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.
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 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.
In the journey of addiction there are only 3 outcomes for those who stay in their drug and/or alcohol addiction. They will eventually end up in jail, ‘locked up’, due to their substance abuse and all of the desperation that it causes and poor judgment that accompanies their using. Second, they could end up ‘covered up’ which is where their addiction leads to death. Death comes in many forms for those in addiction – car crashes driving under the influence, overdose of drugs sometimes on accident, other times on purpose, their body could just give up due to all of the harsh effects of continuous drugs and alcohol. As a parent these are devastating situations. Certainly losing a child to a prison or jail sentence is heart breaking. And losing your child to death is incomprehensible.
The last option and the one that we all carry hope for is that our loved ones will ‘sober up’. Of the three eventual outcomes, we pray endlessly that our loved ones will find recovery. We all wish there was a magic formula that would cure our kids and make them whole again. There isn’t an easy answer, but there are resources along the way. I have found that gaining as much knowledge about addiction as I can so that I can understand the disease will help me to know what I’m up against. I can also attend support group meetings (Al-anon) with other parents to help weather the storm with those who understand. And I can to be positive without being naïve about the realities of the situation. I will envision ‘sobered up’ as the outcome for my loved one and everyone who struggles with the disease of addiction.
Your question: How do I know if my daughter is crying out for help or is really just pushing me away? My daughter is 23 and has had emotional issues dating back to her early teens. When she went off to college, she turned to drugs for self medicating. Our family has been dealing with the ups and downs that come along with this. She now lives 2,100 miles away and I am so afraid for her. I have little knowledge about where she lives. I have her “so called” friends messaging me on Facebook telling me they are afraid for her life and that her addiction is out of control, yet she assures me this isn’t true.
She hasn’t worked in almost a year. She is living from couch to couch and my parents continue to send money. I have asked them not to, but even I cave sometimes (not often) when she calls crying and saying she hasn’t eaten in days. I talked to her twice last weekend. I could tell she was out of it by the sound of her voice and the fact that she was so out of it, she thought she called me. She did call me later that day and asked for money for food. I told her I couldn’t give her money because I was in fear she would use it to buy drugs that could kill her.
I was clear that the way I was willing to help was when she is ready to come home and deal with her problems and get help for them I would put her on a plane in a heartbeat. Of course, she was angry and told me she wasn’t an addict. We have tried multiple times to get her into rehab, but she has checked herself out or quit going. How do I just give up or quit trying? I know she has to want it on her own, but I can’t help but think about the guilt I will carry always wondering if I did enough to try and help her, if she dies from a drug overdose. How do I know if she really wants me to come save her or just leave her alone?
Answer from Expert Ricki Townsend: Thank you for your questions. So many parents are grappling with this same distressing situation. It’s so hard to know what is truly going on and how to help.
First of all, mental health issues and chemical dependency often go hand in hand. It sounds like your daughter may have had some mental health issues in the past, and she is finding relief by self-medicating with drugs or alcohol.
If her friends are sharing their fears with you, I would tend to believe them over her, in most cases. While in active addiction, we lie to our families to get what we need from them to survive, which is money to buy drugs or alcohol to quiet our screaming brains. I am sorry that your parents do not understand this disease and that they are partnering up with your daughter to support her addiction and a possible overdose. Chemical dependency impacts the entire family, and the entire family must “circle the wagons” to support a loved one in a healthy recovery. Until the whole family is in agreement, your daughter will seek out the weakest link to support her addiction.
You sound like you are healthy in your interactions with your daughter. I would continue to say, “I love you but will not support you in your addiction. I love you enough to let you hate me for this. I will support you in treatment only.”
I recommend you continue to participate in parent Al-Anon meetings. I also strongly encourage you to please seek professional support, just as you would for any other life-threatening illness. I’ve worked with many families long-distance to develop a plan and to find the words and the actions to make it work. Please give me a call at 916 539-4535 if you’d like my assistance. Or there are certainly many other capable family counselors/addiction specialists nationwide who could help guide you on this very tough journey.
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.”
When my son entered a 12-Step rehabilitation program after 19 months of using, I was naively thinking 30 days and he’d be back to normal. There was just no way he would use again, it was such a waste of his young years, and surely he saw this. Well, not only did he relapse WHILE in rehab, he subsequently relapsed many times over. I heard others say that with recovery comes relapse. This helped me accept unfavorable outcomes and not be so disappointed, angry or resentful. Later someone shared that relapse expectations can be dangerous and that perhaps I should not expect it or justify it. Think about the addict who may rationalize as do I: “Craig has relapsed a bunch of times before he made it, so what if I have a drink or two.”
What is minimized is that the last time Sabrina relapsed, she went into a coma and never came back; the last time James relapsed, his drug induced high for 3 days left a trail of armed robbery and arrest. The last time Joe relapsed, he hit a pedestrian while driving under the influence, and Sally? She nearly died from insulin shock, no longer in touch with her blood sugar monitoring.
Having this brought to my attention changed my behavior and attitude towards expecting relapse. Addiction is a deadly serious disease and any attempts to smooth things over, allow or assist the addict to justify relapse while in my sphere of influence cannot be tolerated. I will not expect it, but I can learn to accept it. And with love and prayer, a program of recovery from co-dependency, I have faith that a Power, greater than me, will guide us all toward a program of 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 of being the parent of a drug addict 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’ve all experienced 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.
One of the hardest tasks for me is to accept why the holiday season brings on a dreadful feeling of gloom for me. Growing up, I don’t have any negative feelings about the holidays. In fact, I’m very grateful for all the fond memories and joy I experienced. My mom, dad and family get-togethers during Thanksgiving were GREAT! Though my mom recalls a difficult period when we would pack up and drive 3 hours to “grandmas” where she later “put an end to THAT.” I don’t remember anything but having dinner at our house. I always remember my mom cooking and a lot of activity in preparation. There was anxious excitement anticipating the arrival of my relatives. There was always a flurry of political discussions, abundance of food, and comforting smells. There may have been alcohol, I don’t recall. Being the youngest, I watched my older siblings bring home guests from college and they were always interesting characters whether “meditating yoga” in our front yard (the 60’s!) or bringing a new perspective to the table. It was always these memories that I tried to recreate with my family.
The holidays are hard for me because I have dysfunction in my family. I’m newly aware that this is what the reality is. This dysfunction is a result of alcoholism and addiction combined with my perspective of what a family should be and how others should act – all effects of the family disease. It’s no use wishing for the memories to repeat or wishing for my family to be something else. If I continue to deny it, I will stay in my disease. I will likely blame others, try to force solutions and perpetuate the negativity that can come so easily. I continue to work on my attitude and use the tools of the Al-Anon program to help me see things more clearly, accept and appreciate all the blessings I have – and there are many. For this I am grateful.
Shatterproof.org is a national organization committed to protecting our children from addiction to alcohol or other drugs and ending the stigma and suffering of those affected by this disease. And Shatterproof’s taking their show on the road, working with hotels nationwide who have come together to join Shatterproof’s breakthrough Hotel Guest Program to show commitment as a corporate citizen in their community and to help protect the environment.
This simple program produces cost savings turned into donations to support Shatterproof in its efforts to end alcohol and drug addiction and benefit the environment …at no cost to its hotel guests.
The way the program works is based on these simple principles:
Each hotel guest is offered the opportunity to “decline” housekeeping services during their stay-over nights (additional days stayed between day of arrival and day of departure).
The time and associated costs (supplies, energy, etc.) required to clean a typical guest room during stay-over, is saved by the participating hotel.
This savings is donated in cash to Shatterproof.
This guest gesture of deferring service supports Shatterproof’s mission and saves the environment, , all without any out-of-pocket costs to the guest, or hotel. For those who choose to participate, it is a win/win for all involved.
“This program not only saves save water, electricity and usage of chemicals, a plus for the environment, but also is supporting Shatterproof and its unprecedented effort to tackle the disease of addiction, and bridge the enormous gap in addiction resources. Shatterproof is a national organization committed to systematically ending this disease, and I am proud to be one of its earliest supporters.” Mark O’Neill, Area Managing Director at the Equinox, Luxury Collection Hotel in Manchester, Vermont
Find and patronize the hotels that offer this program. And while you’re at it, consider adding yourself to Shatterproof’s mailing list to stay in the loop about advocacy, resources and opportunities to protect our children and our communities from addiction.
Having a child struggling with drug or alcohol abuse is a very difficult situation. We're glad you are visiting our site and we hope you find some peace of mind through the support of other parents and services offered by this site. Please keep coming back!