The scarlet letter – fighting the stigma of addiction

Letter A Tin LettersWhen 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.

The perils of parenting a substance-abusing adult child

It has been said over and again, parents are the biggest influence over their children.  I must of thought that meant for life.  There were times I might have had a moment of influential pride – what I call the “my child is an honor student syndrome.”  I never went so far as to affix it to my car bumper! I was more apt to give my children credit where credit was due.  THEY worked hard at it…HE always had a love for basketball…HE was driven to pursue…I don’t know where they got it!”  But there are situations where rightful ownership is distorted by pride –  “Yep, that’s my boy!” With unsaid attitude: “I raised ‘em right!”

When behavior turns risky and substance abuse leads to addiction, the parental influence becomes nonexistent.  But, like me, most parents don’t stop trying to reclaim their influence.  And if crime related incidences by underage adults happen, we are quick to blame the parents casting quick judgment – “she deserves imprisonment” – “How can the parents allow that to happen?”

Like most of us struggling with an addict in the family, I stressed with martyrdom.  I spent every waking moment trying to prevent or stop the unthinkable consequences of the risky behavior.  I acted as if I had the ability to stop it.  I acted like I caused it.  I acted to regain that parental influence I was entitled to have!  I’ll admit there was a bit of guilt, what I call the  “what will the neighbor’s think syndrome.”

The flip side of giving credit where credit is due is taking responsibility for something I don’t own, good or bad.  It’s easier to allow them the glory of success than to allow them the dignity of living with a disease.  Who wouldn’t give their right arm to take away their pain?  What good did it do in trying?   It is this distorted thinking that causes further problems in helping my children recover from their drug addiction.   The perils of parenting are for life but it’s never too late to improve on it.

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.

Shame, Shame, Go Away…My Child has a Disease

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 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’ all know 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/aka substance use disorder.  Even calling it by its new medical name–substance use disorder–is a step towards reducing the stigma.

Mirror, mirror on the wall…I’m the problem, after all

mirror on the wallWhen you look in the mirror, who do you see? If you spot an enabler peering back at you, maybe it’s time to look more closely to see how your behavior makes it possible for your child to keep drinking or drugging.  But first of all, what does an enabler look like, anyway?

Enablers may look physically exhausted because they are running themselves ragged trying to keep their child from failing or getting hurt. Enablers often want to protect their loved ones from the hard truths of life by wrapping them in a protective cocoon that protects them from the consequences of their poor choices. So we pay their bills, shore up their failing grades in school, run interference with the law and otherwise clean up their messes.

This enabler acts out of fear that  his or her child will be hurt.  Of course, we all want to protect our addicted or alcoholic children from themselves.  But we can’t. We can only get in the way of the natural consequences that might motivate them to change.

An enabler may look perfect, with everything in place, at least on the surface. This type of enabler is often trying to escape the stigma and shame associated with parenting a chemically dependent child.  Or they may be trying to deny to themselves that there is a problem by maintaining a veneer of calm and perfection.  “If we look normal, then we are normal!” is part of this façade.

We are human, and it’s only natural to want to fit in, to be respected. The need to be accepted may drive this type of enabling. The need to look in the mirror and be able to say, ” My kid is OK, so I AM a good mother (or father)” may also underpin this type of enabling.  But maintaining the façade only masks the truth that the family is hurting and needs to change course.

Parents don’t set out to injure their children by unintentionally making it easy for them to drink or use drugs.  So a good look in the mirror can help parents understand what motivates their enabling.

That look in the mirror can be both an epiphany and a relief.  I get to stop doing all the heavy lifting in my child’s life!  And then parents can change. They can learn—baby step by baby step– to let their children experience the consequences of their choices. When we change, we give birth to the  possibility that our children can change, as well.

When the Disease of Addiction Comes Home

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 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 chemical dependency.