It occurred to me recently that having a loved one with addiction sneaks up on you. I’ve reflected on the journey of having a child struggling with alcohol and drug addiction, and it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment, but there is a moment when things fall apart and the life you so carefully crafted thus far becomes a distant shore that you long for. How does this happen? One day you are holding your precious baby, then sending them off to school, watching their soccer games, and then a darkness starts to creep in so deceptively stealth that you don’t even realize it. This is how I recall the addiction that ravaged my child along with our family. It is not so obvious that you see it coming towards you on the horizon like an unwanted storm. It is a silent enemy that steals your precious loved one. I remember the sudden disruptions that started to occur. By the time we realized the severity of the situation and began trying to determine what to do, it was like a train leaving the station.
There are many things that I know now from this journey that I wish I had known at the beginning. First, what to watch for and to not think it was just a phase. A phase turned into a serious brain altering disease. It was a struggle to seek help when you have an unwilling participant. I had to find the strength to give the options and be convicted in knowing that it was the right thing to do. For me, when things fall apart, it is when I am propelled into action. It is a difficult juncture, but you end up there and it is then when you realize you can’t remain or go back, but you must forge ahead and take action.
“We change our behavior when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of changing. Consequences give us the pain that motivates us to change.”
I was reflecting the other day on something that is perplexing and troubling. It’s perplexing because of the information I now have – which is the dangers of substance abuse for the developing adolescence brain and how troubling due to how many parents of pre-teens/teens do not understand the gravity of the situation. I know when my kids were young I had fears about them being taken by a strangers, getting hurt in a multitude of ways, falling ill by disease, the list goes on. But never on that list was the fear that they might use substances while in their adolescence and become addicted. Yet that is exactly what is happening to so many teens. What is now perplexing to me is why as parents we do not have a fear of this on the list along with all the other fears. It is so obvious now, but it took a tragic situation to happen in order for me to learn what I now know.
Anything bad happening to our children is extremely tragic. What I am proposing is that we talk about safeguarding our kids from our worst fears like child abduction. We keep a close eye on where they are going and who they are with when they are young. We try to keep them healthy with diet and exercise so we lower their risk of disease. We work hard to keep them safe from having an accident in our homes or outside our homes. Yet I don’t believe that we have grasped the true dangers of our young adults becoming addicted when they experiment with drugs. I know when I silently worried about my children; drug and alcohol addiction never crossed my mind. I believe it is because we don’t understand how the adolescent brain develops and how vulnerable it is until it has fully developed at the age of 25. All of this has been information that I am fully aware of now, but as a young parent it was not in my arsenal of understanding. I know I would have done things differently knowing what I do now. I also know that I am passionate about driving the awareness to other parents so they can help reduce the risks of their children becoming addicted in some way.
QUESTION: I just learned that my 37-year-old niece has been caught using drugs. I would like to know how I can support my sister-in-law, who is devastated. I don’t want to intrude, but I want her to know I am here for her. I don’t want to say the wrong things. Any suggestions for what I should or shouldn’t do or say?
EXPERT RICKI TOWNSEND: Your question reminds me of my own life when my own niece was on drugs a few years ago. I went to my sister and respectfully said, I am here to support you. How can I support you? Use the “I messages,”such as I am concerned about you and want to support you in whatever way you need, rather than You should be doing this or doing that. Be a good listener. Really try to hear how she is doing, and then respect and honor whatever she says. Maybe she wants phone support a few times a week, or maybe she wants some company at an Al-Anon meeting. Or maybe she just wants to be alone with her feelings.
I know it is really tough to just stand by, but sometimes our family and friends need their space. If she says she wants no support, then I would encourage you to respect this, and find some Al-Anon meetings you can attend to learn about the disease of addiction. That way, when she is ready for help, you will have the tools and knowledge to support her. The best way to be a loving sister-in-law is to be with her wherever she is and to be empathetic to the feelings she has, no matter what they might be.
EXPERT CHRISTY CRANDELL: How fortunate for your sister in law to have such a loving and concerned family member. My best advice would be to just walk beside her without judgment and let her know you are there for her whether she wants to talk or just go to a movie and forget about it. It could be just the beginning of a long journey. You can also offer to attend an Al-Anon meeting with her if she feels like that would be something that would help her. She is lucky to have you in her life!
Sometimes the pain of watching our loved one implode due to their addiction seems more than we can bear. I remember when my loved oe was in the throes of addiction how I was in so much pain that I just wanted to dig a hole and crawl in. I daydreamed about just getting in my car and driving, not in any particular direction but just putting distance between me and the situation that caused so much pain. I talk to many parents who have kids who have gone from recreational experimentation to destruction addiction and one common denominator is the heart wrenching pain that we experience. It’s like a slow motion train wreck, you see it happening and yet it seems there is nothing you can do to stop it.
Even though we can’t seem to stop the oncoming train, we can focus on how we can take care of ourselves and begin to breathe again, and have a life. We can look at what we are grateful for and focus on other loved ones that many times don’t get the attention they deserve because the one with addiction is all consuming. We can look at how to better take care of ourselves whether it’s exercise or sleep or spending time with friends. The good news is that by taking care of ourselves it can sometimes have a positive effect on the one who is afflicted with addiction. It reminds me of a prayer that became a mantra for me, ‘God, Change nothing in my life, change me’. When we change ourselves, the world around benefits.
“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”
It’s been said that the third time is a charm. The last high school graduation 3 years behind the oldest came with a changed perspective for me. I realized that I could not control or predict the future especially in light of the problems drugs and alcohol were creating in the family dynamics. This time graduation looked and felt different. This time, Graduation would be significant if it meant anything to him, not me. What I observed was his behavior was very different – he had a desire to graduate and it was not from a result of my influence. He was the one that studied and attended class seriously. He took the initiative to go on the senior trip, not I. His actions resulted in his graduating with his class and I did not have anything to do with it. It wasn’t as if I did not care anymore, it was that I did not have that strong of an emotional tie to it. I was a bit more conscientious about hosting a celebration after the ceremony with family members. This was something I asked him about – this time it was a partnership in the decision. This was different and it felt better.
The thought occurred to me: I can’t take credit for the success or failure of someone else…and then the awakening: I’m no longer a controlling parent, I’m just a loving and caring mom. That letting go of my ideas of how the story UNFOLDS for my children would be one solution to my problem. A few years later with the help of Al-Anon, I learned that there are tools to help me be the supportive mother, free of constant worry and fear. I can strive for unconditional love and this only happens when I change my old thinking and behavior. This has not been an easy change to embrace. I still catch myself having to detach my will for things to go my way. This would be something to celebrate, freedom from the bondage of self!
We all know that being armed with knowledge is very powerful. In the case of teenage addiction we are failing our kids and their parents by not arming them with critical information about the effects of drugs and alcohol on the developing teen. I’m guessing if you’re reading this that you are like me and that you have had an experience with your child, or know of someone, who has become dangerously involved in substance abuse. I know so much more now that I wish I had known when my kids were growing up. We are not educating teens or their parents in a way that helps them understand what they are up against. It is always easier to look back and realize this, I understand that. But I also think that knowing what I know now comes with a certain responsibility. I will talk to anyone who will listen and have become an activist in the area of teen drug and alcohol abuse.
I am compelled to write about this because I have recently experienced understanding how some very basic information like ‘prescription drugs are very addictive and dangerous to take’ is not understood by teens and their parents. What may seem obvious to some of us, who have walked this journey with our loved ones, is not at all obvious to others. More information about the effects of substance abuse needs to go out to our communities at the early teenage years and every year thereafter. Awareness does drive prevention, studies and actions in other communities have unequivocal proof. Pathway to Prevention has created the documentary Collision Course – Teen Addiction Epidemic which is aimed at educating parents and teens through stories of young people who have gone through addiction and parents who have traveled the journey with them. I am very hopeful that this documentary will become main stream to educate throughout every community near and far. The heart ache caused by teen addiction is devastating and it is 100% preventable, we just have to convince kids to never take that first drink, pill or smoke.
I was desperate for answers when teen addiction barged into my home and heart. “Why did my child use drugs to the point of chemical dependency? How can I make my child better? Why, oh universe, is my child singled out for this horror?” Guilt, shame and finger-pointing were the keynotes of my questions.
I didn’t have any answers. In fact, I was not asking the right questions. To begin my own recovery, I needed to ask, “What are the risk factors for addiction? What is my role in the family disease? and How can I support—and be supported by–other families who are shamed and isolated by their child’s chemical dependency?”
Asking the right questions helped me get my bearings. I began to understand addiction as a brain disease, rather than a disease of will power or character. I began to explore my role as a Blue Chip enabler. I read many, many books on addiction and learned how to sever my sick attachment to my child and to forge instead a healthy relationship with him. I transformed my guilt into action, reaching out to other families who were voyaging through the dark Land of Addiction. And so this blog was born.
At the end of the day, I didn’t have all the answers. I still don’t. But I’m asking the right questions, without judgment or guilt, and they help me stay on the path of compassion, understanding, and healthy boundaries.
June brings memories. Traditional high school graduation activity returns me to a time that was fraught with emotions: elation as well as disappointments and regrets. I, like most parents, see this milestone as one step further to independence, and really, who doesn’t think about the future great possibilities for our children? I was banking on it!
I falsely believed that when and if my son finished high school, everything would be better than it had been. I held on to expectations of what Graduation would mean to me thinking it might also mean the same thing to him. For me, it meant moving on, maturing, working or going to college. It would culminate at the graduation ceremony – a ceremony of accomplishment and a kick off to the future.
But the years, months and weeks prior to graduation were filled with doubt, anxiety and worry. His graduating was definitely important to me; I had a lot of expectations around it. Imagine the difficulty in “pre-orders” for announcements…invitations, gown & cap, to name a few – what if he didn’t make the grade? The indicators where there: Failed grades in core classes to make up, improved attendance, senior project to complete. How do you plan a graduation reception with relatives and friends if you are not even sure? I was certain I was the only parent with this kind of worry. Graduation is an expensive ordeal– not just the ceremony but all the school events and merchandising around it. My worry about the investment and fanfare for naught was also a driving force in my behavior to make this happen. It was going to happen, no matter what.
He did graduate and I’ll never forget how proud I was and how much I had banked on that event being the solution to all my problems with him. Life lessons have shown me otherwise.
Addiction is a progressive disease. As my beloved child struggled into adulthood, he had many accomplishments all shadowed with the dark & negative impact of drug addiction. The tug of the drug would be his driver and I had no control over it. A few years of my own recovery in Al-Anon Family Groups would reveal that graduation from high school should have been the furthest concern for this loving parent. With a new perspective, what seems important just isn’t! I still hold onto future great possiblilites, addiction is not the end all.