, his journey, he’s such a great young person that he continued to be dishonest with his addiction. His drug of choice that I knew of was primarily marijuana. He married the love of his life. That was not an option for her. He swore that he wasn’t smoking pot. She set a line in the sand and she divorced him. She left him.
That was his second loss and it was very sad. It hurt my heart because I knew that was an important relationship. From there, he got a Science degree and was quite a great negotiator with people. He was very extraordinary as far as warm, inviting, and very technical. He could understand and relate to all different walks of people and it opened doors for him. He worked for some prominent companies. I won’t name names, but he was in supervisory positions and they relocated him up to Washington.
The stories continued. He lost his job because of a fight. The gal that he was with at the time called and said, “He lost his job because of drugs.” He chose to continue living in Washington, and so the distance made it not as many opportunities to see him on a regular basis. The first time that we went up to see him, he was in a new relationship. He was in his mid to late-twenties. He met a gal. They were living in a house and he had converted the garage and one of the bedrooms to growing marijuana at home. He swore it was a great best business practice. He was going to earn all this money, pay off his debts, and get out of the business.There's nothing wrong with picking up the phone and calling somebody. But if that person's busy to pick up the phone, call somebody else. That's the beauty of being in a relationship with others. Click To Tweet
I thought, “Okay.” Doe to my boundaries and my beliefs, I told him that if we were to visit anymore, we wouldn’t be staying in this house because he didn’t tell me about that. I have some of my own values and it doesn’t allow me to be living or around that type of environment. I put my boundaries around that. As far as loss, I knew he started sampling other types of hard drugs, from methamphetamines to heroin to anything he could get his hands on. The stories that started to happen were just like out of a movie. It was so unbelievable to me. It was like they were doing a delivery and some guy jumped him and they stabbed his partner and stole their money.
The gal that he was with got pregnant and he thought it was his baby. He went away for a family event, came back, she was gone, the money was gone, and she said the baby was not his. He ended up going to jail for that because he got pretty combative. After that, he got different menial jobs and he’d always put on the front with his mom on the phone. “I’m fine. Everything’s great. I’m living by myself.”
The phone calls got farther and fewer between. In December, we usually travel and he called to wish me a happy holiday, and something was drastically different. I don’t know if all moms feel that way, but when they speak to their child over the phone, their instinctive self says, “Something’s wrong.” He put on a good front. “I’m fine. I have got a good job. Everything is okay.”
At that point, I told my husband, “When we get home, I’m going to Washington. Something’s wrong with my son.” I got back to Eugene. I made arrangements with my employer. The next morning, my husband, myself and our daughter drove to Washington unannounced. I found our son so out of his mind and high. He was hallucinating about everything. He had been evicted from his place. He was still there. No job, no money. Everything had masking tape everywhere and Saran wrap. He knew that there were bugs crawling out of the walls. It was heartbreaking.
We asked the one question and said, “Thomas, are you ready to get some help?” At that point, he said yes. We gathered as many things as we could, along with him and his two dogs, and drove him back down to Oregon. He made excuses that he needed to use the restrooms, and I’m sure he went in there to use some more.
At that point, I wanted to get him to a location to get him help. There was nothing available in Washington and we called every number we could imagine. Every hospital, they said, “We are full. Come let us know a week from Sunday.” I said, “I can’t. I need help now.” As a mother, that was a pretty difficult situation to be in where there was no resource. Everybody said, “Call us back.” It’s like, “Wasn’t there a crisis, cahoots, or whatever?” “No, sorry.”
It tells me how serious of a problem drugs are in our community and everywhere. My husband had some connections. We were able to get Thomas into Buckley House. It’s a detox place. It was a brand-new journey for me. At midnight we pull up and bring Thomas in there. He has no idea what’s going on. I reminded him, and I said, “You are going to stay here for a while and get clean.”
It was crazy how disorganized everything was in my mind and the situation. Thomas was very compliant. He was skinny as a rail. He was mentally and physically incapable of taking care of himself. The nightmare had begun for me. I was awake. I was aware. I saw firsthand the damage it was doing to my child, and I knew I needed to do anything that I could possibly do to help him.
I went back faithfully to see him. As a young, bright 28-year-old child, he looked like an old man. He was so disoriented and in so much pain going through detox. He couldn’t look me in the eye. He couldn’t have a conversation. Everything hurt. Up until that point, I hadn’t done a lot of my own research about how serious addiction is and how few resources there are to help, and where to find those resources. It was by the grace of God and connections that my husband had that we were able to squeak him in. One night I stopped by after work. There was a gal at the front door because it’s a locked facility.
He can leave anytime he wants, but people can’t walk in. She said, “I’m sorry. He’s gone.” I said, “Excuse me. What?” She said, “He can leave as his own free will.” I went out of my mind. I was in tears. I was hysterical. I wasn’t capable. I was prepared to walk every street in downtown Eugene at an unsafe time by myself trying to find my son. By the grace of God, he showed up not to me, but back to the facility and they let them back in. It was crazy.
Once he got clean, he was welcomed into a men’s rehab center and it was a live-in. I believe it’s government-funded because there are a lot of rules. You can’t smoke. You’ve got to get up at this time, brush your teeth at this time, eat at this time. Everybody does chores. It was a house under some extremely strict rules, but I understand that if you have a house full of addicts recovering, there needs to be some guidance that seemed to have worked.
They had a success formula. Thomas started going to the NA meetings and the AA meetings that were present. I reached out. I’d been in Al-Anon for a long time for alcoholics in my life to understand me better. I started to dig a little deeper into my own journey to make sure I was continuing to keep myself healthy, spiritually, and mentally fit.
What did that look like you?
To make sure that I put first things first, that I was okay and that everything I was doing was not to rescue my son.Kindness is an essential part of our journey and our responsibility as human beings. Click To Tweet
What things were you doing to take care of yourself?
Eating well, making sure I got plenty of rest. I made sure that I had my own prayers and meditation program every morning that I did faithfully. I’m being honest and reaching out to others that understand the journey. Reaching out to others that maybe I was an acquaintance with and becoming very clear about the journey that I’m on and looking for some support.
In the beginning, there’s a lot of shame. There’s a lot of blame for myself, like I did something wrong. I should have done this. The last thing you want to do when you talk with a new friend or someone is say, “How many children do you have and what does your son do?” “He’s an addict in full-blown addiction.” It takes a lot of work for me to be able to understand and differentiate what’s my side of the street and what’s his. I can love him. I will always love him, but I have to take care of me.
Could you say a little bit more about that because it’s a powerful distinction for people to understand, particularly moms and dads?
Without having a program to work, at least I can speak to that for me, it’s like everything else would start to crumble away, my most intimate relationship. I would become more irritable, agitated, and impatient because I wasn’t looking at the true problem or challenge that I was trying to manage. For me, if I’m a stuffer, if I try to put on that look good, that’s not being my authentic self.
If I lock the door, stay in my house and don’t reach out to people, that’s not a healthy way to live my life. For anyone who has been in a situation of abuse or alcoholism, or addiction, it’s so important to find whatever support program works for you. There are a lot of twelve-step programs out there. That happens to be the one that works for me, but we keep the focus on ourselves. That makes the difference. Also, how I communicate with people. Is it truthful and honest? Does it have integrity? Is it necessary or kind? Even if it’s none of those things, I probably should exhibit.
How did you deal with the heartbreak?
I shed a lot of tears. I did a lot of praying. I asked a lot of questions. The journey went on and on. He went into cardiac arrest and died on the floor in his new wife’s house and ended up by ambulance to the hospital. Over the years, I had to continue to remind myself and reach out to people that I knew I could lean on. What a slippery slope this is, and to continue to do my own inventory to go, “What do you need to be doing right now? How can you help?” If money could cure all, I would have cashed in the bank account a long time ago, but that’s not the fix.
It sounds like you reached out to people. You were in Al-Anon, so on and so forth. The real challenge for most parents is that it’s not about fixing our child. We have our own journey in this. We should be clear about that and be intentional and have the courage to walk that journey. Maybe you would say a little bit more about your journey and courage and taking your own power back.
I do my prayers and meditation every morning. There’s always a silver lining or a golden nugget, and it’s primarily about being willing to let go of the things in life that I have no control over and being okay with it. What I found is when I live my day with the intention about doing the things that are right for me, everything else works better. My relationships work better. My health is better. I sleep better. One of the telltale signs is if I’m not getting rest, if I can’t go to sleep at night because I’m in angst about something, then I need to do more work on myself and to know that there’s that support out there.
There’s nothing wrong with picking up the phone and calling somebody. While that person’s busy, the other thing I learned is it’s not about me. That person is busy. Pick up the phone, call somebody else. That’s real living to me. That’s the beauty of being in a relationship with others. If I seriously work to take care of my own needs, my own health, my own spiritual walk, or whatever it is, it’s the Law of Attraction.
I will surround myself with others that are more like-minded, and I’m willing to be open to listening to their truths. I don’t know if that answers your question, but one of the biggest things in all of this, besides taking care of myself, is I didn’t realize how judgmental I was about others, people that were homeless, people that were in addiction. I like to think that my eyes are wide open now. My heart is wide open.
Was there a moment when that took place?
I think that the final straw for me and probably the last tear I shed was when he ended up in the hospital. We weren’t sure if he was going to come out of a coma. We didn’t know if he was going to be brain dead. The journey that I have been on with my son has allowed me the privilege of looking back and reclaiming those old tapes and go, “That didn’t help.”People don't become addicts because they hate their moms. So it's important not to confuse that it has nothing to do with that loving, nurturing relationship. It's a whole different journey. Click To Tweet
It might’ve made me think like I was helping, but I needed to let them know I love him and pray for him, whatever that looks like. I had to step aside. There’s not going to be another living arrangement. There’s not going to be more money coming into his bank account. There’s not going to be another car. Those are material things. That’s not what’s going to heal this.
When was the moment for you that you realized that you had been so judgmental? It sounds like almost an epiphany moment.
When he was in the hospital, it was unbelievable to me that this child that I loved, cherished, and cared for. I knew that he was an addict, but you died because of it. I thought that everybody that was out was somebody else’s child, whether they were 60 or 20. I believe in my heart that the drugs choose this life for someone. It’s not someone says, “I want to do this.” It starts out that way because it might mask a pain, have that euphoria, or whatever the high gives them.
It’s a very sad journey. I feel that I’m more compassionate and more loving. When I see these people, they are people. They are having trouble. It breaks my heart. I think that Lane County has done a great job. I have talked with law enforcement, counselors, professionals, and all the rehab centers. There’s a lot of help, but we need a lot more.
We are in a pandemic. These institutions and systems are overwhelmed. What I’m hearing you say in terms of your own journey is that Al-Anon was particularly powerful for you. That has to do with building a powerful community to which you can reach out and be genuine, authentic and real in your journey, hear other people’s journeys and learn along the way. Were there some other things that were pivotal for your journey, gifts or lessons for you in all of this that you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise?
I believe every day, there’s always an opportunity for him and for others. I believe that with all my heart that there’s hope. As far as opportunities, I see all these signs now where it says, “Be kind and kindness is the way.” I truly feel that is an important part of our journey. My responsibility as a human being is our world, our community, everything’s going so fast, so impatient and the sense of urgency, but it’s a sense of urgency about everything that’s not relevant to being a real authentic person. I have learned to slow it down and breathe. Sometimes at night, those nights that I couldn’t sleep, I would sit there and practice breathing and I would count to 3 in and 3 out and I would do it over and over. You’ve got to find what tools work.
With slowing your pace down, how has that impacted your life?
I’m not as frantic. I don’t have those hills and valleys as far as if an event happens, whether it’s with him or someone else. My best practice is I want to say, “How can I help?” Maybe somebody doesn’t want my help. Maybe I can be helpful by offering. Making sure people know that I care about them, that’s important too.
Who’s been the most influential for you in terms of being there for you?
My husband. He is my rock.
What did you learn about him during this process?
That you can be loving and supportive and at the same time have boundaries that are non-negotiable. It’s a combination, but it’s important. You need to know what you are willing to do and what you are not. He made that clear the whole journey about what he’d be willing to do and what he wouldn’t, and I respect him for that.
What did you learn from him in terms of creating your own boundaries?
In our program at Al-Anon, we talk about detachment with love. That can look very differently in all types of situations, but I need to pause often before I commit to something, so I understand what is this about? What are you doing this for? Is there an ulterior motive? Are you being sincere? Do you think this other person can’t do it themselves? Many times, it’s very easy to jump right into somebody else’s journey and then they don’t get the experience that they rightfully deserve. We think we are being helpful, but sometimes I’m not.Ask for what you need. If you need it, say it. Click To Tweet
You are more aware of that now. It sounds like you have a heightened inner dialogue around this to question, “What are my motives? What are my intentions here?” Has that come out of all of this too? Is that clarity of internal motivations?
Absolutely. My son is in prison now. I had the opportunity to see him face-to-face. I did some footwork around that too, and I knew my goal was to see him. That was it. I didn’t ask him about his addiction, his recovery or what’s he going to do when he got out? I didn’t want to interview him. That was not what the goal was. The goal was to see my child and that’s what I did, and it was a great visit.
How did you set yourself up for success on that visit?
I reached out to others and asked for their love and support. I even arranged the appointment in the middle of the day, so I was not rushed. I wasn’t tired. I was not distracted. It’s important as far as being clear with myself. As far as what is it that I need. I need to make sure that I know how to get to this place because I have never been there.
It would not be in my best interest to make it first thing in the morning and I didn’t want to make it the last thing in the day. I was intentional about how I planned that meeting. I parked my car off the property. I made sure that when I got out, I sat in my car and I called a friend. I said, “This was great.” The cool thing about it for me is my heart was wide open for him. There were no tears. There was nothing to cry about. I was so happy to see my child. I know that everything is possible for him, and I will be his biggest fan. That’s all I get to do.
What’s the one thing that you wished you’d known at the beginning that you know now?
It’s a deeper understanding of how this pandemic of drug addiction literally alters someone’s mind, their brain and their chemical imbalance. I wasn’t clear about all that. I figured, “If they want to stop, they can stop. I stopped smoking many years ago. What’s the big deal?” I figured that it would be the same, which was pretty angered on my part. To me, it’s to not be in denial. To pay attention and look for resources, whether that’s through books, a doctor that you trust or a friend that’s had the same experience, gather all the information and then form your own opinion.
How did you begin to learn about the effects of addiction on people’s brains?
Be honest with a friend with a neighbor. That person shared the information that she had and was open to providing resources. I feel that it did a couple of things. It deepened the relationship with someone that I probably wouldn’t have grown to have and to call a friend, and that’s pretty special to me. Knowing that there are more tools in my toolbox now is huge. I had no idea. A good word for that is denial. I had no clue.
For people that are reading this blog, is there a particular video, book, or resource that you found that was pivotal for you?
There are several. My memory is not very good on it, but the last book I read is another story about a mother and a son, Under Our Roof: A Son’s Battle for Recovery, a Mother’s Battle for Her Son. It’s a great book and a great story. It could understand the journey. People don’t become addicts because they hate their moms. It has nothing to do with that loving, nurturing relationship. It’s a whole different journey. It’s important not to confuse that. There are other videos that I have watched. There are other books that I have read. I can’t remember the name of them, but there are some great resources out there and I had no idea that it literally changes the chemical functions of somebody’s brain.
Earlier on in our journey, I had Sam’s second or maybe third rehab. I asked the people at the front desk, “What do you recommend?” I was on a massive learning. I wanted to know as much as I could about the disease, not only for the addict but also for the family. Trying to find resources that were family-oriented that moms, dads, friends, spouses, or all of it that we could have access to that would help us. They go to a facility. Where do we go?
One of the major reasons this show was born is because I had to cobble together the resources to learn about this. I was shocked that it was this hard for a mom to find the information that I needed to talk to the people that knew about this disease that could help me figure out how to navigate this. My first experience was watching Pleasure Unwoven by a doctor who is a recovering addict. The whole video was about whether this is a choice or a disease? That was a pivotal movie for me and led to more information and clarity and so on and so forth, which helped shift my perceptions of what was going on too.
There are some great resources out there. We have to look for them, find them, pick the ones that work, and let go of the rest. There are books too that have slices of information that are super helpful, and then there are other pieces I don’t necessarily agree with. Figuring out what resonates with you and letting the rest of it go is part of the journey. What would be three of the recommendations you would make to somebody who is new to this journey?It's so important for us to have our eyes wide open and see what's going on, so we can stand up and go. Click To Tweet
Don’t give up. It’s important what helped me. You can call it finding your tribe, but finding that group of people or person that is either walked the journey or can point you in the direction of the resources. As we talked about, as you mentioned, it’s so important to know the facts and it’s so overwhelming. It’s like the things that I have done and seen are unbelievable. It was beyond my wildest dreams. I could either stand there and be shellshocked or do something about it. I chose to do something about it because I couldn’t change the other person. I needed to work on me. I never give up hope. To me, that’s important.
Do you think that you would have done the personal work if it hadn’t been for this?
No. It’s like a diet. You don’t go on a diet until your clothes don’t fit you anymore. You are going to just keep eating cream pie. I don’t know. There wasn’t a need. The gift to me was becoming so much more aware. Once you are awake and aware, it’s time to take action. That action for me was learning more about addiction, learning how it alters someone’s mind.
Finding resources and people. Making sure I’m still taking care of myself on this journey. If they are in rehab, prison, or whatever, but here you are, just sitting here, holding your hands out, hoping that somebody is going to cue you the answer. It’s a really precious time to make sure that you hold the people that you love, your partners or your spouses. Don’t push them away. Hold them close. They may not understand it either. Unfortunately, there’s nobody that’s immune to this and we all need to get on the bandwagon.
Do you think that it has made your marriage stronger?
Absolutely. No question in my mind.
Who did you need to be in order to strengthen that marriage through this journey?
I needed to be a partner that was honest and kept clear about my goals and what was important. I think that if I had allowed the cavernous hole to swallow me up emotions, heart, and everything, it would have been very damaging. Being my true authentic self, taking care of myself and asking for what you need. If you need something, say it.
Have you gotten much better at asking for help?
Yes. Those old actions don’t work so good. You got to say the word.
I know in our story, I never had problems asking for help, but I did go through this period where I was giving Sam money and I wasn’t telling my spouse. I absolutely knew that was part of my work, and figuring out how to navigate that in truth and integrity and what was that about for me. That took some digging in to wrestle with the devil from that perspective.
There’s a saying that we have. When we say our secrets, keep us sick. The other thing is to take it one day at a time. Don’t try to take on the whole world to be right here right now. That’s all you have to worry about, one minute at a time because we can’t change what’s happened.
Personally, the one question that has been pivotal and continues to be pivotal is what are the gifts and lessons embedded in this experience, this journey. I keep leaning into that on a daily basis and the answers continued to rise up. I don’t ever consider myself done on this. Sam’s addiction and I wrote him a thank you note for it because it was the most powerful push for me to do my spiritual work, become more conscious and more aware, and continue to be on that path.
Honestly, I don’t believe it would have happened if it hadn’t been for him because our kids are that powerful for us or hold the potential for being that powerful for us as parents. I chose to seize that opportunity. Is there something that I should have asked you that I haven’t asked you so far? Let me ask you that.It's so important to have something greater than ourselves, whatever that looks like. Click To Tweet
As far as what the future holds and what I will do from here forward, besides practicing my program and doing the spiritual walk, for all of us, it’s so important to have something greater than ourselves and whatever that looks like. To me, I know I’m never alone ever on any journey and I won’t be tomorrow or the next day.
I think that it’s so important for us to have our eyes wide open and see what’s going on and we can stand back and go, “It’s heartbreaking, and this is sad,” or we need to stand up and go, “How do we have tools for this and resources? How do we help?” As we have talked about, that’s the greatest thing. As far as what I will do forward, it is to continue to have my eyes wide open. Maybe somebody in a meeting is going down a journey and to reach out and go, “I hear you. I have been there. It’s pretty powerful. It’s pivotal. It’s nice to know that you are not alone.”
In terms of research, the research is very clear that not only for the addict or the alcoholic but for the family members, for the friends that are dealing with someone that they love. It is as critically important to have a support system, a tribe of people that love and will tell you the truth and that you can be completely vulnerable and honest in who you are on this journey. There are so many tears, heartbreak, and so much desperation and the ups and downs of all of this. I know from a societal perspective that the journey is much more possible in a healthy way when you have a great tribe.
I believe that’s one of the gifts that’s coming out of this experience for people willing to reach out and find people going through the journey. The number of friends we have was on the decline in terms of the whole of our society. In my weird way of thinking about things, I see that this is one piece of the gift in this experience is that our tribe is mission-critical. For some of us, that requires us to up our skills in creating relationships that are true, honest, integrity-driven, vulnerable, and all of that. Lots of lessons. Do you have any questions for me?
It’s not a question but a comment. I am excited for you on this journey. I am thrilled that you are doing the good work you are doing. It’s important. I wish you the very best in this journey and many successes. It’s like when the day you can touch someone’s heart and their mind, and they know they are not going down this journey by themselves, it’s huge because it’s a battle. It’s like you are going to war. What are you going to arm yourself with? Knowledge, understanding, and compassion. That’d be good.
Our intention is to create a safe community for people to come to get the resources that they need, have the community that will be a place for them, and continue to learn, stretch, and be on our own journey in this. We understand that out of this experience, we get to up-level ourselves from a conscious perspective and be better human beings. I appreciate your time and sharing your journey with our community.
I appreciate it.