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“‘Are you looking after yourself’…whaaatttt?”

June 2018 was the beginning of the Summer from Hell and not because it was a particularly hot season. 

By Catherine McMahon

With our youngest of three turning 19, a pattern of drug and alcohol use (now legally sanctioned), spending sprees, and off-the-rails behaviour commenced. The emotional temperature in our home rose quickly with incidents like being woken at 4 a.m. to the piercing ring of the fire alarm and a house filled with smoke; our son had passed out while making a pot of pasta. It peaked when he invited inebriated strangers to come over after the bars had closed. 

For three years prior to this summer we had been growing more and more concerned over increasing substance use and there had been other worrying and heart-wrenching episodes. We had an addictions counsellor on speed dial.  Her question to me after this particular night of throwing drunk people out of our home was: “Are you looking after yourself?”


The last thing I wanted to do when my son was experiencing a mental health and substance use crisis was look after myself. How could I possibly think of my own well-being when all I could do was worry about this young person? Eating healthily? Sleeping enough? Couldn’t do it. My anxiety was off the charts. How do you stay strong when your world is on such shaky ground? This wasn’t the first time our counsellor had tried to tell me that self-care had to come first, but I was tired enough of this groundhog-day scenario to finally listen.

Our, and ultimately our son’s, saving grace that summer was understanding that taking care of ourselves was all we could do. This is the difficulty a lot of us face when our loved ones are in the midst of turmoil due to substance use. We want to take action, we want to change or control the behaviour they are exhibiting, but we can only change or control our own behaviour.

For us, it wasn’t as simple (or as difficult!) as eating better and getting more sleep. We had to begin with setting proper boundaries – taking care of ourselves physically, spiritually and emotionally by deciding we couldn’t tolerate the behaviour anymore. In theory, that’s a no brainer. Who could live comfortably with that behaviour? But what did it mean in reality? It meant we should ask him to leave the house.  Some people call this approach ‘tough love.’ My first reaction was this isn’t tough; it’s heartless and cruel. How could we possibly ask our son to leave the only home he had known? Where would he sleep? Will he get worse? Will he die of a drug overdose? Kicking him out of the house was antithetical to my mama bear persona.

And so came the hardest and most difficult decision we could ever imagine ourselves making and we did so by understanding that the grave situation we were in called for an equally serious solution. It came from the harsh realization this was our home, and we didn’t feel safe in it anymore. 

As it turned out, it was one of the most important steps we took on our road to recovery. And while it may not be the correct approach for all families, it was the right decision for us.

During the 10 weeks our son was gone, our home became peaceful and, if I’m being perfectly honest, it happened within hours of our son’s absence. We could relax in the evenings; we could sleep at night without fear. We were relieved not to see this person whom we adored but had become unrecognizable when he was under the influence. We no longer raised our voices anymore, both with him and with each other. We could once again live a relatively balanced life that is so important for health and well-being. My husband and I even went on the vacation we had tentatively planned earlier that year.

To help quell our worst fears, we made sure our son still had a phone so we could text regularly and meet up for an occasional coffee or meal. Our counsellor assured us he would figure out a way to survive. He did. I will forever be grateful to his Narcotics Anonymous sponsor for giving him a cot to sleep on and a safe haven. 

The weeks we spent apart that summer gave us the space to care for ourselves and resulted in our becoming stronger; seeing addiction problems in a new light; and learning how to better help and understand our son. Ultimately this was the foundation to build back a relationship that was at its weakest but is so strong and healthy today.

Since then, there have been other crises and setbacks. The resilience with which we have handled these events as a family, however, goes back to our decision three years ago to ‘take care of ourselves’. We are all the better for it, especially our son, who will be celebrating 24 months of sobriety in November.


Catherine McMahon is the parent of  three young adults, a writer and advocate. She, her husband, and their family live a life where addiction and mental health concerns are talked about with compassion and empathy. If you have any comments, questions or just want to connect please reach out to her via Linkedin or email [email protected]

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