Image Credit: Casey Taylor
By freshman year of high school my eldest son had broken more laws, bones, and hearts than any other child in our provincial town. With his lost expression, spiked hair, and electric guitar, Will embodied the ultimate bad-boy. His metamorphosis from boy to man was both prolonged and light-speed, his romance with death naïve, startling, obscene. He looked twenty but had the impulse control of a toddler. It left me drained. Since middle school I’d thought, I’ll take care of you. I’ll figure out a way to fix this. To fix you.
But scared straight tactics had only led him to invest in bottles of Visine, lock boxes, and a smokeless pipe collection. During spring break of his sophomore year, I’d left to pick up Easter basket treats for Will and his younger brother and somehow ended up wandering into a pet store and walking out with Ruby, a gigantic red-tailed boa constrictor. The memory fills me with shame and guilt. I had never before and would never again hold an exotic animal captive. I am an animal lover. A PETA supporter. It was as if I’d taken leave of my senses.
I brought home a snake because I wanted my son to like me, to see me as something more than the high-strung rule setter, to have some connection with him that didn’t involve my being the bad guy: setting limits and taking things—drugs, knives, and privacy—away. I thought giving him something cool and dangerous might help. The snake wasn’t the first fix I tried, but it might have been the most ridiculous, the most selfishly cruel. After everything else had failed— AA, psychiatric medications, vitamin-b injections, bee pollen supplements— I would have tried an exorcism had anyone suggested it. My husband and I had an understanding: he made the money, working thirteen-hour days, and I tended to our children. I’d left my job as a social worker, housing homeless people in New York City, many of whom had substance abuse problems. It left me feeling terrifyingly alone in dealing with Will’s downward spiral.
All of the interventions had added up to this: school suspensions, naps that lasted too long to be called naps, and half-inch baggies too small to be used for anything in the real world. Will poisoned himself with a steady diet of cigarettes, pot, alcohol, Xanax, coke, and god-knows-what. He’d started cutting his arms and legs the summer of freshman year, leaving sharp staccato scars across perfect pale skin. There seemed to be less of him every day. Less laughter. Less talk. Like a flickering light slowly dying. I feared there was truth behind his t-shirt that read, This Is Not a Phase.
Ruby was thicker than my calf and measured 6’5”, making her the tallest member of our family. Sand-colored ovals separated by dark, saddle-shaped patches turned the color of blood near her tail. Her skin was cool and dry, her body hard, and holding her was like I imagine holding a thick fire hose might be. She loved to slither about on people, draping herself around their necks, smooth muscle against skin. It was like having a silken bag of sand perfectly weighted over your shoulders, a sensation far more pleasurable than you might imagine.
Stressed out snakes sometimes get trapped in an endless circle of their own skin during a molt, their tail in their mouth. The Greeks called this image Ouroboros, a symbol of transformation or resurrection, the circle of life and death. I was proud this never happened to Ruby, that where I failed at childrearing I seemed to be excelling at snakerearing.
Will was manipulative and lying to friends, teachers, and us, his family. I had to be on him, preventing him from —crashing his car, picking fights, overdosing. He smelled like industrial floor cleaner. His pants grew too large. His skin turned sallow. How hard those drugs were on his developing brain and body. I longed for his toddler days when he’d pencil-roll down any hill he found, humming to himself dreamily. When he’d promised to buy me a pony as soon as he made his fortune. Despite the drugs, he was a merit scholarship semi-finalist in high school. He echoed Jimi Hendrix on electric guitar and vocals. His friends thought I was mean, which I was, but I was never sure which of them was feeding him poison. It would have been easier for me if my son wasn’t a different person from hour-to-hour.
I brought Ruby home and set up the temperature-controlled glass cage on Will’s desk, then spent hours arranging her climbing vine, faux pond, and hiding cave. Her coiled body lay in sharp contrast to the straight angles of the cage, a visual reminder of how out of place she was. Shortly after she arrived Will gave me a card that said, “You’re Rad as F-ck.” My need to save my son had taken on a manic urgency. The words that played on loop through my brain were: I must save my son. I can’t save him. Must save. Can’t save. Must. Can’t. Mustcantmust.
Our house with Ruby in it smelled like a dewy rain forest, which I liked. She seemed to be forever smiling, something I interpreted as a general sort of thumbs up. “She likes it when I hold her head up like this…don’t you, girl?” Will said in a rare, calm mood, positioning the snake’s head with his long callous-tipped fingers. My son was, and is, possessed by music. He hears beats in the windshield wipers’ thumping, the rain hitting the roof, and the swish of the clothes in the washer. His sense of tempo led him to become the stroke for his crew team, a performer on large stages in New York, and the recipient of a music scholarship for college. In his world the drugs were mind expanding. In mine, they were tearing through his body, shredding joy.
Drugs were a respite from Will’s anxiety and when he used them his goodwill extended over to me. “I love you, Mom. I know I’m not easy; keep doing what you do, please,” he cooed under the influence of something powerful. I saw him once on the tail-end of a mushroom induced high; he looked around as if the world was bathed in a luminous glow, a faint smile on his face, radiating love. I later found him in his room listening to music on his bed, eyes blurred with tears, as if the music quenched a wild, lusty, and insatiable thirst. It was like his brightest hopes were realized in those moments. And in some ways mine were too.
More than once he blacked out and didn’t remember conversations we’d had the night before. A black out is, by its very nature, the ultimate escape. Once, when I confronted him about pills I found in his backpack, he said “You think I want to party? Hell, I’m just trying to feel normal, like everybody else seems to feel naturally.” Despite being a performer, Will had always been painfully shy. I wondered if the social ease that accompanied drug use had help land him in the substance abuse trap.
By Will’s junior year I’d became the primary caretaker of Ruby. I made frequent trips to Pet Smart to request the inconceivable snake-snacks from a staff person, who had to go to a secret freezer in a back room, far away from the food without faces. I scored a bag of twenty-five breathtakingly cute furless newborn mice – like tiny, pink, frozen puppies sealed in a plastic bag labeled pinkies.
It was an extraordinary thing to see a snake eating a mouse, to watch her swallow the creature whole, muscles flexing around it, a thin cord of mouse-tail the last thing to slip behind smiley lips. No chewing, just swallowing, and afterward she was unable to move for hours as her body worked to digest the meal. I felt like the mouse.
My son’s addiction was consuming me. It was bigger, stronger, and wilder than I could manage. I set tight limits—curfews, friend restrictions, and phone monitoring. We had bitter fights. Once, when I confronted him about the small Batman logoed baggies of white powder I’d found in his sock drawer, my 6’1” child threatened to hit me. Not for the first time I thought, My god, he’s going to kill me.
Well-meaning friends, who didn’t know any better, shook their heads and recommended that I consider beating or disowning my son. Most advice of that sort began with, “If my son ever…: but there was the catch, their sons and daughters had never and likely would never go down the path my son had. They assumed a moral failing, or inferior genes, or some dark family secret was to blame. Most couldn’t fathom it might be a simple case of random bad luck. That it could have been their child. They thought I was too quick to indulge Will, too protective of him, or too strict. I might have been equally judgmental before our lives imploded. But I’ve subsequently learned that my responses to parenting an addict were as normal or as bizarre as any other parent in the same situation. In those days, if I woke up to find my son still breathing I took it as a sign that we were okay. As long as our tragedies weren’t irreversible, we’d push through.
Adding Ruby to the list of dangerous things I was trying to keep alive turned out to be more of a reflection of rather than a solution to our problems. I felt horribly guilty that she wasn’t living among her own kind in her own natural environment. I spent months seeking, and finally found, a better home for her. I could no more care for an exotic snake than I could save my son.
My tight grip, meant to protect, corral and tame my boy, had instead nearly suffocated both of us. Our negative interactions had started to form into something hard and intractable, like an Ouroboros. The momentum of rotation continued, without beginning or end. With great effort, in his senior year, I had to loosen my hold, to lean into life as it was instead of fighting to mold it into the version it ought to be. I danced with control and surrender, started working with him rather than against him. I let him face more natural consequences—miss deadlines, fail tests, lose friends. I mentioned his red eyes and slurred speech but offered compassion. I reminded him that he could confide in and count on me. I tried not to judge his bad decisions before taking time to see those decisions in the context of the rest of him, an intelligent, funny, dangerous, and beautiful boy who is shedding skins as fast as he can grown them. I could exhibit every virtue of perfect parenting and my son might still overdose, or I could do it all wrong and he might still pursue sobriety. Becoming an addict is not evidence of my son’s moral failure any more than it is of mine. I would never have chosen to have a son with an addiction. Yet, I would choose my son, every time. The words I repeat now are: I can love my son but cannot save him. Love him not save him. Love notsave Lovenotsave. Lovelovelovelovelove.
Anne McGrath is a Hudson Valley based writer and a recipient of fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has been published in River Teeth, Ruminate, Columbia Journal, Lunch Ticket, and other journals. Her audio stories have aired on National Public Radio and the Brevity Podcast.