To Alienate or Not?

To Alienate or Not?

Janet, Mike’s mother, got a call from the school counselor on the night before the start of summer vacation. Another student had submitted an anonymous note expressing concern about Mike’s drug use.  Of course, the call worried Janet.  She knew she needed to do something, but didn’t want to do anything that would alienate her son.  She called me for traditional summer camp recommendations. I urged her to enroll Mike in a therapeutic wilderness program with a focus on substance abuse and agreed to meet Mike and talk to him about going.

            At our meeting, Mike made it clear that he had no interest in summer camp or much of anything else. He was a frightened boy slated to graduate from high school in two years and worried that he couldn’t make it in college.  He had nothing on which to “step out on”.  The comfortable life of a coastal California community had lulled him into a state of ennui.  He cautioned me that anything longer than a week away was “way too long.”  “Two or three weeks is way too long to be away from home.”

  I spoke again with Janet and repeated the recommendation of a therapeutic wilderness program. Her son needed an experience to help him explore his goals for himself and devise a plan leading to the goals.  

He needed to meet difficult challenges from which he could gain a sense of achievement.  And this achievement needed to be the result of his own efforts.  Janet was unconvinced, “I’ll sleep on it and call you tomorrow,”

The next morning there was a message on my voice mail, “I cannot ask my son to do something he doesn’t want to do.  I haven’t alienated him.  I cannot alienate him.  I think we’ll take a short trip together, maybe go gliding together or take flying lessons. Or maybe an intellectual or studio experience.  He likes pottery and photography. What he really wants is an apartment and to be on his own.  What do you think?”

I thought not.

A year later, Mike’s mother called again.  Mike was in juvenile hall after having been convicted of selling drugs.  Still Janet comforted herself that she had not alienated her son and that they were geographically close to each other, although he was under lock and key.  She, too, was in a locked and gated community, but one quite different from juvenile hall.

Mike finished his sentence and Janet set him up in the apartment. He was a senior in high school, but he didn’t have the credits to graduate.  Before GED studies could be arranged, Mike had a relapse. To his credit, he didn’t want to go downhill again.  He asked his mom to find a treatment center.  Though she was capable of affording private treatment, she refused.  She didn’t want her son away from her.  She stalled.  Mike voluntarily readmitted himself to the juvenile detention facility.

Janet didn’t alienate Mike.  But what might have happened, if she had…for awhile?

1.              Mike might have had the benefit of therapy which uncovered the root of his need for drugs.

2.              In the course of treatment, Mike might have been introduced to something which interested him and ignited a passion or love which would have made drugs less attractive.

3.              Mike might have completed high school or the GED as a part of treatment.

4.              Mike might have matured through an emotional growth curriculum to the point that he genuinely could make his own way.

5.              Mike might have individuated, become his own person, and returned to establish a satisfying and mature relationship with his mother.

None of these possibilities happened.  As Henry Ford said,  “If you need a machine and don’t buy it, then you will ultimately find that you have paid for it and don’t have it.”   Janet paid a price for Mike not having treatment.  Was it worth it?

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