What We Say, Says it All

I’m at a parent support group. We begin our meeting by going around the room and ‘checking in.’  Check-in can be a brief update or it can include introducing ourselves and our history to any guests or new members joining the group.  It generally goes something like this, “I’m Nancy, the mother of a heroin addict. My daughter is 24 years old, living on the streets and I haven’t heard from her in over a year.  She began using around age 14.  We sent her to numerous treatment programs and at one point she stayed sober for 13 months….”  The next person does essentially the same thing.  Over time we all know each other’s stories and even the name, age, drug of choice, history of use and relapse of every adult child. I notice that each participant frames their introduction around the addict in their life.

What strikes me is this: when a parent doesn’t say enough about his or her addicted child, the group doesn’t hesitate to jump in. Someone asks “Is Sam still in jail?” Someone else chimes in, “When is his next court date?” The entire group is focused on the addict even though this is supposed to be a parent support group. What we do say about ourselves tends to be on the vague side and far less than what we say about our addict; “I’m doing OK. I’m trying to take care of myself. I’m feeling better,” etc.  A common question we ask when we greet one another is, “How is <name of addict>  doing?”  rather than “How are you doing?” I hate to say this, but sometimes it seems like these inquiries are really about satisfying a morbid curiosity especially if the last inquiry brought up something dramatic (e.g. an overdose or an arrest). I’ve asked these same questions too.

As we go around the room, I drift off to contemplate conversations between parents of adult children who are not addicts.  Many conversations between parents of grown children focus on the grown child and not on the lives of the two people having the conversation. The majority of these conversations begin with the ‘listener’ making an inquiry such as ‘How is your daughter doing?’ The listener nods his or her head, asks appropriate questions and interjects things like, isn’t that wonderful. Most of what is said is positive and brings a bit of a puffed chest to the parent or grandparent who is responding to the inquiry. “Charlie just finished graduate school. Susan was promoted in her job. Andrea is expecting a baby this summer.” I’ve never heard someone say something like “Timothy is a couch potato who has put on 30 extra pounds and is still out of work.” As soon as one party finishes describing the feats or accomplishments of his or her offspring, the listening party will be ready to do the same. Its a bit of a dance.

How are these interactions similar or dissimilar? In both cases the conversation often begins with an inquiry about a third party; the adult children.  The information shared tends to focus on facts: Tommy graduated from medical school; James got arrested; Karen overdosed last Friday. The listening party doesn’t actually know the adult child or only knows them from a distance (e.g. I met your son once while he was in rehab with my daughter or I remember your granddaughter because she went to high school with my granddaughter). The inquiries serve an underlying purpose; In the case of parents discussing the accomplishments of their adult children, there is a sense of pride and taking some indirect credit for the accomplishments or their offspring. In the case of the parents discussing the woes of their addicted children, there is a subtle competition to attract the most sympathy; a bit like being Queen for a Day, an old TV program where people actually competed by telling their terrible predicament and the audience deciding which contestant had the most compelling story based on an applause meter. The person whose story invoked the most sympathy was rewarded with assistance and prizes.  Hey, it was a really popular show in the 50s!

The person making the inquiry may also have an unwitting agenda. Asking someone about their grown children can be an invitation to be asked about your own grown children. On the other hand, it can also be a kindness that allows someone an opportunity to gloat a bit; especially true when you inquire about grandchildren.  If I were asked to paraphrase the message, I might say ‘listen to how well my offspring are doing and what does that say about me!”  A few years ago I took my 86 year old mother to Jackson Wyoming for a 4 day weekend.  We had a fabulous time.  My sister informed me that one of the best things about our trip was the ‘telling’ after it was over!  My mother shared every detail with her bridge partners; message: “I have a wonderful daughter who cares about me and takes me to fabulous places like Jackson, Wyoming!”

Asking someone about the status of their addicted child can also have a hidden agenda. It can be an effort to simply catch up; e.g. “the last I heard your son was in jail, is he still there?”  But in all honesty, it can also be a means of satisfying an itching curiosity; better known as gossip. Example, one week a mother reported that she hadn’t heard from her newly recovered daughter in 4 days;  the support group is dying to know if the daughter relapsed. Sometimes a parent reveals something about their addict such as “my son was arrested last night.” Instead of asking the mother how she is doing,  the group besieges her with questions asking for more and more detail; e,g, “what are the charges, is it a felony, are you going to bail him out, have you gotten a lawyer?” Whew!

So here is what I think. When we talk about others, we reveal a lot about ourselves. Perhaps a better way of saying this is ‘everything we say, reflects on us far more than it reflects on the topic of conversation especially when that topic is someone else.’  When a father tells you his son has been accepted to an elite university, he is telling you that he values that acceptance; he puts a lot of weight on where someone goes to school; and he takes some credit for his son’s acceptance to that school. The listener can assume that the father/son relationship has been greatly influenced by this value. The listener has gained insight into the father, not the son.

When the parent of an adult child focuses his or her conversation on the adult child’s addiction or behavior or troubles, it tells the listener that the parent continues to take responsibility for what is going on in their adult child’s life. It tells the listener that the parent is controlled by fear and devotes considerable time anticipating pitfalls. It says that the parent has not separated his or her self from their grown child. It also tells the listener that the parent is reluctant to confront their own personal issues, to look inward rather than outward. Again, the listener gains a lot of insight into the parent, not the addicted adult child.

In both scenarios the focus can divert the participants from making a meaningful connection. One of the things that addicts often confront is their need for drama in their lives.  So I’m beginning to wonder if the family members are not vulnerable to the same need. Chasing the scoop diverts us from ourselves and allows us to sidestep the real reason we are here, to work on ourselves.

Oh, it’s my turn to introduce myself. I say my name, that I am a mother of an addict, that I write a blog about addiction and that I am feeling pretty good today. Within two seconds, someone in the group asks, “What about your son?” Someone else asks “Is he still in jail?” and another person asks “How is he doing?”

I rest my case.

Goals vs. Wants

You may wonder why I have chosen this topic for my blog.  As I have said previously, my brother is an accomplished cognitive behavioral psychologist (CBP) who shares his observations and thoughts with me. Because so much about recovery relates to change and one’s ability to set realistic and positive goals, I have chosen to discuss this topic.  I think as you read this, you will begin to see the connection.  How a person perceives and sets a goal has a major influence on how he or she will achieve or not achieve that goal. It really is quite fascinating.  Here goes.

What are goals?  What does it mean to have a goal?  Where do you begin? I think of a goal as some kind of desired outcome and it generally is something I want to accomplish (e.g’.complete a degree or run a marathon) or have (e.g. a better job or a better attitude).  Obstacles are the things that stand in my way to obtaining my goal and could be anything from money to time.  How I respond to my goal-related obstacles is called ‘coping’ and it can be highly effective or not.  Here are a few other concepts that will contribute to my success: well-being or how I like myself and the life I am leading; mindset or problem-solving mindset is how I experience my goal related obstacles; motivation is the energy or lack of energy I display in my problem-solving efforts; action plans are the actual steps I intend to take towards achieving my goal.  It’s essential that an action plan is both realistic and healthy and that I am capable of modifying it as needed.  I will need to monitor my program and have a plan to overcome the inevitable challenges I will likely face as I try to achieve my goal. I will definitely need to develop some strategies to assist me on my venture.

First of all, I need to set a goal that is both healthy and realistic.  I am not going to be an opera star any time soon.  The truth is that an unrealistic goal can never be a healthy goal; by nature it is an exercise in defeat.  But what else defines a healthy goal?  A healthy goal is connected to well-being so the first question I need to ask is how will my goal effect my feelings about myself, my feelings about my life and my mood? I can ask this question in reverse.  How will NOT achieving my goal effect these same measures?  Who will determine if my goal is achieved?  This is called the locus of control (LOC).  Will I decide I have reached my goal or will someone else decide I have reached my goal?  If I have a goal to be chosen as a starter on my soccer team then the coach gets to decide if I have reached my goal. The idea is to identify a goal where I have the LOC, a goal that I determine such as mastering specific soccer skills that will improve my game. This is not to say that I won’t face outcomes that are determined by others, e.g. getting accepted to a graduate program. But if my goals focus on my own behavior (complete assignments, keep a GPA needed for graduate school, set up a schedule to study for a pre-graduate exam, etc.) then I am able to set the stage for future opportunities such as getting into the graduate program of my choice.

I need to think about any and all likely obstacles I will face. Some will be external while others will be internal.  Are the obstacles mainly within me or are they mostly within the goal? In some cases they are mostly in the goal: I want to win a Nobel Peace Prize.  Not many people have accomplished that goal.  I want to fly a hot air balloon around the world. Ditto.  If few people can accomplish the goal then most of the obstacles are within the goal itself.  But if many people can accomplish the goal (lose 20 pounds., quit smoking, run a marathon) then most of the obstacles are internal. Identifying the internal obstacles is a key to  success. I not only need to identify them, I need to correctly interpret them and that involves my mindset.  Do I see a goal as unfair?  If yes, then I am verging on seeing it as insurmountable which can lead me to “here’s why it won’t work.”  If I see an obstacle as challenging but fair it will lead me to thoughts of “I’m not afraid of pursuing a meaningful goal even if it is difficult.”  The first mindset is a Can’t Do Mindset and the latter is a Can Do Mindset. I have often given advice to people in the Can’t Do Mindset where they tell me their troubles and I make suggestions and they tell me why none of those suggestions will work. To sum it up, how I identify my obstacles, how I view them and describe them will be extremely important in how I address them.

Obviously I need to avoid a Can’t Do Mindset. However, pursuing goals invites uncertainty; there is no guarantee that I will succeed.  Taking a deep breath and keeping the faith might be in order. Here are four things I need to consider.  The first is Mastery, my ability to handle any goal-related obstacle. The second is Resilience, my tolerance for discomfort.  The third is Initiation, my ability to get off the couch and get started.  The fourth is Persistence, my commitment to keep at it.

Before I get started, maybe I need to spend a bit of time thinking about my past pattern of coping or my coping style. Actually two types of coping have been identified in the literature: Approach Coping and Avoidant Coping. They are pretty self-explanatory.  The first is to confront problems head on and the second is to sidestep problems.  I’ve probably been engaged in both types depending on what is involved. A sizable subset of the Avoidant Coping is centered around activities that make us feel better in the moment (drug/alcohol intake, binge eating, shopping, computer games, Netflix marathon or anything that keeps us in continual distraction). It’s not that these activities don’t work, they do make us feel better but only in the moment. Unfortunately that they don’t address the underlying problem. Makes sense.

Mixed up in all of this is understanding the difference between goals and wants.  Goals typically require significant effort up front and are likely to be achieved later rather than sooner. Wants are the opposite.  Wants generally offer immediate comfort and require little effort.  A goal would be to lose weight, a want would be to eat a second helping of mashed potatoes.  Wants follow the pleasure principle: feel good, avoid pain.  It runs on autopilot and is hard wired into our brains. Wants have a lot of clout at the decision-making table and can cause goals to self-destruct before our very eyes. Here is how my brother explains it:

So, how is it that our wants triumph over our goals so readily?  Well, wants have several major advantages over goals: 1) they are immediately rewarding (my goal is to be drug free, but getting high would feel great right now); 2) they do not involve getting out of our comfort zone (my goal is to overcome my social anxiety, but talking to people makes me nervous); 3) they require minimal effort (watching Netflix is a lot easier than hitting the gym); and 4) because wants fit our mood in the moment, they are almost guaranteed to satisfy (I wanted some comfort food and I am thoroughly enjoying my quart of Häagen-Dazs).

He also points out that Wants pretty much offer certainty of an outcome: taking this drug will alleviate a drug craving.  Yes it will. Wants fit our mood and that is why they are so satisfying.  Goals, on the other hand offer no such certainties. Going to the gym doesn’t guarantee that you will meet your fitness goals, studying hard does not guarantee that you will pass the test, etc. Often the behaviors we need to reach our goals are anything but comfortable and they are not rewarding in the moment.

This has been a brief overview but I think it is important to understand what is involved when any person attempts to change behavior, whether it is ourselves as parents of addicts or the addict who is trying to stay sober.  We live in a world that does little to support our efforts towards achieving goals and everything to satisfy our immediate wants. We almost never need to step out of our comfort zone in our day to day lives. Satisfying wants doesn’t address the underlying problem and the underlying problem isn’t going away, instead it is growing.  In my next blog I am going to talk about action plans and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.  It is often recommended for addicts.  When you read it, you will see why!

It is Dearness Only……….

My husband and I were gone for ten days, traveling back east to visit old friends and family, to attend a conference in honor of a colleague, to see a 4 month old great nephew for the first time and so on.  When we got home, there were many things we needed to get done.  The mail was piled high, there were loads of laundry and unread emails to beat the band.  But unfortunately, we were coming down with the flu.  Yes, we got our flu shots but we got the flu anyway.   Instead  of doing all the things we needed to do, we went to bed with fevers and coughs and an overwhelming fatigue.  Personally, I always find it hard to return from a trip and get everything back in order; the flu really added to my miseries.  But that is life; things don’t always go as planned. Lying in bed allowed me to reflect on our trip.  Between bouts of uncontrolled coughing, I thought about our many encounters with old friends and distant family members who are not in contact with our daily lives. I thought about the inevitable question that confronted us, “How is your son?”

We are never quite sure how to respond.  Those asking haven’t seen our son in many years, perhaps when he was a teenager or even a child.  In general, they don’t know him, they only know of him. It is natural to ask.  I do it all the time. Sometimes they don’t know about his history of addiction or they have some vague notion that he struggled through his adolescence. On our trip there were some people who asked about him and others who didn’t ask.  I do not interpret this as indifference but, rather, I see it as sensitivity. It seems some people noticed that we hadn’t brought him up and they sensed that it might be best not to ask.  I was honest with one distant but long time friend who is currently taking care of her elderly frail husband.  She was helping me take our luggage up to her guest room. We were alone.  She looked into my eyes and asked me how our son was doing.  I said, “he’s in jail.”  She nodded and said. “I won’t ask any more,”  and she didn’t. I appreciated her quick and firm response. I know it’s hard not to ask for details.

In general when people ask someone about their grown children, they are asking what do they do for a living, where do they work, are they married, where do they live, do they have children. Often times the respondent throws in other tidbits such as “my daughter just ran a marathon or my son was recently promoted or they bought their first home.”  And usually you can’t help but notice their faces beaming a bit as they reveal their pride in the achievements of their offspring.  I get it. I would do the same. We ask, not because we are really that interested in the grown children of our friends, but we ask because we want to provide our friends an opportunity to enjoy telling us, to puff up a bit and to relish the accomplishments of their children. It’s almost a courtesy as much as an inquiry.

I am not ashamed to talk about my son but I know how uncomfortable it can make people when I tell them the truth. He has a drug problem.  He struggles. He is in a recovery program or he has relapsed. He is looking for work or just lost his job.  He is on probation.  He is in jail. No, he isn’t married.  No, he doesn’t have children. When he is not in jail,  he is living at home. At times I have to say we haven’t heard from him in awhile. Here is what I want to say. My son is an addict. He is currently in jail. Don’t feel sorry for him and don’t feel sorry for us.  He  is reading and loving all of Sir Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. He has grown a big beard because the razors that are provided are so awful that it was, as far as he was concerned, his only option.  He is studying geography because he feels it is a good goal to learn all the countries and major world landmarks and oceans and rivers and capitals and why not?  He doesn’t have much else to do right now.  I would mention that he is the current ping-pong champion at the Oxbow jail. I would reveal that I love his phone calls because we talk about Sir Conan Doyle or politics or the latest findings related to treatment of addiction. I might say that he has lost weight because the food is so bad and that he tells me not to worry because he actually needed to drop a few pounds anyway.  I would let them know that he still makes me laugh and writes me letters filled with love and gratitude. I could mention that he feels discouraged and lonely at times. I would not tell them that he has cried in the shower so no one would see him crying or that at times he feels lonely and discouraged.  I would tell them that he is still kind and funny and loves animals. I would tell them that we miss him every day.

And if they were to ask me if I could have things be different than they are, they might be surprised by my answer.  They would probably expect me to say that I wished he were not in jail, were not an addict, and would never relapse again.  But they would be wrong.  If I could change one thing and only one thing it would be this: my son would like himself, truly like himself, in fact, love himself.  He would like himself as much as other people like him.  And because he liked himself, he would be less likely to be filled with shame and self-doubt; less likely to tear himself down and be filled with despair; less likely to engage in self destructive behavior; more likely to have healthy relationships; less likely to have panic attacks that are almost unbearable. And it wouldn’t matter what kind of job he has or car he drives or cell phone. It wouldn’t matter where he lives or how buff he is or how pretty a girlfriend he has.  None of those things would matter because they only matter when you don’t like yourself.  It wouldn’t matter if he got married or didn’t, owned a house or didn’t, lived in Salt Lake City or New York or rural Nevada.  It wouldn’t matter if he was a Republican or a Democrat or an Independent or didn’t give a hoot for politics. It wouldn’t matter if he had dogs or cats or no pets at all.  Because what matters, what has always mattered in the past and will matter in the future, is how we engage with everything around us, how we embrace life and respond to life. What matters is our relationship with life itself.  Is our glass half empty or is it half full?  Can we bite into a fresh peach and feel that it can’t get much better?  Can we laugh till we almost pee?  Can we spontaneously stop our car and jump out to look at a full moon?  Can we cry?  Can we be moved? Can we be human?

My son told me that when he gets out he is going to go up into the mountains. He is going to hike and sleep outside in a sleeping bag. He is going to bring something delicious to eat and a good book.  He is anticipating the smell of the air, being absolutely alone, and looking at a star filled sky.  He is going to listen to the sounds of nature. He has never been a camping or hiking kind of guy but sitting in jail for several months has changed him. That is now what he longs for.

In his pamphlet, Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote, “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly, It is dearness only that gives everything its value…”  He was, of course,  talking about our country’s fight for freedom during the Revolutionary War. I believe that my son is finding value where he never found it before.  And so am I.