Addiction and Your Child: 10 Insights for Parents, by Parents
When their middle child, Henry, began showing signs of problem drug use while in college, Gail and Howard just couldn’t reconcile their sensitive, bright, talented son with their mental image of an addict.
But over the course of almost a decade, as Henry made his way to treatment and recovery, they would get a front row seat to the realities of addiction and learn much about the power and the limits of parental love when a child is struggling with substance abuse. The couple shares a few of those hard-earned insights in the hope that they might help keep others from traveling the same path, and provide clarity and encouragement to those already on it.
- Get help as early as possible for as long as possible. Substance use changes brain chemistry and structure, and that means a couple of things: 1) the sooner treatment for addiction begins, the less damage is done, and 2) there are no quick fixes. It was the 18 months Henry devoted to his recovery at Promises West Los Angeles, a residential rehab facility for young adults, that seemed to make the difference, his parents explain. “We know so many people who have done one 30-day program after another after another after another. If everybody could see their way to making as long a term commitment to residential recovery at the front end as possible, I have to think the likelihood of success would be greater than it is,” Gail said.
- Get educated about addiction. “I wish I’d have known more about the disease and had used some of those countless hours I spent on my hands and knees sniffing his rug or his clothes or the inside of his car, or every other stupid thing I did, reading and talking to people who are knowledgeable about addiction,” Gail said. “That would have been much more helpful for both of us than trying to be a private eye.”
- Don’t turn a blind eye. This is your child. You are going to want to believe them when they say everything’s fine. You are going to look for every imaginable excuse for actions that are inexcusable. But denial only allows small problems to become big ones and extends the suffering. “If you don’t accept and believe that it’s happening to your child, you can’t act on it,” Gail said. It can also cause you to dangerously downplay the situation. “A lot of people say, ‘Well, maybe he just needs to clean up his act a little,’ so they’ll send them to a two-week program. A lot of these shorter programs are not just financial decisions by parents,” Gail said. “There is an unwillingness to accept that this is actually going on.”
- Realize that lies are part of the illness. People in active addiction are manipulators. “They put on the most angelic face and say the sweetest things,” Gail said, “and they’re all lies.” There’s a good reason for this. Imagine you’re almost out of air. What would you do or say to get more? That, in a broad sense, is what the addict experiences when someone threatens their ability to continuing using a substance that has come to feel as crucial as oxygen. So when you ask if they’re using, or make them promise to stop, or question them about where they’re going, realize that you are going to hear whatever will get them closer to their drug.
- Seek treatment among peers. At one point in his treatment journey, Henry found himself surrounded by addicts decades older and with life experiences far removed from his own. At the Promises young adult program, he was working alongside people he could identify with. “It’s important to be able to see yourself in the people who are going on the journey with you,” Gail said. Saying “I’m different” allows you to avoid facing the truth of your addiction.
- Don’t beat yourself up. Looking back, there is plenty the couple would change about their parenting styles and about their actions during their son’s active addiction, but they try not to get bogged down by the what ifs and should haves. “It’s wasted energy,” Howard said — energy that parents need for their own healing and to remain a supportive presence to their child. Wallowing in regret helps no one. Instead, allow past actions to constructively guide future ones.
- Set boundaries and detach with love. When your child is struggling, the temptation is to swoop in and do what parents do: fix things. But you can’t get well for them, and trying can do more harm than good. “It’s counter-intuitive. Everything you’ve learned to be as a parent you have to stop being,” Gail said. “All that instruction and guidance and assistance — all that has to come to an end.”
One incident early on vividly demonstrated to the parents the power of stepping back. As part of a treatment program, Henry was required to get a job. He managed to find one, but he had to be there at 5:30 a.m. and had no car and no access to mass transit. Gail and Howard insisted on buying a car for him, but the rehab program fought them on it, emphasizing the importance of leaving it to Henry to deal with.
“So he borrowed a bike from a sponsor, and he was hit by a car riding to work and pretty seriously injured,” Gail said. “I went completely insane. And I said, ‘We’re buying him a car!’ We had screaming matches with them. And they were right. Because Henry figured out a way to scrape together $700 from his tips and buy a $700 car. I don’t think it even had windows anymore, but he got a car! He figured stuff out. And part of the problem was that we had always done everything for him. Even as a young man, we never allowed him to really experience any consequences, and we never allowed him to have that wonderful feeling of ‘I did this on my own.’”
- Be willing to change your own life. About half the risk of addiction comes from genetics, research shows. So there’s a good chance that others in the family have their own substance use issues. Take a hard look at the drinking or drug use in your own life and be willing to make change in support of yourself and your child.
- Don’t buy into shame. During Henry’s recovery, people in the community would often ask Gail and Howard what Henry was up to. “Oh, he’s in LA,” was their evasive answer. One time, Henry asked his parents why they didn’t just tell the truth. “Are you ashamed?” he asked. Gail answered, “‘Absolutely not. I just didn’t feel like we had your permission.’ And he said, ‘Well, you have my permission.’ And from then on, we started telling everybody when they asked about him. And that was amazing. Every single person that we’ve said that too has said, oh, yeah, my son, my daughter, my sibling, my parent, my cousin, my next-door neighbor — everybody has been touched directly or indirectly by addiction.”
By being matter-of-fact about their experience, the family realized not only were they more at ease, they had helped make it OK for others to speak out as well. “My wish is that everybody would talk about addiction more,” Gail said, “and get the demon out of it — get the shame out of it.”
- Don’t forget yourself. The person taking the substance isn’t the only one hurt by addiction. Those in the addict’s orbit need healing too. “In our view, you’ve got to get yourself to Al-Anon,” the support group for loved ones of addicts, Gail said. “You start to hear your story over and over.” From this comes a sense of community as well as powerful insights about dealing with the fear, anxiety and grief addiction brings. Such support also brings home a reality it’s essential to recognize: your child is on their journey and you are on yours.