Waving Goodbye to our Beloved Addicts and Alcoholics

Photo of Ricki TownsendThis is a guest post from Ricki Townsend, Family Counselor and Board Certified interventionist.

When addiction comes into our lives, we are so unaware of what to do.

A crisis comes, we have a blowup, and then we kiss and things go good again, and then another blowup happens. Eventually, this is how we get used to living our lives, oblivious to the craziness it brings for all of us.

It’s the “I am so sorry”, the “I’ll do well”, then the craziness starts up again. Or the arrest, manipulation and lying. We want to believe this time will be different.

It is almost like we live our lives believing in an unconscious awareness that our lives depend on them. If they are happy, if they are doing the things that we know leads to a great life, then we can be happy.

After the blowup (or what I call the long sit down), they start to behave as we want. This “they” can be a husband, son, wife etc. It doesn’t’ matter, it all has a sameness to it.

When they start to “behave” then we feel we can breathe again. We go along with a false sense of security that they are now on the right track. In most cases it is a false belief. They will only last so long, because no one can pretend to be who they are not. The drug or alcohol behaviors literally start sneaking back in. Another crisis comes about because we start getting resentful that they are not doing what they promised they would do. What’s really happening is they are not able to take away our fear.

How do we handle this??

WE take back our life. We start our own recovery on a daily basis. The same thing we are asking of them, but this time we do it ourselves. We “do” things every day: Therapy, support groups, Al-Anon, even a couple of open AA meetings regularly. The latter shows us how recovery can happen. We put down strong boundaries. We finally ask them to leave or we leave the situation ourselves and take up residence somewhere else. All of these things we do respectfully.

We cannot control another human being into being what will make us happy. At a healthy level, addiction is like seeing someone drive away after a visit, lovingly waving goodbye at them…WE have no control over them making it home.

Where is the Hope for your addicted child in the face of despair?

When I follow the years of progression of the disease of addiction with my son, I sometimes see 10+ years having gone down the drain. Now, for a 50 odd year old, one year flies by at the speed of light and a whole lot can be accomplished! For a 20 year old, 10 years seems a lifetime. It’s a matter of perspective. However it feels, it’s still 10 years and sometimes I’m overtaken with despair.

I now realize that the 10+ years past is what it’s supposed to be; I don’t have any right to judge the usefulness of it. I sometimes question, when will he choose recovery? Will he ever? How can there be hope when over and over the same thing happens and it’s never good. This is the time I find myself going to a 12-Step Recovery Program, open to the public: AA or NA , where I can listen to others in recovery.  It’s a good way to get re-energized. I’ve even found recordings on the internet to download of recovered persons who share their story. There is so much hope in their stories. By listening to them, I learn about the disease and it gives me another perspective to understand that recovery happens for each person differently, and on different time lines. Rarely do I hear someone speak on the help they got from their mom or dad. Sometimes there is an honorable mention to Al-Anon, where friends and family learned to stop enabling. The true source of help is inevitably something bigger than me or someone else – the unknown source, a Power, Greater than I – something I’ve come to welcome. I observe that some find recovery early, some get it years and years later.  Sadly, some never get it. For the latter possibility, I’m reminded to be thankful each moment that I’m afforded an opportunity to see, hear or be in some sort of communication with my adult children. Years can fly by or the opposite. Sometimes days, and even hours can drag out for an eternity. Either way, if I stay in the presence of a Power, greater than myself, I can find serenity in the knowledge that when and if they ever decide, someone will be there to offer a new way to do life, with their own hope for the future. I can let go of my need to be overly involved and learn how to be a loving parent, unconditionally, when opportunities present themselves.

Living one day at a time can seem impossible when it is our children and addiction.

I remember when I had to ask my son to leave after many months of not living with integrity in my home.

That was the hardest winter I believe, I have ever gone through. Yes, it hurt not knowing where he was staying. Yes, back then I felt -how could I even survive it?  So the only thing I could do was to start living one day at a time. I did this by paying attention to my health. I started going to more of my own AA meetings, and became very involved in my Al-Anon meetings. I started walking the neighborhood every day for 40 minutes.

I read. I prayed.  And many – many days I would go to sleep crying. I can tell you on two occasions I actually woke up with tears flowing down my cheeks. I had dreamt about my son.

I am not saying it is easy. It certainly is not. But honestly, what was the alternative? This is what I learned for myself. To live by fear??? Fear of what I would find when I came home from work??

After many things had happened I finally realized I wanted my life back.  I wanted my safe haven back. My home. I also knew if their was a chance, I wanted my son back.  Eventually at the end of winter, sleeping in the park, on friends couches, and in the back seat of their cars, I finally got that phone call. “Mom, I want help, can I come home?”  I picked him up and the next day my son was in treatment.

I pray for all of you that the pain in your hearts become less and less.

Ricki Townsend, Family Counselor and Board Certified Interventionist.

Should you step or talk your way to recovery (or do both)?

301883_8582 mother daughter walking on beachWorking the steps has offered powerful tools against addiction or alcoholism ever since they were invented by Bill Wilson more than 60 years ago. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can also be a powerful ally in the quest for recovery. Turns out, “the 12 steps and cognitive behavioral therapy have a lot in common” according to an interesting article posted on The Fix. Guided by a therapist who works with the chemically dependent, this article points out where the two meet and where they diverge.

I found this article thought-provoking because, as a Blue Chip co-dependent, I have been addicted to my child’s addiction. We all know that drill: if they are sober, we can be happy; if they are using, our world falls apart. If they relapse, so do we. And sometimes we relapse even if they don’t. For those reasons alone, I need the twelve steps as much as my child.

At a minimum, this article was powerful because it reinforced the notion that Al-Anon and AA are not religious; they are spiritual.  The fear of getting cornered by a religious zealot has kept people away from 12-step program unnecessarily.

Take a look at the article and see if it makes sense to you. As parents of beloved addicts or alcoholics, can the twelve steps replace our therapy, or can our therapy replace the twelve steps? Or maybe they work best hand-in-hand.  Only you can tell.

What I gained by accepting that alcoholism is a disease

My Love can not save my loved ones.How long did I deny this statement? For many years, I believed it was a matter of willpower. As long as I denied that it was a disease, then I would stay in utter conflict and constant turmoil trying to fight it. In this resistance mode, I was acting as if I knew best, based on no true knowledge about the chemical reaction in the body and the disease of the mind. I would lecture, blame and scold when my loved ones already had a bad opinion about themselves. I would take charge, place orders and expect change, but the outcomes were never what I wished for. I would do it again and expect a different result. The same result would happen and I still tried it again!

Alcoholism is also family disease, and if you were to look into my life, you would have seen evidence that it was not just the alcoholic/addict to be concerned about. I was progressing along with them. I was obsessed with saving those I cared about and in so doing my behavior was certifiable! And all the effort was doing nothing to help the problem. They were getting worse, and so was I.

To learn as much as I could about the disease I read the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, I went to open AA meetings, the 12 Step program for alcoholics,  and I listened to Alcoholics in recovery on speaker tapes. To get a grip on myself, and to learn more about my relation to the family disease, I went to the Al-Anon Family Groups. I no longer deny that addiction is a disease, and completely understand why willpower is not the issue. I also know it’s a family disease.  I don’t have to know why anymore.  Being able to see my role in the disease dynamic has been a game changer. When you know better, you do better.

Changing dreams for our addicted and alcoholic children

swing setI didn’t really know what to expect when our son invited us to join him a support group to celebrate a milestone of his early recovery. I had been to open meetings before, but never at his side. My first impression of this particular meeting was—Wow, there are so many people here. My second impression was—And so many of them have lots of recovery….years and even decades.

But it took my breath away when I heard my son announce, “I am an alcoholic and an addict.” That short sentence made me confront the fact that my dreams for him would take a different shape. My visions of him on the high school debate team, high-fiving teammates, volunteering in the community had been derailed. My dreams — fantasies — for his future were unlikely to materialize.  And AA was certainly not the club I wanted him to join.

And when I let go of my dreams for my child, it made room for him to carve out his own path, independent of what I hoped for. And that divestiture helped me slash some of the ties of co-dependency that had tied us together in an unhealthy way. His life/his dreams to chase.

And at the same time, I was immensely proud that he claimed membership in this group that I know to be committed and brave and march straight ahead while the siren song of addiction calls out to them. This is a fellowship of people who dig deep to understand their powerlessness and to seek the help they need. There is tremendous empathy and mutual support within the walls of such meetings. And in those rooms, my son has created new dreams for his life, dreams that I am honored to witness.

My son’s proclamation also compelled me to admit, “I am the mother of an alcoholic and an addict.” I never imagined that I would claim membership in this club. But there is strength and honesty in this proclamation that helps me get better, too. And there is a fellowship of committed parents in that club- committed to their own health, and to figuring out how to support their children in recovery. There is strength, and wisdom, in their numbers.


The Family Disease of Addiction and Alcoholism

This is an “encore” post from My3Sunz

For a long time I did not understand how my loved one’s substance abuse was my problem. In fact, I was quick to point out that they were the ones with the problem, not me! Then I heard an analogy of the how this family disease works. If you put a frog in boiling water, it will immediately jump out. If you put a frog in tepid water and slowly turn up the heat, it will cook to death because it did not recognize the change in temperature was in fact lethal. True or not, the story has been used in 12-step rooms to illustrate the family disease. Alcoholics Anonymous has recognized the family disease since inception, but oddly, there is limited research to support the family disease model. Nonetheless, professionals in the treatment community often look at substance abuse as a disease that affects the entire family.  Many professionals suggest the family attend a 12-Step meeting.  Another term equated with the family disease is codependency,  a condition that develops in relationships where the non-addicted person enables the abuser to continue. According to Wikipedia, “Codependency describes behavior, thoughts and feelings that go beyond normal kinds of self-sacrifice or care taking.”

It took a long time for me to understand this “family disease” notion. I could not deny the similarities of other people in like-situations. Like me, their loved one’s drinking and drugging was upsetting them (to put it mildly). We seemed to share the same symptoms. Upon hearing the frog in boiling water story, it clicked. As the heat turned up, my reaction was to normalize and cope with increasingly bizarre and unacceptable behavior. There were “incidences” that were escalating, but I casually excused it – “Oh, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” As time passed, no matter how bad the chaos and insanity really was, I did not feel the temperature rise!

Eventually, with help, I realized my inability to control them (denying the temperature change) and that I was going to boil to death. My rescuing behavior created an environment that made it easier for them to continue. I was hurting not only them, but myself and others around me too. It was time to jump out of the pot!

Ask the Expert: How can I handle my son’s relapse without enabling him?

seeing the situation clearly with addictionYour question:  my son is an addict. He came home from prison after being gone 3 years  . He had been doing so good, going to all his meetings, went back to school, he was my son again. Then about a month or so ago I saw a change in him. He was gone for longer amounts of time ( he lives with us). We started having money missing, he was irritable and did’nt want to be around us or his children. This morning I comforted him and he confessed to taking money to buy drugs and to pay money back he owed to people. My heart was broke and I was so over come with anger I ask him to leave. I don’t know if I did the right thing or not. I am so torn. Is there away to handle this without enabling him?
Photo of Ricki TownsendAnswer from Expert Ricki Townsend:  Unfortunately relapse can be a part of the disease of alcoholism and addiction, especially if someone is not working a strong program.
Perhaps he took on too much?? Children, going back to school and the pressures of the community might have became overwhelming for him.  Instead of  talking with his sponsor, going to more meetings, he choose to self medicate  again. This does not excuse his relapse, but it may explain it.
I can not tell you if you did the right or wrong thing. You did what you did; now move on.  Are you in a program?  This is where you  will get your support.  Families of addicts need as much support and structure as addicts themselves. Please consider something like Al-Anon or Nar-Anon.
The only way to handle this disease is to NOT support the addiction with handouts, gas money, or even a place to stay if a child is in active addiction. You have the right to a drug-free home and a serene life.  I would suggest that you tell your son how his poor choice has made you angry, hurt, frustrated and probably scared for his future.  Use the “I” messages and have the conversation with love in your heart, if possible.
What is his next step to regain his sobriety?  Listen to him.   What does he want to do next?  Are you in agreement? If so,  support the next steps with a written, mutual agreement that  makes it very clear what you will accept and not accept  in the coming days.Have him write out his plan and require that he commit to drug testing as part of his plan.  There are outside labs that can call him and require him to come in within 24 hours for a drug test.  That way, you don’t become responsible for that degree of monitoring, which takes a huge toll on parents of adults.
You are much wiser now than when you started down the path of a child’s addiction.  Don’t go back to the beginning.  New understandings must be put in place so you can both move forward. I wish you the best.
Ricki Townsend
Board  Certified Interventionist, Drug/Alcohol Counselor NAADAC Certification  Commissioner Ncac1, CAS, RAS, Bri-1

Top Ten List for “Newby” Parents of Addicts or Alcoholics

Discovering that your child is abusing drugs or alcohol opens a whole new world of disbelief, dismay and pain.  How can you forge ahead when you make that awful discovery?  Here are some ideas:

  • Learn everything you can about the disease of addiction. Our book list is a good place to start.
  • Find support.  There are Al-Anon Family Groups in many cities and online. Consider family or personal counseling.
  • Attend an open AA meeting to hear firsthand from those who are embracing their recovery. Never lose faith that your child can join the twenty million Americans in long-term recovery.
  • Talk with your close family members so everyone is on the same page about the disease.  Secrets and sickness fester in dark corners.
  • Try to understand that there is no more shame in a chemically dependent child than a child with diabetes or cancer.
  • Take care of yourself.  Anxiety and stress can make you sick, too.  Read The Mood Cure to understand the role that nutrition plays in your family’s health.
  • Feel your anger and your pain.  Bottled-up anger makes you sick.
  • It’s OK to hate the addiction, but try to love your child. Let your child know that you love him or her , even though you hate the choices they made and the behaviors that came along for the ride.
  • Hold on to hope, one minute or one hour or one day at a time.

When relapse beckons, what should parents of addicts/alcoholics do?

Photo of Ricki TownsendRicki Townsend, Family Counselor and Board Certified Interventionist, is a Parent Pathway Expert. Please feel free to ask Ricki or our other experts any questions you might have about a child’s chemical dependency.

Many of my clients fear the idea of their child’s relapse and wonder about the warning signs. Here are some possible “symptoms” if relapse, with the first three being the ones I see most often in the first year of recovery:

  • Complacency
  • Grandiosity
  • Not attending recovery meetings such as AA, NA or Celebrate Recovery
  • Dishonesty
  • Hanging with old friends  who were users
  • Not working with a sponsor
  • Making major changes in the first year, such as moving to a new town or starting a new relationship

As we look at our loved ones in recovery, we also need to take a good look at ourselves because family members can relapse, too. The following are the most common symptoms for those of us who deeply love our addicted/alcoholic children:

  • Focusing on the loved to the point that it puts our own health at risk.
  • Refusing to believe that our loved ones have a problem with drugs or alcohol. (also known s denial)
  • Covering up the messes and keeping secrets.
  • Worrying, feeling constantly stressed and walking on eggshells.
  • Having a hard time defining where “they” end and “I” begin.
  • Yelling and making empty threats about boundaries that we cannot or will not enforce.

Relapse is often described as a part of alcoholism and addiction, as if it were inevitable. That is not always the case.  And while you cannot control your child’s relapse, you can control your own. A critical first step in parental relapse prevention is learning about enabling so that you don’t fall into the trap of “If they are happy and safe, then I will be happy and safe.”  Find a good family counselor, learn how to create agreements and keep boundaries, and you will be in much better shape to prevent relapse –yours or your child’s — or deal with it constructively if it does occur.