I was desperate for answers when teen addiction barged into my home and heart. “Why did my child use drugs to the point of chemical dependency? How can I make my child better? Why, oh universe, is my child singled out for this horror?” Guilt, shame and finger-pointing were the keynotes of my questions.
I didn’t have any answers. In fact, I was not asking the right questions. To begin my own recovery, I needed to ask, “What are the risk factors for addiction? What is my role in the family disease? and How can I support—and be supported by–other families who are shamed and isolated by their child’s chemical dependency?”
Asking the right questions helped me get my bearings. I began to understand addiction as a brain disease, rather than a disease of will power or character. I began to explore my role as a Blue Chip enabler. I read many, many books on addiction and learned how to sever my sick attachment to my child and to forge instead a healthy relationship with him. I transformed my guilt into action, reaching out to other families who were voyaging through the dark Land of Addiction. And so this blog was born.
At the end of the day, I didn’t have all the answers. I still don’t. But I’m asking the right questions, without judgment or guilt, and they help me stay on the path of compassion, understanding, and healthy boundaries.
Grandparents can be subject to the same intensity trying to help the affected grandchild whose life is troubling. I remember a time I thought my father might be a better influence to my son’s problem since nothing I did seemed to be working. But my son would soon abuse the privileges of Grandparent assistance. They became a means of continuing his addiction life cycle. Things changed drastically, and fast. Now I was subject to a deepening sad heart each time: grandpa complained about the lack of follow-through, strange people in their house and inability to wake my son up in the morning. I would get the calls, inquires, concerns and requests – and I was getting resentful. I resented the addict for the moral turpitude. I resented my parents for arguing my pleas to stop rescuing. I can’t control my son and my own parents for that matter! Just how powerless I am came to focus.
All I wished was that he’d stay away from the family because of how it was affecting me affecting them. Time would reveal the progressive nature of the disease and the family dynamics would get further strained – a symptom of the family disease. Turns out I’m not the only co-dependent!
Parents: He’s got a drug problem and won’t go to rehab, we are learning more about addiction.
Grandparents: He’s a good boy, “Once he starts working …”
Parents: We are not going to buy him another car.
Grandparents: We co-signed; he has to be able to get to a job!
Parents: He cannot live in our house he’s not trustworthy. We are concerned you are being taking advantage of as well.
Grandparents: He’s temporarily living here, we discussed our rules – it’s under control.
Parents: We’re concerned about our parents – they are vulnerable and open to getting financially ruined – they won’t listen to any reasoning!
Finding support through the Al-Anon Family Group, I learned many things about the nature of the illness which gave me a better perspective on matters. This was where other grandparents in my support group helped me understand their point of view. They were trying to force solutions just as I had been. Theybelieved they had it under control, just like I did. I learned compassion and understanding that everyone is affected by this disease.
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.
When I tried to help my sons, nothing worked out the way I had planned. It never turned out how I wanted it to. I thought I had control, power and knowledge to help them over the seemingly little bumps in the road. I could not fathom the ultimate end result of addiction’s role in destroying relationships, trust and core values. But I believed I had responsibility to manage something that was, well, unmanageable! This confused thinking kept me in denial of any other explanation. I was resistant to considering alternatives that didn’t point to the solution I wanted. And all the while I find myself worrying about tomorrow. What will tomorrow bring, how will it play out, what about the future? What about THEIR future? What about MY future? And if I’m not worrying about tomorrow I’m replaying the past. What could I have done differently?
It turns out this is not a very healthy way to live. In the end, I’m not in the presence of the present, I’m somewhere else and soon I’m losing control over everything. How can I possibly help those around me when my life is out-of-control?
Recovery from the family disease helps us let go of useless thoughts about future events that have not happened or wasting time dwelling on the past that can never be undone. We take it slow and are no longer absent from the present. We start to get a better grip on ourselves, and we begin to understand our role in relation to the disease.
It’s interesting to look back from a new perspective on matters that used to take me hostage. It helps me understand the family disease and my role in it. While addiction progressed, so did irresponsibility and it had my address on it. There would be repercussions from not paying bills, being in altercations, arrests, emergency visits, pawn shop contracts and homelessness. All these matters tended to float up to the surface and end in my mail box. So there would sit a stack of mail, growing higher, in the hub of my living space, taking hostage my peace of mind and turning it into worry, anxious thoughts. I truthfully did not know what to do with it. Should I open it in case there is something of urgency that I need to know about? But that’s a Federal offense! Then my mind, under the influence of the family disease, would tell me to open it because, obviously, they are too sick to completely comprehend the seriousness of their ways. When I’d do that, I somehow became the owner of the problems revealed in the letters and would take on that responsibility. Next time I see them…I could be the personal assistant, keeping tabs and informing them of key points, believing this would help them. And when that never happened I’d be guilty that the Sender was under the assumption the intended recipient had been served. My Guilt worsened. Sometimes my mind would tell me to be selective and only keep the important mail, returning or discarding others. Eventually, my Sponsor helped me see that I was only hurting myself and giving mixed messages to my loved ones by reacting to matters that were not my business. And keeping piles of mail visible only kept me hostage. I had to break up that love affair with the disease and return to being a loving, caring mother unattached to the mess.
Return to Sender, address unknown,
No such number, no such zone.
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.
The Fix, a rich web site dedicated to “addiction and recovery, straight up,” once featured an article called “Going Home without Going Crazy.” The article offered tips to help those in recovery manage post-addiction trips home, which can be laden with eggshells and bombshells for parents and kids alike. Looking back on the “do’s and don’ts” of parenting an addict reminds me that addiction is a family disease that impacts the system of the family. The ripple effect touches everyone. And that ripple spreads in all directions.
So here were the tips offered to addicts/alcoholics in The Fix. And here’s how they play out for parents.
- “Be a grown up: If you want to be seen as a grown up, start acting as one.” The flip side of this for parents is if you want your kids to act like grownups, and then treat them like grownups, with adult responsibilities and expectations.
- “Talk to your sponsor.” Parents, this applies to you, too. Talk to your sponsor about the way you may choose to act (NOT react) under certain circumstances.
- “Hit a meeting.” Ditto for parents. Get the support you need while taking a breather from the family dynamics. Vent in a constructive fashion. Listen and learn.
- “Go online.” You are already here. Like Dorothy said in the Wizard of OZ, there is no place like home.
- “Distract yourself.” The Fix says it best: “Distract yourself so you don’t wallow in the negative feelings that being back amongst family can stir up.” Exercise, cook fanatically, read, watch a movie, or lend a hand to a friend or neighbor.
- “Reflect.” Be mindful and in the moment, rather than dwelling on yesterday or investing in future fears or fantasies.
- “Keep up your routine.” Don’t abandon familiar routines just because your beloved addict or alcoholic has returned for a visit. Remember that a key element in our recovery is taking care of ourselves.
- “Get off your ass,” AKA, be of service to others. Helping others helps you.
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.
It’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.
I have become painfully aware that even though we talk about addiction as a family disease, we often overlook its impact on the non-chemically dependent siblings. Those kids are often ignored, or, worse yet, pulled into the fray precisely because they are not the problem child.
When my younger son was deep in his disease, I relied on my older son to give me progress reports primarily because they lived near each other—and far away from me. How skinny was he? Was he working? How did he seem to be doing?
My unhealthy entwining with my son was also wrapping its tendrils around his big brother who was preoccupied, distracted, and missing out on his own life. Does that sound familiar?
Worse yet, big brother was often a silent witness to my own sadness and horror. He worried with us as well as for us. It was an unfair burden to place on a child. Not to mention that brotherly resentment and bitterness are often born when the addict’s drama the steals the spotlight from the straight arrow. I want my boys to be friends long after I am gone, and addiction has chipped away at some of the foundation of their friendship. Will that be restored? I can only hope so, with sobriety, understanding and forgiveness cementing the repair.
The bottom line is that chemical dependency can often hijack our children’s dreams even if they aren’t the addict or the alcoholic. Let’s disentangle from the addict and pay attention to the other children who so often carry the collateral damage of shrapnel in their hearts.