Being a Super Hero is exhausting–and dangerous–work if you are the parent of an addict or alcoholic

super woman capeOne of our readers commented on a previous blog post that, “Staying out of the way is a tough one.  Especially for someone like me.  I have spent my life rushing to be a hero.  Here I am to save the day.  Finally, someone reminded me that what I save, when rushing to clear the debris of a using addict, is one thing:  that they survive yet another day without responsibility; leaving them free to create more chaos.  If I do this long enough, they might actually die.”

Being a Super Hero is exhausting.  And saving someone who needs to save themselves is futile and even potentially deadly. How can we remove ourselves from the role of rescuer and enabler?  Here are some ideas:

  • Instead of jumping in to solve their problems, just say “Oh” or “Hmmmm” or “I’ll have to think about that” or “I know you can figure that out.”  If you are accustomed to having the answers for your child, this new approach may make you anxious.  How can they possibly figure it without SuperParent assistance? The truth is they will never figure it out if you always solve it for them. Handing them the power and responsibility of managing their own lives requires both parent and child to change. This is about you, Mom and Dad, as much as your child.
  • If you leap into action to stop a barrage of threats or accusations (for example, “It’s your fault if I can’t get to work!”) then pull out the S**T shield.  Imagine a magical force field that protects your from incoming threats, hatred and abuse.  And tell your child, “I will not tolerate that kind of language,” and let them know they have to leave if they continue to speak that way. (Reminder!  You have the right to a serene and calm home.)
  • Let your child know that the rules of engagement have changed.  When your child accuses you– “You USED to be nice and let me crash on the sofa”–  tell him or her, “I’ve changed.  That’s not OK with me anymore. If you are using drugs or alcohol, then you cannot sleep in my house.”
  • Finally, use difficult confrontations as reminders to take care of yourself. When your child presses you for money, go treat yourself to a coffee or flowers or new paperback. When yoru son complains that you don’t care if his back aches (which is often a result of opioid abuse), then go get yourself a massage.  When your daughter complains that she needs new clothes because left her old clothes at her last crash pad, go put on something warm and cozy.

Tough Love is tough—on them, and on us.  Seize your superpower to take care of yourself and give your child a reason to change.


To restore healthy boundaries, check out our “Boundaries Meeting in a Box.”


Pushing your addicted or alcoholic children out of the nest

A Mother is BornA robin has woven a mossy nest in the crape myrtle tree not far from my kitchen window. I first noticed her several weeks ago as she shredded a nearby nest left over by last year’s Thrasher clan. Mama Robin was intent on eliminating any possible competitors or predators from her turf.
Today, I realized the eggs had hatched when I spotted both male and female perching around the nest, worms dangling from their beaks. They took turns plunging their beaks into the nest, depositing food into the clamoring mouths.

Later, as I watered plants nearby, I watched Mama Robin watch me. Her eyes were alert, and her beak gaped open in a fierce manner, conveying in birdie-speak her willingness to go to battle for her babies. I bet she would have swooped down on me, had I come any closer.

I felt almost nostalgic as I noted her instinctive protectiveness as a mother. What wouldn’t a mother do to keep her children safe?

The ironic thing about addiction is that in our misguided, fear-driven efforts to keep our children safe, sometimes we actually contribute to their vulnerability. We cover and compensate for their bad choices, and they don’t learn to make good ones. We protect them from the dangers they have created in a way that exposes them to even more danger.  We keep them safe in their cushy nest, and they don’t learn how to fly.

Emily Dickenson wrote, “Hope is a thing with feathers,” and I’d like to add my footnote: “Trust is letting those feathered wings take flight.”

Where should a child live after yet another relapse?

Community coming togetherThese words of wisdom are inspired by Christy Crandall, author of Lost and Found

If your daughter (or son) relapses and asks to come home, it might seems like you are helping her if you say “Yes.” But you may really be enabling her to continue a destructive lifestyle. If she is serious about working a program of recovery, then she will find a sober living center and abide by the rules of that sober community.

While I know this sounds harsh and it is hard to think of your daughter as being possibly homeless, she has to take responsibility for her choices to continue drinking and using drugs. She needs to be more committed to her recovery than you are.

Every county has an access number to get help to those who are suffering from mental illness, substance abuse, homelessness.  Give this number to her, and tell her you will support her as long as she is actively involved in a program. What that support looks like should be up to you, not to her.  If you make it contingent upon her seeking recovery (i.e., going to treatment, living in sober living, etc.) , then you are supporting her in a healthy way.

And consider going to an Al-Anon meeting, specifically one for parents who have kids  struggling with chemical dependency. This will help you make good decisions for yourself and your daughter as you travel on this difficult journey.  Most of all, do not despair. There are 23 million Americans in long-term recovery, and your daughter can be one of them.

What’s life look like for the family after rehab?

I was expecting, NO – anticipating life to resume to normal once my son “graduated” from rehab. In fact, when asked to do service at an Al-Anon meeting, I said “No” because I figured I would not need Al-Anon anymore, I be “graduating out.” After all, wasn’t the problem fixed soon to be fixed now? That was over 4 years and several more rehabs ago. Needless to say, I have since given service to my group many times over and along the way I have learned a great deal about addiction, the family disease, and my role in recovery. The family disease is like the “ism” – there is no cure, only recovery. Recovery includes acceptance, tolerance and boundaries for what is, versus what is not – how to live in peace, whether the addict/alcoholic is using or not. This disease afflicted my family and there is life after rehab, but recovery is ongoing.

An anonymous Ala-teen member summed it up succinctly:

“Some think that life gets better when the alcoholic recovers, but the bill collectors don’t go away – neither does the arguing. You don’t stop going to meetings because an alcoholic has recovered. That’s like stopping the repairs on our house after a tornado hits and the sun comes out. You might discover you need the meetings more because of the changes – there is also the danger of relapse – and (some) recovering alcoholics become dry drunks. So I do need the program even after the alcoholic stops drinking.”

Well put.

The Power of Agreements in Early Recovery

Right before my son “graduated” from rehab after a three-month stint, his counselor advised us to create an “agreement” which would guide our relationship in the days ahead.  I think of the agreement as an operating manual that specified what we –each of us, and all of us—would or wouldn’t do in the chemical dependency arena.  By making our expectations black and white, we eliminated that gray area that had haunted us in the past.

Firm boundaries are so critical to recovery.  The disease of addiction is subtle and surreptitious.  It fosters not-quite-white lies, small violations that become progressively larger, and, finally huge transgressions.  The best way to nip these in the bud in early recovery is to spell out exactly what will work in the family and what won’t fly. (If you need help working on boundaries or expectations, check out our Meetings in a Box.)

Agreements are not “one size fit all.”  If your child is a minor, the agreement will take on a different complexion.  If you support your child financially, there will be different expectations, such as “We will pay your rent if you return to college full-time.”  If your child is independent, perhaps all you can say is “I love you very much, and you are welcome in my life only if you are sober.  I support you in recovery.”   Perhaps saying that is enough.

Agreements can be difficult to make because they force us to acknowledge that the problem didn’t vanish with rehab….as a chronic and relapsing disease, chemical dependency still lurks in our lives.  All the more reason to draw a line in the sand and give our beloved children a compelling reason to resist the siren song of drugs and alcohol.  Agreements can give us the peace of mind in knowing that we clearly defined the “rules of engagement.”  We make agreements for our children, and for ourselves.



What words of wisdom help the parent of an addict or alcoholic?

ENABLING OR HELPING?“What works for you?”  This question was posed at an Al-Anon meeting, with the emphasis being “what works now, where before, the addict alcoholic child’s risky behavior kept you in a tailspin? There are no pat answers, but by the end of the meeting, many people had spoken. Here’s the top 10 from the collective voices in recovery:

  1. Believing your recovery comes first
  2. Stop talking: WAIT (why am I talking?)
  3. You have the right to plan; you just can’t plan an outcome
  4. Stay in your hula-hoop (mind your own business)
  5. By working your 12-Step program which includes attending meetings regularly, reading the literature, working with a sponsor and giving service.
  6. Believing if you have a Higher Power that can restore you to sanity, they do too (and it’s not you)!
  7. You can’t make someone see the light – they have to feel the heat!
  8. Get out of their way, afford them the opportunity to learn and grow from their own trials.
  9. Changed attitudes will aid recovery.
  10. Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean!

Find an Al-Anon meeting near you to get support and gain wisdom. And please share your tips here with other readers.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year — Maybe

It’s holiday time, a season of both promise and peril.  For a while there, we never knew who would show up at our holiday dinner table. The good son or his evil twin?  And how do you react to, and prepare for, your child, sober or not?

You can ignore your child’s bizarre or irresponsible behavior, rather than poke a stick in the hornet’s nest.  Quite simply, it is so much easier to walk away than provoke their anger or cause a scene.  In the meantime, the rest of the family bears the burden of their irresponsibility, especially the “good” siblings who often have to clean up the addict’s mess.  I remember getting angry at my sober son for not intervening when his sibling was veering out of control.  How fair was that??  So the “good” kid is bears the blame for a sibling’s irresponsible behavior, while the addict skates off scot-free.

Your family events may hang in limbo because you never know who will show up for the holiday dinner or other celebration.  Will it be the delightful daughter or the snarling son?  The success of the gathering hangs in the balance, hinging on a single person’s ability to throw everything out of whack.

You might remain vigilant and keep an explanation in your back pocket to explain your child’s absence or foul mood.  “He’s got the flu” or “She got called into work at the last minute.”  Saving face requires a Herculean effort. We all pay a price for these exhausting balancing acts and charades. They deplete us while protecting the addict from the consequence of their poor choices.

There is no easy answer.  Maintaining your balance while walking on eggshells (and becoming crazy along the way) or revealing to others that you are struggling with a serious problem can throw the entire family out of whack, if not destroy the day entirely.  But there are some preemptive strikes you can take.  Check out Carole Bennett’s great advice at “It’s the Holidays- Are Your Boundaries with the Alcoholic/Addict Wrapped Up Tight?” And here’s hoping you’re your holidays are happy and healthy for all.

The art of saying NO to your addicted child

teenager contemplating futureMy disease is cunning. Left to my own devices, I will say yes when I want to say no or should say no because it’s a request for rescuing. I will over-commit or resent, either way, somebody is not going to be happy (besides me). Saying no seemed mean or disrespectful. What I learned was saying yes could be all that and more to my own sense of well–being and compromise other commitments I already had made.  I always felt guilty.

My recovery began with learning how to NOT COMMIT until I had reasonable to time to really decipher what was being asked of me. Sometimes I have to make choices, doing it all is not a choice if I want serenity in my life. Stall tactics such as “Don’t respond right away”, go into the “Oh-zone” and “buy time” all helped me learn to pause. I had to do this in the beginning because I was in a foreign land, unable to think or speak the language of recovery.  What was really happening?  I was beginning to form healthy and realistic boundaries.

I kept it simple: If my motive was to be liked, or I hoped I could manipulate an outcome, then I’d be in trouble. If my motive was to control, I was in trouble. If my motive was fear, I was in trouble. I picked up new language that progressed:

  • That won’t work for me.
  • I don’t do well in those settings.
  • I’m not able to devote the time you need.
  • Not at this time.
  • Perhaps another time.
  • I’m out on this one.
  • I will do this (something but not all) “meet halfway”
  • I have to think about it, can you contact me in x days?
  • I love you so I won’t.
  • No thanks.
  • No.


Taking My Inventory Helps With Boundaries

I discovered in my program of recovery that when I keep the focus on where it should be – me, I’m a better mother, parent, wife, daughter, aunt, friend and so on.  Before rehabilitation, my thoughts and actions were predicated on how my loved ones were doing. If they were struggling, I struggled to rescue and offer unsolicited advice. Alcohol and drug addiction is a progressive disease. Problems would and did escalate. If they did not listen to my advice, I tried harder and harder – as if this was a hearing problem. In my 12-Step program, I learned about the family disease which helped me understand the only control I had was to make a commitment to change what I was doing. This change would be monumental but only took willingness on my part.

Positive results crystalized in Step 4. Step 4 is about taking a complete moral inventory of me. I was accustomed to taking their inventory and uncomfortable about taking my own. Once I started, I realized how much I had to learn about me. At the same time I was beginning to understand why boundaries were so important. Without boundaries, I was being dragged into the drama – a side effect of drug problems. There was a time I did not know where I ended and they began – it was all inter-meshed. The fear for them was beyond words and my response to it was not always kind or respectful. Understanding me; why I act the way I do, why certain things upset me, why I get fearful and fretful helped me break away from old habits and beliefs. I could begin to employ boundaries that were backed up with sense and reason versus fear and meaningless threats. In the process there was the realization that no one would change because I wanted them to. My inventory helped me realize how I was powerless over IT, but not helpless over myself and my relationships.

For a thought provoking exercise on this topic, visit Parent Pathway Meetings-in-a-Box: Boundaries

When boundaries get muddled with your loved one in addiction

When my son finished his rehab program, he wanted to move back home.  He had not lived with us for several years and we tried to accommodate his request thinking it would be easier for him to transition.  I wanted to have some clear boundaries though.  Rules were set and once again I was no longer mom, but the guard-on-duty for all matters in my house.   After 5 weeks or so, he started slipping, drug tests not taken or forged when failed.  Slowly excuses became the norm.   At some point I recognized that a full relapse was in force and many months of agony ensued.   What I did not recognize was my own relapse – how my clear boundaries were muddled and hazy.  I kept thinking I had control over him and at the same time these blatant lies, deceit and cover-ups were overlooked by me.  It was almost as if I wanted to BELIEVE his words and not have to address the white elephant in the room.  I was getting resentful having to perform daily monitoring, weekly meetings, time out of my schedule, and money out of my pocket past, present and the future.   

He was 24 years old at the time.  When we agreed to pay for a sober living environment, he was all for it.  He picked the place too – that was my idea – to not be calling the shots.  In time he was asked to leave, followed by excuses.  This time I realized my powerlessness.  Though disappointed, my boundaries were clear.  We support recovery and will pay for sober living.  IF he can’t stay sober or chooses not to live in that environment, then he stays somewhere else – his choice.  My agreement was to pay for sober living.  Crystal clear!  He is, after all, a young man independent of me and has experienced consequences from this disease that no amount of “I told you so’s” would equal. 

The beauty of clear boundaries is that I can stay calm and not get caught up in the drama and doubt.  I don’t have to listen to the excuses; he doesn’t feel compelled to offer them anymore!   I don’t have to monitor his sobriety, his friends, his actions – I don’t want to either!  I can’t control him and that alone I am certain. I am grateful we had the opportunity and financial means to send him to rehab early on.  What gives me comfort is accepting we did the best we could with the knowledge we had.  I know he was exposed to another way of living in a 12-step recovery program.  As I learned more about the disease and my part in it, I yearned for a relationship based on love unconditionally.  I accept his choices and my clearly defined boundaries help me steer away from the agony of involvement.  Such miss-directed actions of involvement; mentally, financially and spiritually, only fuels my doubt or entitlement.  It clouds my thoughts, makes me fearful and provides a false sense of control over something much bigger and more powerful than I.