I was a happy, happy boy. That’s all I knew. I had two parents who loved me, and two older, doting brothers who treated me like their prized possession. We lived in the suburbs for most of my childhood, but for two years in the late ’60s my parents worked on campus at a small university. We three boys loved getting into trouble with the college students and sneaking into parties we shouldn’t have been at. I really thought we were the perfect family—summers at the Cape, big family meals, and bedtime games and stories and prayers.
But then one day my parents sat us kids down at dinner and told us that Dad was leaving. What a shock! Was there a problem? I had no idea. Then came a long series of separations and reconciliations that got very confusing. I thought we all loved each other! The divorce, when it finally came, was ugly and bitter, and my extended family and the outside world’s attitude about it filled me with shame and blame. What happened? What had I done wrong? Suddenly my family was in crisis, a crisis we’d never fully recover from. We weren’t normal—we were tainted!
At this point, it seems like our family went into survival mode. Suddenly, that feeling of “we’re all in this together” turned into “every man for himself.” There was tension and bickering and isolation that didn’t exist before. Everyone had their own way of dealing with the stress. My initial coping mechanism was to isolate, overeat, and act out at school. My whole family shared a food addiction, and I joined right in, gaining weight rapidly. This only added to my sense of isolation and detachment from the kids at school.
Another way I dealt with the family situation was to be Mommy’s little helper. I was the “good boy.” My brothers acted out in other ways and got into trouble, but not me. I would clean and cook for my mom, so she wouldn’t have to do it when she got home from work. That was the role I took on. I would cook Julia Child’s coq au vin and béchamel sauce recipes and make my mother happy. If there was an argument in the family, I’d try to be the mediator.
When I was thirteen, the doctors discovered a malignant brain tumor in my oldest brother’s hypothalamus. It was inoperable. He’d been having major anger and behavioral problems for a few years and was physically and emotionally abusive to my brother and me. The doctors later said the tumor might explain his behavior. He had a series of radiation treatments, and my mother was constantly with him at the hospital, shipping us younger boys off to various relatives. My dad had remarried at that point and was living with his new wife and my stepsisters. He had a new family and my relationship with them was awkward and uncomfortable.
My brother’s illness took the family crisis to an even higher level. We all said our own foxhole prayers to save his life. I promised God I’d do anything to just let him live. I wouldn’t be just a good boy—I’d be the best boy on Earth!
The radiation treatments were successful. My brother survived! But our family was never the same. The dynamic changed, and all the attention went to my brother, who suffered lots of depression and behavioral problems as a result of the radiation. He was constantly cared for and worried about. Most of the time I was left to my own devices—a self-sufficient latchkey kid.
That’s about when my own behavioral problems started to kick in. I went from straight A’s to C’s. I had trouble making friends at school and felt like an outsider. I even got suspended from school for a week in eighth grade.
Around this time, I started to realize I was gay. I fought it with all my might—I couldn’t be one of them, I thought. Those people were strange and weird and had no friends. At the age of fifteen, I discovered anonymous sex with men in the big city. I started lying about my whereabouts to my mom, coming up with stories that became more and more ingenious.
This was the real beginning of my double life. Lying and withholding information to everyone, especially my mother, became a way of life. One day, while my mother and I were out, she saw an overtly gay couple and commented to me, “I know I shouldn’t say this, but that just makes me sick.” How could I possibly be honest with her now? Our once-close relationship was becoming strained. I couldn’t wait to get away from my family and go to college. I wanted to get out!
I did eventually leave for college. And after years of saying no to drugs–being a good boy–I finally said yes. Suddenly, I’d found this great way to fit in and feel a part of everything. I immediately became the best druggie in my dorm. I started living another double life, one with the partiers and one with the non-druggie theater geeks. These were my new families.
After school, I moved to New York City (Where else?). There I was able to come out to my friends and eventually my family, most of whom took it well. My dad and stepmom actually said, “Some of our best friends are gay!” My coming out brought me closer to my stepsisters, who I had barely gotten to know. But my mom did not take it well, partly because she’d just converted from Judaism to Catholicism! She’d been in the closet about being a Catholic, and I’d been in the closet about being gay. This didn’t mesh well.
My relationship with my mom and the rest of my family became even more distant for the next several years. I became the black sheep who only showed up when I felt like it. I’d find excuses to get out of holidays and birthdays and even refused to go to my Nana’s unveiling (a shonde!). After all, I thought, I’d gone to her funeral.
My biological family was the problem, I thought. The more I could stay away from them, the better. The more I was around them, the more I felt the dysfunction and insanity. They’d made me the person I was, after all.
This distance from my family only got worse when I started using crystal meth in my late 30s, having just been diagnosed with HIV. I was no longer a part-time son and brother—I became an absent son—a ghost. I completely cut off everyone in my life that loved me, especially my family. I had so much shame and was so deep into my daily using and dealing that I couldn’t bring myself to contact anyone. This went on for eight years.
I was so far gone that finally my mother sent my brother, who lived only a few miles away, to stake out my apartment to see if I was still there and alive. “Of course! I’m fine. I’ve just been super busy,” I said casually, brushing him off.
Once, when I was partying with a group of guys, watching porn and doing what we do, I mistakenly called my mother and left her a 20-minute message! To this day, I have no idea if she listened to it, and if so, what she heard. My solution: delete her phone number from my phone. I also decided, while I was at it, I’d better delete all my family members’ numbers, just in case.
The most painful part of this long period of daily use was that every single day I would say to myself, I have to call Mom. I have to send her an email. I have to just let her know I’m OK. She doesn’t deserve this! But I couldn’t. I couldn’t get over the shame of using and the guilt of being such a bad son. I couldn’t call her and lie about my life. I knew she’d know I was lying and hiding something, and I knew that would be the end of my denial. I also felt that I had no right to ask for help from my family after the way I’d treated them. This cycle was never ending.
Finally, after many years of using and selling drugs, I was arrested and brought downtown. I called my brother for help. My brother would do anything for me, so of course he came down to wait for my hearing before the judge. He had to call my family and let them know what had happened. My dad was a lawyer and got involved right away, and my mom was, as you can imagine, quite distraught. Everything came out at that time: my arrest, my drug use, my lifestyle, and my HIV status.
It took me several months to stop using, even facing so many felony charges and the threat of prison time. Finally, after 28 days in rehab, daily Twelve Step meetings, and being away from my toxic apartment, using buddies, and crystal meth, I learned how to stay clean one day at a time. I have been sober ever since.
At rehab they told me to delete all the phone numbers of the people I’d used with—literally 90% of my contacts—and keep only family and people in recovery. I had very few people left, but now I could add back my mom and dad and brothers and sisters. I didn’t have to keep them off my phone.
As soon as I left rehab, I contacted my family members and finally went up to see my mom. She welcomed me back as if I had never been gone. The love and acceptance was still there. She was my mom, a loving mom. The same one she’d always been.
What wasn’t there from my family was trust. For a long while there was this feeling of, Is this going to last? Is he going to show up for this event? Is he going to take off on us?
The first time I visited my mom in Maine, I was doing a 90 in 90, so I received my 90-day key tag up there. She drove me to meetings and picked me up when they were over—she didn’t feel comfortable letting me drive anywhere on my own, though she was too kind to say this outright. After a year clean, she said, “You can take the car to the meeting, but come right back.” Eventually, I was able to use the car whenever I wanted. The trust had been earned.
When I did my Eighth and Ninth Steps, number one on my amends list was Mom. How could I ever make up for all the pain I’d caused her—all the worry? What kind of a son does that to his mother? My sponsor told me that, yes, I would make direct and unflinching formal amends to her, but my living amends would be a lifetime process. I didn’t have to live my life muttering endless mea culpas and apologies. I just had to amend my behavior and be a good son—stay in touch with her regularly, remind her that I loved her, and show up when she needed me.
I really learned how to show up and be part of a family in the rooms of CMA. I came in at my worst: afraid, angry, broke, soon to be homeless, and virtually unemployable. I was accepted for who I was and it didn’t matter what I had done. I didn’t have to be the best boy on Earth, I didn’t even have to stop using, I just had to keep coming back. My sponsor and fellows wanted to help me with my problem and later, when I became a sponsor, I learned how to listen without judgment. I offered my experience, strength and hope to others and gave back with service in many areas of the fellowship. We show up for our family in CMA.
Over the years I’ve tried to continue to show up in all areas of my life, especially with the family I grew up with. I’m present in their lives now. I lost my dad a few years back, and, as a result, I’ve developed a much closer relationship with my stepmom. Last year I lost my oldest brother after a long illness related to radiation treatment for his tumor. That’s brought me even closer to my surviving brother and my cousins. I have great stepsisters and a niece and nephews I watched grow up from babies—I get to be a part of their lives!
And I call my mom every day now. I’m always grateful to hear her voice and check in with her. I resisted calling her so much at first. I didn’t want to be that Mama’s Boy, the kid I used to be. But I really look forward to our talks. We’ve learned to accept each other for who we are and now she’s my biggest fan. I know I’ll never have anyone like her in my life again.
I do get impatient sometimes when she can’t figure out how to watch her Netflix or send photos on her phone, or when she refuses to wear her new hearing aid. But I can be patient and loving and model the same incredible acceptance she has shown me throughout my life. It was exhausting, but I loved helping her move to a new home closer to my brother and me. I love doing little fix-it projects around her new place.
My mom is a devout church-attending Catholic (who speaks Yiddish) and believes deeply in the power of prayer. I am agnostic in my belief, but I have a strong feeling that my mother’s prayers did help me find recovery. Often at the end of a meeting we say to think of someone who’s still out there using and pray them into the rooms. This always makes me think of my mom and her belief and love for me.
The family I’ve gotten back is a direct result of the family I chose—my fellows. CMA has taught me to be more tolerant and patient and forgiving with everyone in my biological family. You all saw me at my worst and helped me grow up and get sober. You all taught me that we’re not in this just for ourselves. It’s our common welfare that’s most important. That’s how a true family works.