The holidays. Those two words used to bring such joy to my heart and plans to my head. I would head to the store with my list and always ended up with more than I bargained for. I would envision the day. The table, the turkey, family and friends all together and celebrating our blessings. We started in the dining room but always ended up in the kitchen. Pouring more wine, picking on leftovers and laughing about how much we ate. Three generations gathered under one roof. Even the pups shared in the spirit of the day. Lying under the table knowing which human was tender-hearted slyly dropping pieces of turkey into their waiting mouths.
Three years ago, my youngest son Matt was living in a halfway house in Florida a thousand miles away from home. His absence left a void in my heart, but his recovery was the most important thing on my mind. I called his cell as we were all gathered around the table. Each one of us taking our turn sharing the day and praising him for his new way of life. We all agreed he sounded great, like the old Matt before his addiction took over his life and nearly destroyed ours.
We all loved Matt and desperately wanted him to live a life of joy, returning to the person he was before the demons. I felt a bit of guilt not bringing him home for the holidays. I feared being home would trigger him to connect with the ones that brought him down and couldn’t take that risk. So I hid my tears and put on the smile I wore so often during his active addiction. Only my husband and older son knew the turmoil in my heart.
Before we knew it, the Hallmark commercials were on TV and Christmas was a few weeks away. Once again the turmoil returned about bringing Matt home for the week. I missed him terribly and was not used to being so far apart for so long. But once again, we decided his recovery was priority over my need for an intact family. So Matt stayed in Florida and once again we shared the holiday by phone and photo. Seeing Matt dressed up as Santa eased my pain of his absence and gave me assurance that Matt was handling the holidays away from home better than I was handling his absence. Our traditional Christmas open house was its usual success but again my heart felt the void left by Matts absence. Once a mom always a mom I would tell myself and try to move on.
As the mother of a long term addict, I got used to the rethinking of decisions made during periods of recovery and relapse. Doing what I thought was best at that moment in time. I trained myself not to rethink every choice or allow that bit of doubt grow into something my mind would not be able to control. I constantly lived on the edge, never fully relaxing or thinking we were out of the woods.
I guess you could call it mothers instinct. January was right around the corner and I’d read that so many relapses occur on New Years Eve. Every commercial promoted drinking and partying which once again sent my nerves on high alert. I would cringe with every one that promoted partying to bring in the New Year. There was no escape. It seemed that if you weren’t attending a party and holding a drink in your hand that you just weren’t a part of the in crowd. I allowed myself a false sense of security in knowing that alcohol was not Matt’s go-to drug; Opioids and Benzos were.
Once again we shared the holiday by phone. Matt in Florida, me in Delaware. He attended an NA meeting I watched the ball drop from my couch. We spoke the following day. All was well except for the nagging doubt in my gut that something was off.
January 3rd, 2015, changed the dynamic of our family and how we would celebrate or not celebrate the holidays of the future. Two days after we rang in the New Year with high hopes for new beginnings, Matt was gone from an overdose. He became one of the many who just couldn’t fight the fight any longer. The pressure to fit in was too much. Just one more time as so many addicts think they can do just one more time and survive.
Years have passed since that fateful day. The holidays are weeks away and the joy I once felt is shadowed by the pain of a son gone forever. Our family once temporarily separated by addiction now permanently fractured. Traditions changed forever. One son will never return to the space left empty by a temporary absence that has now become permanent. My mind will always wonder if decisions made differently would have kept our family intact.
The holidays. The two words that once brought such joy to my heart now bring a feeling of mixed emotion. The profound joy I once felt now overshadowed by grief. I look around and see the smiling faces of mothers pushing their carts loaded with the fixings for holiday dinner and remember how life used to be. I am jealous of the smile on their faces and the spring in their step. Wanting to turn back time and feel the anticipation of the feast I would be creating. The stress I once felt is nothing compared to the void I now live with.
There is no instruction manual for surviving this time of year. Nothing to guide moms like me as we prepare for the celebration of Thanksgiving and then Christmas after the death of a child. I remember watching A Christmas Carole, the ghost of Christmas past reminding Scrooge of the people he loved. I will close my eyes and think of holidays past and allow the joy to fill my aching heart. I will remember the smile of my son who is no more, hear his laugh and feel the warmth of his big bear hug. I will look around at my family and friends allowing their happiness to find a place in my soul. I will thank God for blessings that found their way through the grief that filled my life.
I will live each day to the fullest knowing that tomorrow is promised to no one. I will take no one for granted. I will honor my son by continuing family traditions and remember the love we shared will transcend through the holidays and comfort me the rest of my life. I love you mom, I love you Matt. Last words said etched forever in my heart.
MaryBeth Cichocki is a retired RN living in Delaware. She lost her youngest son Matt from an Overdose of prescriptivists opioids in 2015. Since then she has written articles on addiction and grief. She advocates in her state for comprehensive treatment for the disease of addiction. She lives with her husband Ray and her 4 rescued pups.