Parents of addicts and alcoholics, ditch the guilt!

Hands releasing oxygen bubblesThere 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.

When will the misery end? Stages of Grieving: parenting addicted children

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.

Denial is the antithesis of knowledge and acceptance

Mental Illness and AddictionSCENARIO: You have received bad news again, either from your son or daughter directly, their employer, landlord, friend, relative, fill-in-the-blanks. This time the emotional roller-coaster is curving through the anger turn. You think, “This is the 6th, 7th, 12th, 100th or another LAST time!” In yet another opportunity to drill into them the PROBLEMS they are creating for themselves, maybe this time you blast them with righteous indignation about the problems they are causing YOU.

ME: “I don’t understand why you do it!”                THEM: “I don’t know why I do it!”

Who’s right? Both! “I just don’t understand why” was often said from my mouth. Yet my actions for many years did not indicate any desire to try and learn about it. Moreover, I did not hear myself when I said the words: I don’t understand – I was preoccupied with WHY. Yet it armed me with ammunition: I don’t understand, therefore I will fight-fight-fight.

In recovery I have learned that understanding is mental action of study which is sometimes measured through aptitude tests and scoring. Acceptance is a spiritual action of study with notable behavioral changes in attitude: serenity, kindness, gratitude and love. The further along I get in my own recovery, the less important “why” becomes. Knowledge has provided me with information – it was the resistance to this information that kept me in denial. Denial is the antithesis of knowledge and acceptance. And the battle of the non-Al-Anon vs. Alcoholic/Addict continues on or maybe, this time, something changes…


A sibling’s view of addiction as a family disease

siblings talkingWhen I first heard that alcoholism is a family disease, I balked at that notion. I did not consider how all my thoughts and energy fields were directed on them: to get them to stop, to get them to see the light, to rescue or make excuses for them. I did not see my behavior at all – after all,they were the ones with the problem, not me! I might admit my stress level increased, but I’d justify “you’d be worried too if your kid was struggling!”

After I joined the Al-Anon family groups and started working the steps, I began to see how my actions, my feelings, my health and well-being were directly proportional to the degree of involvement with trying to control the addict. As the disease progressed, my obsessions increased and I started showing physical symptoms from the stress.

I had the opportunity to understand this from another perspective from a sibling of someone struggling with substance abuse.   She shared how awful it was to see her mother spend all her waking moments worried about her sister. It seemed all her mother did was focus on the sister; wonder and wish she’d get better, always talk about her, often sad about her, …and if her sister was doing well, her mom’s attitude was better. She was learning to please her mom by being the “good daughter.” She believed that she herself could somehow make mom happy. When that didn’t work, she lost all sense of self-worth. The frustration she felt with her mom often made her angry. She wanted to scream “what about me?!! I’m here and I’m doing all the right things”! Then the notion that she could somehow control her addict sister in attempt to “smooth things over” in the family soon became her new obsession.

Hearing her story put things in perspective.  In many ways I related.  I was able to look at how my behavior towards the “problem” might have affected other family members and friends who cared about me. Was I so preoccupied that I closed them out? I was seeing proof from others who shared their experience. There is a commonality of the symptoms. With proof I no longer had doubt about this being a family disease.

Mobile Serenity – Detaching from stress to relax

finding serenity while campingI heard someone say, “nothing like Arkansas in the rearview mirror!” to illustrate a point about running away from problems. It’s also been termed a “geographic” – meaning, if I move away to another city, state, country, I will leave the problems behind. This sounded like a good idea – boy was I ready to escape! I had entertained those thoughts myself because addiction and drug abuse was creating havoc in my life and I was at wits end.  I felt cornered where the only way out was to pick up and move!

I have since learned that running away doesn’t solve anything because I still have to live with myself! I can’t run from me – but early on I did not see my part in the equation. I only saw what THEY were doing. Detach with love! Detach with anger! Detach however you can! These were recurring suggestions. Not knowing how to detach, one thing that did work was to take “mini geographics” with my husband in our travel trailer. These little escapades, new to us, in an old used hunting trailer my husband brought home, became my way to detach. For one long weekend I would go to the mountains, the ocean or a lake and have serenity. Eventually I found my higher power. Eventually I learned how to focus on my life again with no outside influences; phone calls, knocks at the door, newspapers, neighbors. We detached, if but for one weekend at a time!

These road trips were my time: to read, paint, take walks, kayak. I could sleep; sleep some more and read my recovery material. I worked on me, and what I gained was health: spiritual, physical and mental. I fondly think of my old trailer as my “mobile serenity” which helped me understand the solution to my problems begin with me.


Triggers and Teen Addiction….How Do you Just Say “No?”

I imagine my beloved and chemically-dependent child has triggers that may send him ever so slightly in the direction of relapse.  I have triggers of my own that sometimes push me towards an unhealthy engagement with my son, back to the Neolithic days of enabling, co-dependency, anger, despair and addiction to his addiction.

It’s difficult to convey to others how triggers can launch me with the power of a catapult into a place of anger and heartache.  How could a simple white lie or overlooked obligation raise my blood pressure and my ire so quickly?  Why are things like this—so innocuous and commonplace to others—so upsetting to me?  Its’ because they bring back a dark, contentious past of hand-to-hand, heart-to-heart combat with the Enemy Addiction.  The most powerful triggers have the ability to transport me back to the bad old days almost instantly and unconsciously.

Author Anne Lamott talks about her own triggers in her book, Grace (Eventually)  Thoughts on Faith, “I did not explain or justify my triggers…because trigger implies weapons, weapons imply aim, aim implies combat, combat implies engagement. All I wanted was to feel less engaged, less stuck: I wanted to let it go….I wanted to be a person of peace, who diminishes hurt in the world, instead of perpetuating it.”

Isn’t that what we all want as we walk away from the war zone of chemical dependency?  How to reach that space of peaceful disengagement and serenity is another thing entirely.  Some of us “Let go and let God.”  Others find relief with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.  And I’ve heard about repeating a mantra over and over when contronting a trigger.  How do you neutralize your triggers so they don’t derail your own recovery?

Addiction and alcoholism: a dark room were negatives are developed

1431793_97522247 resentmentIt’s been said resentments are the dark rooms where negatives are developed. This conjures up a great deal of truth about resentments – all negative. For me, it always came when my sons did not do what I expected and when it really mattered. I usually had a financial or emotional investment in the action I was anticipating. Commonly defined as an emotional feeling resulting from fear or imagined wrong doing, resentments always kept me hostage to negativity; anger, sadness, frustration, contempt, tension.

As I work through the resentments I have harvested with regards to the family disease, I can see where my obsession with the addicts in my life was consuming me and thwarting any possibility of joy and happiness. Depending on other people for things that really mattered to me was the driving force behind my resentments. Since my perspective was disproportionately misdirected, it was as if THEY were held in higher standards than where I held myself.  And my self worth was predicated on them…no wonder I spent so much time trying to control…

It’s been said the amount of time you spend thinking about something should be in this proportion: God first, me second, them 3rd! My understanding of resentments has come full circle, and though I do not find myself having these emotional feelings as much anymore, they are not far surfacing when life happens to throw a curve ball. The difference today is I have a better support system to help me accept what is going on. I have choices in how I react to it.

Try exploring how the expectations we have for our loved ones can set us up for happiness or sorrow in our Meetings in A Box: Expectations.  You may discover your own dark room were negatives are developed.  You may begin to ask what really matters.


Denial: Why I have trouble with the ones closest to me

Denial is a powerful escape from life’s serious problems. For me, reality takes on a distortion, and when I’m focused on my grown child I lose sight of what really is. My tendencies are to not see addiction. I don’t see isolation from family and social settings, and I don’t see self-centeredness, ego or anger to name a few. Unsettling behavior is hard to see with those closest to me. I can’t stand to see the suffering or struggles. Before the tools of recovery to help with my co-dependency issues, I stayed in denial because I didn’t know what to do. I felt obligated and responsible for the substance abuse but I did not know it was much bigger and more powerful than anything I had ever come across. With no tools and working on it alone, denial helped smooth over the trouble, minimizing big issues to a temporary manageable level.

Oddly, if the same behavior was exhibited by a stranger, at least I’d recognize certain signals: danger, concern, disrespect or insensitivity. Most likely I would not tolerate it. But to those I love? I don’t see it or my denial turns it into rationalization or normalization. I thought I would be able to help, but really? How? I’m incapable – I’m just too close. This is why I pray for the stranger, turn the rest over to a Power, greater than myself and for all matters that concern me; I let it begin with me.

To understand the coping mechanism that can perpetuate rather than solve the problem, check out Parent Pathway Meeting in a box: Denial.

We all fall down: when the addict and family relapse

Photo of Ricki TownsendThis is a guest post from family counselor and interventionist Ricki Townsend

In the disease of addiction, as in most diseases, there is the chance of relapse. Both the substance abuser and the family must remember that we are only in remission.  Addiction doesn’t disappear; it is a chronic disease that may include relapse.

What does it look like when remission ends and relapse sets in?  Typically, recovery for all family members has been going well.  The family has been going to Al-Anon.  The addict/alcoholic has been going to AA or NA.  An agreement is in place, and everyone has been abiding by its terms. Things have been getter better, one day at a time, for six to nine months. The rough edges are smoothing out.  The beloved addict is now showing up in an honest way, and everyone starts relaxing.

Bit by bit, though, people become complacent.  The addict misses a meeting, or two.  The parents slack off on the drug testing. Other elements of the agreement are overlooked.  All of a sudden, relapse barges through the front door.

Old behaviors return in full force.  The addict starts using or drinking again, the parents resort to their earlier behaviors, whether enabling or withdrawing from the chaos.  The entire family is in relapse.

This scenario brings heartbreak, anger, stress, and panic.  What do you do now that it’s all falling apart again? How do you get back on track? This is a time to call an addiction professional that you trust and ask them to listen to you, your fears, and your pain.  Then listen to their ideas, which will be much more objective than yours. Is your loved one heading the right direction after relapse?  Going to meetings?  Testing clean?  Humble?  Scared?  Did you stick with your agreement?  What do you need to do differently this time around?  The answers to those questions will guide you as you think about the steps you need to take. Perhaps you will want to invite the professional to mediate between you and your loved one to reset the rules.

Because your family is a “system” with interlocking parts, you need to look at your role in the relapse.  Are you heading the right direction after the relapse? I invite you to breathe, spend some time alone to regain your balance, and consider your next steps. You can’t change the addict, but you can change yourself.  What might you do differently this time around?

There is no one “right” answer for everyone.  You need to find the answer that works for you and your family; the only “must” is that you seek that answer thoughtfully, constructively and respectfully.


Ricki Townsend
Board Certified Interventionist, Drug/Alcohol Counselor
NAADAC Certification Commissioner
Ncac1, CAS, RAS, Bri-

My 12 Steps to Insanity – a Parody

brain healthAny disorder that affects someone I love, that manifests into altered mood, thinking and behavior has an impact on me. I especially react badly when situations include bizarre, irrational and self-centered behavior.  Left to my own devices, how I respond worsens the situation.  I am amused at being able to recognize how I get to insanity in 12 short steps and grateful I can change my ways today.  My defalt would go like this:

  1. First thing I do is normalize the behavior, deny what’s happening because there are 11 exhausting steps I’ll have to take otherwise! For a while, I’ll coast on seeing what I want to see and hearing what I want to hear.
  2. Next I try to reason with them, because I just normalized the behavior.  I expect to reason with something or someone that has none!
  3. 3rd thing I do is get angry because they are not listening, they are acting irrational and are self-centered.  I belive ANGER will make them notice me.  Having no success there, I move to step 4.
  4. Next I’ll do a complete analysis of their problems because I took a psychology class 30 years ago and am fully qualified.
  5. Very frustrated now, I just wish they did not have the problem in the first place. This step includes a lot of asking “why?”
  6. I try martyrdom because their instability leaves me shaken up. I get a short term fix of feeling better being the victim. This allows me to fully embrace step 7:
  7. Blame. I can blame all my problems on THEM. People afflicted with addiction like blame; they already have a bad opinion of themselves. There is nothing worse than someone being smug after all the dis-ease they have put me through! So I do the next indicated thing-
  8. I build a big resentment.
  9. By this point I’ve worked myself up to a mistaken perception of social & spiritual hierarchy. I begin to formulate pity, on them.  This step includes feelings of guilt.
  10. This is when I begin to notice how much more superior I am OVER others and I spend a lot of time massaging my ego.  This takes daily affirmations.
  11. Noticing my self-anointed superiority of power, I begin to offer concerned, unsolicited advice and suggestions. That may be too soft; I actually force unsolicited advice, solutions and suggestions.
  12. When they don’t respond as I’d like, I try harder, and this time, I know things are going to be different!