Whoever said “There are no guarantees in life” must have been well acquainted with the hopes and fears of the merry-go-round called substance abuse. During my child’s active substance abuse, my personal definition of insanity was that demon of uncertainly perched on my shoulder, always whispering in my ear…”Sober or not today? And will it stick?”
When I finally confronted the insanity created by my child’s chemical dependence, I had to admit that my life had become unmanageable because of drugs or alcohol. The fact that they were his drugs and alcohol was irrelevant: I had lost control of my life as I swirled around the drain of his addiction.
Admitting I was powerless was the first step towards reclaiming my health and sanity. I had to grasp the fact that I couldn’t fix him. I had to admit my inability to make things right so that I could look beyond myself for help and answers. I had to stop trying in order to create space for a power greater than me to take the reins. That was my path to believing that “a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.”
The concept of powerlessness is a cornerstone of any 12-step program. The path to personal powerlessness and to a power greater than us looks different for everyone. Those who don’t believe in God or religion might turn away prematurely from a 12-step program because they don’t believe in this concept. Call it what you want, but we all have a power greater than ourselves that commands our attention or adoration, give us direction, channels our energy. For the addict/alcoholic, it’s the needle or the pill; for the parents of an alcoholic son or daughter, it can be our addiction to fixing our child. Or it can be our willingness to admit that someone or something beyond us is calling the shots. And then to let go of outcomes and trust that things will work out the way they are supposed to. For me. And for my child. One day at a time.
I sometimes find myself over whelmed and over-commitment. I reach a mental block. Nothing upstairs, lights are on, no-one home. My deflated EGO tells me, “You have nothing to say or do worthy of anything….why bother?”
It can begin when I wake up with no plan at all yet I know there is a ton of things pending my actions. This ignites my “victim” mentality or even martyrdom. Then feelings of obligation converge upon me. I’m mental cycling. Thinking about the laundry, the paperwork I haven’t gone through yet and I’ve created piles everywhere. The commitments I’ve made or should make, the phone calls to return, the day ahead is already accounted for and I haven’t even started. Suddenly, it’s already mid-morning – why did I slug around for two hours and where did the morning go?!
I don’t know where to start, so I don’t start at all. I wander from room to room and begin to point out my defects of procrastination. I see some projects started but not finished. Then nothing gets done and I’m ready to blame myself for being lazy and unproductive. By now, I’m standing at the refrigerator looking for something to eat. It’s not about hunger.
I have dropped off My Higher Power and a spiritual practice from my consciousness. Where has my commitment to spend a few minutes meditating gone?
What’s missing is an attitude of gratitude and a positive belief. It’s as if I’ve left myself up to the whim of my EGO. Yet, in those moments of meditation and spiritual reading, I can mentally affirm the list the things I’m grateful for. Soon my attitude takes a shift towards a positive outlook. I’m powerless over my defaults and defects of character, but I’m not helpless.
Self-worth. If I feel I’m not worthy I encourage my EGO to take charge. It’s been said EGO stands for Edging God Out.
Powerless but not helpless, I realize I do have control over many things about me. Fortunately, my commitment to my recovery has allowed me to look at myself more clearly and get back on track.
I am affected by someone else’s drug addiction. Addiction and alcoholism was not a part of my life growing up. It happened to other families and far away. I did not know anything about 12-Step programs such as AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), NA (Narcotics Anonymous), and certainly not anything about Al-Anon or Nar-Anon and the “family disease”. Then, when my sons reached late teens, I searched for help because my attempts to control, diffuse, deflect, manage, assist, help or buy a temporary fix to their risky behavior was failing miserably. My life was getting out of control the more I tried to control them. I thought I was researching a solution to fix their problem and in so doing, I discovered I had a problem too. I was obsessed with what they were doing. This obsession has a name: co-dependency. So the help that I sought turned out to be a life-rope for me too.
In a 12-Step program that helps those who have been affected by someone else’s drinking, it is suggested you learn as much as you can about the disease. In so doing, I learned the hard reality: Alcoholism and addiction, if untreated, will lead to incarceration or death. I knew addiction was a serious problem but I didn’t know the full story. I also did not know what to do or how to help. I did not realize it was a disease. Using conventional wisdom, my mothering tendencies were not helping and in some cases were actually harming them. This kind of relationship has a name: Family disease.
The Al-Anon Family Groups taught me how to be a loving mother and still enjoy life. I learned that I did not cause the disease, could not control the disease or cure it. I continue to gain tools to help me overcome the devastating effects of this family disease. This could only happen with the experience and kindness of others who have gone before me and for this I am thankful.
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. As the parent of a chemically dependent child (in recovery at this moment, but chemically dependent for life), I am pulled in the direction of doing his worrying for him. I excel at that, 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 reveals my lack of faith in power greater than him or me.
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 can set us both free.
As a new mother, I was amazed and in awe of the miracle of life. I was humbled to be sent home from the hospital with no instructions or permits – carrying my infant son in my arms. Turns out no one got instructions –parenthood is partly innate and part of a bigger community. As they grew older, I did not like seeing my child hurt, struggle, or even lose at basketball tryouts. However, I endured seeing those things happen, knowing in part, these were all necessary events that build character and strength. With a disease like addiction, it was a different story. This was an unnecessary event – a preventable occurrence in many instances and I spent years trying to bring back time. If only I could have a do-over.
The curious dynamic of addiction and co-dependency is like motherhood on steroids. Side effects of steroids are very serious. I’m grateful for the support groups and professional help that were available to me. Like the trip from the hospital, there is no handbook or chapter on how to handle addiction in a love one. But there are communities of many who have gone through similar circumstances. They have discovered ways for healthy coping, tools to effectively support their loved ones while still keeping a boundary that protects all parties involved. No one told me I’d get over it…I was shown that I could live life fully, be the best mother I can be and embrace life on life’s terms each day I’m part of. Recovery from the family disease is partly innate and part of a bigger community. For more information on resources for parents, click here.
When I look back on my life and certainly the part where I had a loved one struggling with addiction which led our whole family to a place of pain and suffering, I realize how true this statement is. The greatest growth in my life has been through tragedy. Here is what I learned.
* It was when I was in the deepest place of fear that I had to learn to let go of it in order to survive, to trust, to move forward even if one day at a time.
* It was when I was in the deepest place of sadness that I had to cry, to grieve, and to believe that my heart could heal.
*It was when I was in the deepest place of anxiety that I had to be calm, to breathe, and to have faith when I saw nothing to hold on to.
*It was when I was in the deepest place of anger that I to hold back from screaming, to be understanding, to find a way to forgive even when sometimes it was forgiving myself.
*It was when I was in the deepest place of despair that I had to completely understand that I am not alone, to let go and let God if I wanted to find any peace.
These are the lessons that came from my ‘greatest pains’ that slowly became my ‘greatest strengths’ as Drew Barrymore so aptly put it. Would I have come to the place of serenity that now have without the tragedies in my life? I’m not sure that I would have. I believe I may have found some piece of mind along the way but I know I would not have realized how precious it was or that I would not be as grateful as I am. I am grateful for the lessons along the way and I know that while I would not have chosen these difficulties in my journey, I accept that this is a part of my life that accumulates and becomes all of the pieces of me and who I am.
There will always be pain in life. This is something we learn as we progress spiritually. We also learn that if we resist pain, if we fear it, then we create additional pain called suffering. Our resistance to pain stands between us and full-bodied living; it keeps us at war with our problems and from making peace with life’s dual nature. When pain arises in your life and you stand to greet it with calm curiosity, you will know that you making progress on the path.
For parents whose children struggle with substance abuse, the New Year gives us an opportunity to start fresh and welcome new, healthier attitudes or behaviors. But what happens if we find ourselves clenching grief or loss so tightly that we cannot embrace happiness or joy? Ricki Townsend, a Parent Pathway “Expert,” grief counselor and interventionist, shares some ideas about letting go of grief.
“We have dreams and hopes for our children as they grow and discover life. Then one day we wake up to find they have become involved in the battle of addiction. And so our life as we hoped it would be has changed. As parents, we may find we have trouble sleeping, we may start to have health issues, we may find ourselves crying or even angry over the simplest of things. Please look at the possibility that you are grieving the loss of your child as you knew him or her.
Grief and loss are naturally interwoven into addiction. Grief is different for each one of us, but please don’t discount it. We put so much energy into getting back our child that we often forget about ourselves. Here are some ways to deal with your grief:
- If you acknowledge that you are grieving, I invite you to work through the grieving process with a counselor who will help you understand your losses and deal with them in a healthy and constructive way.
- Grief can feel suffocating. A good exercise to release grief is to take a very deep breath, hold it tightly and then release it slowly. You will feel your body calm down. It is also therapeutic to cry in the shower or yell in the car or smash pillows with a tennis racquet—anything physical to vent your sorrow, your anger, your disappointment.
- You might also want to write a letter to whatever is running your life—addiciton, fear, remorse—and tell it that you are taking back your life. You can also write down your sorrows and regrets and burn them in a fireplace or “burning bowl.” The important thing is to symbolically purge your “if only’s” so that you can free yourself to live more in the moment.
- There are also some great books that will help support recovery. Check out The
Grief Recovery Handbook by John W. James and Russell Friedman or The Precious Present by Spencer Johnson.
It is up to each of us to ‘push the clouds away’ in order to be happy. Don’t sit on the sidelines and don’t become a victim—you have the power to reclaim your serenity. If you have questions about grief or any other substance abuse issues, please feel free to send me your questions. Best wishes for a healthy New Year.”
Ricki Townsend, NAADAC, interventionist and family counselor
It’s been said when a child is born, so is a mother. There’s no denying the special bond between mother and child and it’s that very bond that contributes to unhealthy parenting in extreme circumstances. Drug & alcohol addiction of a child, at any age, is an extreme circumstance. Even Betty Ford, the pioneer in helping America understand alcoholism, did not want to accept her son’s alcoholism when he announced his concern to her. In his short eulogy, he recalled her shaking her head emphatically saying “no, you can’t be that!” – He said (and I’m paraphrasing) “mom, you of all people should know that this can happen to anyone…you have got to get out of denial! You are the poster child of alcohol and addiction rehabilitation… you are … Betty Ford!!” Is it any wonder that mothers of addicts have a struggle unique from this parent/child bond?
So often as parents we get so focused on helping our children out of their predicaments and struggles that we forget that we also need to take care of ourselves. What we don’t realize is that without taking care of ourselves, even the most basic of needs like eating well and getting rest that it actually hinders our ability to adequately care for our loved ones. It is quite typical for those that are worried and stressed about the safety of their children who struggle with addiction to become sick from that worry.
Stress does incredible damage to our body. In an article on the WebMD site it states one of the effects as the following ‘The “fight or flight” response begins here: When you’re stressed, the brain’s sympathetic nerves signal the adrenal glands to release a chemical variety pack, including epinephrine (aka adrenaline) and cortisol. Persistently high levels of these chemicals may impair memory and learning, and up your odds for depression.’ There are many other examples of the negative effects long term stress can have on our bodies. I often think of the analogy of when you are on an airline flight and the flight attendant gives the instructions that in the case of needing to put the oxygen mask on, help yourself first so that you can effectively help your child. This is the same in everyday life, if we do not take care of ourselves, how can we affectively take care of others? It is important to try to do what we can to be healthy. Not only will it help us be effective in dealing with the daily issues in our families, you’ll feel better too!