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.

What does it mean to be addicted to loving an addict?

Photo of a mother and son.A while back, my friend spent the night in the ER,  courtesy of her daughter’s addiction.  She wasn’t there for her daughter; she was there because of her daughter.  The addiction was making her sick.  She was so consumed with fear over her daughter’s whereabouts and safety that her heart felt like it was exploding in her chest.  Afraid that she was having a heart attack, her son rushed her to the emergency room. Ironically, they gave her Xanax –her daughter’s drug of choice—to calm her down.

Addiction, the family disease, kills addicts and those who love them.  Sometimes the addict is unscathed while his or her family pays the price.  Many addicts in recovery are horrified to learn how much their parents suffered while they skated merrily along, oblivious or numb to the collateral damage they caused along the way.

Loving our children “’til death do us part” is not healthy or sane.  But where is that “off” switch that lets us walk away from our children for our own sake—and for theirs?  And where do we find the strength to flip the switch? Sometimes our own health issues force us to cry “Uncle.”  Sometimes we run out of money or other resources.  And sometimes we have a moment of clarity and see that we can’t save them unless they want to save themselves; if not, we are all going down with the ship.

The simple act of removing ourselves from the equation often gives the addict an incentive to change.  When cardboard boxes and dumpster diving replace clean sheets and home cooking, that just might trigger the addict’s own moment of clarity.

My child’s addiction is not the sword that I want to die on.  Loving our children means resolving not to participate in their self-destruction. And loving our children means loving ourselves enough to retreat from the line of fire so that we can be present in a way that is healthy for all.

“Once upon a time I was just a mom” and other insights from Sandy Swenson

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, which is available in bookstores and libraries.



Once upon a time I was just a mom.

A regular mom.

When I held my little miracle in my arms for the very first time, I rubbed my cheek on his fuzzy head and whispered, “Joey, my beautiful son, I will love and protect you for as long as I live.” I didn’t know then that my baby would become an addict before becoming an adult, or that the addict taking his place would shred the meaning of those words to smithereens.

When Joey tumbled into my world, he arrived without an instruction manual, but I was the best mom I could be as someone with good intentions and no experience. I stumbled through parenthood like everyone else — rocking my baby to sleep, kissing the scraped knees of my little boy, setting unwelcome limits for my sometimes testy teen, and hoping I was doing things kind of right.

Then, slowly at first, came the arrests and the overdoses, the needle marks and the dealers, interspersed with big fat lies. My loving child was turning into a monster, manipulating me and using me and twisting my love for him into knots, but I was befuddled by this scary new world I didn’t even know I was in and that I knew nothing about. You see, I thought I was still just a regular mom stumbling through regular parenthood like everyone else. (You see, a mothers trust and belief in her child’s inner goodness aren’t easily cast aside.)

Addiction is a disease, but not even the professionals have it all figured out yet — and they aren’t trying to figure it out while in a blind panic, running through the fires of hell with fears and dreams and maternal instincts tripping them up. So, I shouldn’t feel like a total failure for having missed so many clues and for not being able to love and protect my child as I promised… but still, sometimes I do.

Joey became an addict in his teens, lured to drugs and alcohol by a culture that glorifies substance abuse — the same culture that later, so ignorantly and harshly, passes judgment. I am judged for helping or fixing or pushing (or not helping or fixing or pushing enough) the sick child of mine who won’t be helped or fixed or pushed. I am judged for over-reacting and under-reacting, enabling and letting go, and, most hurtful of all, as a mother whose love must be somehow flawed.

Once upon a time I was just a regular mom, stumbling through parenthood like everyone else — and then I had to figure out how to be the mom of an addict. I had to figure out how to love my child without helping to hurt him, how to grieve the loss of my child who’s still alive without dying, and how to trade shame and blame for strength.

To be the mom of an addict is to be an ambassador of truth and understanding.

No more shame. No more silence.

A child’s addiction and leaps of faith

Chaos of AddictionI took an anatomy class a while back, and one day we talked about the ways that energy manifests itself in the human body.  Along the way, we discussed how hard it is to believe something that we cannot see.  In response, my teacher pulled out his iPhone and showed us his newest app.  When he traced the screen with his fingertip, a corona of light splayed out, and the light show followed his finger as he traced it across the screen.

Another student blurted out—only somewhat in jest–“If only I had that app, I’d have faith.”  Faith, like human energy, can be hard to see in action and impossible to quantify.  Yet we often need to “see it before we believe it.”  So that begs the question: what does faith look like?  What does trusting the universe look like in my daily life?”

I can tell you what faith doesn’t look like:  faith doesn’t look like the endless struggle, arm-wrestling and exhaustion that is the keynote of parenting a chemically-dependent child.

Faith is a hard – and as simple as admitting, “I can’t do this by myself.  I’m bowing out and letting my Higher Power take over.”  When accustomed to battling your child’s substance abuse, that can be crazy hard to do.  But leaps of faith are just that:  leaps into thin air made possible by the belief that in a power that is a magical and real as a corona of light—on heaven, on earth, or on an iPhone app.

Teen Addiction is a Risky Business


Perceptions are not realityHalloween is coming, so it’s  a good time to revisit some of the demons of addiction and possibly vanquish them from my life.  Guilt is one of the tenacious remnants of my son’s addiction. I know, I know:  I didn’t cause it, I can’t cure it, I can’t control it. I understand that intellectually, but still….couldn’t I have done something different along the way to derail it?

Possibly not, according to a Time article that focuses on the teen brain and its quest for risk.

In the article, Valerie Reyna, professor of human development and psychology at Cornell University notes that “Because teens have a different style of information processing…they may get lost in the details about specific risks and overly focused on possible rewards, while ignoring the overall ‘gist’ of the problem — i.e., the ultimate consequences.”  Their greater tolerance for uncertainty and the unknown may help them step out into the world, a key task developmentally.  That tolerance for the unknown, coupled with their sense of invincibility, also underpins their willingness to try drugs or alcohol.

It’s actually freeing to understand the powerful biology that drove my son’s initial trysts with drugs and alcohol.  Being a more demanding/friendlier/better/worse/more disciplined/less controlling mom probably wouldn’t have curtailed his initial experimentation.  It all comes down to the decisions he made under the influence of his risk-seeking or risk-adverse brain.  I was powerless over his adolescent risk-taking, just as I am powerless over the alcohol that made his and my life unmanageable.  Note to self:  see Step One and stop being so hard on myself.

“It’s Just Pot!” and Other Teen Addiction Myths

When my son was merely “experimenting” with pot, some family friends stopped by to talk about the cache of pot and rolling papers they discovered in their son’s room.  They were trying to tell us, “We’ve got a problem and you do, too.”

I didn’t hear them, and I wonder why.  Did part of me say, “It’s just pot—what’s the problem?”  If so, I would be in good company:  many American parents smoked pot in the 70s and didn’t become addicts, so it seems relatively benign, especially compared with the alternatives.  Drunk driving, now that’s a problem.  Stoned driving—not so much.  And anyway, smoking pot is a rite of passage….something he or she will outgrow. That’s a common sentiment, based on what I’ve heard from other parents who have tried to understand their loose rules and ability to look away from a growing storm. What parents don’t say or know is that there are more kids in rehab today for pot than for all other drugs combined.

Maybe I didn’t hear them because I was in denial about my son’s drug use. I wanted to find another problem with another solution, one I could wrap my brain and energy around.  A learning disability, boredom with school, anger issues, and teenage rebellion would fit the bill.  I had a name for all those conditions, and a solution, too:  academic accommodations, more stimulating activities, therapy, the passage of time.  Those could solve the problem; but I didn’t know how to solve addiction, even if I had been able to name it.

My action (or lack thereof) helps me understand why parents today fail to sound the alarm when they discover their child is getting stoned.  I didn’t take action; why should you?? Check out our Denial “Meeting in a Box” to get some answers to that question.

Signs, Symptoms and Treatment of Addiction in Adolescents

Guest Blog by Eric Adreon Author of A Dance With Shadows:  The Journey Beyond Sexual Abuse, Addiction and Chemical Imbalance

This Q&A is intended to provide parents and others with insight into the unique needs of adolescent and young adults suffering from alcoholism and drug addiction, especially those that are dual diagnosed with a mental health disorder(s). Hopefully these questions will stimulate a public conversation about the unique needs of this population and how, as a nation we can combat the illness of addiction. We encourage a civil discourse for the sake of future generations to bring this disease out of hiding and give it the attention and research that other chronic health care conditions have received. Only as a community of addicts, those who love them, healthcare professionals, law enforcement and others can such work occur.

Questions and Answers with Eric Adreon

Q: Your addiction began when you were young. Were there any signs or symptoms of your disease missed or overlooked by your parents and/or the medical system?

EA: It was very difficult to diagnose me because of co-occurring conditions. Mental health and addiction issues are often close cousins. I believe I suffered from manic depression far before chemicals were an issue. When I finally mixed alcohol with the depression it was easy to point a finger at the singular issue (Addiction) bypassing the mental health aspect. There were numerous symptoms: early sexual acting out, fluctuation of emotion from high to low, anger management issues and isolation. In terms of substance use I followed the norm in terms of adolescent experimentation and gateway drugs such as cigarettes and marijuana. Changes in social groups, changes in appearance, and lack of interest in things I used to hold important in my life were all basic indicators.

One thing that can help parents seeing these early warning signs/behaviors is to seek out resources related to parenting skills. Warning behaviors create stress and chaos for the whole family, whether or not the substance abuse issue is known by parents. Health care professionals need to routinely direct parents of such patients to resources to improve parenting skills as well as to learn about substance abuse.

Q: Your addiction began when you were an adolescent so you have experienced a variety of treatment approaches and modalities, both as a youth and as an adult.  What are your thoughts about how treatment for alcoholism and addiction needs to be different for this population?

EA: Abuse does not stop abuse. For too long addicts have been treated as though they have some say over their condition. I come from the CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) camp. I believe in a compassionate approach to treating addiction. I believe that most people who enter the treatment setting have already spent enough time being beaten down by addiction and the consequences that accompany it. Building a human being up does more to ensure good outcomes than does an iron fist approach, where the addicts are treated like they are morally bankrupt and somehow responsible for the disease. We live in a society where we aggressively attack the symptoms instead of treating the underlying issues. Our prison and homeless populations are a reflection of poor policy around treating addicts and mentally ill people.

It is often difficult as a parent to weigh out appropriate responses to an adolescent who is struggling with chemical use. The traditional “tough love” or “hands off approach” does not always fit, especially when parents are obligated to still take responsibility for their children. One of the best ways to address a child’s use is to remain firm in boundaries and consequences.  Ultimately, loving support of a child while holding firm boundaries around the unacceptability of use pays the greatest dividends. As an adolescent drug abuser I was often held accountable for my actions. Although at the time I felt as though these boundaries were lack of love, as I have grown older in recovery I realize my parents did the most loving thing they could. Boundaries protect both the family and the user from their behaviors. Accountability teaches the adolescent user that there are consequences to behavior. Consequences bring on a healthy stress, which may bring about the desired change.

Music To My Ears – Parents taking action by drug testing their teen

Many of my posts focus on the aftermath of addiction, chronicling the devastation that is inevitable due to severe drug and alcohol abuse. Today I am focusing on the hope for this generation of teenagers. While at my morning workout there was a conversation among the wonderful women in the group. The conversation was about ‘pre-testing’. ‘Hmmmm… ,’ I thought,’ I need to listen to this…’ The Mom’s in the group were talking about how they drug test their teens in order to keep them accountable and give them a reason to tell their friends they can’t try drugs and alcohol.  ‘My parents drug test me and I’ll get grounded or in trouble’. This was music to my ears, a full symphony no less!
One of the ways we can help our teens is to do this act of love. While I am an activist for prevention of teen drug and alcohol addiction and I often talk about the effectiveness of randomly drug testing your kids, it isn’t always clear what parents think of this. It was truly a joy to hear the positive conversation about parent’s drug testing and telling other parents why they do it and having such a constructive conversation amongst the group. The thought of drug testing my kids never even entered my mind when they were in high school. Even when the trouble started with my daughter I didn’t consider drug testing. Thinking back now I realize it could have done several things. It would have forced me to see clearly what was going on – I was in denial and that is a dangerous place to be. It would have validated the seriousness of the drug abuse that was taking place. I would have no longer been able to hope it was nothing serious, I would have known it was very serious. All of this is hind sight, I realize, but worth sharing for others to gain insight. I applaud parents willing to drug test their teens – it is a very loving act that can possibly be the difference between a sober teen or a teen traveling down a road that can lead to eventual addiction.

Keeping our Kids safe – Why isn’t addiction on the parents lists of worries?

Early Intervention HelpsI was reflecting the other day on something that is perplexing and troubling. It’s perplexing because of the information I now have – which is the dangers of substance abuse for the developing adolescence brain.  What troubles me is how many parents of pre-teens/teens do not understand the gravity of the situation. I know when my kids were young I had fears about them being taken by strangers, getting hurt in a multitude of ways, falling ill by disease, the list goes on. But never on that list was the fear that they might use substances while in their adolescence and become addicted. Yet that is exactly what happened to my daughter. What is now perplexing to me is why as parents we do not have a fear of this on the list along with all the other fears. It is so obvious now, but it took a tragic situation to happen in order for me to learn what I now know.
Anything bad happening to our children is extremely tragic. What I am proposing is that we talk about safeguarding our kids from our worst fears like child abduction. We keep a close eye on where they are going and who they are with when they are young. We try to keep them healthy with diet and exercise so we lower their risk of disease. We work hard to keep them safe from having an accident in our homes or outside our homes. Yet I don’t believe that we have grasped the true dangers of our young adults becoming addicted when they experiment with alcohol and drugs. I know when I silently worried about my children; drug and alcohol addiction never crossed my mind. I believe it is because we don’t understand how the adolescent brain develops and how vulnerable it is until it has fully developed at the age of 25.  All of this has been information that I am fully aware of now, but as a young parent it was not in my arsenal of understanding. I know I would have done things different with what I now know. I also know that I am passionate about driving the awareness to other parents so they can help reduce the risks of their children becoming addicted.

‘Act As If’ to regain your life

When my world started falling apart over my drug addiction in my family it became a challenge to get through the day. I realized on reflection that there were many days in a row that I did not smile; the joy had been zapped out of my life. I had the impending dread that I would never be happy until my daughter was safe and whole again. I would go through my days and meet my responsibilities because I knew I had to carry on, but it was hollow and empty. My reprieve came when I found other parents who were suffering and struggling to cope with their children’s wreckage from substance abuse. One thing that struck me with these parents is that I heard laughter which is what I least expected. How can anyone laugh when our children are dying a slow painful death due to their drug abuse?
I found that I needed to pull myself out of the darkness that had become my life and begin living again. It didn’t mean I cared any less nor had fewer concerns, it just meant that I needed to focus on myself and the rest of my family and not just the loved one in addiction. There is a saying, ‘act as if’. This is a very powerful saying, because sometimes you need to ‘act as if’ you are okay before you really are okay. When I began to ‘act as if’ my life could be restored to sanity, and I could enjoy myself even if it were for just brief moments at a time, slowly I began to reclaim my life. It was also a good sign to my other loved ones who needed me, because they needed reassurance that I was there for them. So ‘act as if’ and see how it can help you to move forward in the face of a challenging time.