The Things We Cannot Change

This morning Bunz called his dad crying. When the phone first rang to wake us up, J picked it up and looked at it, and said, “I think it’s Bunz calling.”

“Why aren’t you answering it?” I asked.

“Because I’m in bed,” he answered, even though we both knew there would be no sleeping after that.

Bunz is a sweet boy. He retains a certain innocence, even at 25. Or maybe innocent isn’t the right word. He retains a certain naivety. He has a good heart, his mom’s hair and eyes and his dads jaw. He’s a big grown up boy who’s still a kid in a lot of ways.

That’s because he’s an addict. He has been since he was a teenager.

It’s hard to determine where he went wrong. Maybe he inherited it. Maybe it was three football injuries three years in a row and the subsequent pain medication. Maybe it was the crowd of friends he fell into and stayed with. Maybe it was his parents long drawn out divorce. Maybe it’s because he’s always kind of been a “follower”, and he doesn’t pick a good leader. Maybe he just had a hole inside himself that he needed to fill up.

Whatever it was, Bunz started using in high school, and he hasn’t stopped since. It’s a solid nine years of his life he has given over to drugs and alcohol.

He’s hurt a lot of people along the way. From not showing up at a party planned for him to not visiting his dying grandmother. Stealing, assault, disorderly conduct, drunk driving.

But of all the people he’s hurt, the person hurt the most is himself.

I met Bunz when he was fourteen. For as long as I knew him he wanted to be a Marine. He was so excited that he begged his parents to let him enlist early, when he was seventeen. What parent would not want to see their child’s dream come to fruition?

Bunz signed on the dotted line and went into his senior year of high school. By the end of that year he no longer wanted to be a Marine. He was running wild, deep into drugs and alcohol, and the last thing he wanted was to sober up in boot camp.

The rest of us thanked our lucky stars that he had signed up before he got so lost.

“The Marines will be good for him,” we all said.

And for a while, they were. Bunz at his boot camp graduation was proud, healthy and mature. We were all impressed.

Then he came home for two weeks of leave and disappeared. He did not visit people who loved him and wanted to see him. He barely made it back to his mom in time to go to the airport, and then he was back in the Marines.

Things did not get better. It turns out that when Bunz drinks a lot he has a fierce temper, and he likes to get in fights. All he wins, which is what he does, is trouble, since you can’t go around beating the holy living shit out of people without consequences.

They gave him three chances, and after strike three, the Marines set him free.

You can imagine how he felt about himself. All he ever wanted was to be a Marine (except for that short time before boot camp) and they had washed their hands of him.

He came home dejected, depressed and using. He went back to his old friends and his old habits.

Then he met a girl, and he fell in love with her while she took care of him and tried to save him, and fell in love with him, too. They struggled a lot, but she kept on him, kept pushing for better.

“He has a good heart,” she told me once, “I knew it as soon as I met him.”

In an effort to improve their lives, they packed up everything they owned and moved themselves to Myrtle Beach, SC.

Our wedding was a few months later. Bunz’ girlfriend bought the plane tickets, found them a ride to the airport and packed a joint suitcase. J picked them up at the airport the day before our wedding. He took them to the suit shop, so Bunz could get his rental, and then out to lunch. They came to our house before the rehearsal dinner, and Bunz came back after rehearsal and slept over. We stayed up way too late talking and the next day, while his dad and I exchanged our vows, Bunz cried the whole time. I had to give him the emergency Kleenex I had tucked into the front of my dress.

Later at dinner Bunz would get wind of the fact that J and I were not coming home that night. He had thought we were, so he made plans to stay elsewhere, trying to be sweet, and give us space on our wedding night.

When he found out we weren’t going to be home he asked if he could stay there. We, as nicely as we could, told him we didn’t want him to stay there when we weren’t there.

He was mad, but not nearly as mad as he was when he found out his sister was staying there.

We let him be mad. He huffed around, disappearing for long periods of time, and shooting daggers at us whenever he saw us looking his way. We did not engage. It was our wedding night, and we were enjoying it to the fullest.

When we pulled into the hotel parking lot later, we were giant balls of guilt. We decided to call Sem, his sister, and see if she thought we should let him stay at the house with her.

“NO,” she said, without hesitation, “I knew you guys were going to be feeling guilty but he’s FINE, he has like five places he can stay tonight.”

We felt a little better.

“And I am tired, and I want to just take a bath and go to sleep and not babysit him all night,” she finished.

We thanked her for setting us straight, talking us out of our guilt and into the night. We didn’t think or talk about Bunz again. He was going to be FINE.

The next day Bunz and Sem’s mom came to pick them up for lunch, and we said our goodbyes to them when they came home, because we were leaving for a tropical honeymoon.

We left in the middle of the night and we traveled all day. Two planes, a boat and a taxi and we were finally at our destination. We put down our bags, looked around briefly, and then collapsed into chairs on the patio for a much needed moment of rest.

J’s phone rang with an unknown number.

“Hi, This is (insert name I can’t recall), from Mercy Hospital, we have your son here.”

We looked at each other and braced ourselves for what was coming next.

“I’ll let you talk to him,” she said, and handed the phone to Bunz.

Bunz proceeded to tell us a story about being at his friend’s house and his friend trying to kill him. To escape, he broke a window and jumped out, then ran to the neighbor’s house, broke another window, and entered their home. They called the police.

“We don’t believe any of that actually happened,” the nurse said when she came back to the phone, “we believe he’s on K2 and he’s hallucinating. His story doesn’t match what the police have determined from other people present.”

This was not the first time Bunz had been in trouble related to drugs and alcohol, but we were so saddened that as soon as he was away from our supervision he’d gone out of control.

“And he wonders why we wouldn’t let him stay at the house without us,” we said to ourselves, and then we called his sister and asked if she could please let his mom know he was in the hospital.

And we tried not to worry about him on our honeymoon.

He stayed alive and went back home to South Carolina. His girlfriend broke up with him.

“Since we’ve been here,” she wrote me, “I’ve been trying to make a better life. But he’s not trying.”

It was hard for her. She was worried about what would happen to him. She was still hoping someone could make him see the light. It didn’t work.

I didn’t try to get him to see the light. Because, of all of us in this family, I’m the only one who used to be married to a drug addict and alcoholic.

It’s easy to convince yourself that someone just needs the right circumstances- a new life, a new job, a new girl, their mom, their dad, a good role model, good friends- if they just had that, it might be just what they need.

It’s not what they need. What they need is the will and desire to have a better life. There is nothing if there isn’t that. Sure, yes, they need treatment, but it is worthless without the will and the want.

Last weekend we saw “Beautiful Boy”. If you haven’t seen it, I’m about to ruin it for you. (Turn back now, last chance!). It’s the story of a dad and his son and his son’s drug addiction. The way it impacts the family, the way you are willing to do anything to save your son (or daughter or brother or sister or mom or dad or husband or wife)

There is a scene in the movie where the son calls his dad, crying. He tells his dad that he thinks everything would be fine if he could just come home.

The dad says no, for the first time ever, and he hangs up the phone and cries.

J and I looked at each other with tears in our eyes, because he’s had the same conversation, more than once, with Bunz.

Watching him would be a full time job that neither of us can handle, but that’s not the most important thing.

“It will completely ruin our relationship, Tyler,” J said, “I love you, and I don’t want that to happen.”

There have been times when Bunz has been living in his car. Sleeping in the gym parking lot so he can go in and take a shower before work in the morning. It is unbelievably hard to not help your child when he is sleeping in his car. He moves a lot, he doesn’t seem to be able to get along with roommates for any extended period of time. He’s been arrested, he’s been in fights, he’s been really high and really, really low. And yet it still doesn’t seem to be enough to make him want better. Not yet, anyway.

Doctor Phil says you should never give up on your kids.

I’ll never forget when my young daughter said, “You never even try to help him!” with a fiery anger that surprised me, when I wouldn’t let her dad come stay at our house.

She hadn’t known all the things I tried. All the treatment programs. Court. Jail. Treatment. Again and again. I taped all the worksheets- those helpful handouts with strategies for success that we’d accumulated from treatment programs-all over the dining room walls. I had given it my all. I had books. I went to Al-Anon. I knew all the twelve steps and the serenity prayer.

It didn’t matter a lick what I did, as my daughter would come to learn on her own, in time.

It’s scary, to read the headlines about drug overdoses and suicides. To know our children’s life expectancy is lower than our own. To know the leading cause of death is overdose and have a child who is an addict is terrifying.

At some point, every person who loves an addict who doesn’t have it in them to change will come to the conclusion that they cannot change that person. They will have to draw a line. They will have to relinquish control.

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

That is the prayer of anyone who loves an addict. I just wish we had something more than that to count on.

So today, when Bunz called crying, J did not start a lot of drama. He told Bunz all the important things, that he always loves him, that he believes in him, that he believes Bunz can be anything he wants to be if he puts his mind to it. That he’s still willing to help him pay for school if he wants to get a degree or learn a trade. That it’s important to keep your word when you give it because that’s what adults do.

And we accept what we cannot change, even when it costs a piece of us every time.

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