There was a time I used the siblings to debrief my anguish and worry about the other “one” – the child whose absence or drama was taking center stage and getting my full attention. Unaware of how damaging this would be to the remaining family members, I did this for a long time. The realization that my actions might have contributed to a form of suffering on them was a hard nut to swallow. I had to learn it the hard way; it seems to be a recurring theme for me. I first pondered the notion when listening to Alateens share their hurt, abandonment and other issues they kept to themselves while watching mom or dad get progressively worse in their futile attempts to straighten up the “affected” one’s life. I’d hear how some would become overly protective and sometimes take the role of caretaker, worried about the troubled sibling. Some would get resentful about all the attention given to the other. The entanglement of the family disease is cunning, baffling and powerful. To the “normal” sibling, the desire for mom and dad to get happy again would become their focus. So, in a sense, young co-dependents were forming as the family disease reached epidemic proportions. I wondered which role my children fell into.
Becoming aware didn’t actually help me with how to do better…the Al-Anon Family Group and 12 step recovery program was my road map for change. I had to start over with training wheels, in a sense, beginning with me and my contributions to the family disease. It began with accepting I had problems of my own to work on. The hope for me was that I could mend broken relations with all those who mattered in my life.
Today, with guarded mouth and awareness of the family disease, I try to keep the focus and be present with those who stand before me. I no longer ask prying questions about the “other” one whose lifestyle is concerning. I consciously choose to seize those opportunities with gratitude to be allowed the accompaniment of their presence. Most critically, I get to be PRESENT with no conditions and that is my GIFT to them.
I panicked at first when a mom who knew about my circumstance reached out to me. Would I be able to help her? How could I smooth things over when I know outcomes may not be great? Was it even my business to try? I have grown a great deal in my 12 step recovery program of Al-Anon Family Groups but I’m not perfect. I re-wound my history playbook recalling my own experience of the “son-in-prison powerlessness”. He had fainted in the shower room and cut his head. Word was he’d been transferred to a hospital. No one “inside” knew his status or even what happened. That helpless and hopeless feeling of not knowing! I have uncontrollable mother bear instincts! Unlike when he was 8 years old at the lake and had fainted on a rock outcropping…the children yelling for help, his dad and I frantically swimming to his rescue…in desperation, I could not help this time. My fear! My panic! The “must do something” response and immediate reaction to save him! Back to present State Corrections Department and my powerlessness, I later found on the website an inmate/family liaison contact and I emailed them. Days later someone responded! I wanted to know if he was alright and my Higher Power answered me – “he’s OK!”
Having shared with this mom, days later she thanked me for listening. Realizing there were some options in the prison industry that worked for me, she found someone to assist her situation. I learned that not being able to do something right away has merit for my life lessons in recovery from the family disease. I have learned in Al-Anon the three A’s: Awareness, Acceptance, and then Action. That “must do something” response is really unfiltered “reaction” and no longer serves me well. Today I have choices once I step back and get awareness of the situation. I had the same feelings to help this mom. I’m aware that my urge to immediately help is an unconscious response and I don’t need to act on it. I can accept that feelings are not facts. It is here that my action, if any, will be more appropriate and often results in positive outcomes.
Someone mentioned recently what a big smile I had. I responded, ‘Yes, I have a lot to smile about…’ Then I thought about how that wasn’t always the case. There were many days and weeks that would go by with no sign of a smile. This was during the depths of the dark time with my child’s struggle with addiction. I was consumed with worry and obsession about her well-being. I did not find joy in anything, even when there were good things going, because my heart ached with despair. But as I reflect, over time that changed. As I got healthier and realized that I was not in control of the outcome of another person’s life, I began to regain my own. I went from reacting to the day to day crisis to being proactive and in control of my boundaries and my time. This began to give me peace of mind, serenity and sanity.
It’s hard to imagine that you can be happy if your child is not happy. But it is possible to disconnect from the sinking ship that is their addiction and swim to shore. Once I started to get perspective and take care of myself, I realized that if I got stronger and healthier I could be in a better position to help my daughter. It is like the airlines when the flight attendant tells you to put the oxygen mask on yourself first then help your child. It is the best analogy, how can you save them when you are suffocating yourself? As parents we love our children so much that we would do anything to save them from harm. But the very act of helping a loved one in addiction can, sometimes, have the opposite effect and help keep them in their addiction. I am glad that I am smiling today. I have a lot to smile about…my family is in a good place, my daughter is clean and sober. I am grateful for the happiness that I have and I know that just for today I will enjoy and feel grateful.
‘No news is good news’ – an age old saying that we often hear. In terms of a loved one with addiction it is a mixed feeling you get when you don’t hear from them as often as you think you should. These are rampant expectations that swirl through my head. Hmmm…I haven’t heard from my daughter in a couple days, what does that mean? Of course my mind plays lots of games with the answer to that question. Even though my daughter has been in recovery quite a while now, I realize my recovery from the trauma of having a loved in such a treacherous situation for an extended period of time holds residual effects for me. In the heat of the addiction, when I didn’t hear from my daughter for days, it ALWAYS meant something bad. I would fret and pace and do all kinds of crazy things to try to figure out what was going on.
Now as we have reached a place of normalcy in our lives, we have a healthy flow of communication. So, when time goes by that is not in our regular cadence it startles me how quickly I let myself begin the wondering and second guessing. Should I casually call her work and see if she’s there and okay? What if something happened to her? How would I know? And although these thoughts come to me, I am very aware of how they don’t belong and I remember the ‘no news is good news’ saying. If something was wrong she would call me! What is so humorous is that when she does call or I call her and finally get ahold of her it is always met with ‘I’ve been working long hours and it’s exhausting!’ or ‘I got together with friends and we had a great time!’. It is a constant reminder to me to enjoy the moments of my life and not let the unnecessary worry, that robs me of my real time joy, control me.
Most parents with a kid, no matter what age, who struggles with addiction, find themselves constantly investigating, thinking, consulting and planning what to do next. With every relapse or major bump in the road, you stop and take a look at what actions have been taken thus far and what you feel is the next ‘right’ thing to do.
At the beginning of the journey of my teen’s struggle with substance abuse I did not have the resources, so I discussed these things with friends and family. They had not experienced this situation with their own kids, so they had difficulty relating.
Eventually, I had an arsenal of resources: the counselors at the rehabilitation center, Al-Anon Family Support, close friends who also had kids struggling with addiction and various books and articles. I learned that it was important to draw on these resources when decisions needed to be made or when I needed insight to keep perspective on what was happening from time to time.
It is important to build these resources to have on hand. Many times when we are under duress we do not think too clearly. I remember not being at my best when I was upset and full of fear and worry about what might befall my loved one. I often would get stuck and at a loss for what to do. Once I built my support system – going to weekly Al-Anon meetings for parents, reading daily inspiration from others who had struggled through the same path, and various counselors and professionals – I had a way to get the help I needed when I needed it to do the next ‘right’ thing to help my loved one.
There is a recurring fear my son, who struggles today with addiction, will get into more trouble, hurt someone, or hurt himself. These feelings of anxiousness happen to me randomly after long period of time where I haven’t heard from him. My sick mind tells me no news is bad news because before, I used to say no news is good news and that wasn’t true! My sick mind tells me doom & gloom is around the corner, “any day now.” My sick mind wants to get into my sons’ business because my sick mind tells me he can’t manage without me.
My healthy mind tells me it’s OK to love my son, be concerned, hope for the best. My healthy mind tells me that I did not cause it, I can’t control it and I can’t cure it. My healthy mind reminds me to keep to my own business, that sticking my nose into his affairs will muck things up – I may not like what I see and not accept him as he is. Then I’ll behave badly and not be the loving mother I want to be. My healthy mind assures me that my son is where he is supposed to be, and he is smart & resourceful.
My healthy mind is healthy because of my program, the Al-Anon program, which keeps me grounded and clear about what’s mine and what isn’t. My program reminds me that there is a Power greater than me that can restore me to sanity and my son also has a Power greater than me to restore him to sanity. I’m not in charge!
The curious nature of not knowing to a co-dependent like me encourages my monkey brain to project the future and replace my present moments with worry and fret. I’ve been there too many times, and today I can accept the truth: Not knowing does not mean bad or good karma or that my son purposely keeps me in the dark. Not knowing is just that, nothing more nothing less. Any kind of eventuality outside of my control I am powerless over. I can detach from the monkey brain, get back in to Today and trust in that Power.
This was a directive to my son (who paid no attention to my threats). He was in his disease of addiction. He’d leave my house in a huff and go directly to Grandma’s house to swoon her over. Things changed drastically, and fast. It wasn’t long before I had grandma complaining to me about the lack of follow-through with my son. I would get the calls, inquires, concerns and complaints – as if I was the “Agent” representing and responsible to the community at large. I took on this obligation because I believed it too, but I was getting resentful. All I wished was that he’d stay away from Grandma because of how it was affecting me and the worry of her well being. Time would reveal the progressive nature of addiction and how the family dynamics would get further strained – a symptom unique to addiction I subsequently learned. Turns out I’m not the only co-dependent!
Parents: He’s got a drug problem and won’t go to rehab, we are learning more about addiction.
Grandma: He’s a good boy, “Once he starts working …”
Parents: We are not going to buy him another car, he isn’t insurable.
Grandma: I co-signed; I knew you would help with payments…
Parents: He cannot live in our house, he’s untrustworthy. We believe he has to experience discomfort before he will choose another way.
Grandma: He’s temporarily living in my home – we discussed my terms and it’s under control.
Parents: We’re concerned for grandma – she has opened her door and won’t listen to any reasoning!
Grandma: I can’t turn my back on him and THROW him to the streets!
After bringing Grandma to a few counseling sessions and I witnessed her sentiment I had once felt: Counseling is not giving me the answers I want to hear on how to fix him; therefore, this is a waste of time. I didn’t stop searching for answers. Desperation forced me to find further support and I landed in the Al-Anon Family Group. This is where I learned that I would have to employ boundaries in all my life’s affairs. I learned I could not control my son, his girlfriend, his grandmother, his landlord, his employer… any of THEM. I had choices, and being triangulated was something within my own ability to take control of if I wanted relief and serenity in my life. I found other grandparents in my support group that helped me understand their point of view. I learned compassion and understanding that this disease branches through the family tree, everyone is affected. I learned that the ones I love must decide for themselves, if they want to change, I can’t decide for them.
It all starts with a thought. The thought creates a feeling. Feelings are not necessarily factual. For example, if I say to myself, “Tonight, I’m going to go out for dinner,” I begin to feel hungry and excited that I will get to be served with a meal that I really enjoy. My feelings change physiological conditions in my body. Maybe I begin to wear the Cheshire grin in anticipation or I might even be emitting endorphins, those “feel good” brain chemicals which in turn flood my veins resulting in a natural high. But the truth is, I might not be going out to dinner at all! It’s just a thought!
Loving someone whose substance abuse has led to terrible consequences resulted in a problem for me with regards to my thinking. My thoughts turned from optimistic to obsessive thinking about them. Eventually I began to be pessimistic about everything. I became overtaken by the gloom and doom that drug abuse causes. This is called the family disease of addiction. These negative thoughts also impact my feelings. I’m worried, sad, fearful and anxious. With these kinds of feelings, my body takes on a dangerous reaction: high blood pressure, weight gain, blood sugar peaks, teeth grinding. My sleep was fitful and my ability to concentrate at work became problematic.
I found out this kind of circuitry can be interrupted with the power of my mind. I can choose to find help to get the tools necessary to regain control of my own thoughts! I also can choose to do nothing. The difference between these two statements: “Things upset me” versus “I upset me” are the most powerful thoughts to which my life goes one way or the other.
I had heard in recovery rooms that when I take responsibility for my loved ones, I am robbing them of the dignity they deserve to experience life on their own. When I continue to harp, beg, plea, judge or offer advice, I’m ultimately in their business, trying to force solutions and eventually will lose their respect. Worse, I could be adding to the bad opinion they already have about themselves.
This is not the mother I wanted to be! How could I be concerned but not consumed? How was it possible to love them unconditionally when my fear for their life was at stake? I was so obsessed with their problems, thinking I knew the answer; I would bring home pamphlets from on Alcoholics Anonymous and leave the literature scattered around the house in hopes they would pick it up and see the light! That never worked either.
After being in Al-Anon for a while, I eventually learned tools to keep the focus on me and stay out of their business. Slowly I began to see results. One example I still remember to this day was when my son called and asked if he could come over for dinner and “talk.” Many recent events had happened that were concerning – I was well aware of where he was: jobless, homeless and alone. I was a little apprehensive, wondering what news he would bring this time. After a nice dinner with general conversation, he shared that he thought he might have a drinking problem. Oddly, I was elated to hear him admit a problem. There were 3 things I was able to do that day that made me proud of my program. I said “oh” which helped me compose my thoughts before blurting out something hurtful or unnecessary. The next thing out of my mouth was that I did not know if he was an alcoholic or not but that there were people who could help him learn about it and that I might still have their pamphlet. (I prayed I still had all the literature long put away). When he was getting ready to leave and I had no idea where he was staying (in his car?) I let him know how much I loved him and that I hoped to see him soon.
The most important lesson for me was that by being non-judgmental, not pretending to know the answer, and further, not turning his confidence into a nagging session, I was able to be the mother I want to always be: RESPECTFUL, CARING, and LOVING. I helped where I could then I allowed him to decide what he would do with it. Then I turned it over to my Higher Power, as I placed my son’s name into my God Box later that night. This released me from obsessive thoughts of worry that before had consumed me.
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