Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote On Death and Dying in 1969, and it holds timeless wisdom for parents of addicts and alcoholics. The Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief chronicles the reactions we have when we lose the dreams we had for someone…ourselves, or our children, perhaps.
Those steps might look this way when we witness a loved one’s chemical dependency:
1) Denial: He’s not using drugs – he’s got learning disabilities or He wasn’t drinking – he’s just an inexperienced driver.
2) Anger: You’ve stupidly shot up all your college funds.
3) Bargaining: If you fix my child, I’ll never ask for anything again.
4) Depression: I’d rather be dead than go through this hell.
5) Acceptance: I’ve come to accept that I am powerless over my loved one’s drug or alcohol abuse, and that my life has become unmanageable.
The Acceptance step may sound familier because it’s the first step any any 12-step program. It’s the foundation of recovery for addicts and alcohlics, and for those who love them. Acceptance is a good place to end up in Dr. Ross’s model, and it’s a great place to start getting healthy in AA or Al-Anon.
While cleaning out my office this week, I came across a dusty folder from 2007. It contained phone numbers of people who tried to help me and my son get help. I can barely see these kind souls through the hazy recollection of chaos and confusion. They were referrals from someone who knew someone who knew someone who had gone to rehab, or seen a certain counselor, or found a good 12-step program or interventionist.
I was utterly at the mercy of strangers. My child’s disintegration took place in fits and starts: one day all was well, the next day he was imploding, then perhaps he settled back into a relatively normal routine, or so it seemed. Along the way, I interviewed various counselors, school officials and doctors on the phone, trying to find one who would “stick.” They were all generous with their time, compassionate and earnest. I imagine many of them didn’t spot addiction as the root cause of the meltdown…or maybe they did and tried to tell me and I couldn’t hear it.
I found emails from school counselors who tried to steer him to classes where he could succeed….phone numbers of young men who were in recovery and willing to sponsor….the name of the interventionist who convinced him that detox was better than a life on the streets…a note I scribbled when his boss called my number “by mistake” to see why he was late for work. Looking back, I see that misdial as a subtle attempt to flag me that something was awry.
I never actually met any of these people, and they certainly have no idea how their kindness kept us from sinking entirely. The dusty folder that reminded me of them also reminds me how important it is to reach out to others in big and little ways.
One way I have learned to improve my relationships with my adult children whose issues with substance abuse bothered me is to remember to keep my big mouth shut…tight! My friend says “I have the right to remain silent; I just don’t have the ability to!” Finally, I’m given a reason for my behavior – I’m powerless over the desire to comment! A symptom of co-dependency, it perpetuates my unhappiness with the outcomes. Even though I’m aware of the negative consequences, I forget the tools that help me behave differently. Slowly, I remember those tools before my tongue takes over and my ability to communicate with maturity improves.
I use to override or completely miss the signs that the other person doesn’t want to engage or is put off by something I have said. I tend to do this uncensored with the ones closest to me. For example, I want to offer advice that wasn’t requested from me or offer a better solution to something they share. Their reaction is silence, withdrawn or irritated outburst. Outbursts are unpleasant, but silence seems worse! The sound of silence triggers my need to break it with a question. Questions can be aggressive. Usually, I ask prying questions under the guise of being loving or interested. A question can put people on the defensive and coupled with substance abuse, there is also an open invitation for lying. Questions can also be perceived as prying and nosey. That is not the kind of mother I want to be and if I had continued without change, I would have pushed others further away from me – the exact opposite of what I desire!
Understanding my role in the family disease has helped me appreciate the significance of the slogan W.A.I.T. This is an acronym I picked up in Al-Anon which stands for “why am I talking?” A good reminder to keep my urge to say something in check. Another problem with questions is I’m usually not prepared for the answer! I’ve grabbed onto the saying, “Don’t ask if you don’t want to know!” Learning to listen and accept the situation, without comment, gets easier the more I practice. I have come to realize that silence is not unpleasant but rather a time I can compose myself to breathe, invite my Higher Power in, and be mindful of my own character defects.
We learn how to parent from the way we were parented, for better and for worse. If you grew up in a family where alcohol or other mood-altering substances played a starring role, you might have learned to keep the boat on an even keel by patching things up or smoothing things over. Or maybe you looked the other way or simply retreated from the family drama and trauma. Either way, those methods of coping can spill over from one generation to the next and influence the way we raise our own children.
How do you approach your child’s drinking and drugging? If you are a “fixer,” you probably shelter the rest of the family from the errant child. You carry the burden of his or her mistakes. You enlist the siblings to clean up the messes, or you might even displace the blame onto the “good” siblings. You keep your spouse in the dark about the missing money or jewelry. You devote all your time and energy to making things right.
As you soldier on, you are inadvertently keeping the chemically-dependent child from assuming responsibility for poor choices. As the Al-Anon “Open Letter from the Alcoholic” says, “Don’t let your love and anxiety for me lead you into doing what I ought to do for myself. If you assume my responsibilities, you make my failure to assume them permanent. My sense of guilt will be increased, and you will feel resentful.” You will also be completely exhausted because you are singlehandedly trying to fix the unfixable: only the addict/alcoholic can fix himself or herself.
Your job, then, is to fix yourself. To acknowledge that you cannot make your loved one better. To work on understanding what compels you to keep trying to fix your child. That quest will bring you wisdom and self-awareness that enriches your life in untold ways. Your job is to take care of yourself. To treat yourself—to a moment of quiet contemplation in a park, to a meal with your spouse uninterrupted by crisis phone calls, to an evening of laughter with friends. To treat yourself well and, at the same time, give your child a reason to change.
It happens so fast sometimes we don’t even realize its happening! How does someone else’s problem all of a sudden become my problem? Because I let it happen, plain and simple. Sure there are a list of reasons why this can happen and they all seem so logical, yet taking on someone else’ problem actually creates problems. When my daughter was in the midst of her addiction, it crept up on me slowly. First there were the grades that started slipping and so I began intervening and talking to her teachers to find out assignments and what needed to happen so she wouldn’t fail. This took the stress off of her and put it squarely on me! This not only caused stress for me but taught her not to own her issues.
Even though my daughter is in recovery, I still need to be careful not to take on her problems. She has had situations where she has had a bill to pay or ticket to take care of. In the past she would tell me and sometimes not even ask for my help and I would jump and start coming to the rescue. Sometimes these situations are difficult and costly, but I don’t take on the problem for her. We talk about what she needs to do to take care of her issue. In the end, she handles it and she learns. If I take on her problems, she would be taught that she is not capable and she would not have learned. This is the power of understanding how my co-dependent behavior does not help, it hurts – both of us. I am committed to continue to own my problems and let others own theirs.
“This doesn’t mean I don’t care. Or don’t hurt. Or won’t cry. It just means I will fill the hole in my life where Joey should be with goodness, not badness. Kindness, not madness. I will honor my son with my words and my actions – not the addict. The destructive spread of the disease of addiction stops with me.”
It seems that when you have traveled the journey of addiction with your loved one over a period of time, you begin to have a sixth sense when things are beginning to falter. I couldn’t always put my finger on it, but I could tell when something was off. Sometimes it was a lack of contact, sometimes it was a particular attitude while talking, and sometimes it was just a feeling. I remember being in one of those modes where I knew something was unraveling. It was as simple as a mention of some new friends – some in recovery, some not, some struggling in their addiction. While I wanted to coach, persuade, and convince her to hang tight to those in recovery, I knew she would follow her own path. I knew I was powerless over what she decided to do.
While I can speculate the chain of events that can lead to ‘unraveling’, it is futile. And it is always a lesson for me just as much as for her. What could I do to ward off impending doom? How could I convince her to stay focused? When should I actively intervene? The answers were simple: nothing, can’t and shouldn’t. I have one job – to ‘mind my own business.’ It doesn’t mean that if she asks for my advice that I shouldn’t give it – I pray for those opportunities for they give me the false notion that I can control something in her life! But they also give me comfort that she wants to engage in healthy discussions. But, Alas, she does not always ask for my advice, she lives her life on her terms. And I am constantly learning to be a bystander in order to help her to continue to learn and grow.
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.
Having a child struggling with drug or alcohol abuse is a very difficult situation. We're glad you are visiting our site and we hope you find some peace of mind through the support of other parents and services offered by this site. Please keep coming back!