Note: The idea here was to write a two-part piece, with each part being a sort of reflection the other other, meaning, the two parts should mirror each other in tone, structure, and content. This turned out to be way more difficult than I envisioned, and so I'll likely fall far short of my original goal.
I think the most difficult part of raising kids is when they reach the 13-16 year age range, your primary job as a parent begins to change fundamentally. It's around this time that you need to begin to let go: to give them the freedom to make their own decisions. Where it gets difficult is when you find yourself watching them make decisions that are harmful to themselves, to their health, while it begins to settle over you just how little power you'll have to change this moving forward.
I consider myself lucky because I'm not talking about life-threatening decisions (like self-harm, drug abuse, or suicidal ideation). Those situations do apply here, and I've had friends who have had to navigate that set of problems with their families (particularly mid & post-pandemic), but for today, the examples I'll use fall under the class of behaviors that are "harmful over the long term, but don't put your kid in imminent danger".
These all fall under "the kid is not only old enough to make their own decisions, it's age-appropriate to allow them to do so [and detrimental not to]". Meaning: at a certain point, kids need to begin to flex their own judgement, a process during which said judgement is honed through successive iterations of (a) making decisions and then (b) living with the consequences. If, as a parent, you don't give your kid the freedom to engage in this process, you're technically doing them a great disservice (given you won't always be around to help them make decisions).
I've found this process to be the most difficult phase of parenting thus far. I watch, and worry, and wait, and hope. I hope for the best outcomes for my kids, while fully disagreeing with some of the choices they have made.
We all know there's a teen mental health crisis right now, so it's a great time to pay careful attention to your teens mental health. We all know how predatory the Internet is. We all know how harmful excessive screen time is to adolescents. We all know how harmful social isolation is to adolescents. We all know how harmful not exercising is. And part of what makes this difficult is (a) knowing exactly what's harming your kid and (b) knowing exactly how/why .. and yet, your job is sit on the sidelines and watch (and wait) (and hope).
It may be the case that it's all so unnerving because in a way, the outcome here may be a test of your overall parenting strategy: if, eventually, your kid figures it all out (and begins to make healthy choices), well, that's great: you may have help set up the conditions to allow this to occur, but if they don't, well, won't you always question whether you did enough, and whether you did/said the right things, and if there's anything you might have been able to do to change the outcome?
TLDR: The feeling of helplessness, of simply abiding in it, is very difficult.
I think the most difficult part of being in an intimate relationship is when realize you're watching your partner do things that are extremely harmful to themselves while you begin to understand just how little power you have to change this.
I've always known that, as people get older, their potential paths of self-destruction widen significantly. I understand it's even worse for people with a history of violence, trauma, and abuse, but I think maybe I mostly understood all of this more from an academic standpoint than from a more visceral, experiential one.
However, I've also experienced a primary, intimate, long-term relationship end due to a substance use disorder. Since then, I've been in counseling, attended a support group, and have read a handful of books on addiction and relationships to try to understand what happened.
One of those books is In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Maté. It's full of very helpful background information on why people with substance use disorders seem to make such puzzling decisions, such as the ones that are the most self-destructive.
A couple of of my favorite quotes from the book:
(What a brutal decision)
I've found the process of watching a substance use disorder unfold to be the most difficult and painful process of any relationship I've ever been in. It might even be more painful than divorce, which was easily the previous front-runner (with no other experience on the list).
The hardest part is the helplessness you feel in this situation. You're helpless to help. You can only sit there and watch. And if your partner had the potential to be a lifetime partner (aka: you had found "your person") well, it's excruciating.
You can try to help: get the person into counseling, get them in front of their MD, get them into a recovery program, get them into a trauma support group, help them with their housing, medical expenses, and other bills, and while that sounds like a lot (and it is), it's not enough. There are profound limitations on how much you can help, and those begin with the use of the substance itself.
And anyone who has ever tried to help someone in a similar position will invariably feel guilty they didn't do enough, and there's a quote from the book that references this specifically:
Agreed (though it doesn't help very much).
You can enter into the decision to try to help someone with a substance use disorder to begin their path to recovery with eyes wide open: you know it's unlikely to work out in the end, you know they'll blame you for any relapse, you know you're going to get hurt, you know you're going to be lied to, and you know you're making yourself incredibly vulnerable. But even though the odds are against you, you know you couldn't live with yourself if you didn't at least try. And so you try. But even knowing all of that: in the event that it doesn't work out, it still hurts like hell.
One thing I did learn from the book is about a sort of "helplessness paradox", in which the following two dynamics are both happening simultaneously:
The other thing I learned is that substance use disorder is a mechanism for abandonment in a relationship. To quote Maté: "Addiction is a way to avoid intimacy." Both drug addiction and alcoholism are ways to not feel, and so under the influence of these substances, your partner also doesn't feel for you. The more your partner uses, the further away they are from you, until one day you realize they're no longer with you at all.
While it's never something I thought I'd write (because it's a cliché), but: if you lose a partner this way, you're really left all alone to pick up the pieces. That process is lonely. And sad.
Trying To Stop Writing Now
(There are a million more things to say. My guess is they will be left unsaid.)
I did some personal writing during this time, from the heart, which I'll put into a footnote below, as I never really intended anyone to read it.
And one last quote before I stop writing: "Addiction is the loss of self, recovery is the finding of self.". I think that's true. The 2nd step to recovery is to ask "Who am I?"
TLDR: The feeling of helplessness, of simply abiding in it, is very difficult, and in this case: excruciating.
I've read a ton about SUD in a book called "In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts" by Gabor Maté, and it's really helped me to understand what's happening internally in a person with SUD. The intellectual understanding is helpful, but it doesn't help heal the heart.
My overall goal in reading the book was to understand: to understand the mechanics of addiction, to understand why people behave the way they do (and why they make the decisions that they make), but mostly to understand why a person with a substance use disorder, if it progresses along far enough, ends up with burning it all down: destroying relationships, giving up on love, giving up on themselves, turning on the people who tried to help, and in a sense destroying the potential for a great future that they were able to see at some point.
I think in the end, the book did help me make some sense of things, but it didn't help with either the pain or the loss from the destruction of one of my primary relationships. I think that's just going to take some time (and honestly, I don't see that pain as ever going away).
Here are a handful of quotes from this book that really resonated with me.
I can't give you the context for this, but trust me that it comes from wisdom gained through experience.
I now know that everybody has to make a conscious decision about how they want to live their lives. Just high-level buckets like: do I want to be angry or do I want to be happy? Create pain or heal pain? Love or hate? Try to build meaningful relationships or remain isolated? Give or take? Live authentically or live superficially?
And I think we need to take a step each day to re-evaluate where we are on those continuum, to see if we've gotten off track. It's so easy to get off track (and that includes all of us). And I think it sort of starts with how we treat other people, and in turn that will dictate, or help dictate, how we are treated.
And I also learned that people sometimes need a reminder about how they treat you. They need to be guided. Other people can be as unconscious or as asleep as you can, and so in that case we need to wake them up from their slumber and say "Hey, be more respectful" and "Why are we doing this?" (Why are we here? Why are we together?) and hope that they also wake up and see that the water is boiling and then understand that they can adjust too.
And the last thing I learned is that addiction is hard. It's really hard. And it's heartbreaking. And I knew that, intellectually at least, and I know addiction recovery, and I knew it at the beginning, I still believe it, and that if you're working with somebody who has a substance use disorder you have to understand that things might not work out. Right at the very beginning you have to understand that it might not work out. And then you sort of have to okay with that outcome. At the start: "I know I might end up on the wrong end of this." "I know it might not work out." "I know I might not be able to help this person, at least, not for very long." And I know that all of that has to be okay. There can be no kidding about this, about how it might go. You can't fool yourself. And then when it goes that way, it will be excruciating. And heartbreaking.
And you'll be left back at the beginning. Which is: how am I going to spend my time? How do I want to live [this short life], to it's full potential? Who do I want to be? And how do I want to treat the people around me? You're left back at the beginning with those important questions that I think we don't ask ourselves enough.