“How do I get out of his way but stay close?”

A mom wrote to me: My son is in the thick of alcohol addiction. This last year has been particularly difficult with a third DUI and forced hospitalization. There have been some patches of clarity and health, but the battle rages. A few days ago I finally accepted the fact that my help, over all these years, was not helping and that I could no longer allow him to live with me. Is it possible to stay close if I withdraw my support of a place to live? How do I get out of his way but stay close?

My reflection: After fourteen years of addiction with my son, I changed my behavior: I didn’t give him money and didn’t allow him to live at home; however, I never stopped taking his phone calls and I continually reminded him that he was loved. I told him that once he was healthy again, home and family were waiting for him.

Today’s Promise to consider: We each must answer the title question for ourselves, but for me, I learned to stay close and, at the same time, allow my son to face the consequences of his addiction. As parents, we often turn ourselves inside-out in an effort to ‘fix’ our addicted children, until we realize that our help isn’t always helping. In some confounding way, when I got healthier so did my son.

 

Misconception #8: Relapse is failure

From my son, I learned: that relapse happens. It happened often with Jeff. There are countless examples of recovering addicts like Philip Seymour Hoffman, who stay clean for years, relapse, and die. Drugs are powerful and addiction never rests. It bides its time and waits for the right moment to pounce.

My reflection: Through a dozen of my son’s relapses, I suffered. I wondered what I was doing wrong, and what I could/should be doing differently. Every relapse was a red, flashing light that blinded me with a sense of failure. It took me years to understand.

Today’s Promise to consider: Relapse is a gut-punch, instantly dashing hopes and optimism. But the reality is that relapse happens. Each time it did for Jeff, I felt guilt, anger, and betrayal…until one day Dr. MacAfee told me, “Relapse isn’t failure. It’s one step closer to recovery.” I still hold that thinking close in my work with addiction. It buoys me when I hear about recovering people losing their footing. It helps me keep hope alive.

 

Misconception #5. Families must walk away from their addict

From my son, I learned that the knowledge that our family was waiting for him when he got healthy was an important part of his recovery. He knew that when he made the decision to live a sober life, we would be at his side. 

My reflection: Years ago, a recovering alcoholic at San Patrignano in Italy taught me the meaning of stagli vicino (stay close to him). He counseled me to stay close, but out of the chaos of my son’s addiction. 

Today’s Promise to consider: Addiction is a family disease and we are all involved, hurt and traumatized. Through it all, family can be part of the healing, a part of the medicine of recovery, keeping in mind that boundaries are important for all of us. Every day signifies the right to choose again – and again.

 

MISCONCEPTION #4: ADDICTS DON’T GIVE A DAMN ABOUT ANYONE ELSE

From my son, I learned that many addicts hate themselves for the pain they are causing those they love. Recently, a young girl with a crystal meth addiction wrote to me, “My mom tries to help me, but I can’t talk with her. I’m afraid the stress will kill her. I can’t stand myself for hurting her.”

My reflection: When Jeff was in the deep throes of his addiction, I had a bilateral mastectomy. I was in the hospital only one night, and he slept in a chair next to my bed, reacting and awakening with my every move. Empathy for his mother was still alive in my chameleonic son and he was attentive and caring; he never left my side.

Today’s Promise to consider: Once the addiction is in charge, our loved ones are not. Using becomes a chase, a necessity, a way of life, but addicts, in a moment of clarity, know that they are hurting the people they love and they loathe themselves for it. Today, I will pray for my child’s recovery and continue to trust that my child’s humanity is alive under the drugs.

 

MISCONCEPTION #3: THE ADDICT CHOOSES TO STAY CLEAN FOR THOSE HE LOVES

From my son, I learned that as much as he loved his family, he had to choose sobriety for himself. Many of us, who love addicts, want to believe that the addict will change his ways for the family, a child, or another person. As a recovering person once told me, “Let’s face it. I had to decide whether I would live or die. I got clean for myself.”

My reflection: Several times I asked my son why he didn’t stop doing drugs when he saw all the damage addiction was spewing onto the family. He explained that he never wanted to hurt us, that he wanted desperately to keep us to the side, but that drugs are all powerful. Once he was locked in their grasp, he was overwhelmed with the hunt for more.

Today’s Promise to consider: One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn is that love wasn’t enough to save my son from addiction’s clutches. The disease takes the healthiest parts of love and smashes them into worry, helplessness and hopelessness. The reality is that addicts must choose to change for themselves. It’s the only way sobriety takes a lasting hold. Today, I’ll pray that my loved one makes the choice.

 

MISCONCEPTION #2: ADDICTS MUSCLE THEIR WAY TO SOBRIETY ALONE

Jeff and friend Jason

From my son, I learned: Recovering communities like Alcoholics Anonymous are a crucial part of recovery. There the addict finds people who know his journey and have walked in his shoes. As much as I wanted to help my son, I couldn’t understand all that he had lived. In groups like AA, they are sensitive to the nuances of this disease and the path out of it. They celebrate his successes and stand with him when he is in need.

My reflection: Much of the current research indicates that recovery is more successful when the addict is supported by people who understand his walk and who care about him and his daily struggle. As much as I wanted to be that person for my son, I couldn’t be.  

Today’s Promise to Consider: Fellowship with recovering addicts is often an essential part of a person’s journey to sobriety. We, as family members, can give them love and support, but people who know their walk provide community and understanding along the way. Today, I’ll encourage my loved one to attend AA, NA, or another support group. I, too, will attend a support group aimed at care for family members.

ADDICTION: WAR OR COMPASSION?

Johann Hari, author of Chasing The Scream, writes: When I returned from my long journey, I looked at my ex-boyfriend, in withdrawal, trembling on my spare bed, and I thought about him differently. For a century now, we have been singing war songs about addicts. It occurred to me as I wiped his brow, we should have been singing love songs to them all along.

My reflection: Tough love was the mantra-of-the-day when my son was in the deepest throes of his heroin addiction. People told me to kick him out of the house, cancel him from our lives, and to have an imaginary funeral for him.

Today’s Promise to consider: Shame, neglect, and ridicule often drive the addict deeper into his addiction. None of these negative behaviors ever helped my son get closer to health. Stay Close became our mantra, and this worked for us. War or Compassion? I choose compassion.

“WE WANT TO SOLVE THEIR PROBLEMS”

Photo credit: Mikele Roselli-Cecconi

A dad wrote to me: We as parents want desperately to solve our children’s problems.  After all, that’s what we have been trained to do since their birth. I think we fear the worst and don’t want to be held responsible, even if it’s only in our own minds.  The blame we would place on ourselves would be unbearable. Then, after years of experience, we know that the decision to recover can only be decided by the addicted. 

My reflection: The realization that I couldn’t save my son from addiction was the hardest lesson I had to learn, yet it was also the most essential for my well-being, and his. For years I was enmeshed in every twist and turn of my son’s sickness. This only enabled the addiction and kept me from being available to my family and myself.

Today’s Promise to consider: Addiction happens. Blame, shame, stigma, and silence do nothing to help our loved ones or us. Today, I’ll stay close, but out of the chaos. As much as I want to stop the trauma, there is only room for one in the addiction.

WHEN THE SADNESS IS IMPOSSIBLE TO HIDE

Photo Credit: Davood Madadpoor

A mom wrote to me: Sometimes I feel like I am just too hard to be around because the sadness is impossible to hide.

My reflection: When addiction takes over our lives, our sadness can be overwhelming. When Jeff was in active addiction, my family didn’t know whether to ask about him or not. My older brother once asked me, “How’s Jeff?” I looked at him with eyes swelled with tears. He nodded and said nothing more. 

Today’s Promise to consider: When I felt suffocated in sadness by addiction, fighting my feelings never helped. I had to accept my deep sense of loss and call it by name. I found comfort by attending Al-Anon meetings. I wrote daily, exercised, and prayed. And I also had to accept that there were times I could just be sad.

ON MOTHER’S DAY

I once asked Jeff a ‘mother’ question, not a great question, but I asked: “Didn’t you see how you were hurting yourself and the people who love you? Didn’t you want to stop all the chaos like arrests and near death? Jeff, why didn’t you stop?”

He looked at me, weary, and sighed, “You still don’t get it, do you? After writing this entire book, you still don’t understand that I never wanted to hurt you – I wanted to protect you from all of it, to keep you out of it and to the side. You’ve written about me at my worst, my most vulnerable, my most desperate. I’m an addict. I was addicted. An addict doesn’t want to hurt those he loves, but he can’t stop using drugs – oftentimes until death.”

Today’s Promise to consider: Addicts don’t want to hurt us – their mothers, fathers, brothers, or sisters. Drugs are powerful, and they take our addicted loved ones under, under into chaos and desperation. I will remember that addiction smashes love. Today, I’ll keep loving my child who is under the drugs.