Our children’s substance abuse creates such isolation for beloved addicts and parents alike. It feels like others cannot possibly relate to our struggles as parents of addicts unless they, too, have been hunkered down in the trenches of fear, anger and shame. But I have great hope that as we spread the word about addiction as a brain disease, then the shame will begin to dissipate and we can come together openly and constructively to prevent addiction through awareness and education.
So here, for the record, is the official definition of addiction from the American Society of Addiction Medicine: The ASDM defines addiction as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.”
Physician Michael Wilkes aptly illustrates that point in the Collision Course – Teen Addiction Epidemic documentary when he says, “I don’t think it’s any more under someone’s control than skin cancer or breast cancer or an infectious disease. Sure, there’s some role you had initially but once you begin to get the actual manifestations of the disease, you can’t stop it without a significant amount of help.” (You can watch Collision Course here…and then ask your local Public TV station to run it in your area.)
We’ve all experienced the part about the sheer amount of work and terror in trying to derail active addiction. Through education and awareness, we can stop addiction before it even starts. And never forget—there is no shame in having a child with a disease, whether its asthma, diabetes or chemical dependency.
When my son was younger and I was ignorant about addiction, I was in disbelief he’d be stealing and shocked at the lies. Then I was terrified he’d be arrested or worse. I truly felt I had the power to rescue, if he’d just listen and do what I told him to do. I could not understand why he would not! He’d say he was, he’d say all the right things, but I learned that this was a ploy to get me off his back. His addiction was in charge. Sometimes he meant what he said, but an addict is untrustworthy and he’d end up doing something different. The reality for me about the seriousness of the situation was when I finally understood addiction is a disease and it’s progressive in nature. This explained why no matter what I did, things got worse. There was no way I could keep subsidizing his addiction, he was pouring through money – mine and then others. Each time I thought I’d solve a problem of his, 10 more appeared. The madness seemed never ending. There are no words to describe feeling helpless and desperate. Eventually I found my own 12 Step Recovery program; first through my medical insurance, then Nar-Anon and Al-Anon. This helped me get over the fear, guilt and agony of involvement. This is where I learned how to make reasonable decisions and let go of worry – where I found hope and to discover - it begins with me.
I read a book last year called “Dear Me, a letter to my 16-year old self.” Amazon describes the book like this: “In Dear Me, 75 celebrities, writers, musicians, athletes, and actors have written letters to their younger selves that give words of comfort, warning, humor, and advice. These letters present intimate, moving, and witty insights into some of the world’s most intriguing and admired individuals. By turns funny, surprising, raw, and uplifting, this singular collection captures the universal conditions that are youth, life, growing up.”
It got me thinking—what would I say to my thirty-year old self as I launched my ship into the seas of parenthood? Maybe something like this…. “Dear Me: As you welcome your first child into the world, the good news is that you are embarking on a wonderful journey of discovery. The bad news is that you don’t get a map of any sort, beyond the wisdom offered by Dr. Spock. And he doesn’t cover teen substance abuse. So here is a list of tips to make the sailing smoother:
- Be clear on your expectations and stick with consequences.
- No matter what your kids do or don’t do, treat them with love and respect.
- No matter what you do or don’t do, treat yourself with love and respect.
- Holding on to past hurts only prolongs the suffering
- Forgive yourself and others.
- Know that you did the best job you could do at the time.
Well, that’s a start. Looking back, what pearls of wisdom would you offer yourself (and others) who have journeyed through the Land of Addiction? Please comment and share your insights.
No one can see their reflection in running water. It is only in still water that we can see.
Sometimes I look in the rear view mirror at the “could haves/should haves/would haves” of teen addiction and question myself. Why didn’t I figure out that my child was abusing prescription meds? Why didn’t I do a better job setting limits? But the real question to ask is, What would I have done differently if I had known better? That is why I like the Parents 360 Rx documentary, featuring parents who look back at their child’s prescription drug abuse with an eye to educating other parents that their own kids might be making the same mistakes. Watch Parents 360 Rx here, and then share it with your friends everywhere.
Another tool in the educational arsenal is Collision Course – Teen Addiction Epidemic, which has started to show on PBS stations throughout the nation. Please tell your friends who live in these cities to check out their PBS schedules and watch it with neighbors, teachers and community leaders. The more viewers it attracts, the more often it will be shown.
• Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Sept 27
• Fairbanks, Alaska: September 28
• Des Moines, Davenport, Sioux City and Cedar Rapids, Iowa: September 30
• Omaha, Nebraska: September 30
• Rochester, Minnesota: September 30
• Nashville, Tennessee: October 3
(People can also watch Collision Course in its entirely online at any time.)
We cannot undo our children’s substance abuse, but we can use our wisdom and experience to spread the word and help others avoid the train wreck.
Whenever I was in the presence of my son, I found myself talking. A lot. I’ve learned to shut up. I’ve learned that my talking is nervous energy and can be destructive, meaningless, and often disguised as caring, but actually manipulative. I’ve mentioned before how my talking gets me in trouble -see blog post “my parole agent is checking in”, September 14, 2012. The question, “why am I talking” can often be used as a tool to remind me that maybe this time, if I try to be quiet, I can be a better listener. This is what I know about myself and my mouth whenever I’m in the family disease – what’s behind the mask of the excessive talking:
1. I will dominate the conversation as a shield against open and honest communication
2. I know better than you so I’ll correct you
3. I don’t want to hear untruths so I’ll emit non-verbal responses that scream “LIAR!”
4. I’m uncomfortable with silence so I take control
5. I’ll ask questions that put you on the spot on matters that are not my business
This doesn’t describe someone I’d want to hang out with! This isn’t open communication! Today I make an honest attempt to be very aware of what I say or why I want to dominate the conversation because I have chosen to change my ways. When I keep the focus on me, my loved ones may not be able to describe exactly what changed, but I’ve noticed that my relationships with them have improved.
As our beloved addicts decline, so do we, hell bent on parallel paths of destruction. My son was physically depleted/I was physically exhausted. He had legal problems/I had legal problems (his—which I made mine.). He was addicted/I was addicted to his addiction. It was overwhelming to survey the landscape of destruction that my home and life had become in the wake of Hurricane Addiction.
Just as we work on the twelve steps one at a time, just as we tackle each day—and sometimes each minute—one at a time, we pick up the pieces and move ahead one inch at a time. Baby steps are the order of the day.
Where to begin the repair work? I was very sick myself—heartsick, and physically depleted by the sleepless nights and the days of incessant worry. My baby steps took many shapes and forms, but across the board, felt like huge leaps. Sometimes I could hardly bring myself to turning off my phone in case he called, or in case someone else called about him. It took a lot of practice to think of myself instead of obsessing about my child; in fact, when people asked me about me, I often told them about him. I was consumed with locating him—where was he? What was he doing?
I had to learn to tell my brain “STOP” to turn it off. I worked with a great therapist to understand the role my childhood played in my response to my child’s dangerous choices. It took me a year to learn how to say No with conviction. No with a period; No meaning “End of sentence, end of discussion.” No meaning “No more.”
I had a lot of good role models, other mothers who showed me how to be strong and stay the course. As they say, practice makes perfect, and I am still practicing. What words of wisdom do you other parents have to share about taking those baby steps? What baby steps have helped you get recover from your child’s chemical dependency?
My son tells me things – whether it’s what he plans to do in the future, or just what happened in his day. I am drugged by his words. This thinking is so powerful; I completely believe what I hear, even though there may be a conflict with his actions. “I’m going to do this and that” and neither is done. I end up getting resentful because I have built up an expectation based on what he said. For the co-dependent that I am, this is a daily occurrence that I have to be aware of. With false expectations, my actions are, consciously or not, based on how I perceive the outcome. You told me this, so I expect that. You are not capable; I will do it for you and manage the project I have taken on by virtue of what is said. I will take it to the next level and inquire about where you are on that matter, did you follow-up? Here’s a reminder… what’s the status on…you get the picture. Just trying to be helpful!
I realize this is my problem because I’m the only one bothered by it. It’s not limited to my son; it shows up in all my affairs. Inevitably, someone gets disappointed. Usually it’s me that gets hurt, and my resentful reaction is typically sarcasm – it’s not pretty, so really everyone gets hurt. Just the other day I got in a snit with my husband. My interpretation of what he was telling me was not what he was actually doing. Naturally, I felt compelled to point this out to him and that went over like a lead balloon. And I wonder how that happened! What did I miss? I was drugged by his words, thinking they were factual, and I completely missed what he was actually doing. If I can remember to stay in my business, be a better listener AND if I watch the behavior, I can be assured that I’m living in the moment and have a better awareness of where truth and facts are. My expectations are minimized, or at least, closer to reality. This is a hard to overcome. When I’m impaired by someone’s lips moving, I should not be the designated driver.
I have been pondering lately how unnecessary it is for teenagers to become addicted to drugs and alcohol. I’m sure no one would disagree with this – so why as a community do we look the other way when teens are partying? Why do we not call a town hall meeting or yell from the rooftops that teens are dying every day from drug and alcohol related activities? I’m sure there are many answers to these questions; the problem is not visible to everyone, there is denial that the problem is that bad and many parents think –‘not my kid’, to name a few of the reasons. What troubles me in the dark hours of the night is that we know the cause of the disease of addiction and yet we don’t do every possible thing that we can to protect our kids. For me, I realize hindsight is 20-20 – had I been informed with what I know now I would have taken different action to the onset of my daughters dabbling with drugs and alcohol.
It has been proven time and time again that awareness drives prevention. It’s like the old adage ‘information is power’. I listened to a speech by Nancy Brinker who started the Susan G Komen Breast Cancer organization – Nancy is Susan G’s sister. She mentioned in her speech that within about 20 years they would find the cause and cure of breast cancer. It hit me in that moment that we know what causes addiction, especially in teens. Alcohol and drugs are lethal to the developing child’s brain. Studies show that people who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence at some time in their lives compared with those who have their first drink at age 20 or older. Yet I just heard of a situation at a local high school where I live. They had their junior and senior prom at which both had a large number of students who were drunk and/or high on drugs. Yet the adults supervising the prom did not take action, they chose to look the other way. What is wrong with our communities that we are not protecting our young? I have to admit I understand the problem; I was part of it when I did not understand the gravity of my daughter’s substance abuse until it was much too late. But I want to be a part of the solution and will continue to advocate the messages that will drive prevention whenever possible. I appreciate it when parents are willing to educate themselves – there is a lot of power in being armed with the right information. I will commit to continue advocating for our precious teens to drive awareness!
“I was always looking outside myself for strength and confidence,
but it comes from within. It is there all the time.”
~Anna Freud, Austrian psychologist