Joanne and Sarah share their experience as mother and wife of their late son and husband, Bart.
During Bart’s struggle with addiction, Joanne and Sarah learned to lovingly detach and navigate life moving forward.
They speak on the distinction of engaging versus letting go, walking that fine line, and developing and following through with boundaries to prioritize themselves.
Finally, mother and nurse Joanne explains that the more information we attain and learn about this disease, the greater understanding and compassion we can hold for our loved ones battling this disease and addiction.
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The Power Of Vigilant Learning Through Addiction
Out of my own experience, I wanted to be able to provide for people who were dealing with the full spectrum of addiction and alcoholism, no matter where they entered the journey, because I could not find the resources that I personally needed. The power of the story is transformative. I know in all the stories that I’ve listened to, the books that I’ve read, the interviews that I’ve done, everybody has a different story. They have a different lens that they bring to the table and their own journey.
I do believe that every time we have an opportunity to hear somebody’s story. it gives us a window in and potentially a different way to frame it for ourselves so that we can do a better job of navigating this ourselves as a loved one. That’s why I wanted to talk to both of you. you come through these two different doors, centered on your son and your husband. At least, from what I understand, your story is very powerful. Our membership would benefit tremendously from what you both bring to the table. Thank you for being here.
Thanks for the invitation.
If you would give a little bit of a background in terms of both of your stories. When was the first discovery that something was not right? How did this unfold for you first, Joanne, and then you, Sarah?
I only have one son, and I had him at 39, which is older for most women. I did not marry his father. I was married at the time that I had him. The man that I was married to committed suicide when Bart was about 2.5 or 3 years old. I became a single mom. I love Bart. The way I explain it is I liked Bart from the time I met him. I didn’t have to try to love him. I liked him so much that it was a mom’s love flowing from him. He was a very easy child to be with.
We traveled a lot. As he continued to grow, I was intensely working, trying to prove myself at my job as many women do. He was a latchkey kid. He would come home and ride his bike around the neighborhood. Basically, I know now that that’s when he was introduced to pot and beer, etc. It kept going through junior high and high school. I thought it was a phase, and it’s because he doesn’t have a father. I needed to step it up and get more men involved in his life, which I did, but it didn’t change. It didn’t make any difference.
At one point, I thought, “I need to find his biological father.” I did. He didn’t live in the United States. He lived in Guam or Saipan. I can’t remember now. He said, “Yeah, mom, I would like that because when I go to school, everybody has dads. I don’t have a dad. I would like to meet him.” I said, “Okay.” I didn’t do a lot of research on him. I hired a detective, and they said, “There’s a reason why he can’t live in the United States.” He happened to be a former heroin addict. That’s all I know about that.
I wrote a letter. He did come over and meet Bart. That caused more problems than anything because I’m going to tell you flat out that he is one of the biggest narcissists we have ever met in our entire lives. He takes the cake. It’s all about him. Bart grew up, and he got my genes when it comes to chunky puberty. He had married this Japanese woman who was about twenty years younger than him. He was working out every day at 4:00, and he looked at Bart and went, “You need to lose some weight.”
Instantly, I knew like, “Great.” Anyway, his drinking and drug use escalated to the point where I felt something was wrong in my gut. It’s more than a developmental stage for a boy. I knew that. It kept going. I got him a car, and he got a DUI. He started using other substances and got picked up. He ended up going into a juvenile camp. He did it on his 17th and 18th birthday. I went, “Son, it’s not working for you, is it?” There were so many things that happened. I tried hard. They took money from my IRS rebate to pay for the juvenile hall things.
I paid for him when he would get a ticket. I thought that would work. I tried everything like everybody else. I cut to it. I don’t know how old he was. He was in his early 20s, but he called and said, “Mom, I’m in a parking lot and drinking vodka. Mama, I’m an alcoholic.” I had started Al-Anon and learned three things because I believed that I could keep him from drinking and I could change.
I went to Al-Anon to have them help me stop him from drinking. Not what that’s about. When I learned that I didn’t cause it, I had to work through that. I couldn’t hear and control it. Those three things were powerful for me. When he said that, I said, “Son, I love you so much. I concur with you. I want to know what you’re going to do about it because I can’t do anything about it.”
That’s such a powerful question, Joanne, that a lot of parents are stuck on the, “We need to get them in rehab. We need to fix them.” When you’re dealing with an adult at that point, it takes on a whole different thing than when you’re still raising them. I appreciate your journey. It’s similar to mine. I had Sam older also and started raising him as a single parent when he was two, and on and on. I did all the things. We can tell the same story just about. I appreciate the journey. Sarah, when did you come into the picture?
These lovely people lived in Redding, California, and I moved there to do a school of ministry with a church. I worked at a restaurant, Outback Steakhouse, as a server. That’s where I met Bart. He is hilarious, super-smart, outgoing, and full of energy and life. At first, he was like, “Another new person.” He was giving me a hard time a little bit, but we became friends as I got to know him. I had no experience with alcoholism. I didn’t understand it. Similar to Joanne, seeing him as a 24-year-old, he was 24 at the time, going to community college and working at a restaurant. He loved to skateboard, snowboard, and do all these things, alcohol and minor drugs or whatever part of those scenes a lot of times.
There’s a lot of drinking in restaurant jobs and in extreme sports. It’s like, Joanne, I’m thinking like, “He’s drinking as a 24-year-old does.” I’m six years older than him. We’re at different periods in our lives in that way. I started becoming good friends. I was like, “This guy is cool.” I’m half Puerto Rican and never learned the language because my dad didn’t want to teach me ghetto Spanish. He’s going to Guatemala to learn Spanish and wants to immerse himself. I’m like, “Who is this guy?” Laughing and having fun. I then found out that he also was a Christian. He went to church and all that stuff.
I then meet Joanne. She comes to dinner, and she’s like, “What’s God teaching you?” I was like, “Really?” He had gotten another DUI and was like, “Something has to change. I can’t go on like this.” He hadn’t admitted yet about alcoholism. He was like, “There’s something I can’t do anymore.” He started to try to be better. I invited him to church.
He had a girlfriend, by the way, this healthy relationship. We were friends, and I said, “You should come. I love it. It’s great.” I had been hurt by the church before. It’s a totally different type of environment, just super loving. She went to Guatemala first, and we all like dispersed over the summer. I went back to Vegas, where I had friends. That’s a whole other story.
We all dispersed and came back when the school year started again, the second year of the school. Everyone had broken up with everybody, even divorces happened, but Bart was still with this girl. After all, I was like, Seriously?” because now I had a little crush on him. We ended up hanging out. One night it was a going-away party for one of our friends that were leaving, and we ended up going.
I didn’t go to a lot of those, but the person I cared about talking to all night long took them home. We connected and ended up building a relationship. He hadn’t talked to the girl for a month and didn’t even know if they were together, but they officially didn’t break up. We started hanging out, and he was on his best behavior. He was doing well, coming to church, and having hard changes. I didn’t live with him. There were a few times when I picked him up and he had been drinking or he called me drunk.
However, he’s 24 and in college. He drinks. That’s what it’s like. I didn’t look at it together. Finally, one time, now we are engaged and he totally fell off the deep end. I don’t remember what triggered that. I know we had gotten to a fight, which we don’t normally do. We’d gotten into an argument about something, but it was like something else bigger than what was going on. He completely disappeared and went on this drinking binge, and who knows, for like a week. It was at that point that Joanne was like, “I need to tell you that Bart is an alcoholic. It’s a disease and all this stuff.”
I was like, “Okay,” and I still didn’t do it. I was like, “That’s terrible.” When he came back, he was like, “I’m so sorry.” Basically, I still felt total peace about moving forward and marrying him. We got married, but before that, he had a terrible back injury. He was a big man. He was six feet tall and had big bones. He was strong that he hit his tailbone when he was on a rope swing in the lake when he was too shallow. He ruptured his disc, so he was in pain. The doctor put him on opioids.Don’t shame someone for something they did when they were drunk, because they didn't want to do it and it's going to make them want to drink again. Click To Tweet
Even when we were whatever you call it engaged, he already was on those. The doctor was Blake Massey. He was saying, “Sorry, it’s going to lessen a sex drive. All these things are going to happen,” and I’m like, “That sounds wonderful.” We’re about to get married. I got married fully drugged because of that, but mixing and all that stuff.
Basically, it wasn’t though until we moved to back. I had bought a condo when I lived in Vegas, and I was living in Redding. We went back there because the market crashed. We took care of that. He wanted to make as much money as he could in the service industry. We were on our way to finishing our degrees and all those things.
We went to Vegas and that was when I found a bottle of vodka hidden in the underwear drawer. I went to him. I was like, ”Why would you hide this in the drawer? We drink together. I don’t drink excessively, we’ll have a beer together, or we’ll have a cocktail together. Why would you need to hide alcohol from me?” I didn’t understand.
He was like, “I don’t know.” He was starting to make that connection here and there because he watched a documentary about Steve-O. He was describing his journey. He’s like, “This looks like me.” He was hiding it too from his wife or whatever. He was making that connection. You’re living in Vegas and it’s all around you. It was getting bad. I was pregnant and it was at the same time. I wanted a baby. It was right at the moment where I realized, “This man is an alcoholic and I’m pregnant with his child. This is a lot.”
How long ago was that, Sarah?
That was 2010. I ended up losing her at 30 weeks due to pre-eclampsia, which was awful. He got into this college in San Diego to finish his degree, and I wanted my Master’s. I finished my Bachelor’s and one of my Master’s. His boss in Vegas got hired to be the general manager of this nice restaurant in San Diego, and offered to give us both jobs out there. It got really bad. Before that, it was difficult. I almost didn’t go with him, but I was praying about it. Joanne has the tools that she got at Al-Anon and had given me one of the first things, which is to lovingly detach.
You feel like if you’re not totally in there, that’s not loving, but you have to take care of yourself. You have to step back. The thing is not engaging with the alcoholic when there are drugs and alcohol on board. I would try and do that. It’s completely pointless. It’s learning those things. The other major thing was that they don’t want to do what they’re doing and don’t feel good about what they’re doing.
The worst thing you can do instead of saying which at first is what I was doing. “I can’t believe what you did last night. You embarrassed the heck out of me. So-and-so never wants to see us again. Do you understand that? You ruined our relationship with that person.” He didn’t want to do that at all. That’s not who he is at all. Bart was super loving, kind, loyal, and all those things. When I do that, it makes him feel worse, and he wants to drink more.
Learning those three things, lovingly detach, do not engage with them when they have alcohol on board, and don’t shame them for something they did when they were drunk because they didn’t want to do it, and it’s going to make them want to drink again. Those helped, and I had to put my foot down on a few things where like, “I can’t live with this mess. These things cannot happen. I won’t do that.”
I have got a bunch of questions going through my head. How long did it take you to absorb and integrate those three lessons? That’s one question. The next question is, what was the first boundary that you drew?
I started practicing it immediately because it made sense. The hardest one for me was not engaging when he’s drunk, especially if he’s coming at you about something, once you do engage with them. You can engage in a different way. I was not shaming him for something he has done that gets him almost immediately. When I processed it, it made total sense to me. I was like, “Okay.” I could see the remorse. I could see his struggle with that. It felt like a split personality.
As far as lovingly detaching, that takes more practice. I feel like it took more practice. It’s like, “Step back.” We had one car. I’m pregnant, I had a new job and he’s out with the car. I don’t know where he is. It’s 4:00 AM. I have to go to sleep, separate myself, take care of myself, and call my friend. “Can you come to pick me up?” “Yes, I can.” “Okay, cool. Good night,” and that takes more practice.
I retired when I was 70 and told Bart and Sarah that the summers were there. I would come and take care of Bella. I was going to Al-Anon, and as a nurse, I wanted to renew my license, and I did it in substance abuse and alcoholism. I didn’t know that much about it, but once you understand the physiological basis of the disease of alcoholism, there is something called compassion that comes into the picture.
The compassion that I had for Bart was huge. I lived with them in the summer. I would watch Sarah and watch the interactions. Sometimes, he would be playing with Bella on the floor. He has a little new baby, and he would nod off. I would walk over in and go do the dishes and never say one thing. I didn’t count the bottles when I woke up. I never asked him the questions, but I did want to help Sarah.
She’d be going to school, working, and coming home. I said, “Sarah, there’s one thing you need to do right now. You need to change your clothes. You need to get something to eat. We can talk about what you want to do with Bart. Bart has got a lot of friends that can come and get him.” We would talk about it, and it made sense to her. The thing that made sense to me is you have to understand the disease.
It’s important. It made all the difference in the world to me. I watched his torment. They call it insidious, baffling, and cunning. I think it’s evil, but you could see the torment. Many times, I’d say, “Bart, I have to go to the bathroom.” I’d go into the bathroom. I’d be going, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, to change the things that I can and the knowledge to know the difference.” I would then come out. One time he said, “Mommy, why do you go to the bathroom a lot?” I said, “It’s a little problem older people have,” but I would be doing in there is to let go and say, “How are you going to take care of this right now? How are you going to take care of yourself in relationship to his disease?”
Could you say that one more time because that is so critical for people to grab a hold of, understand, and embrace?
The part for me of understanding the disease of alcoholism and the blessing that God gave me to renew my license and go deeper into its physiology. Here’s what happens with somebody that doesn’t have the disease and here’s what happens to someone does. That didn’t happen overnight. I had to take it in, but then when I took in the factual information and watched his interaction with this beautiful, incredible woman that he married that loved him so much and watched how hard it was for him to struggle because he self-loathed. He hated himself for not being in control of it. I could see the struggle, but once I saw the struggle, I knew that it was what I had to learn in engaging and not engaging with him to help him for me to let go and help him on that journey, whatever it’s going to be.
You’ve said so many things that are critically important. One of the things that I’m grabbing a hold of is the need to educate ourselves about this disease. It is critically important because there’s so much out there in terms of the shame, the judgment, the missing information, and the moral issues that we lay on this disease.
We would never do this with cancer, lung disease, or any other disease. Getting clear about that, and because it is a disease and it takes over your brain, we have this bifurcation of the person we’re dealing with. They are a completely different person when they’re in their substance abuse versus who they truly are.The need to educate ourselves about alcoholism is critically important. There’s so much shame, judgment, misinformation, and the moral issues that we lay on this disease. Click To Tweet
In my experience, the vast majority of them are extraordinary people, so gifted and heart-centered. I believe they’re here to change the planet. They’re dealing with this disease at the same time. I have a whole thing around all that, but the other piece I want to grab a hold of from both of you is this notion of self-care. For a lot of people, we’re not trained culturally to take care of ourselves.
Faced with a disease like this and any other disease, the whole notion of us embracing the fact that we need to put our oxygen masks on first is critically important to be able to navigate this in the way that both of you have spoken about this. Let me ask you both how was the challenge, or was it easier for you both to take a hold of your own self-care in this process in this journey with Bart?
I would like to speak quickly about the education part because that also is transformative. I didn’t get there yet because we were still in Vegas, but when we moved to San Diego, and I remember working in in-room dining, I was pregnant. Joanne gave me all this literature about the disease. I’ve sent it over and over. I didn’t understand anything about it until his education and the entities. I’m reading this pamphlet about the family and the alcoholic and all this. That was the first time for me because she’s telling me, “This is a disease.” I’m trying to understand, but it was like this a-ha moment when I was reading this pamphlet somebody had written, and it was as if they were sitting in my living room walking, meaning exactly what was happening in my house.
It blew me away when I was like, “This is a disease.” It hit me, but it took a long time. We’ve been seeing, knowing who he was and seeing the other side, knowing he didn’t want to do that, but it was that whole having her explain the physiological part. It does absolutely help and gives you more compassion. I loved him anyway. All of that was completely transformative to helping. I don’t know if you want to talk about self-care, but I want to ask about that.
It got easier and easier the more that I learned about it. Learning about it and having it right in front of your face, seeing it is a beautiful opportunity to put it all into practice. That’s what love, compassion, mercy, and grace are all about. Those things are wrapped up, and they’re powerful. I want it. Sarah and I talk about Bart all the time because he’s so powerful. He was so funny and so smart. I’m here because of my granddaughters. They’re beautiful girls, and he loved them.
We had an opportunity to talk to a young man by himself that literally was with his brand new baby and shot up heroin. That’s how Bart died. He died of a heroin overdose. Sarah and I got to be in this man’s presence to say, “Your son loved Bella more than anything,” but when you have the disease, and it hijacks your brain, and it’s all you think about, you don’t care about the baby or the daughter. We looked at him and we had to process that for a long time. I have to tell you it was a blessing. It helped us. “You had your little baby and you shot up with your baby there.” “I did. I’m an alcoholic and a substance abuse user.”
That story is so emblematic of the hijacking. Your experience, Sarah, was nothing. From the outside, when you see something like that, you’re like, “What is going on here?” There’s a lot of judgment and all that heaps on. My hope is that there will be people reading this that have walked that path you were walking, Sarah. This wasn’t a part of life experience up until you married him. You’re then deep in learning what this disease is all about and the trial and error. Sarah, would you speak about the three things self-care-wise that were critically important to you to be able to continue to navigate dealing with Bart’s disease?
First of all, I’m super thankful for Joanne because I feel like, honestly, she was like a life coach through that for me, who already had the tools. I could call her if she weren’t there or talk to her and be like, “I need you to pray for me right now. Will you do this so I can do that? What do I do?” Honestly, part of that in that way of like, “I see why sponsors are good things.” Because of the official sponsor like Joanne helping me and knowing him his whole life too. Knowing like, “Is this part of the disease? What is happening here?
For me, it had to do with sleep, first of all, because you could easily be up all night wondering where the person is and what’s happening? That was the main thing. I remember when Amir came, and I don’t think you were there. You were up doing something, or it wasn’t the school year, but he was with Amir, and he had overdosed in a parking lot or whatever. They’d taken him to jail, and Amir came back and was like, “I’m so sorry. I’ve got the car. He’s in jail.” I’m like, “Okay, thank you so much. That’s so cool.” I put the keys down and went in to go to bed. He was like, “What? You didn’t hear me.”
I was like, “I know he’s in jail. I have to get up in the morning and teach my class at the university. I’m going to go ahead and go to bed right now. You’re more than welcome to sleep on the couch and stay here if you want. You can walk home,” because he didn’t live very far, “I appreciate it. He’s going to be fine. If he’s in jail, it’s probably the safest place he can be.” That took a long time for me to get there, but I did. I went back, cuddled up, and went to sleep. I got up, and there he was in the morning back there.
She had another one, too, where I was in bed, and Bart was down there, fighting with these people at the pool, going crazy. I went, “Where’s Sarah? She’s got to be up at 5:00.” I looked into the bedroom, and she was asleep. The cops came and all that stuff. I went, “I think she’s getting it.”
The suspicion thing is the hard thing. That was the hardest for me for self-care because if you’re trying to figure out if they’re lying all the time or seeing who’s texting them on their phone if it’s a dealer, that will consume you. That part I struggled with the most, and that was the hardest up until he died. “Who are you talking to? What’s going on? Who’s he hanging out with? Are there drugs hidden somewhere here?”
At one point, he cleaned up. He took me down there and had me throw the stuff away for him. There were seventeen different places he had hidden all over the garage. After that, it was so hard not to be looking and that is part of self-care. That is part of the disease that you love them through and that you cannot let yourself get all wrapped up and entangled in the web of deception or whatever that is fun because of the disease.
It’s a total disease. That guy was the most honest, straightforward guy. That’s one thing that I loved about him that I love about him. You don’t have to wonder what he’s thinking or how he’s feeling, and yet under the influence, all of a sudden, anyone wouldn’t know what’s going on. Sleep, having somebody talk to him to talk to about it, and not allowing yourself to get sucked into the web of suspicion.
That is such a stumbling block for so many people, particularly parents and spouses. They want to get involved in managing the disease. It is a failed strategy. Hands down, it will take you out if you walk down that path and don’t get clear about what’s most important for you on your journey in the midst of having a relationship with somebody who has a substance abuse disorder. Thank you. Those three things are critically important. I know that it’s important for our readers to hear these things. I want you to shift a little bit to how long ago did Bart pass?
October 11, 2014.
I’d like to shift to how you two came together after his passing to navigate life.
It was our backup plan. The most frustrating part of the whole deal is that he desperately wanted to be healed, went to NA, had a sponsor, and did all of that, but then it was the heroin or opioids that led into it. He cleaned up. He got to a place where it finally was like, “This is a natural consequence, not even an ultimatum.” I cannot be in the house with somebody and our child with this happening. He’d overdosed and almost died at another point, and the ambulance came and resuscitation whatever. Clean and finally doing good but had a backup plan because she has her house in Redding. She was down helping.
I was finishing my Master’s degree and trying to finish my Master’s thesis. The backup plan was if something happened when he was slipping back, that we would come up to Redding or even if I wanted him to go into the recovery program. Even during that, we had this agreement basically. When it happened, I was now a single mom living in San Diego and pregnant. He died on a Saturday. On a Wednesday, I had my first ultrasound. I’m down here by myself. I was like, “I can’t survive down here by myself on a single income.” I went up to Redding, had the baby, and got a job up there.
In the school of ministry felt called that I needed to go and get my PhD, but when he passed, I was like, “How the heck am I going do that?” I’d already asked her before when he was still alive, if she would come and be like granny-nanny. He would be working, and getting a PhD is not a small thing. She would come to support us there. When I worked that year in Redding, the community college, a tenure track position came up there, but I was torn and felt like I should apply again anyway for the PhD program.Things show up for a reason, and gifts and lessons are always embedded in them. Click To Tweet
I applied only for one, which isn’t that smart, but that’s what I felt led to do and came and visited. I got in, and she said, “I’ll come to help you with the first year.” We found out there were exams and more exams. After the exams were over, she’s like, “I like to stay here.” I’m like, “I’d like to have you here.” Now, we’re coming to the end of that.
Sarah is my daughter-in-law, and my mothers-in-law have reputations. I had said to her, “You can move in with me in my little two-bedroom, one-bath house in Redding.” She went, “Okay.” It’s not hard to love Sarah. We both love Bart. We have something that’s very exceptional. It’s like a Ruth and Naomi thing. During the whole time that we’re grieving, I’d be grieving, and she’d be happy. We could cry. She’d be down, and I could cheer her up. We could always talk about it and understand what we were talking about, and not a lot of people have that or share that, so that helped us a lot.
I wanted to see her dream come true. She gave birth to Aijah Makell, and Bart had named Aijah. We had never heard of Aijah before. We said, “Figure out how to spell it, Ms. English teacher.” That’s what we’ve been doing. We’ve been working for that goal for her, whether she’s married or doesn’t get married, that she can support them. She’s passionate about teaching. I love her. I love that she was always so open to accepting what I learned. She never shut it down or tried to barge through it. She stayed so lovingly open. When you love somebody, you love them.
One of the things that are so extraordinary out of your story together is I totally resonate with Joanne, this mama heart love. There is nothing like it. Sarah, you know this now. Despite what’s happening with our child, Bart, Sam, whoever, you know the heart of that man. That’s what you see despite all the stuff that is swirling around. To be able to bring that to Sarah and for the two of you to be able to bond together over your love for Bart and your love for each other, I can’t help but think, as you’re both speaking, how present he is now. I completely feel his presence in this conversation.
It’s almost as if he’s beyond that veil and right here in the midst of all of this. We’ve all learned so much through this journey and learned to access parts of ourselves that we had no idea existed. I am so touched by both of your abilities to articulate your own journey personally, your collective journey and navigating with Bart, and how to maintain a sense of peace and thrive in the midst of the chaos. Honestly, I would love to continue this conversation if you two are open to it.
There’s more to learn, I believe, from both of you in how you have chosen to do this, to take care of yourselves and build the bond that you both have. We need more models like you two.
Thank you. I want to say thank you so much for what you’re doing. Everybody learns and grows from stories.
I’ve always lived from the space that things show up for a reason. There are always gifts and lessons embedded in it. I kept leaning into the question, what are the gifts and lessons embedded in this journey with Sam, and how is this meant to serve? Our story right now is Sam is in relapse. He’s been dark for a while now. We’re right in the middle of that part of the journey now. This is probably the 4th or 5th or 6th relapse but this is the first time he’s gone dark on us.
To be able to talk to other people about this, there’s such a power, but you need to be very choiceful about who you talk to make sure that they are going to lift you up into that next best version of yourself in the midst of all of this. I personally believe that it is a continual unfolding. It never stops. Certainly, because Bart is so present with you, it’s going to continue to unfold.