Contributed by Elaine Uskoski, SSW, C Ir, holistic health social service worker and certified iridologist, speaker, and author of the book
Seeing Through the Cracks
When I decided I wanted to become a mother it was important to me to be both committed and ready to do the work that was required to be the best parent I could be. Unlike applying for a job, no one was holding me accountable or interviewing me to see if I was a good fit. That responsibility fell solely on me. My background and experience were sorely lacking; I came from a dysfunctional childhood that included abuse and alcoholism, with poor role modeling. On paper, my resume revealed me as an unlikely candidate. But I had passion and desire, and I was intelligent. I had a good work ethic and was serious about taking on this new leadership role. I was determined to change my family’s history, and create a home of love and empathy, a place where my children would always feel safe and nurtured. And in 1991, I got the job, with the birth of my first child. In response, I studied, I learned, I shared my concerns and listened to other moms. I monitored, I set up boundaries and rules. I followed through with reasonable consequences. I provided, I played, and I was emotionally available. I thought I was doing a good job and my sons responded positively; I had raised decent human beings.
So, you can imagine my shock when I discovered that my son, at age 19, was addicted to video games so severely that he had stopped thriving. He was in full blown crisis. I believed I’d handled the arrival and progression of technology in my sons’ lives responsibly; I supervised to be sure they played age appropriate games, I had conversations with them both about keeping their personal information private to protect them from online predators, I spoke with them about the friendships they were developing through online video games. I believed both of my sons were safe from harm, but I was naive and ignorant.
Gaming and the internet were not things I was raised with; this was a new area for most of us parents during the nineties and into the new millennium. We were all seduced by its newness, excited about its possibilities, and we believed it was fun, educational, and safe. I wasn’t aware that my son was suffering social anxiety or that he had struggled since age twelve to feel like he fit in amongst his school peers. I later learned that he felt alone and ostracized after changing to a new school, leaving most of the friends he knew behind. I was unaware that he had turned to online gaming to escape school and social stresses, find his tribe, and create new online friendships in an arena of acceptance amid other gamers. I didn’t realize that he had chosen to look for solace and a form of interactive peer therapy, online, instead of coming to discuss his issues with me. And I was certainly blind to his emotional struggles as he navigated his entrance into university. There were signs; his grooming had slipped, his weight had dropped, he became visibly shaky, he communicated less, he was moodier, and he looked chronically tired. I asked him about these symptoms, as any concerned and loving mother would do, and he lied to cover up his secret. And I lied to myself. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, or what I should be looking for.
Two months into first semester of second year, I learned that my son had never attended a single class in that time. Instead he’d gamed all night, every night, and slept through the days. At 6’2” tall his weight had dropped to 127 pounds, he had tremors, his hair was greasy, his body odour was pungent, his eyes dilated, and his skin a break out of acne. He was suffering with severe anxiety and depression, and he had stopped “living”. I was shocked that these alarming symptoms could occur from spending so much time gaming. I felt, as a parent, that I had failed him. I let go too soon and stopped parenting. This was a terrible mark on my work history, as a mother. And just as an employee makes a bad judgement and a poor decision on the job, I felt I needed to clean up this mess, or risk losing my job, or my son, or both.
I had more work to do. I was not finished parenting. I prepared myself to do whatever it took to support my son through recovery. I had no knowledge of what a video gaming disorder was or what it encompassed. I didn’t know where to turn for help, and I felt isolated. I still had the passion and desire to do what was best for my son even if it took enormous effort. And indeed, it did. I realized very quickly, when my son relapsed back into gaming, more than once, and when he continued to struggle with mental health problems, that he couldn’t tackle recovery without my undivided attention to his needs. Without my constant monitoring and his accountability to me, and without my unyielding conviction to put into place rules, restriction, boundaries, guidelines, and consequences, he would not beat this addiction. It was on me. I had an enormous role in his personal growth and success, and I could not take my foot off the gas, so to speak, at any time, even if I wanted to. It has taken the very same commitment and hard work, as a parent through the addiction recovery process as it took in raising my son to adulthood. It takes an incredible amount of love, empathy, grit, effort, and steely determination to support your child and/or your adult child through a mental health crisis. It is not a time to judge harshly, it is not a time to give up or quit the job of parenting. You dig deep and do whatever it takes to create an environment for success. You research and learn as much as you can in order to both understand and support your child. You must be willing to play hard at times, but you must also create a soft place of landing for the addict.
For me, personally, it was important to understand that Jake, in his determination to resolve his emotional pain, he looked online to others, instead of coming to me to ask for help. And that was okay. I couldn’t be upset with him for trying. He wanted to feel better, and gaming and chatting with his online gaming friends helped him to feel accepted, to experience some sense of success, and to escape from his feelings of anxiety. In the long run, this led to addiction and depression, so it was not a permanent fix. But it helped me to approach his recovery with empathy and sensitivity. This didn’t just assist Jake in creating a healthy shift, but it helped me to align, as a parent, with love and understanding rather than anger and frustration.
Today, after three years of battling through, working together, and reaching out for whatever help and reinforcements I could find, there has been much personal growth for both of us; our bond is stronger. There has been success, and there is still work to be done. My son now weighs 170 pounds; he has made valuable friendships outside of the virtual world, he has recently graduated from university and is working full time; he has found meaningful activities, sports, and clubs to engage in; he feels happy. He now celebrates one full year of being fully detoxed from video gaming. And although I know that he did the hard work that was required, he could not have done it without me doing my job, as his mother, or without all of the systems available to support both of us through this part of the journey.