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.
I’m one of those people who struggle with remembering names. I learned in a sales class that using an association with the name helps in recall. For example, I’m introduced to Betty. She has dark, jet black/blue hair. I think of Archie Comic Books, Veronica & Betty. Betty has Veronica’s hair! This amount of time devoted to remembering Betty has only been a few seconds but is somehow lodged in my brain to not forget Jet Black/Blue Hair Betty.
Association comes in handy on other areas of my life, especially when my fears and concerns about my adult children take over my thoughts. These thoughts tend to be negative and are always masked under the cloak of good mothering. I will forget all that I’ve learned about my stinking thinking. I find myself worrying and wondering if he is cold, alone, hungry, hurt and a host of other terrible things. And to add injury, I’ll invite responses to vindicate my negative concerns. I may resort to rescuing and have completely relapsed into codependency. Such behavior is odd when seen from the outside, but for those of us who have a child struggle in addiction or alcoholism; this is how we roll. And it is here I’m triggered to ask myself if I’m doing anyone any good, especially for myself. I’m acting out of self preservation from fear, not the supportive and accepting, loving mother I strive to be. What am I forgetting?
Mothering rhymes with smothering.
My fears and worries turn mothering into smothering. I don’t want to suffocate anyone. I’m not proud to add guilt to someone’s low self esteem and today I have tools to help me navigate out of my own stinking thinking.
While waiting at the vet one day, I picked up an enlightening book called What Dogs Teach Us: Life’s Lessons Learned from Our Best Friends by Glen Dromgoole. I skimmed through the book and found that many of these life lessons apply to man and beast alike. Consider:
- “Appreciate the preciousness of life.” Addiction gives us an ongoing opportunity to practice this concept, trying to find the rainbow in the storm clouds. As they say, practice makes perfect. Keep looking for that rainbow to appear.
- “Good behavior should be reinforced with complements or rewards.” My natural instinct as a co-dependent worrier is to get stressed and cranky. Thanks to addiction, I’ve come to learn the futility of worry. When worry bubbles up in my mind, I now try to wrestle it to the ground. Why should I let worry call the shots in my life? I can be happier when I focus on the positive, and the people around me are happier because I am less preoccupied, maybe even more pleasant.. Win/win.
- “Sassing back can make things worse.” That goes both ways—you sass me/ I sass you, and we both lose. The Al-Anon equivalent of this statement is “Spit out the hook” or “You don’t have to attend every fight you are invited to.”
- “Run to the rescue of people in trouble.” Uh oh. Maybe this natural instinct of mine wouldn’t be so problematic if I were Lassie or Rin Tin Tin, but rescuing people is bad for me and bad for them. This adage is healthy only if you are a dog or a paramedic.
- “Co-dependency is OK as long as one of you has four legs.” Amen to that!
- And finally…“Take time to enjoy the smells and sounds and sights around us.” Life is short. If we mire ourselves in fruitless preoccupations about our loved one’s addictions, then our very own lives go passing by while we are looking the other way.
Years ago, when my control and need to know everything mentality was at its peak, the *69 feature on the telephone became a dangerous tool for further pursuit of things to add to my world of loose ends. I was empowered to be an assertive investigator. I was enabled to seek out who called for what reason and why did they not leave a voice mail. Moreover, if the phone rang and I answered, the sound of the “click” provoked me to question WHO HUNG ON ME? The feeling of empowerment – To be able to press those three keys and ring back the unknown caller back was a rush of adrenaline. They would pick up and I’d say “you just called my number,” forcing a response on the other end. The sound of their voice was already a piece of the puzzle. Male? Female? Young? Old? Why did they call my number? The fact they called must be indicative of something… Why? Why? Why? Star 69 and later technology could be abused for the wrong reasons. My need to know WHO WHAT WHERE WHEN WHY seemed important back when the addiction family disease of secrets was fermenting. But in reality this underlying need to know was a symptom of my infinite desire to be in control of matters I may not be aware of and often powerless over. Today it seems clear and obvious. If someone is reaching me, they will leave a message or call back later. I can let go with that knowledge and not pursue it to the depths of insanity. I don’t have to obsess on things that are not my business anymore. ”Why” is a question no longer the center stage of my life.
Sometimes not giving an answer or advice is the best thing to ‘not’ do. It is always so tempting to jump in with ways to solve problems and help our friends and family. And sometimes that is the right thing to do. But in some situations, sitting back and letting our loved one traverse the maze of their decisions is an opportunity for growth. My son came to me with a concern that he had. It wasn’t major, but it was troubling him. In the past I would have jumped into action with solutions, or worse, distractions so he wouldn’t feel the pain of the situation. As a co-dependent, I don’t like others to feel bad. But I’ve learned that it isn’t my business to manage other people’s feelings. So when my son plopped down in the chair across from me, I just sat and listened. I asked some questions to help him think through various alternatives he could consider. But I tried my best not to tell him what to do or distract him by changing the topic. I know my place is to be there to support him and coach him, but not direct and manage him. By staying clear of these I allow him to learn and grow.
I also know that in the past when my daughter would come to me in a crisis, I learned not to react. This was not easy in the beginning; I didn’t always realize what was taking place. But over time I realized that her problems became my problems when I jumped into action and alleviated her of the consequences. I had been given advice once that if you let 24 hours pass by, many times the loved one would either solve the issue or the crisis would diminish. How true this is! I learned to sit and be patience and trust in the capabilities of those who created the dilemma in the first place.
This question, often asked at the grocery store by the courtesy clerk, reminds me of a time I’d have to see if my kids were doing alright before I could answer. If they were doing well, then I was doing well. If they were messing up, then my day would be ruined. My attachment to them was so powerful that I was not aware of how much my well being depended on them. My concern for them at different stages of their troublesome drug use grew exponentially. Addiction is progressive. If a person does not seek recovery, they will spiral further and further. For my experience, this was exactly what happened. My life depended on them to get sober, and it was not looking good for me. If only he would get sober and start working in a job so he can be self-sufficient…Then I’d be happy! I remember when my son finally asked for help and we financed his treatment, a faith based live in facility. I was ecstatic! Finally! My life is going to get better. One thing was certain, I was able to sleep a full 7 hours. Many rehabs and relapses were on the horizon. Fortunately, during this time I sought help too. With my co-dependent lifestyle, I was beginning to see health problems associated with years of stress and relying on an addict to make me feel happy. I remember my counselor asked me “do you want to be happy?” “Yes! Yes I do want to be happy!” I replied. “Then go right ahead.” What I did not know then, but have since learned, is my happiness is something I choose. I learned how NOT to rely on anyone to make me feel good. Are there days when sadness hits? You bet there is. That’s life, and I accept that there will be ups and downs. Down is not a destination. Today, I’m doing great, thank you and it’s a - Wonderful feeling, feeling this way!
There comes a time in every addict’s journey that they finally say ‘enough!’ And there also comes a time in the co-dependents journey that is enabling them where they finally say ‘enough!’ When I reflect on this journey, I sometimes think that the recovery truly starts when that moment of truth arrives. Sometimes it is a long series of small moments of truth that build into a crescendo. No matter what the chain of events, there is always that point that comes. I had a big moment of truth that was a turning point for me, as well as, my daughter.
As my kids were growing up I was always very strict about any talking back, foul language, bad attitude. It just wasn’t acceptable or tolerated. During the course of my daughters addiction talking back, foul language and bad attitude were the status quo. Although I would say, ‘don’t talk to me that way’. It went on deaf ears and I did not enforce a consequence to effect a change.
My moment of truth came when I was getting ready to board an international flight and my daughter called and asked me for something I wasn’t willing to give. It was something I had told her that I would not do, I had finally started saying ‘No’. She texted me a series of horrible expletives and threats that I came to know as ‘emotional terrorism’. Something snapped in me and I knew that I would not allow this abusive behavior to continue. I reluctantly got on the flight with the threats looming in the text message of my phone and I proceeded to write a letter on email to my daughter and when I landed I sent it to her. I wanted her to really internalize what I was saying. It was a long letter, but I will summarize to say that I expressed that the ‘emotional terrorism’ would stop and if I had one more word from her of foul language towards me or emotional threats that there would be consequences, which I laid out. She didn’t talk to me for about a month. But she has never said a harsh word since. It completely shifted the dynamic. We began to create a new healthy relationship where I set boundaries and enforced them out of respect for myself and her.
One of the challenges that occurs when my loved one is in recovery and living responsibly is my desire to help. The problem is that part of healthy recovery is learning to take full responsibility for your life. It is so easy for me to rationalize in my mind ‘She’s doing so well, she deserves the help’ or ‘if I don’t help and she struggles, won’t that hurt her recovery and possibly drive her back towards her addiction?’ I could go on and on… The point is that while it’s only natural to help our loved ones, it has to be weighed carefully with how it will actually ‘hurt’ them instead of ‘help’ them. Struggling with this actually makes me sad. I think of growing up in a family where we helped each other, it was just what we did. If I needed a little boost after college and in the working world, my Mom would often be there to help me through a rough patch or to reach a goal I was striving for. It didn’t come with lots of angst about what I might do with the money or if I would take a step back in my growing into adulthood.
While I can ruminate all I want about this, the reality of the situation is that I am not my Mom and my daughter is not me. She is a recovering addict and I am a struggling co-dependent – our boundaries can go from healthy to dysfunctional in a very short cycle. The positive thing is that I am completely aware of this dynamic. I stop and think about what I am doing and question what is best, not only for my daughter, but also me. Will this help her in her journey to become a self-sufficient adult or will this hinder that very goal? The other positive aspect is that I can openly talk to her about it. Part of our respective recoveries is having the ability to deal with situations as they arise. It is a blessing to be authentic and open in any relationship, and I cherish this with my daughter.
I heard an interview today on NPR with David Sheff, who documented his son’s addiction and his family’s torturous quest for recovery in Beautiful Boy. That book had struck a painful nerve in me, especially the twisted co-dependency that complicated an already complicated picture. Imagine: you’ve just had a stroke, and the one thought coursing through your mind is “How is my child? How is my child? How is my child?” That warped sense of priorities seems all too familiar to parents of addicts who often assume second position behind the incessant demands of their child’s substance chemical dependency.
David Sheff hits another home rum with his newest book, Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy. In today’s interview, I heard honesty, accuracy and empathy. I felt validated, parent of addict to parent of addict. Here’s a sample of what he writes: ‘The view that drug use is a moral choice is pervasive, pernicious, and wrong. So are the corresponding beliefs about the addicted — that they’re weak, selfish, and dissolute; if they weren’t, when their excessive drug taking and drinking began to harm them, they’d stop. The reality is far different.” You can read a longer excerpt of the book here.
They say that, in recovery, all that needs to change is EVERYTHING. That goes for knowledge and attitudes, too: yours, mine, our children’s, the public’s. Clean offers a powerful tool to change the attitudes that impact course of our loved ones’ addiction and recovery.
I loved the movie Silver Linings Playbook and have been thinking about it for weeks. It’s one of those feel good movies and is especially heartfelt for me as a parent struggling with the concept my child may be afflicted with addiction, alcoholism and/or mental illness.
There were many scenes in the movie that made me laugh, cry, and wonder. But in truth, I loved the movie because it has a happy ending. In real life, as I battled and fought for normalcy where there was none, I was not able to see the silver linings when they happened. Maybe I should qualify: the movie ended on an UP SIDE because in recovery I know life offers UPS and DOWNS! I definitely saw alcoholism, co-dependency and mental illness strung together in the family dynamics. How the family copes, denies, accepts and fights the disease as illustrated in this story is relatable to me on many levels. I think the movie did a good job representing how normal people on the outside react to others who are affected. I saw fear, ignorance and then judgment. I related to that too.
But what sticks in my mind today is when the character, Pat, apologizes when he blurts out something inappropriate – he says “I’m sorry, I have no filters when I speak.” There were no filters in my house before recovery. Even as the co-dependent, I’d blurt out things I wished I could take back – filters are broken, clogged or missing in the family disease. Thank goodness for recovery where there is a strategy to help react differently to situations that baffled me before. Recovery is the filter and gratitude is one silver lining.