Our staff at Parenting Through Addiction created a survey for people in recovery specifically geared to help us learn what people wish their parents understood about their addiction journey and their recovery. We collected their responses because we know that, as people trying to help parents of those affected by addiction, it’s often most helpful to hear from those people themselves. We understand a great deal about the disease itself, how it impacts families, and what it looks like to begin the recovery journey. That being said, we wanted people to express in their own words what they wish their parents knew then and now. The remarks we received were enlightening and heartwarming. We’ve compiled the responses we received and have found several underlying themes that we’ll address in two separate blog posts.
We know that feelings greatly impact lives – whether we’ve been affected by addiction or not. All of us have uncomfortable sensations we desperately want to escape. For those without addiction, this can often present itself in overeating, compulsive spending, escaping through social media or television, or procrastination. When substances come into the picture, they present an easy solution for the desire to numb out. When asked about the problems their use solved, many people responded that their substance use helped them to avoid their feelings of depression, anxiety, self-worth, and trauma. Naturally, that sense of escape was fleeting. “(Drinking and using) took away painful feelings and allowed me not to think about all the negativity that was happening in my life temporarily. That stuff always came back, of course.”
People relayed to us that they felt like they had to be able to control everything in their lives and that drinking and using was the only way they knew how to cope at the time. Many 12 step fellowships discuss the motivating factor of fear in the lives of those affected by addiction. When people constantly live in fear, their limbic system is in overdrive. What another might perceive as ordinary stressors of daily life, substance users see as a justifiable reason to indulge in their habit in the beginning. But what happens when, driven by fear, anxiety and depression, the option to choose whether or not to engage goes away? The feelings people are trying to escape remain, but now comes a time when powerless over when and how much you use escalates those feelings. What was once a solution to the feelings not escalates those feelings we were originally trying to escape.
For most people affected by addiction, their use started out as social and fun. Rarely have we heard of an individual who had massive consequences after their first drinking or drugging experience. While those individuals certainly exist, most people do find that their drinking and using solves some problems in the beginning.
In our outpatient practice, Full Life Counseling & Recovery, we regularly discuss with people the paradigm of addiction.
So, as you’ll see, people start off with experimental use and non-problematic use. See that first circle pointed back towards non-problematic use? That represents individuals who may have experienced some consequences from drinking or using but are able to re-establish non-problematic use by implementing rules. At some point, however, many people cross that squiggly line into the “land of loss of control” and find themselves suddenly powerless over their disease. What used to be a justifiable drink in the afternoon with friends on your lunch break turns into the compulsive inability to do anything BUT drink after the thought and craving present themselves. Those typically will continue to move towards addictive use. You can learn more about “the squiggly line” in this Parent Guide. When surveyed about the top three things they wish their parents had know about their experience with addiction, responses regularly addressed the awful feeling of powerlessness.
Why is it important that we remember this terrifying state of powerlessness that many substance users experience? As parents, it can be easy to look at the child you lovingly reared and think, “Where did I go wrong? She KNOWS better! I taught her better than this! Can’t she see this is ruining her life?” The truth is, she probably does know better and sees it’s ruining her life. It is her life after all. Once users cross that squiggly line into addiction and subsequent powerlessness, the luxury of choice is robbed from them. In 12 step fellowships, they will be reminded of all the times got high at the worst time possible. They will find company in the experience of self-sabotage when things seemed to be going so well. But before they find recovery, substance users often have very little choice over when and how much they imbibe.
This could be a discouraging or freeing experience for parents. While it is scary to think that your son or daughter may have lost the power to choose when to drink or use substances, we are hoping these responses will remind you that your loved one is sick. Addiction is a disease. We acknowledge that, culturally, we cannot expect cakes and casseroles from the neighborhood watch ladies when they find out that Tommy is back off the wagon. If Tommy had leukemia, they would be out in droves. So, we must support one another in the pursuit of peace in the face of addiction. That’s largely the reason The Other PTA was created. We all need to feel a little less alone on this journey.
Remembering the state of powerlessness so many experience, may help you show more compassion to your suffering son or daughter. This doesn’t have to come in the form of enabling or rescuing. When I was a teenager and my mom was counseling young people in active addiction she would tell me, “Holly, if you ever get arrested I will not bail you out. I will come to jail and hold your hands through the bars and say, ‘I know this sucks so much and I’m so sorry’ but I will not bail you out.” It is possible to have compassion in the face of boundaries. If you haven’t watched our Parent Guide on Boundaries with Compassion, we encourage you to watch it as soon and you’re done with this blog post. Acknowledging your son or daughter’s potential lack of power could be a breakthrough means of seeing them as the suffering individual they are and helping them find a solution to this life-threatening disease.
“It’s Not Your Fault”
“But I still have this nagging feeling that IF ONLY I had done XYZ they wouldn’t have ended up like this.” So many parents we talk to have this sense of guilt and shame about their child using substances. We hear all the time that parents feel like failures on an internal level because, despite their best efforts, their loved one is still suffering. It’s important to remember that you’re just as powerless over your loved one’s use as they are over the choice to wait even an hour before taking the next drink or drug. So, what did our survey responses tell us about how the sons and daughters feel themselves? Do they blame their parents? Did they think at all of how this was impacting their family?
When asked what they wish their parents had known or understood about their experience of addiction, those who responded regularly reported thinking about their parents during active addiction.
If, when in active addiction, these people in recovery thought so much about their families and the impact their use had on them, what can we do to help them in that stage? What can we do when they finally find the recovery that frees them from that need to escape their emotions?
Overwhelmingly, the answer we got from those surveyed is they need support. Answers varied in terms of how everyone wanted to be supported, as this is often based on individual preferences. Some people mentioned that they still wanted their parents to respect them. Others answered they that they need their parents to be people they could be honest with about where they’re at. And when all else fails, affirm your son or daughter. “I need you to tell me you see how hard I’m working and that you’re proud of me because sometimes I still think about giving up.”
If you have questions about how to support your son or daughter in the face of their addiction and recovery, don’t take our word for it. ASK THEM. Don’t be afraid to get real with your loved one and ask what they need from you. Their answers might surprise you. We also encourage you to bring these kinds of questions and experiences to our Wednesday night Endurance Meeting, the Community Forum, and the Private Facebook page.
Those struggling with addiction aren’t the only ones needing support. You do too. We know that and want to help you connect with other parents who are on this journey to finding a sense of control and peace in the face of something as mighty and scary as addiction. So walk with your head high and remember what you’ve learned:
- Most people just want a break from the feelings that overwhelm them.
- Once they’re tipped into powerlessness there was no going back.
- It’s not your fault.
- And everyone wants to be supported regardless of where they are in the journey.
How can we support YOU where you are in your journey? Comment below so we can do our part.
Our next installment on this topic will cover our survey responses addressing addiction as an incurable disease, the fact that IT’S HARD, the person in recovery’s persistence in learning how to “do life” in recovery, and the impact of your micromanaging.