Disabling Denial: Reclaiming Life from (and for) an Addicted Child

Perhaps you’ve suspected for some time that something is amiss, but learning the hard truth about a child’s addiction or alcoholism is an absolute sucker punch to the gut.  Maybe that’s why it is so hard to accept that truth.

There are many obstacles to grasping a child’s chemical dependency, with denial in the forefront.  Dictionary.com defines denial as “An assertion that something said, believed, alleged, etc. is false.”  Quite fittingly, the example given is “Despite his denials, we knew he had taken the purse.”   Swap in any number of nouns for purse—pills, money, jewelry—and now you’ve got a story that sounds may sound familiar.

Acknowledging that something was really wrong with my child was too horrific, so I looked the other way, made excuses or simply refused to accept the possibility. Part of me couldn’t understand how my child could be addicted, especially since I had worked hard to be an involved parent, loved each other, had family dinners almost every night, and was very present in my son’s life.  (Maybe too present, come to think).

Once I “got it,” I still couldn’t believe it.  This was my faulty logic: “Drug addicts come from bad families.  We are a good family.  Therefore, my son can’t be an addict.” Toss that logic with a hefty dose of shame and stigma, and you’ve got the perfect storm of denial. But my utter lack of knowledge and information about chemical dependency kept me from understanding that no one is exempt from this common disease that impacts one out of three American  families.

Although I understand that my denial protected me from a horrific realization, I wish that I had been able to break through it much earlier in the game.  Then we would have faced the monster when it was weaker and less entwined in our lives.  If you need help understanding and overriding the coping mechanism that can perpetuate your pain, please check out our Denial Meeting in a Box for some powerful tools.

Should we expect Relapse when our loved ones get Rehabilitation for chemical dependency?

When my son entered a 12-Step rehabilitation program after 19 months of using, I was naively thinking 30 days and he’d be back to normal. There was just no way he would use again, it was such a waste of his young years, and surely he saw this. Well, not only did he relapse WHILE in rehab, he subsequently relapsed many times over. I heard others say that with recovery comes relapse. This helped me accept unfavorable outcomes and not be so disappointed, angry or resentful. Later someone shared that relapse expectations can be dangerous and that perhaps I should not expect it or justify it. Think about the addict who may rationalize as do I: “Craig has relapsed a bunch of times before he made it, so what if I have a drink or two.”

What is minimized is that the last time Sabrina relapsed, she went into a coma and never came back; the last time James relapsed, his drug induced high for 3 days left a trail of armed robbery and arrest. The last time Joe relapsed, he hit a pedestrian while driving under the influence, and Sally? She nearly died from insulin shock, no longer in touch with her blood sugar monitoring.

Having this brought to my attention changed my behavior and attitude towards expecting relapse.  Addiction is a deadly serious disease and any attempts to smooth things over, allow or assist the addict to justify relapse while in my sphere of influence cannot be tolerated.  I will not expect it, but I can learn to accept it.  And with love and prayer, a program of recovery from co-dependency, I have faith that a Power, greater than me, will guide us all toward a program of recovery.

Mars versus Venus and a child’s addiction or alcoholism

Moms and Dads tend to deal with a child’s chemical dependency in different ways. Dads often want to fix the problem, dammit, to make the kid better, to solve all the problems he or she created along the way.  For fixers, all this hard work gives rise to some serious resentment and tests even the best anger management skills.  In contrast, Moms want to soothe the hurt, protect the baby, kiss the booboo away, even if that requires them to bear their pain. For us enablers, speed dialing grief counselors or Jack Kevorkian can be the order of the day.

This disconnect in parenting styles didn’t arise with addiction or alcoholism.  It probably lay dormant all along, but a child’s chemical dependency throws kerosene on the flames of parental disconnect and discontent.  Mars to Venus, we’ve got a problem, illuminated by the flame-out of our struggling children.

In order for the family to get healthy, it is essential to “circle” the wagons, which requires all parties to agree to take the same approach towards chemical dependency.  It requires a common understanding of the disease of addiction and a shared commitment to not enabling, not fixing….simply getting out of the way of our children as they try to right their own ships. It requires us to talk with our spouses/partners when we would rather retreat or cast blame or yell or cry. Being the parent of an addict is not for sissies, but it give us a chance to hone our resiliency, character, and commitment, which are silver linings in an otherwise dark cloud.

Do I Feel Guilty About My Son’s Chemical Dependency?

I sat next to a pediatrician at a charity dinner one night, and the talk turned to teen addiction.  He posed a thought-provoking question:  “Do you feel guilty that your son became an addict?”  If he had asked me that same question earlier in the game, my answer would have been an unequivocal “Yes.” I was wracked with guilt (co-mingled with anger, shame, horror and fear) because I believed I had somehow created an addict by failing my son in some unintended way, although I wasn’t certain what that was.  Was I too controlling in my son’s young life?  Not controlling enough?  Were my standards unreachably high, or perhaps too low?  Was I too much of a mother to him and not enough of a friend, or vice versa?  My painful self-examination and self-flagellation was endless, but still—I had no answers.  I didn’t know what I had done—right or wrong.  In the rear view mirror, I began to look at my parenting as an abject failure.

My perspective started to change as I learned how, for some, drugs and alcohol take on a life of their own.  It is a neurological, inheritable, biological reaction unrelated to willpower, character or desire. Apparently I passed that gene on to my son from my side of the family tree– unknowingly, as addiction hasn’t reared its ugly head in me. (The gift that keeps on giving across generations –Uugh).  Still, my son has chemical dependency in his genetic toolkit where it keeps company with courage, determination and his very kind nature, among many other great qualities.  Those are the gifts that he uses today in his life of active recovery.  He got those from me, too.

But I won’t take credit for the good stuff any more than I take blame for the bad.  My son was dealt a genetic hand of cards; how he plays it is up to him. And how I play the hand that life deals me is up to me, and that includes discarding the guilt card whenever I can.

The Kindness of Others in the Midst of a Child’s Substance Abuse

We can each make a difference to someone else, even if we are reaching out in the midst of our own grief and struggle. By helping others, we help ourselves….


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 while he struggled with chemical dependency.  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.

Truth Be Told…what do you say about your child’s addiction?

It’s always dicey trying to figure out how much to reveal to a friend about a child’s substance abuse.  When we were in the hellhole of active addiction, I didn’t show my hand to anyone.  How could I?  I couldn’t even begin to explain it to myself, much less to another person.

You never know how people will react if you reveal that your child struggles with chemical dependency.  Some people are compassionate and supportive, even while admitting that they know very little about the struggle.  Some friends embraced my candor because it enabled them to admit that they, too, have had a child in the same leaky boat.  And others visibly retreated when I mentioned the topic, as if I was sowing the seeds of a communicable disease.

Gradually, as I learned about addiction/alcoholism as a disease of the brain, I became more comfortable gently testing the conversational waters.  I firmly believe that we need to understand, speak about, and treat chemical dependency as a brain disease, just as we view diabetes as a disease of the pancreas.  I want to use my experience to educate others and create awareness about this preventable tsunami of heartbreak. At the same time, I don’t want to disclose my journey to those who will judge me or my son, treat us like pariahs, or discriminate against him.  Wise readers, please share your thoughts on how you walk the fine line between disclosure and privacy.

The language of love, the language of substance use disorder

With our nation facing an epidemic of deaths from opiates – legal and illegal - Stack of love letters on rustic wooden planks background we need more candid admissions and truthful language to help others understand that addiction is a condition of brain chemistry and not one of character deficiency.

How I speak about a person or a problem reveals my own attitude towards that person and can shape their opinion, as well.  What sounds kinder: “My child the addict” or “My chemically-dependent child?”  What description creates awareness and understanding: “A disease of the brain” or “A lack of willpower and character?” Which language opens the door to treatment and possible recovery, and which language points to contempt and alienation?

I am not whitewashing the issue here or letting those with substance abuse struggles off the hook.  Chemical dependency can give rise to horrific behavior—drunk driving, theft, fraud, abuse, neglect….the list goes on and on.  That behavior is an outward manifestation of a brain gone awry, unable to let go of the obsession to use and abuse.  But what do we gain by choosing language that paints and pigeonholes our beloved children in such a destructive fashion? And what do we lose by describing alcoholism and addiction for what they are:  a brain disease in which the unrelenting demands of the survival center of the brain overtake rational thought and reason.

Language can be a powerful tool or a destructive weapon—choose yours wisely.

Don’t Change my World — Change Me

My best friend is now grappling with setting healthy boundaries with her husband and her family.  Chemical dependency isn’t the issue; instead, she has felt herself increasingly pulled into the vortex of their mood disorders and discontent, their traffic violations and other boo-boos, and various other dramas.  She doesn’t even need to have an addict in the family to feel the discomfort of their pull.  Co-dependency doesn’t require drugs or alcohol—just an unhealthy addiction to curing another’s pain or solving their problems.

It is hard to set healthy boundaries.  As a “born fixer,” it has felt almost inhumane to walk away from someone who is struggling. Offering relief, fixing a problem is really core to who I am—it is part of my identity.  When facing my co-dependency with my addict son, I had to do some deep digging to figure out who I was, if not a savior and a saint.

When does trying to fix others go too far and cause more harm than good? Clearly, it is important to jump in when life and limb are at stake; at the same time, it is critical to “change the system” so life and limb don’t become chronically at risk. Once we got through our immediate crisis of detox and rehab, we forged an agreement about how we would move forward.  Among other things, it required that my son get counseling to help him vanquish the incessant call of drugs and alcohol from his head.  I also got counseling to learn how to vanquish my incessant rumination about his addition that played through my head like a broken record.

I’ve made progress on changing my “Fix it” mentality that had portrayed him as broken, and me as the solution. I am much better prepared to face each day, no matter what unfolds. Has my addict son changed?  As him, not me.  Have I changed?  Affirmative.


P.S. Check out Co-Dependent No More by Melody Beattie for help cutting the ties of co-dependency.

Graduation Day…as seen through the lens of teen addiction


It’s June, and that means graduation, an event with a potential mortification factor second only to the proverbial Christmas letter.  You know, the one where the Perfect Family flaunts their flawless year, and you cringe because your year was a tad “off,” relatively speaking, while you struggled with your child’s chemical dependency.

I was so relieved four years ago when my son graduated from high school, which had gone down to the wire.  Part of the problem was that I wanted  graduation  much more than he did, just like I wanted sobriety much more than he did. And that’s not a recipe for success.

Now, many of his high school friends are graduating from college, and I can get a bit wistful or wishful, or even downright envious, truth be told.  What do you say when your neighbor’s daughter is graduating from Harvard with high honors and moving to Oxford for graduate studies on a full scholarship?  And your child is graduating from a three-month stint in rehab, with a special certificate in safe driving from the local DUI academy.

You say, “Hallelujah! And Thank You, God, for keeping my child safe, for giving me back a piece of my sanity, for giving us the opportunity to grow and learn and appreciate the time we can spend in each other’s lives.” Feel free to sing praise as you see fit.  If you look around, I know you will find something to be grateful for, even if it’s quite different from what you might have asked for.

And here’s a big secret:  those Christmas letters and graduations can diminish you only if you let them.  To avoid contracting a terminal case of Keeping up with the Joneses Disease, which can be fatal when taken to heart, take one hefty dose of acceptance, temper it with a generous helping of gratitude, and call your Higher Power in the morning.