How many times in our life do we wish we could go back and do something over again? Whether it’s something major or minor, we all have those moments of ‘what if’s’ and ‘if I would have known…’ I’m no different; I have often ruminated about how the journey unfolded with my loved ones spiral into addiction. So many things that I am wise to now that I did not know when it all started 5 years ago. Just writing ‘5 years’ makes me cringe…not because life is still chaotic but because I think of all that has happened along the way. I spent the first few years mired in guilt and regret over so many aspects of what transpired. I look back on how I didn’t realize the gravity of the substance abuse and how I thought that it was just a passing phase. I thought about what was happening and what I knew occurred in my generation of high school and college and felt it would just blow over.
Things are different for this generation, the drugs are different, the access is different and the internet makes anything and everything just a click away. I have ceased feeling guilty and regretful, I realize that life unfolded and there is no going back. I also realize that I am powerless over other people; maybe I could have affected the outcome, maybe not. We can only put so many controls on our children and while there are many steps we can take to reduce the risks, there is no magic formula. We are all parents who love our kids and are doing our best to raise them into responsible adults. I realize that part of that journey for me included a detour with my family’s struggle with a loved one’s addiction. We have all grown and become who we are now through the experience. I am grateful for the learning and growth; I chose to look at the positives amongst the heartache and the gifts of recovery.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers a working definition of recovery that captures the essential, common experiences of those recovering from mental or substance use disorders. SAMHSA also identified 10 guiding principles that support recovery. The principals, while written for and about the addict, apply so clearly to recovery as experienced by the family of the addict, as well.
First, consider SAMHSA’s definition ofrecovery from mental and substance use disorders: a process of change through which individuals work to improve their own health and well-being, live a self-directed life, and strive to achieve their full potential. And how does one make those changes? Here are SAMSHA’s Ten Guiding Principles of Recovery:
- Recovery is person-driven.
- Recovery occurs via many pathways.
- Recovery is holistic.
- Recovery is supported by peers and allies.
- Recovery is supported through relationships and social networks.
- Recovery is culturally based and influenced.
- Recovery is supported by addressing trauma.
- Recovery involves individual, family, and community strengths and responsibility.
- Recovery is based on respect.
- Recovery emerges from hope.
Instead of looking for recovery– or at my beloved addict through the lens of his recovery– I’ve learned to take a good hard look in the mirror. Do I spot the ten principals of recovery in my life? If not, it’s time for some inner work.
As they say, “Don’t change my world, change me.” These principles are powerful tools to hone my own recovery from the trauma of a child’s addiction. There might be other tools, too; what is missing from SAHMA’s list that you have found helpful in your own recovery? Please share your ideas and your power with other readers.
How many times does one hope it’s the last time? I reflect on a time when I had to gather my strength while knowing that my daughter had relapsed again. It was so disheartening for me, but for her as well. There are so many phases of addiction, but there does come a time when it’s just not fun anymore. While I haven’t had a drug addiction, I cannot say what it is like from experience. But I do know that there is drug and alcohol use that is just one big ‘party’ to young people and then there is addiction. It is not pretty, it is not fun, and it is not a phase. It is an obsession, it is a depression, and it is full of loss and remorse.
Whenever my daughter had relapsed I had an overwhelming urge to travel to where she was just to hold her and love her. I always knew that whatever she did I would be there for her. I did not begrudge her or have anger towards her, I had love and compassion. I knew that she did not want this to be her life, she wanted to move forward, yet the addiction was like trying to run up a muddy hill – you keep sliding and slipping in place or backwards. I would sit with my daughter and listened to her story, what she thought, what she did, how she came back and wanted to get better. My part in her journey was to just love her and support her – she was the one who would make the changes to get off the muddy hill.
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!
I have had the honor of attending an event for a women and children’s shelter. It is a wonderful event where there is a lot of sharing about women who had been homeless and are now self-sustaining. Many of these women have struggled with drug addiction. Some spoke about starting to use drugs at a very young age with parents who also used drugs. Some never imagined what life could be like without using drugs. But each of these women overcame their drug addiction in the face of lots of challenges. The united message from all of them is that they have emerged stronger and more confident now that they are learning to take responsibility for themselves without substance abuse.
The gifts that they described from their life clean and sober were countless. Many had lost their children and now have them back in their lives. Their self-esteem has grown leaps and bounds and they are working on gaining skills. Some of them have already become employed and are making their own way. And while I’d like to think that our teenagers, who had never been faced with the severe disadvantages that these women had, their addiction somehow brought them to the same place. Addiction does not discriminate; it is equally devastating no matter what your socioeconomic standing is. Listening to these women is such an inspiration. They come from very difficult situations and have chosen to seek a life of recovery and rebuilding. They are setting a good example for their children who will be better for it.
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.
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 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.