Sharpen Up – Lowering the weapon


Six years and one month ago, I stood on the street between our house and a small park ringed with redwoods and sycamores, holding a sharp pencil poised in my trembling hand, to stab my enemy in the throat, if necessary.

Regrettably, in the face of all that I have loved most deeply in my life, all that I most cherish and the values I live by, the enemy was my grown child, my twenty-one year old son, Sam.

His two-yearold child was inside the house with his mother.  They were playing Legos while I tried not to stab Sam in the neck.  

Sam was sneering at me, which was not helpful for group harmony.

We were reaching what some people might call a bottom. I had always heard, since I got sober in 1986, that if you’ve got a problem, go look in the mirror, but it did not immediately occur to me that I could be the crazy one, nice adorable Sunday School teacher me, who was now shouting in the street, brandishing a weapon. It did not occur to me that I was hitting a bottom; only that there was no hope.  Just rage and self-loathing and absolute utter depletion.

This is how you can tell it’s a bottom.

Lest you think that I was prone to violence against children, the track record was pretty good.  It had been six years since I slapped him in the face, while he sneered at me, stoned, in our driveway.  I wrote about it for Salon, because in this terrifying barren situation, we had ended up a couple of hours later taking naps on separate couches in the living room.  Talk about Grace batting last: there had been no way for us to get from the driveway, stunned, his face and my hand burning from the slap, to snoring quietly, in the same room.

Grace meets you exactly where you are, at your most pathetic and hopeless, and it loads you into its wheelbarrow, and tips you out somewhere else, in ever so slightly better shape, which feels like a miracle.

I got so many letters of hate from readers at Salon, about how I was obviously not the aging peacenik do-gooder I portray myself as, but rather, an abuser, and in the words of my favorite respondent, “no better than the pedophile priests.”

We had had a treaty in place that had served us well enough since the slap, until the tiny breach, with the sharpened pencil held in the air a foot from his throat.

Don’t get me wrong–when you think you may lose your child to the dark path, there are some severely bad days/weeks/months/years, when the only thing that can help is the experience, strength, hope, and truth of other parents who have been through this, who have come through, whose children somehow survived.  Many, many children don’t: Sam had already lost two close high school friends to oxy overdoses, and as it would turn out, would lose three more incredibly gifted, lovely boys.

Because of this, I had sent him away once for 9 months, and let him stay in jail once.  People without scary kids said, “You WHAT?”

People with scary kids asked me where I had found the strength. The answer is, I had found the strength in the old formula of terror and grace, the terror that if I fished my kid out, this person I had loved by far more than anyone else on earth, he would die.

“But that is so extreme!” people said.  “He could have been hurt.  And it is so cold in there.”

“Wow,” I said. “Bummer.”

I believe, to this day, that if I had bailed him out, he would not be here this morning, in the other room, sitting on the floor with his eight-year old son, playing Legos.

Anyway, there we were, in the street, doomed.  They say when all else fails, follow instructions, so I prayed: Help. Enter this hideous mess.  Take the wheel.

And the thing, the holy breeze, the spiritual WD-40, whom I call God and Sam calls The Cosmic Muffin, tiptoed in, and a moment later, I lowered my weapon.  I surrendered, which means I came over to the winning side, of having run out of any more good ideas, of telling God, bitterly, without hope, “Fine–I’m done.  It’s all Yours.”

We faced off a minute longer, and then looked away, breathing hard, and after a while I said, “Let me give you a ride home.  You just can’t be at my house anymore, with the baby, until you get clean and sober.”

More grace, more God/Muffin showing off: we got in the car together and drove without speaking to his cozy rat trap of an apartment in the Tenderloin.

We listened to a spiritual tape that was in the car’s CD player, Carolyn Myss on the dark night of the soul, who was our cranky angel.  When we got out of the car in front of his place, we hugged, still without saying a word.

I drove home to be with the baby and his mom.  I didn’t have hope, or not have hope, but I had laid down my weapons.  T.S. Eliot wrote, “Be still my soul, and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing.” But I prayed and prayed for my child to be healed, and for me to be healed of my own insanity, where I thought I was his Higher Power, where I thought I had more Good Ideas for another person.

We didn’t have any contact for a few weeks.  Then, on Sept 13, 2011, he called me to say he had a week clean and sober.  These sober guys in the city had taken him under their great collective wing, a wing with warm mussed feathers, neck tattoos, and bad coffee. They hadn’t needed anything from me at all, except for me to get out of Sam’s way.


  1. Bless you forevermore for speaking this truth. I have lived a similar truth with a child I thought I could save and then realized that I could not. I have experienced this “give this to God” moment and am so grateful that you speak of the truth of exhaustion and terror and eventual grace. Thank you for speaking this truth – your truth and mine.

  2. Thank you so much for this. My brother is a few years sober and there is so much shit to sift through, so much hurt to unpack, so many apologies that maybe won’t come (and maybe will), but I’m happy to say we’ve both put down our weapons at this point. It’s exhausting and terrifying but thankfully we are not where that Grace wheelbarrow found us. Love you!

  3. Annie, I can barely see through my tears.i am physically ill dour to a cavern I helped to create between my son (37) and I. When will I learn, I am not the Almighty. I love you.

  4. I have lived this reality with my own beloved child. She battled addiction for years before we lost her almost two years ago. She was such a very good person at her core. There seems to be a very thin line between those who make it and those who don’t. It is a mystery to me. There was Grace present though. She went through a long period of being very antagonistic to her family. On Mother’s Day 2012 she phoned me and tearfully apologized. After that she was always loving and full of gratitude in her interactions with us. That has been a very precious gift to us.

  5. Thank you. Folks who have not lived the nightmare of addiction (either or both sides – substance ingester, or one who loves the substance ingester – have the luxury of catcalling from the seemingly safe bleacher seats. Those of us who are intimate with addiction resonate, and perhaps weep. My in-and-out-of-recovery beloved sister recently shot herself, and died soon thereafter, after decades of suffering. I resonate, and weep.

  6. I am always grateful to read your writing. You have always spoken so honestly and beautifully about your family and the terrible pain that we inflict on one another. I also grew up in the SF Bay Area in a very dysfunctional family, like yours in that they were very liberal and educated, but very screwed up. A lot of therapy helped me to finally understand how that affected me. Thank you again for your honesty. It helps us.

  7. Thanks again for the insights into this life/parenting thingy. In the spirit of sharing hopeful insights:


    The wonder
    Of it all

    Still baits me:

    Sun setting
    Beyond the

    Golden Gate,

    Container ships
    Plodding along all

    Loaded to the gills,

    Jets exhaling as
    They race off to

    God knows where.

    When Salmon run
    Into Fall colors

    We’re home.

  8. Anne, I am teary because I am there now. My son is facing prison for meth charges. Or he may be given drug court. He is 41 and I have lived this on and off since he was a teen. I didn’t have Jesus and thought I was in charge but nothing worked. Now, I have had Jesus in my life for about 6 years and am trying to let go and let Him handle this. It hurts so much to think I had chances to get out of the way all those years ago and didn’t know better. Now the suffering is much greater. For him and me. Your thoughts have made me stronger in the belief that I must let go. Thank you for sharing. And thank you to the moms and dads in my group that give me support in this. We are an army if only we speak out. But, like I did for many years, most stay silent. Don’t be afraid to tell your stories. OX

  9. When my youngest daughter was almost 16, she was stopped on the way out of he store with her friend for shoplifting .
    I went to the store to bring her home and told her that I knew she had been taught right from wrong. Therefore, if she did something like this again, the store could proceed with having her arrested and put in jail. The store security guy was an off duty cop who assured her, that at 16 years old, she would then be housed with adult prisoners.
    I never had a moments trouble with her again.
    People thought this was terrible and asked if I would have gone through with it. My answer was, ” yes indeed”. Life has to have consequences…

  10. I’m blessed that my nephew made it. Thankful for the intervention of people who cared. My family was lucky. Several oof my friends have lost bright, shining stars and carry the heart scars forever. This devil needs to be dealt with, and I so wish I had the answers.

  11. Thank you Anne for this – I love to read about families – messy and real and stumbling thru life and sticking together and loving each other thru it all. And thank you Sam for putting this together in this great looking new website!

  12. What’s even more powerful is that you have written this on Sam’s blog and he’s not ready to chop you’re head off!!(assuming, of course ) That is true grace. I, too, have had many opportunities to learn how to love a son, and not the addict who has high jacked his body. He/we have struggled for too many years, but i am getting more skillful day by day and learning to love and accept him right where he is. I weep for those who have experienced losses. Fortunately, i turn more and more to prayer…..and Anne Lamott’s books. Thank God for you, dear Anne!

  13. Last week I stood in the laundry room screaming at my teenage son, so frustrated with choices that were detrimental to his life, so afraid of those choices and the consequences. But I couldn’t stop yelling…the idea that Grace could do more than my standing there screaming never even crossed my mind even though I consider myself a “churched” person. Next time maybe I’ll too choose Grace and let the power of that Grace change me.

  14. Sam, thank you for loving your mom, and yourself, for letting all of this to be said out loud. And as a mom of a once scary kid with a sometimes scary mom, thank you. Period.

  15. I am crying as my child is running down that dark path once again. And this mother can’t keep her mouth shut because the fear consumes me. i’m waiting for grace. I know it will show up eventually but for now the heart hurts. Thank you Annie. You have been my go to person for years upon years.

  16. This is so very real. Thank you for your honesty and wonderful writing. I am not sure what I would do without my AlAnon parents group. I would still be screaming, crying, angry and frustrated with my son. Now I try to accept him where he is and life is better. I still pray for a turnaround for him, but my own life is no longer on hold and I am way less anxious. xo

  17. Wish my 92 year old mother would read this and understand how all the rescue she had done for my 57 year old brother h had not helped him one bit. Sam, you are a lucky man. But I bet you know that already. Grace

  18. I love you Anne Lamott! ! I have read all your works- they’ve helped me through some rough times. We have never met, yet I know you are a fierce and loving mama. A warrior. And human (With all the inherent fuck ups). That is what makes you accessible. Thank you.

  19. Just found this post. The road you, Sam and all the others have traveled/are traveling is all too familiar. I doubt that I, as my 33 year old addicted son’s mother, will be able to see it through. The pain, fear, and aloneness of the total experience is more than I can bare. That stating this on a blog is pitiful at the very least; desperately heart wrenching at its worst. To have had an experienced someone walk beside me on this path would have a miraculous gift. I’ll be a story and statistic for others, if that. I fell through the cracks of humanity.


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