I’m one of those people who tries to learn everything I can about something I am facing. I read the latest books and current research findings, watch videos and peruse the internet in search of information. I can’t help myself. I believe this obsession is based on anxiety rather than curiosity. If I can just understand something, I can cope with it. I probably use the internet access on my cell phone more than any other feature! If I have a question, I search for an answer. Of course not everything has an answer, does it? Some things remain a mystery. Some things you cannot find on the internet.
My son told me that in his inpatient program all unanswerable questions remain unanswered. In other words, there is no internet access or iPhone to look up the name of the actor who starred in an old movie. Furthermore, disagreements among the residents cannot be resolved when faced with some little-known fact. He says they just throw their hands up and say “It’s a mystery!” A group of them were trying to remember who wrote the song “I Went to a Garden Party.” OK. I’ll admit I didn’t need my internet to answer that question. It was Ricky Nelson. Naturally I looked him up later and learned many more details about Ricky’s life (and death) that I won’t share with you. I know you have your own internet access.
Anyway, I recently watched a special on HBO about addiction and in the corner of the screen it advised viewers to go to HBO.com. I hardly needed encouragement. The very next day I went online and found pages of HBO videos about addiction. I want to discuss two of them (I’ll admit I haven’t viewed all of the videos yet but you probably know that I will). The first one I want to discuss is called A Mother’s Desperation in three video chapters. Watch:
Chapter 1 begins with a blunt description of the chaotic and difficult path to recovery as described by David Rosenbloom, Ph.D., Director of Join Together, Boston University School of Public Health. He notes there is no smooth ride to recovery. I agree. Later in the video I will hear the mother featured in the video say that when her daughter first entered rehab she was led to believe that her daughter would go through treatment and learn what she needed to learn and essentially come out recovered. She says “…maybe they didn’t explain it to me or maybe I didn’t understand.” I think most family members don’t understand what’s ahead; I certainly didn’t.
The mother tells her story about her daughter who is addicted to heroin. Here are some of the observations I made while watching the video: the mother says she will do anything to help her child, says she is desperate, lists all her child’s previous successes and shows photos of her daughter earlier in life, admits that her daughter has stolen from her in the past but also admits she overlooked it. The mother mentions how she feels other parents blame her for the daughter’s addiction inferring that she has not been there for her daughter. She ends by saying that she cries a lot and sometimes thinks she, herself, won’t make it. Then she quickly says she has to make it because, if she doesn’t, her daughter won’t. She states that her daughter isn’t thinking clearly. I feel like the mother also isn’t thinking clearly. She is in rescue mode 24/7.
Chapter 2 begins with a family support group that the mother attends. All the people there are women. I wonder where the fathers and siblings are. The focus of the family support group is not the mothers attending the meeting, it is their addicted children. They share personal stories about their child’s behavior; they talk about relapse and the cost of treatment. They express sadness, fear, nervousness and even anger. They never address their own behavior. They do not broach the subject of enabling or codependence. They do not talk about setting boundaries. They do not discuss their plans to move forward with their own lives. And finally, I can’t help but notice a bit of one-upmanship as the mothers describe their own sacrifices and burdens related to caring for their grown children. For example, one mother shares how she and her husband drove a very long distance every weekend for 10 months to visit their son in treatment and then how they cried the whole way home. Another mother talks about how they were forced to spend all the money they had saved for their child’s education. Coverage of the support group ends and the video moves to the mother being called to come and pick up her daughter at the police station. The daughter has been released on her own recognizance. The arresting officer has befriended the mother and has helped find the missing daughter. The mother says she is nervous about her daughter coming home because it has never worked in the past. I wonder why the daughter is going home for the same reason. It seems to me like the last place the daughter needs to be. I see the mother pick up her daughter and then something odd happens. The mother is in the parking lot with her daughter and with the arresting officer. She reaches over to fluff her daughter’s hair and tells her to say ‘thank you’ to the officer in the same tone of voice that a mother generally uses on a young child. That moment tells me so much about the mother’s relationship with the daughter.
As they drive home, the mother takes the opportunity to talk to her daughter. She begins by saying “gonna run the house like a rehab.” Next she asks “…what’s it going to take for you to reach bottom?” She continues: “I’m just thinking what did we do wrong or did we do anything wrong….? Finally she tells her daughter that they need to sit down and make a plan, a goal, a contract, or something and live by it…” She asks, “does that sound good?” I notice how passive the daughter is and basically disinterested in what her mother is saying. The mother treats her daughter as though she is about 10 years old. In the next chapter she asks her daughter what she should do with her while she, the mother, is at work? She says, “If it weren’t for your addiction, I wouldn’t have to be worried.…” I recognize a codependent relationship when I see one and this one seems classic.
In Chapter 3 the mother reflects on how the daughter’s addiction has affected her own life. “What I have really really lost……. is the ability to dream.” She continues, “I have to live one day at a time. All the dreams a mother has (college, good job, grandchildren), I don’t have those any more. I miss not looking ahead. To me it is like a loss. My goal is to some day not have to worry. I like having my own freedom. To me it’s like I have a 10 year old I have to babysit.” I noticed that I had already observed her treating her daughter like a 10 year old but was still surprised when she actually says she feels like her daughter is a 10 year old. I assume that this video is supposed to make the observer highly sympathetic to this mother and the terrible desperation she feels but it has the opposite affect on me. I see a mother who has no tools in her toolbox, little self-awareness, attends a support group that reinforces her codependent behavior, and who is attempting to whip her daughter into shape.
The video ends with David Rosenbloom saying “Long term recovery begins with treatment but when treatment is over, in fact the family and patient are really still at the beginning of this journey. Everybody is sort of starting again under a very different circumstance. And it takes a long time and it can be extremely stressful. The circumstances have changed altogether.” I agree. I wonder why they would post a video that exemplifies what the family should not do and what a family support group should not be about. Is it because all of the experts who are interviewed in the HBO documentary about addiction, really don’t have any idea how families should engage with their addicted family member? Do they see this video as reaching out to parents? I hope not.
For contrast, watch the video called Getting an Addict into Treatment: the CRAFT Approach . CRAFT stands for Community Reinforcement and Family Training. I was struck by the differences in these two videos. If there is anything I have learned over the past 12 years, it is that being angry, judgmental, and accusing does nothing to resolve the situation and takes a heavy toll on my personal health, my relationship with my son, and my well being. Once I understood my enabling and codependent behaviors, and once I began to focus on myself, and once I adopted new skills, everything began to change. Perhaps it’s a mystery but, then again, perhaps it isn’t.