On Christmas Eve, I will join my parents for a night of fun, laughter, and joy. But this cheerful atmosphere sharply contrasts the mood of the family gathering seven years earlier. On that day, my father informed me that a parent is only as happy as his saddest child. My response was, "Well then, you're screwed." I was 23 years old and had surpassed a previous low to hit rock bottom. The night before, I traveled to New York City, engaged in yet another night of excessive drinking, and awoke in Connecticut to find the car destroyed. As I sat in the living room that Christmas Eve, I looked into the eyes of my terrified parents and wondered where I went wrong.
I do not think that anyone, especially my parents, would have predicted that my life would spiral out of control. In high school, I graduated with a 4.0 GPA, was a star athlete, and did not spend a single afternoon in detention. When moving into my college dorm, my father departed with the words, "This will be the best four years of your life." But he could not have been more wrong. My mental health deteriorated and I turned to alcohol for relief. Soon enough, the solution became the problem.
Several hundred miles away, my parents were unaware that alcohol transformed their son from a kind and caring individual into a vandal, a thief, and an instigator of trouble. In my weekly phone calls to my mother, I would discuss the problems I was having at school, while excluding the common theme of alcohol. Despite my efforts, my parents managed to identify the underlying issue and suspected that I had developed a drinking problem. At the age of 19, I became a problem child.
The term problem child evokes thoughts of an ill disciplined 10-year-old who refuses to follow his teacher's instructions, clashes with classmates, and throws tantrums when he does not get his way. The adult problem child, on the other hand, displays a different set of behaviors, such as drug addiction, alcohol abuse, and criminal activity. On the surface, the adult problem child is much different than the 10-year-old who creates chaos in the classroom. But at the core, they are the same. Both exhibit destructive behavior, appear incapable of learning from past experiences, and possess a high resistance to change. While parenting a problem child of any age is an enormous challenge, my mother and father understood that their influence was especially limited after I left for college. In order to help me, my parents created a strategy centered on two principles, which I call the catalysts of change. It is the method that saved my life.
During my first year of college, my parents practiced the first catalyst of change - do not intervene until the child experiences negative consequences for his behavior. Clearly, this concept conflicts with parental instinct. In nature, a bear does not wait for her cub to be in the mouth of a bobcat before reacting. But my mother and father understood that taking immediate action would have been counterproductive. Like many who struggle with addiction, I was in deep denial. Without facing any consequences for my behavior, I had no reason to admit that I had a drinking problem and would have refused any help that was offered to me. Ironically, an intervention would not have brought me closer to recovery. Instead, it would have taught me that I needed to make a greater effort to hide my drinking.
The decision to wait for my situation to worsen was difficult for my parents to bear. My mother endured sleepless nights wondering if she would receive a 3:00am phone call with the worst of news. My father questioned if I would join the homeless he passed on the way to work each morning. Both of these concerns were legitimate. In the last few weeks of my first year of college, my drinking progressed and the number of drunken incidents and negative outcomes had multiplied. Shortly after returning home for the summer, my parents' strategy paid off. My mother discovered an incriminating apology letter that I had written to the neighbors for vandalizing their home during two drunken episodes. Identifying this as the moment in which I would be willing to change, my parents staged an intervention where I was informed that police reports had been filed for the acts of vandalism. With the accumulation of negative outcomes resulting from my drinking, and the fear of legal action from the neighbors, I conceded and agreed to attend a 30-day treatment program.
This treatment program significantly impacted my life and I returned home highly motivated to maintain my sobriety. I voluntarily attended AA meetings each day, and met with several mental health professionals. As the summer came to an end, my parents were faced with a dilemma - should I be allowed to return to school? They based their decision on the second catalyst of change - only help a problem child if he is helping himself. Seeing that I was making a genuine effort to remain sober, and confident that I would continue trying, my parents allowed me to return to school and my life improved. But then my addiction took on the form of gambling.
I started to play online poker and lost control. New defects of characters emerged and I manipulated my parents in order to finance my addiction. The peak of my desperation arrived when I visited a pawnshop to sell a watch my grandfather had given me before his death. But everything came to a halt when my father caught me playing online poker during a visit home. It was a devastating blow to my parents who had no choice but to revert to their two principle strategy. Identifying my actions as a violation of the second catalyst of change, they withdrew their financial support and refused to pay tuition for the upcoming semester.
When I learned of this news, I threw a tantrum, begged for them to reconsider, and said unforgivable things when they followed through with their decision. I rebelled the following weeks and created a hostile living environment in my parents' home. Arguments fuelled by frustration followed and I began to wonder if my behavior would end with my parents getting divorced. Eventually, I acknowledged that my leave of absence from college was a consequence of my gambling. I accepted that I had a problem and added a gambling addiction specialist to the list of mental health professionals I visited on a weekly basis. After a few months of helping myself, my parents reinstated their support and I was allowed to return to school.
In order to get a fresh start, I transferred to another university. During my first semester, I maintained a sober and gambling free lifestyle. But I was lonely and blamed my lack of friends on my inability to drink. As a result, I informed my parents that I was not an alcoholic and was going to drink "responsibly" at social events. This was devastating to my parents. Yet, they knew that they were powerless over my decision and waited for me to face consequences for this decision. That day arrived seven years ago on Christmas Eve, and it was the day that I surpassed all previous lows to hit rock bottom. As before, my parents offered to help and I accepted. Only later did my mother and father realize that this was the moment that I would no longer be the problem child.
I am sure my parents questioned if I would ever change. On the day after my last drink, it was impossible for them to know if I had broken the cycle or if it was just another calm before the storm. But my parents correctly viewed recovery as a process rather than a series of independent events. My father demonstrated this when he referred to my visit to an expensive 30-day treatment program as the "best investment I have ever made." Although I was only able to achieve short-term sobriety after my stay, he understood that the knowledge that I gained was never forgotten and it continues to help me remain sober today.
When I look into the eyes of my parents this Christmas Eve, I will no longer see fear, frustration, or concern in their eyes. This has been replaced by pride. My mother calls me her "miracle child" and my father proudly carries my first-year sobriety coin in his wallet. My parents never gave up on me, even after I tested the meaning of unconditional love. I will never be able to repay them for saving my life with their brilliant strategy. The best I can do is raise my glass of Diet Coke and thank them for a job well done. And if it is true that a parent is only as happy as his saddest child, they should have a very merry Christmas.
Steve is a licensed school counselor and worked with elementary and high school students in the Boston area for three years. In 2016, he began pursuing a career in web development. One day, he hopes to create an afterschool program that teaches computer programming to at-risk youth.