Things I Wish I Would Have Known Then

By Mary Cucarola – 11/2/22

“Do the best you can until you know better.  Then when you know better, do better”.  ~Maya Angelou

He was sitting at our kitchen table, eyes down, knees bouncing – his hat on backwards and his gray oversized hoodie hanging on him two sizes too big – different from his usual clothing of a polo shirt and jeans.  His dad kept asking him questions about his troubling behavior, showing his frustration with the ongoing situation.

“What is wrong with you?”  No answer.

“Cody, what is wrong?”  No answer. 

“Why do you keep getting into trouble?” No answer.

“We can’t help you if you don’t tell us what is going on?”  No answer.

“Then go to your room and do your homework.”  No comment.

I chimed in and took his phone away.

“Go do your homework.  I want to see it when you are done.”  No comment.

He got up, walked off, slouching, seemingly with no reaction at all.

Like he was dead inside.

I begin at the beginning of it, examining the lasting memories and difficult images of an earlier time.  I am still hurt by these hard memories and want to push them out of my mind.  But, what can I learn and share if I don’t immerse myself in the truth of it?

What we didn’t know then was Cody was smoking a lot of pot and drinking heavily in his room in the basement, backyard, neighborhood, and elsewhere his sophomore year in high school.  We also didn’t know he had received a ticket for speeding and for having drug paraphernalia in his car.  We didn’t know he was severely depressed, either.

The signs were all there – he changed his friends at school, his grades plummeted, he quit the basketball team, his appearance was different, he got into trouble, he lied a lot, and he withdrew from us.

I kept thinking it was a phase.  Nobody really clued me in or maybe I was in denial, but I did not know the extent of it.

I complicated things by moving out of our home, separating from his dad his junior year in high school, and getting divorced a year later.  His bad behavior went from bad to worse in a hurry.  We continually tried to help him the best we knew how to do at the time, but nothing seemed to work.

Five rehabs later, we lost him to his addiction at age 26 by overdose.  That’s the short story version.

There were so many things I didn’t know at that time.  No one offered me the education or awareness around addiction I needed.  I felt judged and alone.  It was so painful to see him self-destruct without being able to help.  I kept trying to make him be “normal”.  I kept loving him during it all, but my love didn’t save him.

These are a few of the things I wish I would have known then:

  • His addiction changed him. The beautiful boy who loved to play soccer, basketball, golf, snowboard, jump on the trampoline, ride his yellow bike, shoot baskets in the driveway listening to music, laugh, and smile when he was around his many friends became a shell of himself.  He became so broken that he lost his identity and his essence.  He forgot what was truly important to him.  A switch went off and nothing else mattered except feeding the addiction.
  • He needed our help. He was in the grips of a disease and wasn’t thinking straight. He made the choice to drink and use drugs at a young age, but from then on, it was not a choice, but a compulsion to use.  It happened fast, and he didn’t even know he had a problem at first.  Neither did we.  The daily use of drugs and alcohol were changing his brain chemistry at a time when his brain was still developing.  We needed to talk to him openly, listen to him, set boundaries, and get him the professional help he needed early on.
  • He didn’t choose to become addicted. Addiction is never a person’s choice.  Over time, drugs and alcohol change the way the brain functions.  Cody had most of the risk factors, too.  Genetic predisposition, early use (while his brain was still developing), mental health issues with his ADHD, depression, and anxiety, and exposure to alcohol in the home.  No one ever told me about the protective factors that may help offset the risk factors for substance use disorders.  I know better now, and I share those factors with others in our family program at CFS.
  • He never wanted to hurt or disappoint us. When a person becomes addicted to drugs, they are not aware of the vast repercussions resulting from their substance use.  Cody started using substances to feel better, but never with the intention of hurting others.  The brain changes disturb the normal hierarchy of needs and desires.  The things he once enjoyed doing became secondary to using drugs and alcohol.  Sadly, it is common for family members to become negatively impacted because they experience erratic behavior, uneven temperament, and other effects from their substance use.

These are just some of the things I wished I would have known then.  I could write a book on this subject because I know and understand so much more now than I did then.  In fact, that is what I want to do – tell the long version of the story.

So that people know better and can do better than I did.

Mary Cucarola – 11/2/22

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