I doubt my husband and I carried a united front when problems started escalating in our family unit as a result of the drug use, abuse and addiction. I can relate to stories of families that split apart due to strong opposing opinions, broken dreams, anger and frustration in the relationships. Blame starts to take on a life of its own.
It seemed in my home, I was at times hesitant to bring attention, make a scene or confront the problem head on. Then again, I was the one who was in the home, seeing the problems, finding the paraphernalia, answering the calls from teachers, neighbors or other parents. It was if I was either in denial or tackling the issues head on. But I don’t recall a shared vision of the seriousness of the problems in the beginning. My husband would discipline if necessary (wait till your father gets home syndrome), go pick up the pieces of a totaled car, post bail or “man-handle” the recalcitrant teenager. But he was also sensitive to my reactions and had growing concerns about his family. At other times he would begin to lecture me on my parenting skills (in round about ways) and I would begin to resent his absence in the daily trauma-drama. Those were the most difficult times in our relationship and it was a miracle we made it through. But we did. And it wasn’t because we are so clever or lucky. We sought counseling and committed ourselves to get the help we needed and learn how to support our children whether in recovery or not.
Today we are united in what we will and will not allow (boundaries) when it comes to our own serenity and livelihood as a husband and wife, parents and as individuals. We can discuss our feelings and concerns with issues that continue to challenge us and we are able to find a mutual ground before making a decision. We have respect and accept each other’s opinions, even though we may not agree. In a sense, we are now acting in a loving and kind way and we no longer have to lecture blame or scold. We have been through some troubling times like all the parents whose children fall prey to addiction. We have also had amazing joy and happiness. Not knowing what the future will bring, we can appreciate our life today and find solace that we may not have been united: we did the best we could with what we knew at the time.
How long did I deny this statement? For many years, I believed it was a matter of willpower. As long as I denied that it was a disease, then I would stay in utter conflict and constant turmoil trying to fight it. In this resistance mode, I was acting as if I knew best, based on no true knowledge about the chemical reaction in the body and the disease of the mind. I would lecture, blame and scold when my loved ones already had a bad opinion about themselves. I would take charge, place orders and expect change, but the outcomes were never what I wished for. I would do it again and expect a different result. The same result would happen and I still tried it again!
Alcoholism is also family disease, and if you were to look into my life, you would have seen evidence that it was not just the alcoholic – addict to be concerned about. I was progressing along with them. I was obsessed with saving those I cared about and in so doing my behavior was certifiable! And all the effort was doing nothing to help the problem. They were getting worse, and so was I.
To learn as much as I could about the disease I read the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, I went to open AA meetings, the 12 Step program for alcoholics, and I listened to Alcoholics in recovery on speaker tapes. To get a grip on myself, and to learn more about my relation in the family disease, I went to the Al-Anon Family Groups. I no longer deny that addiction is a disease, and completely understand why willpower is not the issue. I also know it’s a family disease. I don’t have to know why anymore. Being able to see my role in the disease dynamic has been a game changer. When you know better, you do better.
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.
Do you recall this commercial?
He’s on the phone; it’s lodged between his head and shoulder so his hands are free. He’s pale and sweat is beading on his forehead. The butcher knife in one hand, his other hand holding the cutting board, the stage is definitely a kitchen setting. He’s having a conversation with someone and at first we think he is getting lessons to carve a chicken. We don’t see who he is talking to yet but it appears someone is instructing him. Then the camera takes us to the other caller – a medical doctor with his white lab coat hanging on a hook behind him, he is dressed in scrubs. The doctor proceeds to communicate what to do, and at some point we understand his instructions are for open heart surgery! He is step by step explaining how to determine where to make the incision on the caller’s own sternum. The caller looks down at his chest with a befuddled and very anxious look. Finally he asks the doctor “shouldn’t you be doing this?”
That is a picture forever embedded in my brain of how my parenting attempts to control my son played out. I would take on roles that did not belong to me, all the while thinking I knew best. Today I can recognize when I’m in over my head, but for a while this wasn’t so clear. I hear alcoholics in recovery say denial of reality is a symptom of their disease. It’s a symptom of my disease too! I have picked up tools in my own recovery to help me figure out if the situation at hand belongs to me or someone else. I stop and think “ shouldn’t you be doing this?” sooner. Whether it’s my Higher Power or a medical doctor, I let go of the urge to think I’m in charge and turn it over to those who know better! And I have this commercial, a mental image, to remind me of the insanity I could easily find myself doing again…
There are many forms of loss – employment, illness, relocation, and death. Down to the bone marrow type sadness seem so obvious when a loved one dies. For a long while I did not understand the emotions I felt – why did I always end up crying at counseling sessions? “She is grieving for her son,” a licensed family counselor explained to my husband. I was indignant! – After all, no one has died! I expected her to direct us on how to fix this problem. I continued to deny that I was powerless over my young son’s lives. I was certain my feelings of anxiety, sadness and despair could be eliminated once their problems were corrected. This same professional told us to go to an Al-Anon meeting and that local schedules were at the front desk. I barked back, “I do not have a problem! Why would I need to go to a support group”? I didn’t know what Al-Anon was, but I was certain it did not have anything that would help me. It took another 2 years after this professional encounter for the progression of the disease to send me to my knees. My sponsor says “if you think you know everything, then you are not willing to learn.” That’s exactly what was happening back then. I thought I had the answers and knew what needed to happen. But, that said, things did not get better, they got worse. Eventually I came to a place where I knew I could not do this anymore – in desperation, I surrendered! I sought help and became willing to keep an open mind about the help available to me.
I accept that bereavement is a real emotion and I stopped trying to outsmart it or deny it. Yes, my loved ones are living, but I was grieving the loss of my hopes and dreams for them. I was sad they were unable to pull themselves out of “it” with ease and simplicity. I wished they did not suffer and I wished I could save them. It was insanity to think I could cure it and deny how I really felt. I was overwhelmed with sadness and grieved about the way I might have behaved differently knowing better. Truth is I did not know much about addiction. Once I understood the complexity of this disease, I had to let go of that too. When you know better, you do better. Surrendering and letting go of the past helped me move into the present with a new sense of hope, a gain from the senseless loss.
It’s been said when a child is born, so is a mother. There’s no denying the special bond between mother and child and it’s that very bond that contributes to unhealthy parenting in extreme circumstances. Drug & alcohol addiction of a child, at any age, is an extreme circumstance. Even Betty Ford, the pioneer in helping America understand alcoholism, did not want to accept her son’s alcoholism when he announced his concern to her. In his short eulogy, he recalled her shaking her head emphatically saying “no, you can’t be that!” – He said (and I’m paraphrasing) “mom, you of all people should know that this can happen to anyone…you have got to get out of denial! You are the poster child of alcohol and addiction rehabilitation… you are … Betty Ford!!” Is it any wonder that mothers of addicts have a struggle unique from this parent/child bond?
A strange thing happened when my sons became teenagers. My influence and power over them was weak and I did not know it. There were incidences that woke me from my ignorance and denial. For example, the time I wanted so badly for him to get into a drug rehabilitation facility and get fixed. Not 30 days had past when the relapse call came from the facility owner. He attempted to explain the complexity of addiction, and suggested my son would need additional time – to me the translation was more dollars and the amount was shocking. I was frustrated because “relapse” was as simple as breaking the house rules at my expense! Didn’t he get it? I needed my son to take this seriously and he wasn’t. There was much resentment in this dance. The 2nd incident was… and the third incident was…and so it went over and over. Me? I was expecting a different result.
An odd thing happened when I surrendered and accepted that I had little influence and no power over my sons or anyone else for that matter. A New Year rang in with some serious consequences from the actions taken by my loved ones to support their addiction. By now I had learned a great deal about disease, the family disease and my relation in it. I embraced the year with an open mind. I felt fear and sadness and a true sense of powerlessness. Powerless but not helpless, I was able to face whatever adversity that presented itself and there were plenty yet to be revealed. My old thinking and actions were of little use to me anymore. The fear was not paralyzing. This time I had faith and belief in a Power, greater than me.
I do not know where life will lead my son, but one thing is certain: his recovery is something he will have to want with an urge and desire all of his own making, independent of me. And each New Year reminds me that I have choices in my actions of loving someone whose disease is powerful, terrible, deadly and progressive. This disease also has another side: Recovery, growth, spirituality, human-kindness, vulnerability, love, gratitude and honesty – will he chose it? Not because I want him to.
I used to think detachment was a form of indifference – Today, I believe it’s just the opposite. Detachment is preceded by acceptance. It was a slow evolution in changing how I think. For a long time I did not want to accept my sons were in trouble with drugs. How could I detach if I falsely believed there wasn’t a problem? Each time I tried to fix them; buy off their debt, provide transportation, fret and fume over another bad news episode, it only got worse. I found myself befuddled, broke and disappointed. But how could I detach if I did not accept I had no control over them?
Detachment is a common word in and around the dynamics of the family disease. The notion of detaching was frightening – the unknown of letting go. Thinking it was not a loving, kind or caring thing for a mother to do when confronted with her young adult child’s substance abuse. Fearful that if I did detach then something really bad would happen. I had to get over myself and the fears I conjured up. Truth was, bad things were happening anyhow and I had not power over it. Once I accepted that, it became easier to let go.
Detachment has become a healthy and sincere act for those I care about. It shows up as unconditional love – quite the opposite of indifference.
When you first learn about your child’s addiction, denial kicks into high gear. The first stage in the death and dying process, denial protects us from absorbing too much information at once. Just picture it as a psychological gag reflex of sorts. Working through my denial, I slowly began to wrap my brain around my child’s illness, the unhealthy way our family had adapted, and the work I needed to do on myself in order to get healthy.
But once I began to digest the possibility that my child had a drug problem, I faced with another issue entirely: I really knew nothing about addiction, and I knew nothing about how bad it could possibly get. Again, my lack of knowledge really protected me from being overwhelmed by addiction. If the collective horror of teen substance abuse had been dumped on me all at once, I would have blown my brains out…..they were already short-circuiting, as it was.
Instead, I began to learn about teen addiction in bits and pieces. I immersed myself in Al-Anon, I read voraciously, I watched Intervention and Addicted with horror but I also took comfort in realizing that I wasn’t alone. And I worked with other moms to start ParentPathway and to develop this resource of virtual support. I continue to learn and grow as I hear from other parents as they grapple with their child’s chemical dependency and develop tools to survive–and even thrive–amidst the insanity.
One thing about teen addiction that I couldn’t see at the onset: the rainbow called Hope that was completely obscured by black storm clouds. I had no vision of a brighter future whatsoever. But that possibility remains, although it is often difficult to see or even imagine. But as they say in Al-Anon, “Don’t leave before the miracle occurs.” One day the storm clouds may lift for you and your beloved addict or alcoholic. And you never want to lose sight of that possibility.
She had a breakdown; her therapist said it was a “spiritual awakening”. Brené Brown, a qualitative researcher, offers an insightful take on what normal healthy grounded wholehearted people possess in terms of character traits. Her light-hearted short presentation on vulnerability and shame from years of her research is worth viewing. What’s interesting to me is her explanation that we cannot mask certain emotions. If we try to mask shame, then we also numb joy. We medicate, spend, overeat, overwork, and/or control our way through discomfort; numbing all faucets of the full emotional spectrum.
At the end of Brown’s video, one of many golden nuggets I appreciated: as parents our job is to understand our children are born hard wired for struggle and imperfection. We all are. Our role is to show them they are not defined by this, they are worthy of love and belonging. Yet we have to believe these concepts ourselves first.
My experience of hitting bottom, my own breakdown, was a necessary predecessor to my spiritual awakening. Al-Anon and working the 12-Steps has helped me get a better grip on ME; it seems I wasn’t very good at anything once the family disease took hold and I started NUMBING the emotions, especially shame and vulnerability. When a child was born, so was a mother. I have my life to work on this and it’s not too late. There is hope. Joy. Sadness. Fear. The emotional spectrum is no longer something I try to filter because I’ll deny the daily miracles.