As parents of a recovering addict (17 months sober as of this writing), my wife Cathy and I have learned more than we ever wanted to know about addiction. One of the most important lessons we’ve learned – addiction recovery is not just for the addict.
If you’ve never dealt with a son or daughter (or another close family member) who is addicted to drugs or alcohol, that statement will likely be hard to understand. Parents and family members aren’t addicted, their family member is. That’s absolutely a true statement. Before having a son who battled heroin addiction, I would have felt the same way.
Any parent who has dealt with a son or daughter suffering from the disease of addiction likely knows what I mean. Most of us don’t have an addiction to drugs or alcohol. However, most of us have engaged in behavior as parents that is unhealthy to us and our addicted sons and daughters. Is it an addiction? Probably not. At the very least, it’s a very unhealthy habit.
In my experience, virtually all of us have enabled our loved ones in ways we thought were helpful. It’s natural as parents to want to do that for our children (adult or otherwise). No one wants to see them suffering or in pain.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Help
Help can be healthy or unhealthy, to both the family members and the addict. There is what we call good help and not so good help (we stop short of calling it bad). Most of us, at one time or another, exhibited both of these traits. Addict recovery involves getting off the drug (detox). To have long term success, it must include a change in environment and behavior. Addicts need to remove themselves from the “triggers” that lead them to self-medicate. They need to change the friends they used to hang with while actively using; to change the way they think about things.
Except for the detox, parents and family members must undergo similar changes in their environment, behavior, and the way they parent.
We’ll unpack that in the next few minutes. Even if you’re not a parent or family member of an addict, you likely know someone who is. What you’re about to read will give you a better understanding of what it’s like for those of us dealing with addiction in our families.
If you don’t know our story, I will encourage you to read about our journey through our son’s addiction. I wrote the original post on June 1, 2018. Kristen Bahler, a reporter and excellent writer from Money Magainze, called after reading the post. She heard about it from a fellow reporter in her pool. You can get more details about it in this prior post, where I introduced the Money Magazine article.
Our stories were the cover story for the December 2018 print and online additions of Money. It is still hard to get my head around how sharing our story had such a significant impact on other parents going through the same thing.
The Role of Faith
My wife and I are people of faith. We believe God has used our story to help other people. If I reached out directly to Money, I’m confident the story would have never made it to their pages. It would have remained on my blog to be seen only by my readers. And that would have been fine with me. As it turns out, it’s my most-read article and the one that spurred the most engagement.
Shortly after writing the article in June, I heard about the PAL Group from a good friend of mine. PAL is a group committed to helping parents of addicted loved ones. They help anyone motivated to start a local group to support struggling parents and family members in their local area. We started our PAL group on September 17, 2018. Kim Humphrey, the director of the PAL Group, and his wife are on the cover of the online and print versions of the Money Magazine article.
We have learned so much from PAL and the parents who attend our local group. It’s from our collective experience that I write.
Here’s what I mean when I reference addiction recovery for parents and family members.
It’s a Family Disease
Our son, during the worst part of his addiction, asked his mother something to the effect of, “Why are you and dad so upset about my drug use. The only person it’s hurting is me.”
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. When a son or daughter becomes addicted, it affects everyone in the family. The focus every day of their lives is to get enough of their drug of choice that they don’t get “dope sick.”
Addicts will do ANYTHING to avoid that pain. That behavior spills over to family members. How? In ways that are hard to imagine until you’ve experienced them.
Of course, they ask you for money. They need money to get their drugs. One of their great gifts is to get their loved ones to feel sorry for them. The excuses are among the most creative I’ve ever heard. When we share those with each other in our PAL Group meetings, the similarities are remarkable.
The Initial Shock
When parents first discover the addiction, the initial emotion is of shock. What parent thinks that addiction is possible for their son or daughter? I’m sure there are a few. For most of us, it’s the last thing we’d ever expect. And then it happens. Boom. It’s a sucker punch in the gut that takes your breath away for a long time.
After the shock, you try and figure out what to do about it. Do I let them stay with me? Do I pay their rent? Car payment? Do I bail them out of jail? (oh, yes; most of our kids have been in jail or prison) When it first starts, most of us did all of these things. It comes on so fast; it’s hard to know what to do. You’re just trying to figure it out.
The Not So Good Help
Everyone has heard about enabling. When used to describe behavior, it means doing something for someone that they can and should be doing for themselves. Enabling can happen in any relationship. It can be doing or finishing someone’s project at work, accepting verbal or physical abuse in a marriage, or doing things for our kids rather than teaching them how to do them for themselves.
When it comes to addiction, enabling can go to a whole other level. Every parent in our PAL group has engaged in enabling behavior. It comes with addiction. Of course, none of us realized we were enabling while in the middle of it. As I’ve said, the messes an addict gets into happen so fast and puts them in a place of such desperation, it’s hard not to want to protect them from the hurt that comes from the consequences.
Consequences and Behavior
The consequences we experience in life from our bad decisions help us grow. Sadly, though, parents, family members, and friends bail their addicted loved ones out of the consequences of their bad choices. That doesn’t help them or us. I would argue the opposite is true. It hurts them and us.
Armchair quarterbacking runs rampant when well-meaning friends offer advice on how to deal with your loved one’s addiction. We hear things like, stop communicating with them, stop giving them money, stop enabling. For those who have made those decisions, people will say things like, how can you cut off your son or daughter? How can you abandon them? It’s hard to win!
The longer the addiction continues, the worse the external advice seems to get. I addressed this issue in my guide to support for parents. Most parents and family members don’t want advice. They just need to be heard. They know what they’re supposed to do. It’s incredibly challenging to execute.
Watching your son or daughter reeling from the consequences of their addiction is far from easy.
Addiction Recovery for the Addict
One of the hardest lessons for parents and family members to learn is that the addict is the only one who can get themselves better. Many of us have tried to force our loved ones into treatment. We’ve attempted to manipulate them into doing what we know is best for them. At the same time, they’re trying to manipulate us into getting what they want. It’s a vicious cycle that never seems to end.
Here’s what I’ve learned to be true. It’s also a foundational principle of recovery. For the addict, when the pain of getting better is less than the pain of staying where they are, they will get better. Until they reach that point, they will remain where they are. Of course, there are exceptions to this. The overwhelming evidence is to the former. The family can’t force an addict to get better. It may work for a short time, but it rarely lasts.
Our son was in and out of treatment multiple times. He always relapsed. In fact, in his first treatment (which we funded), we later learned that he used every day he was in the treatment program. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?
He also learned how to pass mandatory drug tests while using. Substituting someone else’s urine for his own was the preferred method several years ago. He was on probation for 18 months after his first arrest. He used the entire time. It’s harder now to hide a drug test than it was a few years ago. Still, addicts find ways.
Addiction Recovery for Parents
Just as addicts don’t get better until they’re ready, the same is true for parents. However, addiction recovery for parents is not about getting off a drug. It’s about stopping enabling and unhealthy behavior that is damaging themselves and, in most cases, their loved ones. When we, as parents, bail our addict out of trouble, whatever form that takes, we are prolonging the time it takes for them to experience the consequences of their behavior. That keeps us locked into their world. That’s is not a healthy place for us to be.
If we allow ourselves to get pulled into their mess, the consequences for us can be dire. Dealing with addiction puts stress on a marriage. It breaks up many marriages. It causes emotional, mental, and physical health problems. The weight of walking the addiction path with our sons and daughters causes depression, high blood pressure, anxiety attacks, and has other health consequences as well. It can lead to us self-medicating to numb our pain. The two most common forms of self-medication are food and alcohol. Drinking and overeating have their own sets of health problems.
The Moment of Truth
When we see parents at our PAL meetings for the first time, most have reached the point of desperation. They don’t know where else to turn. When they come to PAL, parents learn about how addiction affects the addict and family. They long to know that someone understands what they’re going through. Hearing from other parents whose sons or daughters are addicts offers that comfort.
But here’s the thing. Like the addict, parents will only get better when they are ready. When they hear from the lessons and from other parents in the group about making hard decisions; about changing their behavior, some are not ready to listen to it. Deciding to stop the financial help or cut off contact is excruciatingly hard. We’ve had many people come through our doors one time and never come back. Others have attended once or twice, left for a time, and come back to become active members.
What’s the lesson? Addiction recovery for parents starts when they are sick and tired of being sick and tired. It comes when they are at their wit’s end and don’t want to live the way they’ve been living. Like the addict, recovery starts when the pain of getting better for the parent is less than the pain of staying where they are.
It’s different. Yet it’s the same.
For both the addict and the parent or family members, change is a hard thing. Once the choice is made to change, for the addict and the family members, there is no quick fix. It’s a life long process of recovery for both. For the addict, recovery is about staying clear of their drug. It’s also about learning to avoid the triggers that cause them to use it. That oftentimes proves to be the most difficult thing. The inability to deal with the stresses of life are what caused many to begin using. Those same stresses will be there.
For the parent, it’s about changing the way we help our son or daughter, both during active use and in recovery. In both cases, addiction recovery for each starts when they are ready. No one can force the addict or the parent to change their behavior. Both engage in forms of manipulation. The addict to get the parents to give them what they need. The parents to manipulate and change the behavior of the addict, so they stop using.
The reality – neither will be successful with the strategy. Don’t get me wrong. The dance can and does go on for a very long time. Enabling is a hard habit to break. And you will be tested along the way. The only person’s behavior we can control is ours. It’s our job to keep ourselves healthy. It’s our adult sons and daughter’s responsibility to do the same for themselves.
There is Hope
When talking about addiction, I always want to end with hope. We were able to change our behavior after making many costly mistakes, both emotionally and financially. Our son tells us that one of the motivating factors in his recovery was not having a relationship with us. He didn’t want to live that way anymore. We feel blessed beyond measure that we are a family again.
The reality is it doesn’t always work out that way. We changed our behavior and got ourselves in a more healthy place. It was several years after our change that our son decided he’d had enough. We controlled the one thing we could – our behavior.
He controlled the one thing he could control.
If you’re the parent of one struggling with addiction, my encouragement to you is to focus on getting yourself better. It may help your loved one. It may not. I can tell you that the vast majority of parents who’ve done this have seen changes in their loved ones. Some are in recovery. Some are not. In all cases, the parents are in a better place.
God bless you in your journey. You are not alone!
Previously published here and reprinted with the author’s permission.