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.
In Scenes of Clerical Life, George Eliot wrote, “The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us, and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us and we only know them when they are gone.” Eliot must have been writing about me. I’m guilty as charged of being so immersed in the past and wrapped up in future “What if’s?” that I overlook the present. Take this admittedly embarrassing example: last week, I found myself quite challenged by the final pages of a book. The text seemed choppy, the story line absent…..and then I realized I had been reading the appendix of the book and didn’t even know it. Where was I when the actual story ended and the appendix began? Drifting off to sleep in the bathtub; but still, my personal alarm should have shrilled “Be here now!”
So what does this have to do with addiction? I ruminate on past hurts and mistakes and concentrate too much on future worries (which clearly exist only in my mind). All the while, the present slips away like sand in an hourglass.
One of my resolutions is to change my perspective, to shift the focus off my son’s addiction, to stop pigeon-holing him with the way I think. Not to diminish addiction’s ever-present power, but instead to view the whole of my son in a fuller context as a joyous, bright, generous and kind young man who also happens to be in recovery.
When I shift my focus and see the whole of my child, the difficult past and unknown future loosens its grip , creating a clearer vista where I may get a glimpse of the angels at work in my life today.
There is an endless supply of guilt and shame in the world of addiction. And when your chemically-dependent child is in early recovery, you certainly don’t have to like him or her. That can be near to impossible to do, anyway, because the hangover of deceit and blame can take a while to blow over. Don’t feel guilty about feeling resentment for the chaos created by addicts and addiction. You don’t have to like your child at the moment. But you do need to love them if you hope to have a healthy relationship in the future.
You also need to love yourself. If you are wearing a hair shirt of guilt, you need to take it off and stop the “Why didn’t I…?” and “I should have….” Self-flagellation never helped anybody get better.
“When we know better, we do better” applies to both addicts/alcoholics and their parents. When our beloved children begin to confront their chemical dependency, they become more capable of managing it. And when we confront our relationship with them and their disease, we can begin to heal as individuals and as a family.
A while back, I caught Dr. Daniel Amen on TV talking about his book, Magnificent Mind at Any Age. I am interested in his work, especially since I discovered that the nutritional supplements he recommends seem to help with depression. When my son was first struggling to become sober, he carried his vitamins and nutrients everywhere with him in a shoe box. They kept him on an even keel and took the edge off, much as opiates had done.
Dr. Amen claims that SPEC brain scans reveal that people who think happy thoughts show much “healthier” brain activity than those who think sad thoughts. I didn’t catch his definition of healthy brain activity, but no matter: the point is that you improve your brain function when you are optimistic and positive, rather than negative. That sounds quite Disneyesque and is a tall order for the mother of a teen drug addict, but what have you got to lose?
This approach also dovetails well with that handy Al-Anon slogan, “Fake it till you make it,” which helped me get through many difficult hours. During my son’s active addiction, I awoke most mornings riddled with anxiety. Anticipating some sort of crisis, I greeted each day with a fight or flight state, ready to leap into action and deal with the missing son or the car accident or the threatening phone call. It took a lot of mental muscle-building (and a good therapist) for me to learn to talk myself off the ledge. Now when I am stressed, I flip the switch and reach for Smiley Faces instead of the Grim Reaper, faith instead of fear. That very conscious and deliberate action helps me feel calmer and—yes—happier.
Trust me, I am very much a work in progress. I was born in a state of High Alert, but as I learn how my brain works, I am equipping myself with some powerful tools to reclaim my serenity.
When I first really “got it” that my son was addicted to opiates, I was saddened, shocked, terrified and embarrassed. Somehow, it felt like I was responsible, that I had failed as a parent, that I had led my child astray. I felt like I was wearing the scarlet letter “A” for all the world to see. I expected to start bleeding spontaneously from my heart, my hands. If I had known then what I know now, the isolation would have vaporized and I would have felt in good company. My neighborhood is no different than the rest of the nation, where 20% of high school kids abuse prescription meds, according to a recent CDC study. Helloooo, neighbor! Is that loud teenage cursing coming from your house or mine?
Those feelings abated as I became more educated. For those who insist that addiction/alcoholism is a disease of character, I refer to babies who are born addicted… what juvenile delinquents they are and how they demonstrate a stunning lack of willpower and character. That generally turns the conversation in a different direction.
I know that most people don’t know what I know about addiction/alcoholism: that it was defined as a disease more than 50 years ago; that brain imaging reveals the misfiring parts of the addict’s brain; that nutritional approaches show great promise for recovery. I try to share that knowledge with others because wisdom is key to recovery for parents and their beloved children.
As addiction becomes more understood and more public, we have an opportunity to support the other moms who are joining our ranks in fear, despair and sorrow. Together, we create a life brigade of experience, strength and hope.
For many of us, co-dependency developed quite naturally and innocently. We were the moms who took care of others when they couldn’t care for themselves. We unselfishly did the work that others didn’t want do, picked up the pieces that others dropped. We are the fixers, the rocks, and when we are sometimes blamed for having generous souls, as if that caused our kid’s addiction– it really hurts. It makes me feel extremely misunderstood. Since when is it a liability to be helpful and supportive?
But I know now about that fine line between support and unhealthy enabling. As I’ve learned, the assistance that I freely heaped upon my son, often unbidden, started to cripple him. I crossed that fine line when I started to do for him the things he could do for himself. Or maybe he couldn’t do them, or couldn’t do them well enough, but I got in the way and pre-empted his growth.
I’ve come to the conclusion that we moms of kids who struggle with drugs often faced other issues that we tried to smooth over for them. Our kids had learning disabilities and floundered in the classroom, and we were their advocates. They had serious medical vulnerabilities, and we ran interference to make sure they were safe and had the medical accommodations they needed. Often, they suffered from depression, and we were there to blunt some of the blows that could pull them further down. These acts of kindness can often spiral into an unhealthy co-dependence, and that’s where healthy support turns into unhealthy enabling. Like the caterpillar that needs to wrestle its way out of the cocoon in order to survive, our kids need to develop their own muscles if they are to thrive. We can’t build those muscles for them.
Our children’s substance abuse creates such isolation for beloved addicts and parents alike. It feels like others cannot possibly relate to our struggles as parents of addicts unless they, too, have been hunkered down in the trenches of fear, anger and shame. But I have great hope that as we spread the word about addiction as a brain disease, then the shame of being the parent of a drug addict will begin to dissipate and we can come together openly and constructively to prevent addiction through awareness and education.
So here, for the record, is the official definition of addiction from the American Society of Addiction Medicine: The ASDM defines addiction as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.”
Physician Michael Wilkes aptly illustrates that point in the Collision Course – Teen Addiction Epidemic documentary when he says, “I don’t think it’s any more under someone’s control than skin cancer or breast cancer or an infectious disease. Sure, there’s some role you had initially but once you begin to get the actual manifestations of the disease, you can’t stop it without a significant amount of help.” (You can watch Collision Course here…and then ask your local Public TV station to run it in your area.)
We’ve all experienced the part about the sheer amount of work and terror in trying to derail active addiction. Through education and awareness, we can stop addiction before it even starts. And never forget—there is no shame in having a child with a disease, whether its asthma, diabetes or addiction.
Shatterproof.org is a national organization committed to protecting our children from addiction to alcohol or other drugs and ending the stigma and suffering of those affected by this disease. And Shatterproof’s taking their show on the road, working with hotels nationwide who have come together to join Shatterproof’s breakthrough Hotel Guest Program to show commitment as a corporate citizen in their community and to help protect the environment.
This simple program produces cost savings turned into donations to support Shatterproof in its efforts to end alcohol and drug addiction and benefit the environment …at no cost to its hotel guests.
The way the program works is based on these simple principles:
Each hotel guest is offered the opportunity to “decline” housekeeping services during their stay-over nights (additional days stayed between day of arrival and day of departure).
The time and associated costs (supplies, energy, etc.) required to clean a typical guest room during stay-over, is saved by the participating hotel.
This savings is donated in cash to Shatterproof.
This guest gesture of deferring service supports Shatterproof’s mission and saves the environment, , all without any out-of-pocket costs to the guest, or hotel. For those who choose to participate, it is a win/win for all involved.
“This program not only saves save water, electricity and usage of chemicals, a plus for the environment, but also is supporting Shatterproof and its unprecedented effort to tackle the disease of addiction, and bridge the enormous gap in addiction resources. Shatterproof is a national organization committed to systematically ending this disease, and I am proud to be one of its earliest supporters.” Mark O’Neill, Area Managing Director at the Equinox, Luxury Collection Hotel in Manchester, Vermont
Find and patronize the hotels that offer this program. And while you’re at it, consider adding yourself to Shatterproof’s mailing list to stay in the loop about advocacy, resources and opportunities to protect our children and our communities from addiction.
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.
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!