The C Word

Many years ago a therapist told me, “life is not about control, but rather, it is about surrender. “ While I was moved by the sentiment, deep down I wasn’t ready to surrender myself to anything. I held on to control the way a drowning person clings to a life jacket. The more I tried to exert control, the less control I seemed to experience (one of life’s many ironies). You might be thinking, what kind of ‘control’ is she talking about? There are many ways, some subtle and some blatant, that I attempted to control a situation. Bribery; if you do A for me, I’ll do B for you. Threats; if you blah blah, I will blah blah. Guilt; how could you do this to me? Enabling; I’ll do it and I’ll do it my way which is actually better than your way. Rescue; I will rescue you from a consequence but just this once and next time I will blah blah blah. Honestly, there are so many options. The controller isn’t a bad person; the controller is someone who wants a certain outcome and who is convinced that, without their interference, the outcome is impossible to achieve. I recognize this doesn’t put me in a very positive light but I doubt that I am alone.

While the obvious means of control usually involve money, housing, favors, treatment or transportation, it is meted out with underlying anger and manipulation. It results in one or more of the following: shame, helplessness, resentment, deception, or fear. Controllers tend to be a bit judgmental and self-righteous, though we will deny it to our graves. Deep down we think we know what is best. I know I did. There is no trace of love or acceptance in control but there is desperation. Love and acceptance are about how we view and treat another person; control is about satisfying our own needs. My controlling behavior was about my need to fix my son. I was the handyman. I’ll bail you out of jail or out of debt. I’ll solve your problems. I’ll rescue you from unpleasant circumstances. The interest rate is high. It leads to codependency where neither the addict or the enabler can survive without each other. It was painful to look in the mirror but it was time. Control was exhausting and completely ineffective. I needed to find a new C word.

How about Compassion? What exactly is it? Compassion is associated with words like caring, empathy, tenderness, and kindness. I wanted to feel compassion for my son rather than being angry and disappointed. I wanted someone to feel compassion for me. Where would I find it for myself and learn how to offer it to my son? Somehow I sensed that compassion would begin with understanding. Education: I wanted to develop a deep understanding of the disease of addiction and all that goes with it. Professional Help: This wasn’t something I could do on my own or by going to a support group. I wanted people who based their practice on current research in the field of addiction. They would need to listen to me, to let me tell my story, to answer my questions and provide me with feedback. Tools: I wanted to know what to do. I needed to develop new skills to respond to situations. How could I learn how to interact with my son and with my husband in a positive and loving way? How could I be compassionate without being an enabler?

I had done the three-day parent/family weekends when my son was in inpatient. I had already read a lot of stuff on addiction (books, blogs, research). I knew my facts. I’d gone to Al-Anon. But I needed something more. Even though I am not much of a group person, I started attending the Wednesday night family meetings at Lighthouse Recovery Center. I listened and I learned. I kept on going. I finally had a lifeline and I wasn’t going to let go. I decided to hang around for a long time. I dove in. Enough searching for a quick fix. I was opting for the long road because I finally realized that the short road is, in the end, a lot longer than the long road. I hate to admit this, but I surrendered. I have no regrets!

Getting Help

When you are dealing with an addicted family member, the last thing you think about is seeking help for yourself. My God, don’t you already have enough problems? You need to focus on the addict? Right? Right? Here’s my story.

My husband and I focused on getting help for our son’s addiction to drugs. What we really needed was help for ourselves but we were in the middle of a serious rescue mission; the smoke can be blinding. Think of the firefighters entering the burning house to save the inhabitants. Suddenly the ceiling falls and the firefighters become trapped. At what point do they abandon their mission? At what point do they realize that they are the ones who now need to be rescued? At what moment do they stop calling out to the potential victims of the fire and begin screaming for someone to come and save them? The transition from rescuer to needing to be rescued can happen quickly but recognizing the transition can be extremely slow. In our case it was well over five years. We were convinced that our son was the victim and we were his saviors.

Family members first entering the world of recovery are generally on a rescue mission. They are focused on the addict, what the addict does, how they should control the addict, etc. You hear people talk about locking up the alcohol to prevent the addict from drinking. So when they are told to focus on themselves and take care of themselves, they get this bewildered look on their faces. They are confused. I get it. I felt like I was bringing my child in because of a malignant tumor and being told that I was the one who needed to hop on the table for a huge dose of chemotherapy. Oh, and don’t worry about your son because, frankly, there isn’t anything you can do about that tumor. In fact, everything you do to diminish the tumor, it will actually make it grow bigger. I wanted to scream out: Wait a minute! Hold that chemotherapy! I’m not the patient! He’s the addict, I’m just his mother. Fix him, not me. Please, there’s been a mistake…someone please listen….

After more than six or seven years of dealing with our son’s problems, we finally sought help for ourselves and our marriage. Having previously had a fairly conflict free relationship we found ourselves arguing almost daily about what we should do. We were undermining each other, keeping secrets and lashing out our frustrations. If we don’t help him pay this debt, he will have to declare bankruptcy. My husband would give him money and tell him not to tell me. I would do the same. One day I would advocate for tough love and the next day I was a marshmallow. The entire family dynamic had changed over the years. We were more often than not, at each other’s throats. Sometimes he lived with us, sometimes not. He was in and out of school and in and out of jobs. He lied constantly. We were completely inconsistent. He had legal problems. We enabled him. He had health problems. We had health problems. He had major financial problems. We lectured him. He deeply resented us. We resented him. We were trying to rescue someone who didn’t admit he had a problem and definitely didn’t want to be rescued. We jumped from one crisis to the next. We didn’t have a maintenance health plan; we only had the emergency plan. In other words, we were a mess.

As a nurse, I realized that the same could be said for any family dealing with a serious illness or chronic disability. It isn’t only the ‘patient’ that needs help. So why are families of addicts so reluctant to seek help? Why do we become paralyzed? Why do we keep trying to rescue the addict in our lives? Well here is a possible reason. Like the addict, we don’t want to admit they we have a problem and, like the addict, we don’t want to be rescued. So what is all of this about? It’s something to think about. And, by the way, the tumor does get bigger every time you try to cut it out!


Why not me?

I’m a white, upper-middle class, middle-aged mother of an addict. I, like many mothers of addicts, have spent years seeking advice, programs, counselors and relief from the cloud of uncertainty that plagues families and victims of addiction. I have learned a lot over the years but the most important thing I have come to understand is that addiction never goes away. Never. Whether or not the addict in your family has been sober for ten years, addiction can raise its ugly head and rapidly send the addict and their family into a spiraling downward spin. Addiction is a chronic and, if untreated, progressive disease. Your loved one will not go into treatment and return ‘cured.’ You and all the other members of the family will need treatment too and it won’t be cheap or fast nor will it necessarily lead to the desired outcome. And if you think addiction only applies to drugs and alcohol, you will quickly learn that the spectrum of addiction includes serious behavioral addictions like gambling, pornography, video games, shopping, and, yes, eating. But no addiction is as feared and demonized as ‘drug’ addiction. When people say, ‘treated like an addict,’ they are referring to drug addicts. And, interestingly, they often do not include alcohol in the drug category although it is one of the most dangerous drugs out there. I find it interesting that we have a different word for alcohol addicts; we call them alcoholics.

By the time I realized my son was in serious trouble, he had been engaged in addictive behaviors for several years probably beginning in middle school. I imagine that is true for the majority of parents seeking help; they have been in a pool of confusion and denial and have applied all the parenting skills they could get their hands on to control their child’s behavior to no avail. Early on, I shared my misgivings about my son. Friends assured me he was just experimenting, he would grow out of it, he was young. An addict will not grow out of his or her addiction any more than a child with Type I Diabetes will grow out of it. I repeat, addiction is chronic and progressive. It is a disease. If not treated, it can be fatal. My son is now 30 years old and while he is currently sober, he will always be an addict. He knows that and so do I.

I’m a retired nurse. You might think my medical background helped me cope with addiction but it did not. There is a big gap between the intellect and emotion, between knowing something and accepting something. Someone once told me that my son would figure it out because he is so smart. Sorry, but there are a lot of very smart, highly creative, talented people out there who are addicts. Figuring it out is about going on a journey of the soul. It’s about the primal brain; the quest for pleasure and ultimately survival. It is about urges and cravings. My son is an excellent chess player. He has a college degree. He has read the Iliad. It doesn’t matter. He is tall and handsome. Doesn’t matter. He plays golf and tennis and is athletic in every sense of the word. Doesn’t matter. He has a fabulous sense of humor. He loves animals. He is kind and patient. Doesn’t matter. Addiction is a disease and like most diseases, it doesn’t discriminate between the rich and the poor, the young and the old, the brilliant and the not so brilliant.

Who am I? I’m one of the millions of family members across our nation who are coping with addiction. Some are mothers, some are siblings, spouses, children, grandparents. We come in every size and color. We are, at times, desperate or resigned or angry or hopeful or overwhelmed with fear and anxiety. Some of us are in mourning. I asked a friend who’s daughter was addicted to heroin, if she ever wondered why this happened to her; if she ever thought to herself, “Why me?” She looked me straight in the eye and said, “Why not me?”