It’s been said that the third time is a charm. The last high school graduation 3 years behind the oldest came with a changed perspective for me. I realized that I could not control or predict the future especially in light of the problems drugs and alcohol were creating in the family dynamics. This time graduation looked and felt different. This time, Graduation would be significant if it meant anything to him, not me. What I observed was his behavior was very different – he had a desire to graduate and it was not from a result of my influence. He was the one that studied and attended class seriously. He took the initiative to go on the senior trip, not I. His actions resulted in his graduating with his class and I did not have anything to do with it. It wasn’t as if I did not care anymore, it was that I did not have that strong of an emotional tie to it. I was a bit more conscientious about hosting a celebration after the ceremony with family members. This was something I asked him about – this time it was a partnership in the decision. This was different and it felt better.
The thought occurred to me: I can’t take credit for the success or failure of someone else…and then the awakening: I’m no longer a controlling parent, I’m just a loving and caring mom. That letting go of my ideas of how the story UNFOLDS for my children would be one solution to my problem. A few years later with the help of Al-Anon, I learned that there are tools to help me be the supportive mother, free of constant worry and fear. I can strive for unconditional love and this only happens when I change my old thinking and behavior. This has not been an easy change to embrace. I still catch myself having to detach my will for things to go my way. This would be something to celebrate, freedom from the bondage of self!
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.
At the peak of a child’s chemical dependency, one of my friends and her husband bought a camper so they could retreat into the wild and walk on pine needles instead of eggshells. Other friends have kicked their kids out of their homes but permitted them to sleep in the yard or in the garage, a safe outpost that (in theory) spares the rest of the home from the insanity. A mom friend asked me if she should move away from her family’s hometown with her daughter in tow after her daughter left rehab. Or maybe she should send her daughter away instead? I wondered the same thing myself.
One year, I wouldn’t permit my son into our home when we were vacationing overseas, so he spent one Christmas Eve in the Hotel Honda in our driveway. Was he in my home? No. Was he in my head? Yes. So moving away from our home or travelling overseas didn’t solve the problem, which wasn’t my son. It was me.
That’s because, as the saying goes, “Wherever you go, you are there.” In other words, I bring my baggage along with me. At my darkest hour, I was at least as wedded to my child’s addiction as he was, and I could never leave it behind no matter where I went. It colored all I saw and did, and I missed out on a lot…all for what?? My incessant obsession did nothing to help him get sober–it only tortured me.
If I have to lug something along with me, why not make it a dream instead of a demon? Why not choose faith over fear? We get to pack the baggage in our lives; let’s choose something that will nourish us, rather than deplete us, as we travel down this road called Life.
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 our beloved addicts and alcoholics descend into the hellhole of chemical dependency, we are right by their sides. We travel on parallel journeys through depression and anxiety, financial and legal chaos, shame and isolation, and the physical ravages of stress and sleeplessness. This is called a family disease for so many reasons: it even feels contagious.
So much of what is written for the addict or alcoholic child applies to parents, too. I picked up Moments of Clarity again last night and was magnetically drawn to this passage by actress Kelli McGillis: “There were many things keeping me from recovery. One was the fact that I thought I could do it—I thought I could do everything by myself. When I finally realize I had a problem, still l I thought, “I should be able to handle this. I’ve handled all these tragic events in my life and I can handle this one, too.”
Although she was writing about her alcoholic self, she could have been writing about me. That illusion of power explained much of my fevered pitch as I tried to fix my child.
Understanding that I cannot do this on my own – realizing that I was powerless over drugs and alcohol and that my life had become unmanageable—was the key to the kingdom for me as I began to relinquish my illusory hold on my child’s sobriety. Instead, I reached out for help from friends, counselors and a divine power much greater than me, and I began to claim my own recovery.
Isn’t it always our nature to try to control everything going on around us? I know that are many times when I want things to go my way and yet the truth is that we don’t control many things. The obvious ones are things like the weather. We can hope, wish, pray that it is sunny or that it will rain and bring much needed water for our environment. We know that the weather is out of our control but other activities are little bit more elusive. We all want what is best for our children but what happens when their choices in life are not what we had hoped for? I have had to let go of so many expectations of my children. What I want them to do and what they choose to do with their lives are not always congruous.
It hasn’t been very easy to feel that I know what is best for my kids and have them go a different direction. Even the choices my daughter made on substance abuse. I tried everything to control the situation. She became an adult during this time and then it became doubly difficult because I could not make decisions for her anymore. Trying to control what she was doing only led me to stress and frustration. Over time I slowly learned that what she chose to do was out of my control. I could coach and support her but in the end the decision were hers. I learned to go with the flow which meant understanding what she was doing but not get involved in it. I slowly saw how this was alleviating my stress by keeping to my own business and not trying to control hers. It isn’t always easy but eventually you can find peace and serenity while staying in the flow.
Chemical dependency can redesign the role of every member in the family. At the climax of our family’s wild ride through the Land of Addiction, I morphed from (relatively) healthy nurturer to rabid fixer. When my son messed up, I became the self-appointed clean-up crew. I had to save him from himself, which clearly took the responsibility off of him to manage his life and the consequences of his bad choices. I wanted to make it all better, to kiss the boo-boo and put a Happy Face Band-Aid on it. Isn’t that what moms do?
At one particularly low moment, I remember muttering to him, “I made you, you little (bleep). I can break you.” Talk about delusions of power! I couldn’t stop him from making bad choices, and I couldn’t force him to make good choices. But I could get out of his way and give him the power to steer his own ship away from the rocky shore.
Drs. Daniel Amen and David Smith describe how to change this unhealthy dynamic in Unchain your Brain: 10 Steps to Breaking the Addictions that Steal Your Life. “To heal one person, the whole family must be healed. Family members have to examine their own behaviors to determine how they might be contributing to the problem and be willing to change their ways.”
Everyone in our family had to change when I began to understand my role in my child’s illness. My husband had to take on some of the responsibilities that I had previously held so tightly to my chest because –of course– I knew best how to take care of the problem (Not!). My son had to experience the consequences of his poor choices with no soft Mommy Pillow to soften his fall. The prospect of sleeping in the gutter without that soft Mommy Pillow provided a compelling reason to change. Whether he grasped that opportunity was up to him, not me.
“The first recipe for happiness is: avoid too lengthy meditation on the past.”
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.
I’m getting fed up with news magazines and talk show hosts poking fun at people with health concerns and chronic diseases, like addiction. How many more times are we going to be subject to Lindsey Lohan jokes and ridicule? Wasn’t the Charlie Sheen exhibition sad enough? You don’t see anyone laughing at Michael J. Fox’s stuttering or shakes – no! But his disease comes with society compassion and understanding. Addiction is a disease too but the general popular opinion has not been as caring.
I get frustrated with people whose ignorance about addiction and recovery causes them to judge, jury and sentence others who struggle. People who don’t believe in the power of recovery and the ability to overcome and change are often the loudest opponent for any support or reform. People who are so stringent in their own beliefs, they are unwilling to change themselves.
Then I remember my humble beginnings. I once held beliefs and opinions that had no sound basis. I judged others too. The difference between then and now is my own experience with adversity and a desire to stop being fed up. I made a decision to change – and if the people around me had tried to force solutions and answers down my throat I would have resisted to the end. I’m reminded that I can only share my experience, and let people have a right to their own opinion. I have to stop taking it personally and Let Go and Let God.