The dilemma I’m 54, single, with two sons and am a carer to my parents. For 10 years my younger son, who is 26, has sporadically stolen from my father and me. Whenever he was caught, he was full of regret and would promise not to do it again. He has also smoked cannabis since the age of 17 and I’m sure he’s started taking pills. Things came to a head when he borrowed my car – I haven’t seen it since – and I discovered he’d stolen a ridiculous amount of money from my parents and me. I threatened him with an injunction and he left home. Since then he has come to the house twice. The first time he took my bank card and emptied my account. The second time he found my father’s card. I need to change the locks, but I have no money to do this. It’ll take months of extra shifts at work before I can make things right. I’ve only told my oldest friend – she said I need to call the police. I cannot bear the thought of telling my siblings and I would never ask them for money. I need to be seen as strong and capable of looking after our parents and I don’t want them to hate my son. Is there any way I can get through this without police involvement? I feel scared and vulnerable – every solution either involves having him arrested, or costs money that I simply do not have.

Mariella replies My heart is broken for you. Addiction is as cruel as dementia when it comes to the degree of living loss we endure for a person we love. A drug addict’s whole emotional range is highjacked by a powerful, seductive force that obliterates any sense of loyalty, morality or duty to those who care for them. Your boy is at present as lost to you as my grandmother was to me in the final days of her untethered dementia.

I wish I had better news to deliver, but I suspect, like so many people who’ve wandered down that road, your son needs to hit rock bottom before he wakes up to what he’s lost and has still got left to lose. The greatest help you can give him is to understand how his actions are impacting on you and the rest of the family and doing what you can to mitigate that damage and alleviate your own emotional burden. For you the counselling needs to start straight away. There are a number of excellent organisations to support those enduring the impact of others’ addiction ( and Keeping your struggles secret from family and friends is not an option, but before you tell them, find others – parents, partners, spouses, even children – who are struggling like you.

I’d highly recommend the movie Beautiful Boy, not as displacement activity – it will be a tough watch for a parent in your position – but as a depiction of a father’s heartfelt attempts to rescue his son. The brutal blow is this devoted dad’s ultimate acceptance that he can’t save his boy – it’s something only his child can do for himself. That may be the harsh truth, but it makes me wonder why you feel it necessary to protect your family from what you are going through. You are a single parent of two children so why has it fallen on your shoulders to also be the carer for your ageing parents? I don’t know the full details, but it strikes me that not only should you be seeking support from your siblings, but they could also help stump up the money to change the locks. After all, it’s not just you but their parents they’d be protecting from further forays into family finances.

You say you are strong and capable, and you certainly seem so, but that doesn’t mean you need to be invincible. It’s important to have the humility to reach out for help when things are beyond the scope of your control and it certainly sounds like it’s come to that. Your poor son is in the grip of an illness as destructive as they get and if you want to help him, you’ll need to help yourself first by putting in place some back-up. If family aren’t the obvious route, then consider friends or other relations. This is neither your fault, nor is it in your ability to cure and it will take every ounce of your fortitude to fight your way through. Changing the locks is both a signal to him that you’ve had enough and a pause before the next stage, which will involve calling the cops if it happens again.

There are so many others in equal despair, wondering where they’ve gone wrong and ashamed to seek support. This is not your guilty secret, but a modern dilemma of gargantuan proportions and one that holding close to your heart won’t solve or expunge. Find your fraternity at one of the organisations I’ve recommended and share your struggles with someone you trust. What your son is going through is out of your hands, but your own destiny is firmly in them. The hardest thing to do is open up but once you’ve done so you’ll wonder how you managed without the people out there, waiting for you to speak up and admit you need help.

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