A while back, my friend spent the night in the ER, courtesy of her daughter’s addiction. She wasn’t there for her daughter; she was there because of her daughter. The addiction was making her sick. She was so consumed with fear over her daughter’s whereabouts and safety that her heart felt like it was exploding in her chest. Afraid that she was having a heart attack, her son rushed her to the emergency room. Ironically, they gave her Xanax –her daughter’s drug of choice—to calm her down.
Addiction, the family disease, kills addicts and those who love them. Sometimes the addict is unscathed while his or her family pays the price. Many addicts in recovery are horrified to learn how much their parents suffered while they skated merrily along, oblivious or numb to the collateral damage they caused along the way.
Loving our children “’til death do us part” is not healthy or sane. But where is that “off” switch that lets us walk away from our children for our own sake—and for theirs? And where do we find the strength to flip it? Sometimes our own health issues force us to cry “Uncle.” Sometimes we run out of money or other resources. And sometimes we have a moment of clarity and see that we can’t save them unless they want to save themselves; if not, we are all going down with the ship.
My child’s addiction is not the sword that I want to die on. Plus, the simple act of removing ourselves from the equation often gives the addict an incentive to change. When cardboard boxes and dumpster diving replace clean sheets and home cooking, that just might trigger the addict’s own moment of clarity.
Loving our children means resolving not to participate in their self-destruction. And loving our children means loving ourselves enough to retreat from the line of fire so that we can be present in a way that is healthy for all.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers a working definition of recovery that captures the essential, common experiences of those recovering from mental or substance use disorders. SAMHSA also identified 10 guiding principles that support recovery. The principals, while written for and about the addict, apply so clearly to recovery as experienced by the family of the addict, as well.
First, consider SAMHSA’s definition ofrecovery from mental and substance use disorders: a process of change through which individuals work to improve their own health and well-being, live a self-directed life, and strive to achieve their full potential. And how does one make those changes? Here are SAMSHA’s Ten Guiding Principles of Recovery:
- Recovery is person-driven.
- Recovery occurs via many pathways.
- Recovery is holistic.
- Recovery is supported by peers and allies.
- Recovery is supported through relationships and social networks.
- Recovery is culturally based and influenced.
- Recovery is supported by addressing trauma.
- Recovery involves individual, family, and community strengths and responsibility.
- Recovery is based on respect.
- Recovery emerges from hope.
Instead of looking for recovery– or at my beloved addict through the lens of his recovery– I’ve learned to take a good hard look in the mirror. Do I spot the ten principals of recovery in my life? If not, it’s time for some inner work.
As they say, “Don’t change my world, change me.” These principles are powerful tools to hone my own recovery from the trauma of a child’s addiction. There might be other tools, too; what is missing from SAHMA’s list that you have found helpful in your own recovery? Please share your ideas and your power with other readers.
Jail Visitation is a familiar setting. I’ve been a visitor here often, and it spans many years. The locations change, but the signs are the same. This is where I go to see my son when his disease lands him there. Over time, my visitation attitude has changed. It used to be I would try to reason with him; tell him what I think he needs to hear, show disappointment because he’s not doing what I think he should be doing and chasing my dream that he will get it this time. It’s too hard to keep working that angle with no benefit. Eventually, my desires for my son’s recovery became no longer necessary to outwardly express them. His incarceration is a result of drug addiction, period, end of story. And when I accept that, my relationship with him is on neutral territory: he’s not on the hot seat, and I’m not the interrogator. It’s this change in attitude that allows me to choose that visit, because jail visitation has many inconveniences. I would inwardly fight the system with its unyielding rules for visitors. Now I endure the rules and regulations about what I wear, what I carry in, and for those 30 minutes, I forfeit a day. But it’s worth it because now I’m just a loving mom visiting my son. After I’m “admitted in” I embrace the 40 minute wait. There is no reading material allowed and our chairs face a TV that is never turned on. As other visitors file through I begin to get anxious about what to do with all that time sitting still waiting for the clock to turn to visit time. There’s really nothing else but to twittle my thumbs. Then I remember that I can invite my Higher Power in; asking for guidance on how I can be fully present with my son. I can turn inward to prayer and meditation. I have concerns, but I’m not consumed by them anymore. I wish his situation will turn to better days, but I don’t dwell on the future too much. And then the fastest 30 minutes of the day flashes by, and I’m grateful that I can visit my son and that he enjoys the time with me as well.
When I tried to help my sons, nothing worked out the way I had planned. It never turned out how I wanted it to. I thought I had control, power and knowledge to help them over the seemingly little bumps in the road. I could not fathom the ultimate end result of addiction’s role in destroying relationships, trust and core values. But I believed I had responsibility to manage something that was, well, unmanageable! This confused thinking kept me in denial of any other explanation. I was resistant to considering alternatives that didn’t point to the solution I wanted. And all the while I find myself worrying about tomorrow. What will tomorrow bring, how will it play out, what about the future? What about THEIR future? What about MY future? And if I’m not worrying about tomorrow I’m replaying the past. What could I have done differently?
It turns out this is not a very healthy way to live. In the end, I’m not in the presence of the present, I’m somewhere else and soon I’m losing control over everything. How can I possibly help those around me when my life is out-of-control?
Recovery from the family disease helps us let go of useless thoughts about future events that have not happened or wasting time dwelling on the past that can never be undone. We take it slow and are no longer absent from the present. We start to get a better grip on ourselves, and we begin to understand our role in relation to the disease.
When our beloved addicts and alcoholics descend into the hellhole of chemical dependency, we are right by their sides. We travel on parallel journeys through depression and anxiety, financial and legal chaos, shame and isolation, and the physical ravages of stress and sleeplessness. This is called a family disease for so many reasons: it even feels contagious.
So much of what is written for the addict or alcoholic child applies to parents, too. I picked up Moments of Clarity again last night and was magnetically drawn to this passage by actress Kelli McGillis: “There were many things keeping me from recovery. One was the fact that I thought I could do it—I thought I could do everything by myself. When I finally realize I had a problem, still l I thought, “I should be able to handle this. I’ve handled all these tragic events in my life and I can handle this one, too.”
Although she was writing about her alcoholic self, she could have been writing about me. That illusion of power explained much of my fevered pitch as I tried to fix my child.
Understanding that I cannot do this on my own – realizing that I was powerless over drugs and alcohol and that my life had become unmanageable—was the key to the kingdom for me as I began to relinquish my illusory hold on my child’s sobriety. Instead, I reached out for help from friends, counselors and a divine power much greater than me, and I began to claim my own recovery.
Our children’s substance abuse creates such isolation for beloved addicts and parents alike. It feels like others cannot possibly relate to our struggles as parents of addicts unless they, too, have been hunkered down in the trenches of fear, anger and shame. But I have great hope that as we spread the word about addiction as a brain disease, then the shame will begin to dissipate and we can come together openly and constructively to prevent addiction through awareness and education.
So here, for the record, is the official definition of addiction from the American Society of Addiction Medicine: The ASDM defines addiction as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.”
Physician Michael Wilkes aptly illustrates that point in the Collision Course – Teen Addiction Epidemic documentary when he says, “I don’t think it’s any more under someone’s control than skin cancer or breast cancer or an infectious disease. Sure, there’s some role you had initially but once you begin to get the actual manifestations of the disease, you can’t stop it without a significant amount of help.” (You can watch Collision Course here, and then ask your local Public TV station to run it in your area.)
We’ all know the part about the sheer amount of work and terror in trying to derail active addiction. Through education and awareness, we can stop addiction before it even starts. And never forget—there is no shame in having a child with a disease, whether its asthma, diabetes or addiction/aka substance use disorder. Even calling it by its new medical name–substance use disorder–is a step towards reducing the stigma.
As the mother of a chemically dependent child, my biggest fear was that he would die. It’s not an irrational fear: addiction/alcoholism is responsible for accidents, homicides, suicides. I am not telling you something that you don’t already know; these fears probably haunt you, too.
I will be the first to admit that, for the most part, I dealt with that fear in a pretty graceless way. I was obsessed with my son’s potential death to the point of not being present in his life. I was preoccupied with what he did/what he might do to the point of overlooking the bright moments in his day and mine. Guilty as charged for overlooking “the present” of today! I was absent from the lives of other loved ones; I was shrill; I was depressed; I was afraid.
I read today about a transcendent mom who, unlike me, looked death squarely in the eye and refused to let it strip her of her child’s life. The mother of a terminally ill toddler, writer Emily Rapp delighted in her child’s short life and learned tremendous lessons from him. You can read about Emily, her son Ronan, and parenting a child with no future. Emily learned so much from Ronan, and we can all learn so much from Emily about how to love a child without life’s guarantees.
One day I was driving my son to a local transit station. I quickly glanced his way to see if he was wearing his seat belt. The last time I was driving him he did not have his seat belt on and I realized it just when a police officer pulled up next to us. This panicked me and bothered me to no end. I don’t want any trouble. At the time he was 28 years old, by the way. Now he has acquired a ginormous tattoo that runs from his shoulder to his wrist on one arm. I’m struggling to accept it. I kept seeing it in my periphery. Soon I noticed other things around me. At an intersection, the car just next to me pulled up to the stop light. Here was a young driver who had all the earmarks of a young drug dealer. There were several young people at the corner gas station, loitering; they too looked suspect to me – did I just see them nod to that drug dealer driver? And the car on my right, the driver also had a very noticeable tattoo… Somewhere there was loud music BOOM BOOM BOOMING… Everywhere around me were suspicious people, my son’s age, in cars, on sidewalks, parking lots and bus stations, all seemingly with no direction or purpose. It was like the ZOMBIES had all come out in the afternoon. This is an area I drive daily and I never noticed this before!
What just happened here? I was uneasy about his tattoo. Why? One word: Judgment. I was placing judgment on him AND would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little concerned about how people would judge me! So, as sneaky as my EGO can be, I involuntarily defaulted to my old defects of character – placing judgment on those around me – they looked suspicious! This tactic used to work good when I did not want to take a good look at myself. Let’s face it. If I put the focus on them, I don’t see where there is any “me” in the equation. This time, however, I CAUGHT ME!
I never know when I’m going to resort to old habits where character defects surface, but I am able to recognize what I’m doing and stop it soon after. Before recovery in the Al-Anon Family Group I would not have considered my viewpoint the problem. I sometimes look forward to finding another thing I’m wrong at because it’s so humbling! What a gift!
This Seeking Serenity blog was just awarded one of the “Top Ten Addiction Blogs of 2013″ by Residential Treatment Centers. We’ve got some good company in those ranks, ranging from Suboxone Talk Zone which recently exposed the devious marketing ploy by the makers of suboxone to The Last Chance Texaco, described as “an open, honest and vivid account of stumbling through life as a recovering addict.”
This recognition feels a bit off, kind of like sporting a bumper sticker that reads, “I’m the proud creator of an award-winning blog about addiction.” I certainly never imagined that would be my claim to fame; instead, I secretly yearned for the bumper sticker that sang the praises of my child as an honor student at some prestigious school (not really, but you get my drift). But I will take it. I’m proud to be the co-creator of a resource described as “covering educational, inspirational and informative content, Parent Pathway is a wealth of knowledge. The writing is concise and well written.” My English teachers should be beaming.
Most of all, I am proud that the Seeking Serenity blog is seen as “a wonderful source of comfort when facing a difficult situation.” That was our goal when developing this web site.
You never know how and why the universe delivers its potent gifts, some unbidden. But my child’s chemical dependency has handed me an opportunity to be of service to others, and that is yet another silver lining in my addiction playbook. What are some of the silver linings in your experience of your child’s chemical dependency?
The sorrow, destruction and powerlessness of a child’s addiction weigh heavily on our hearts. In my dimmest hour, devastation for my child was all I could see. It was the only thing that I could imagine. I was blinded by his addiction.
And yet, somewhere along the way I began to spot glimmers of light, personal epiphanies of growth and change and promise. My personal torture morphed into compassion for others. I became grateful for small things that wouldn’t have even caught my eye before. I learned to devote time and energy to the truly important things in my life. My appreciation for strong girlfriends grew hundredfold. The dark cloud of addiction revealed some very silver linings which had been there forever while I had been looking the other way.
What allowed me to change, or what changed in me? I had to admit my powerlessness over my son’s chemical dependency before I could see anything else besides his addiction. When I admitted my powerlessness over his addiction, it released its grasp on me. Don’t change my world, change me.
If you have only recently entered the dark Land of Addiction, I know this seems ridiculous, out of the question. But give yourself time. There are many steps in the experience of a child’s serious illness, and you need to work through them at your own pace. Somewhere along the way, the silver linings will start to catch your eye.