It is absolutely paralyzing to learn that your child has substance abuse issues. Where do you turn for help? How do you know what steps to take? What is addiction, anyway? There are endless questions and no consolidation source of answers or support. In addition, the stigma of having an addicted child causes many parents to retract and withdraw rather than seek help. In truth, many families struggle with substance abuse issues, and the support, wisdom and guidance they need are not easily found.Parent Pathway was created for parents, by parents, to provide a place to find peace of mind at a time when their world feels like it is falling apart.
I sat next to a pediatrician at a charity dinner one night, and the talk turned to teen addiction. He posed a thought-provoking question: “Do you feel guilty that your son became an addict?” If he had asked me that same question earlier in the game, my answer would have been an unequivocal “Yes.” I was wracked with guilt (co-mingled with anger, shame, horror and fear) because I believed I had somehow created an addict by failing my son in some unintended way, although I wasn’t certain what that was. Was I too controlling in my son’s young life? Not controlling enough? Were my standards unreachably high, or perhaps too low? Was I too much of a mother to him and not enough of a friend, or vice versa? My painful self-examination and self-flagellation was endless, but still—I had no answers. I didn’t know what I had done—right or wrong. In the rear view mirror, I began to look at my parenting as an abject failure.
My perspective started to change as I learned how, for some, drugs and alcohol take on a life of their own. It is a neurological, inheritable, biological reaction unrelated to willpower, character or desire. Apparently I passed that gene on to my son from my side of the family tree– unknowingly, as addiction hasn’t reared its ugly head in me. (The gift that keeps on giving across generations –Uugh). Still, my son has chemical dependency in his genetic toolkit where it keeps company with courage, determination and his very kind nature, among many other great qualities. Those are the gifts that he uses today in his life of active recovery. He got those from me, too.
But I won’t take credit for the good stuff any more than I take blame for the bad. My son was dealt a genetic hand of cards; how he plays it is up to him. And how I play the hand that life deals me is up to me, and that includes discarding the guilt card whenever I can.
I recall and still experience people (landlords, relatives, employers, friends) who contact me of a status or question about one of my sons. Never mind they are over 18, adults! Their drug addiction progressed to unacceptable behavior to society at large and the only dependable contact is me. Usually it is a phone call, so the sound of the ring can put me on edge. It’s been a few years since the extreme drama. However, the intensity may have slowed down but not entirely, nor the feelings I get. Each time someone comes at me regarding my child, I take the situation as if I were the one that did it. I’d probably do the same thing if someone were coming at me about a miraculous good deed or achievement they did; I’d take credit for that too! Those scenarios typically don’t happen in a family affected by the disease of alcoholism and substance abuse. My feelings are a force within, so strong I’m propelled to take action: clean it up, apologize, and make excuses. I’ve come to understand this is a common experience for a parent whose child’s early adult years are plagued with substance abuse. Left untreated, it can lead to many health concerns as did happen to me.
With treatment through Al-Anon, I’ve learned a new way to handle my reactions; one that helps me determine if the matter is mine. There is a saying “if you put on a hula hoop, all things that happen inside the hula hoop belong to me and everything outside the hula hoop belongs to them.” This has given me a visual that is easy to remember. Today, I’m better at handling the “outside the hula hoop” matters as they still come up. It doesn’t necessarily center around addiction or my sons. But I’m learning that it’s a part of life and it’s what people do. People will come at me with matters that don’t necessarily belong to me. When it happens I can relapse to old ways and get defensive or take blame for something I did not do. Alternatively, I utilize choices in how I react based on recognizing what belongs to me and what doesn’t. These choices are healthier. The feelings of take charge and fix-it are still very strong! The Hula-Hoop tool is more about my own rehabilitation from my affliction of the family disease of co-dependency.
In many cultures, mother and child are seen as forever linked by a string that binds them through eternity, a perpetual umbilical cord of sorts. As a mother, I know that heart connection with my son. I feel his joys and sorrows, I sense his fears. I take pride in his accomplishments. I have hopes for his happiness and fulfillment. And sometimes I even do his worrying for him, pretty well, I might add.
These vicarious expressions of joy and concern are natural and healthy, if kept in check. But becoming all-consumed with my son’s affairs is dangerous, and it is telling. While I may delude myself into believing that I can control or cure his addiction, the reality is that I am not that powerful. I didn’t make him an addict, and I can’t break him of his addiction. Obsessing over my son also reveals my lack of faith in his ability to create his own destiny. It speaks of my lack of faith in power greater than me or us.
So what’s a mother to do with the pressing urge to manage and obsess over her child? Another parent gently reminded me that, “Before your child was in your hands, he was in God’s hands.” With this wisdom in mind, I can imagine my son as a kite soaring freely through the sky while I hold tightly to the string. And that imagination is freeing to both of us.