Real Simple magazine featured an article, “The Accidental Addict,” about a young woman who inadvertently became addicted to prescription medications. Aren’t all addicts accidental? Who would intentionally choose the life of destruction called addiction or alcoholism? No addicted child that I know said, “Gee, I want to open a Pandora’s box of destruction and quite possibly put my life on the line.” Instead, I imagine he or she thought, “ I’d like to fit in/ hang loose/ have fun/ not be the oddball/be popular/feel comfortable in my own skin” or something of that nature.
By the same token, enablers come by their craft quite honestly. Love First, A Family’s Guide to Intervention highlights the genesis of two distinct types of enablers. One type is the “innocent enabler” who can’t even imagine that drugs or alcohol underpin a loved one’s inexplicable behavior. The other variety is the desperate enabler who cannot bear the thought of the decimation of substance abuse. My own enabling started innocently and then became desperate as I worked tirelessly to prevent the family boat from capsizing while keeping my child out of harm’s way. That balancing act made me crazy, made me sick and didn’t solve the problem. In fact, it made it worse.
The distance I’ve put between me and my child helps me take a clear look and how we got to where we are. That’s been a very good thing: understanding the accidental origins of addiction and co-dependency helps me find forgiveness for myself and for the beloved addicts in my life.
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.
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.
My husband said “no” when my 30 year old son asked to borrow his truck. The conversation ended badly: my son hung up on him with a flippant “I didn’t think it would be a big deal.” My husband is feeling sad about it all. He said some things he wishes he could take back, replay or do differently. I recognize the defeatism and self-deprecating emotions that happen from outcomes like this. I’ve had a few of my own. Everything about a child’s drug abuse and addiction can have negative consequences for parents. The worry and fear. Then there’s the doubt you place on yourself as a parent; then there’s the resistance to the truth – wishing you could say yes, often saying yes to avoid conflict. Then there’s the hurt and emotional suffering you go through because even though you know intellectually, you didn’t cause it, you can’t control, you can’t cure it, it still doesn’t make the situation better or release you from responsibility. I just wish he was doing better, had sought recovery and fought relapse. The truth is he is ripping and running right now and I am powerless over it.
This disease is an inside job. When will the misery end? It ends when I let go and let God. When I accept what is and chose recovery from the family disease. I can chose another way in my relation to this disease, yes, I will have sadness, but not all consuming misery.
Sister Bea talked about the 5 stages of grief in a retreat I attended. Parents discover grieving is a term that aptly describes our feelings of having sons and daughters afflicted with addiciton. First there is denial. Denial of reality is a symptom of our disease. At first, it had its place – to cope with the unthinkable. Used too long, my life becomes unmanageable. Next comes bargaining, a weird but true phenomena with your interaction with God. OH God, I promise this, if you do that! The 3rd stage is anger and there are many articles and reading material about anger. Many parents of drug addicts have issues with anger and resentments. Parent Pathway has a wonderful meeting-in-a-box exercise for Anger and I often speak about it (click here). Fourth is sadness – so strong it overtakes you. For some, there can be clinical depression and other disorders from it. Finally, there are snippets of acceptance, and all of this happens at different points in time. With acceptance there is a shift in attitude filled with hope, growth and splendor through spiritual relief. It is here I find solace from the family disease of substance abuse. It brings me back to the present moment – neither dreading the next moment nor dwelling over past moments. I accept there will be pain and sadness sometimes, but with acceptance, events such as this won’t torment me through the 5 stages of grief.
When your loved one first emerges from detox, he or she will be very raw, hurting, angry, and more. Detox essentially rips the band-aid off of whatever they’ve been doing to self-medicate themselves or to navigate through life in a way that is manageable to them. Now they are out in the open, with nerves fully exposed and nowhere to hide. They also have to look in the mirror and see the damage they’ve done to themselves and others. How painful that must be. No wonder the siren song of self-medication is so unrelenting.
There’s an expression about recovery: “The only thing that has to change is everything.” When you think about how profoundly challenging the world looks to someone in early recovery, that expression makes perfect sense. Someone in recovery needs to figure out an entirely new way of living life. They have to manage their sorrow, shame or grief – whatever they were drowning – without mood-altering drugs or alcohol. They have to learn or re-learn the logistics of school or work. They have to deal with the emotions of righting the wrongs they committed. And they have to mend relationships that have been torn apart. It’s a tall order, and it takes a team of friends and families who love (although they may not like) the person who is struggling to regain their equilibrium. That’s the secret of recovery for all, for as Buddha said, “In separateness lies the world’s great misery, in compassion lies the world’s true strength.”
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