There was a time I used the siblings to debrief my anguish and worry about the other “one” – the child whose absence or drama was taking center stage and getting my full attention. Unaware of how damaging this would be to the remaining family members, I did this for a long time. The realization that my actions might have contributed to a form of suffering on them was a hard nut to swallow. I had to learn it the hard way; it seems to be a recurring theme for me. I first pondered the notion when listening to Alateens share their hurt, abandonment and other issues they kept to themselves while watching mom or dad get progressively worse in their futile attempts to straighten up the “affected” one’s life. I’d hear how some would become overly protective and sometimes take the role of caretaker, worried about the troubled sibling. Some would get resentful about all the attention given to the other. The entanglement of the family disease is cunning, baffling and powerful. To the “normal” sibling, the desire for mom and dad to get happy again would become their focus. So, in a sense, young co-dependents were forming as the family disease reached epidemic proportions. I wondered which role my children fell into.
Becoming aware didn’t actually help me with how to do better…the Al-Anon Family Group and 12 step recovery program was my road map for change. I had to start over with training wheels, in a sense, beginning with me and my contributions to the family disease. It began with accepting I had problems of my own to work on. The hope for me was that I could mend broken relations with all those who mattered in my life.
Today, with guarded mouth and awareness of the family disease, I try to keep the focus and be present with those who stand before me. I no longer ask prying questions about the “other” one whose lifestyle is concerning. I consciously choose to seize those opportunities with gratitude to be allowed the accompaniment of their presence. Most critically, I get to be PRESENT with no conditions and that is my GIFT to them.
Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote On Death and Dying in 1969, and it holds timeless wisdom for parents of addicts and alcoholics. The Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief chronicles the reactions we have when we lose the dreams we had for someone…ourselves, or our children, perhaps.
Those steps might look this way when we witness a loved one’s chemical dependency:
1) Denial: He’s not using drugs – he’s got learning disabilities or He wasn’t drinking – he’s just an inexperienced driver.
2) Anger: You’ve stupidly shot up all your college funds.
3) Bargaining: If you fix my child, I’ll never ask for anything again.
4) Depression: I’d rather be dead than go through this hell.
5) Acceptance: I’ve come to accept that I am powerless over my loved one’s drug or alcohol abuse, and that my life has become unmanageable.
The Acceptance step may sound familier because it’s the first step any any 12-step program. It’s the foundation of recovery for addicts and alcohlics, and for those who love them. Acceptance is a good place to end up in Dr. Ross’s model, and it’s a great place to start getting healthy in AA or Al-Anon.
When my son was released from incarceration the 2nd time, I was better equipped to not come rescuing like the first time. The first time I arranged to meet him, buy him clothes, toiletries and a hotel room until he found a sober living situation. I paid for his lodging and soon followed with food shopping extravaganzas. Though I believed I was cautiously treading and not helping to the extreme, he was indirectly relying on my assistance and I was relying on his success.
I was reminded that each time I helped in matters he was capable of doing himself; he did not have to focus on the necessities of life. Since those were being “handled” by me, he could focus on other things which may or may not result in favorable outcomes. I carried a hidden expectation that he would find a job and become self sufficient. It ultimately became clear addiction and all the consequences that go with it trumped us all.
It’s a fine line to walk as a mother. Naturally, there are choices one takes, but, if my actions, no matter how innocent or caring, interferes with my son doing for himself, then it’s the wrong thing to do. And here’s a mind bender – I’m still fooling myself if I try to control someone by withholding help if I attach an expectation to it! The “I won’t buy you food, so you will be forced to work!” control mentality. And helping because it makes me feel better doesn’t fly with me anymore. Such disrespect SHOUTS “I’m helping because you are not capable and it kills me to see it” – that is not the message I really want to convey!
Getting out of the way is that way! It’s the way I can give with no hidden, read-the-fine-print mommy babble because it keeps a healthy boundary between us both. There are no strings attached. He may go right or left and it’s not my business. Such was my lesson. I was once again reminded that I’m powerless over this disease. I was once again reminded that if I could not or would not accept the powerlessness part, then I would always be in conflict with him and play a critical role in contributing to the cunning, baffling nature of the disease. I had to get out of the cage and stop dancing with the gorilla. My sons’ 2nd chance has thus far had drastic favorable results and he gets all the credit. All I did was get out of the way with a strong belief he is capable of figuring it out, whatever “it” is. (And I pray for the stranger).
In Scenes of Clerical Life, George Eliot wrote, “The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us, and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us and we only know them when they are gone.” Eliot must have been writing about me. I’m guilty as charged of being so immersed in the past and wrapped up in future “What if’s?” that I overlook the present. Take this admittedly embarrassing example: last week, I found myself quite challenged by the final pages of a book. The text seemed choppy, the story line absent…..and then I realized I had been reading the appendix of the book and didn’t even know it. Where was I when the actual story ended and the appendix began? Drifting off to sleep in the bathtub; but still, my personal alarm should have shrilled “Be here now!”
So what does this have to do with addiction? I ruminate on past hurts and mistakes and concentrate too much on future worries (which clearly exist only in my mind). All the while, the present slips away like sand in an hourglass.
One of my resolutions is to change my perspective, to shift the focus off my son’s addiction, to stop pigeon-holing him with the way I think. Not to diminish addiction’s ever-present power, but instead to view the whole of my son in a fuller context as a joyous, bright, generous and kind young man who also happens to be in recovery.
When I shift my focus and see the whole of my child, the difficult past and unknown future loosens its grip , creating a clearer vista where I may get a glimpse of the angels at work in my life today.
My 16 year old daughter has just completed a Juvenile Drug Court program and has been clean and sober for almost 6 months. We have completed an intense program of family groups, one-on-one therapy and weekly teen support group meetings. What are the odds of her relapsing? – Concerned Mom
EXPERT CHRISTY CRANDELL:
While relapse is often times a part of recovery it is not ALWAYS a part of it. Research tells us that one year is the “optimal dose” of treatment so continue with her individual therapy and support groups. If, indeed, there is a relapse I think the best thing is to remain calm and remember it doesn’t mean she is going to go back to that lifestyle permanently. She needs to be held accountable for her poor decision but more importantly she will need to process what happened with her counselor in order to make sure she has all the tools she needs to stay sober. – Christy Crandell, Administrative Directorand Founder of Full Circle Treatment Center.
EXPERT RICKI TOWNSEND:
Relapse is a complicated issue based on numerous factors. Both you and your daughter need to make recovery your first priority. For you, that means getting the support you need to stay healthy and to have a healthy relationship with your daughter. Going to a Parents Al-Anon meeting, working with a counselor, or attending open AA meetings with your daughter would all be healthy and constructive.
Yes, relapse statistics are high. At the same time, I encourage my families to not get caught up in the numbers because they can only cause you to stress and lose focus on your program. It sounds like you are doing all the right things. Keep up the good work, and concentrate only on your individual recovery programs. I wish you all well and I know you can all stay healthy if you both keep the focus on recovery.
There is an endless supply of guilt and shame in the world of addiction. And when your chemically-dependent child is in early recovery, you certainly don’t have to like him or her. That can be near to impossible to do, anyway, because the hangover of deceit and blame can take a while to blow over. Don’t feel guilty about feeling resentment for the chaos created by addicts and addiction. You don’t have to like your child at the moment. But you do need to love them if you hope to have a healthy relationship in the future.
You also need to love yourself. If you are wearing a hair shirt of guilt, you need to take it off and stop the “Why didn’t I…?” and “I should have….” Self-flagellation never helped anybody get better.
“When we know better, we do better” applies to both addicts/alcoholics and their parents. When our beloved children begin to confront their chemical dependency, they become more capable of managing it. And when we confront our relationship with them and their disease, we can begin to heal as individuals and as a family.
I panicked at first when a mom who knew about my circumstance reached out to me. Would I be able to help her? How could I smooth things over when I know outcomes may not be great? Was it even my business to try? I have grown a great deal in my 12 step recovery program of Al-Anon Family Groups but I’m not perfect. I re-wound my history playbook recalling my own experience of the “son-in-prison powerlessness”. He had fainted in the shower room and cut his head. Word was he’d been transferred to a hospital. No one “inside” knew his status or even what happened. That helpless and hopeless feeling of not knowing! I have uncontrollable mother bear instincts! Unlike when he was 8 years old at the lake and had fainted on a rock outcropping…the children yelling for help, his dad and I frantically swimming to his rescue…in desperation, I could not help this time. My fear! My panic! The “must do something” response and immediate reaction to save him! Back to present State Corrections Department and my powerlessness, I later found on the website an inmate/family liaison contact and I emailed them. Days later someone responded! I wanted to know if he was alright and my Higher Power answered me – “he’s OK!”
Having shared with this mom, days later she thanked me for listening. Realizing there were some options in the prison industry that worked for me, she found someone to assist her situation. I learned that not being able to do something right away has merit for my life lessons in recovery from the family disease. I have learned in Al-Anon the three A’s: Awareness, Acceptance, and then Action. That “must do something” response is really unfiltered “reaction” and no longer serves me well. Today I have choices once I step back and get awareness of the situation. I had the same feelings to help this mom. I’m aware that my urge to immediately help is an unconscious response and I don’t need to act on it. I can accept that feelings are not facts. It is here that my action, if any, will be more appropriate and often results in positive outcomes.
A while back, I caught Dr. Daniel Amen on TV talking about his book, Magnificent Mind at Any Age. I am interested in his work, especially since I discovered that the nutritional supplements he recommends seem to help with depression. When my son was first struggling to become sober, he carried his vitamins and nutrients everywhere with him in a shoe box. They kept him on an even keel and took the edge off, much as opiates had done.
Dr. Amen claims that SPEC brain scans reveal that people who think happy thoughts show much “healthier” brain activity than those who think sad thoughts. I didn’t catch his definition of healthy brain activity, but no matter: the point is that you improve your brain function when you are optimistic and positive, rather than negative. That sounds quite Disneyesque and is a tall order for the mother of a teen drug addict, but what have you got to lose?
This approach also dovetails well with that handy Al-Anon slogan, “Fake it till you make it,” which helped me get through many difficult hours. During my son’s active addiction, I awoke most mornings riddled with anxiety. Anticipating some sort of crisis, I greeted each day with a fight or flight state, ready to leap into action and deal with the missing son or the car accident or the threatening phone call. It took a lot of mental muscle-building (and a good therapist) for me to learn to talk myself off the ledge. Now when I am stressed, I flip the switch and reach for Smiley Faces instead of the Grim Reaper, faith instead of fear. That very conscious and deliberate action helps me feel calmer and—yes—happier.
Trust me, I am very much a work in progress. I was born in a state of High Alert, but as I learn how my brain works, I am equipping myself with some powerful tools to reclaim my serenity.
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