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.

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