The Accidental Addict/The Accidental Enabler

Photo of a woman.Real Simple magazine featured an article, “The Accidental Addict,” about a young woman who inadvertently became addicted to prescription medications.  Aren’t all addicts accidental?  Who would intentionally choose the life of destruction called addiction or alcoholism?  No addicted child that I know said, “Gee, I want to open a Pandora’s box of destruction and quite possibly put my life on the line.”  Instead, I imagine he or she thought, “ I’d like to  fit in/ hang loose/ have fun/ not be the oddball/be popular/feel comfortable in my own skin” or something of that nature.

By the same token, enablers come by their craft quite honestly.  Love First, A Family’s Guide to Intervention highlights the genesis of two distinct types of enablers.  One type is the  “innocent enabler” who can’t even imagine that drugs or alcohol underpin a loved one’s inexplicable behavior.  The other variety is the desperate enabler who cannot bear the thought of the decimation of substance abuse.  My own enabling started innocently and then became desperate as I worked tirelessly to prevent the family boat from capsizing while keeping my child out of harm’s way.  That balancing act made me crazy, made me sick and didn’t solve the problem.  In fact, it made it worse.

The distance I’ve put between me and my child helps me take a clear look and how we got to where we are.  That’s been a very good thing: understanding the accidental origins of addiction and  co-dependency  helps me find forgiveness for myself and for the beloved addicts in my life.

Healthy Brains – How happy thoughts can lead to serenity

brain healthA 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.

Denial is the antithesis of knowledge and acceptance

Mental Illness and AddictionSCENARIO: You have received bad news again, either from your son or daughter directly, their employer, landlord, friend, relative, fill-in-the-blanks. This time the emotional roller-coaster is curving through the anger turn. You think, “This is the 6th, 7th, 12th, 100th or another LAST time!” In yet another opportunity to drill into them the PROBLEMS they are creating for themselves, maybe this time you blast them with righteous indignation about the problems they are causing YOU.

ME: “I don’t understand why you do it!”                THEM: “I don’t know why I do it!”

Who’s right? Both! “I just don’t understand why” was often said from my mouth. Yet my actions for many years did not indicate any desire to try and learn about it. Moreover, I did not hear myself when I said the words: I don’t understand – I was preoccupied with WHY. Yet it armed me with ammunition: I don’t understand, therefore I will fight-fight-fight.

In recovery I have learned that understanding is mental action of study which is sometimes measured through aptitude tests and scoring. Acceptance is a spiritual action of study with notable behavioral changes in attitude: serenity, kindness, gratitude and love. The further along I get in my own recovery, the less important “why” becomes. Knowledge has provided me with information – it was the resistance to this information that kept me in denial. Denial is the antithesis of knowledge and acceptance. And the battle of the non-Al-Anon vs. Alcoholic/Addict continues on or maybe, this time, something changes…


SHIFT: Less of that, more of this: careful weighing and mindful thinking

Recovery from the family disease involves a shift in attitude and behavior. Years ago my counselor told me that my son would “get it” when “he got it” and I kept asking her “how will I know?” Her flip answer was always “from his changed behavior.” How is a desperate, frightened mother supposed to understand that? I had 5 years of gnarly teenage behavior; never knowing what young adulthood recovery-behavior was supposed to look like. All trust, including my own intuition, was out the window.

It took years of recovery from the family disease, hard work and many sleepless nights to begin to understand the concept “changed behavior”…my own.

I experienced a gradual shift from less of that to more of this.  Each day I’m tasked with weighing my options on how my day is going to be; I have choices and with practice the shift is less noticeable, but more serene.


  • Less talk, more listening,
  • Less judgment, more tolerance,
  • Less control, more trust,
  • Less tense, more relaxed,
  • Less egocentric, more spiritual

Principles of recovery for parents of addicts and alcoholics

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 of recovery 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.


Disarming addiction and claiming your power as the parent of an addict

12196101_722392971226415_7560179514246009591_nThis is a guest post from Sandy Swenson, author of The Joey Song : A Mother’s Story of Her Son’s Addiction


I have the power.

The power to change the way I react to the disease of addiction.

The power to stop its destructive spread.

For too many years I was consumed by the poison my son was consuming. I snarled and yelled and argued and begged and cried; I re-negotiated the non-negotiable; I rationally discussed the irrational; and, at night, I either paced the house – holding vigil for Joey’s life – or dreamed of growing octopus arms to squash down all his problems.

There was no room in my head for anyone but Joey; that’s just what happens once an addict starts wearing a beloved child’s face. So, while Joey was the one consuming the poison, the poison seeping into our household was passing directly through me, sneaking in on the umbilical connection. I was a carrier – the Typhoid Mary of addiction – spreading misery and destruction through our family. Helping the disease to do what it does best.

You see, for too many years, I was trying to change something that wasn’t mine to change: Joey.

The truth is, the only thing I can change is me. (And that has real power.)

Addiction is horrible enough without me making it worse, so I’m done with that. There will be no more ripping apart of hearts and lives – not by my actions (or my neglect). Not by my words, thrown around like poison darts. I will not blame or argue. I will not get sucked into dramas or force issues that don’t belong to me. I will protect my boundaries, making room in my head for all the people I love. I will be calm not crazed. I will be positive. I will have reasonable expectations. I will change the tune and change the dance; I will change my family’s chance.

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.



Dealing with a Child’s Addiction/Alcoholism: It’s an Inside Job

What possibilities can the upcoming New Year usher into my life?  As the parent of a teen who struggled with chemical dependency, I often watched the world go by through some dim, damaged lenses. I’ve been on the lookout for victims or someone to blame (myself included); I’ve made myself a nervous wreck while awaiting disasters that never materialized. I’ve anticipated every flavor and incarnation of relapse so that I would be prepared when it happened.  Trust me—relapse happened many, many times in my mind before my son ever experienced it. and it was unnecessarily painful.

How would my world be different if I looked for:

  • someone to thank instead of someone to blame
  • someone to admire, rather than someone to judge
  • something to cherish instead of something to hate

Would this change in perspective protect my child from drugs and alcohol?  Most assuredly not.  Would it protect me from me?  Would it keep me from resorting to my sorry habits, like imagining impending disaster around every bend?  Yep– changing my focus could be a game-changer for me.

So I plan to write my bad habits on scraps of paper and ceremoniously ignite them on New Year’s Eve.  Some call that a “burning bowl” ceremony; I call it creating a healthier vista on my world, a vista that I can shape. As Rainer Maria Rilke said, “And now let us believe in a long year that is given to us, new, untouched, full of things that have never been.”

The Phenomenon of Letting-Go

Hands releasing oxygen bubbles

There are many gifts resulting from letting go of old thoughts, beliefs and non-truths. My experience is that the Letting-Go phenomenon follows acceptance. It’s a shift in thinking. If I accept that alcoholism is a disease, then I can let go of the ridiculous notion that I can control it. I then can let go of blame, shame and responsibility of other people’s predicaments. If I can accept that I cannot control people, then I can let go of rescuing, reasoning, judging, projecting and ultimately self defeating thoughts and actions. If I can let go of what other people think of me, then I can begin to accept who I am and not who I think you want me to be. Just the act of acceptance affords opportunities for me to change. Change doesn’t hurt. Resistance to change hurts. I’m quite sure it would be nice to be in a position to say my loved ones are doing well and in recovery, but that is not the case today. Because I can accept this fact today, I can let go of wanting what I don’t have. More importantly, I am very grateful for what I do have and this is just one by-product of my acceptance / letting- go experience


Let it begin with me – I choose grace and gratitude

GratitudeIt is amazing how when one person changes, it affects everything around them. This can be both positive and not so positive. Think about when one person in a family comes home from work in a bad mood; it casts an instant shadow on the family. It can take a happy atmosphere to a place where everyone is quiet and removed trying to avoid the person in the foul mood. Or in some cases it causes conflict as personalities and moods clash for little to no reason. On the contrary, one person in an upbeat attitude can brighten a room. When someone in a good mood enters the house it can be uplifting for everyone. Often it is easier to point out the faults in others or throw out a comment like, ‘what’s wrong with you?’ Every now and then I hear the statement ‘you wake up every day and choose your attitude.’  We have control over whether we are going to face the day with grace and gratitude or whether we are going to be grouchy and grumpy.
When life in my house was tense and chaotic due to a loved one in addiction I kept hearing that when I begin to change, others would change around me. Then I kept hearing the slogan ‘let it begin with me.’ I began to make changes with various aspects of my relationships, both with the addicted loved one and others, by drawing boundaries and taking care of myself. It was nothing short of amazing to watch how this started to shift everything in my path. The more I took control of my attitude and shifted from victim to becoming empowered in my actions and attitude then the more my life became manageable. It is a simple concept yet difficult to break long time family patterns and behaviors. But step by step, little by little you can begin to shift to healthier ways. Today I chose grace and gratitude!

It’s a mad mad mad mad world

how to care for yourself Dr. JantzIt struck me the other day that there is a very fine line between being mad at our kids and going mad over our kids.  At one end of the continuum, we’ve got anger; at the other, insanity.  That realization got me thinking about the word “mad” and how it can represent the full spectrum of parental experience.  To wit:

  • I’m madly in love with you.
  • I’m mad at you.
  • I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore! ( Al-Anon calls this detachment.  In the ideal world, this would be tempered with love)
  • Stop the madness.
  • I’ve gone mad!

We’ve all seen how our incessant anger at teen addiction can percolate into an uncontrollable obsession that commandeers our lives. I reached that point when my doctor asked me how I was doing, and I reported on my son’s travails instead. Like a deer in the headlights, I froze when she reminded me that I was not my child. I was so enmeshed in his wellness and illness that it had become my own.

Saying “No” to madness can mean the difference between getting off the ledge or going over the edge. How do we separate from our children when their substance abuse has hijacked our brains? How do we stop the madness and detach with love?  Readers, please share comments on this important topic.