Parenting an Addict
One of the most challenging aspects of my job is helping family members understand what it means to do their work. When working with chemical dependency/addiction, the problem is most often pretty clear. Typically, addicts have a slew of consequences and easily observable patterns. The problem is tangible. When it comes to co-addiction, co-dependency, parental anxiety, etc., the problem becomes much more difficult to define. During my first phone call with families of Evoke clients I will say, “The more you treat this as if it is YOUR treatment, the better off this goes. The best thing you can do to help your son is to do your own work.” A common response to this point, “Wait… What? My treatment!? I’m not the one with the problem!”
A mother once said to me, “Griff, respectfully… I’ve gone through hell and back for this kid. I’ve gone to school meetings, therapy sessions, escorted him to treatment centers… I’ve had to take time off of work… I’m at my wits end! If I have to go to one more (expletive) meeting for this kid, my head is going to explode!” I hear their exasperation, the grief, and the stress. It is all very real. Loving a person in active addiction is nothing short of traumatic. My response to this particular mother was, “And that is exactly my point – you are not doing this for him, you are doing this for you. You have been through hell and back and the toll on you is clear. You deserve support. It’s a terrible struggle and no one is built to do this by themselves. You deserve health and support no matter what your son does with his experience here. He has shown you over the course of a lifetime that he is not capable of being dependable in his addiction and I would caution you not to put your emotional well-being in the hands of someone that has been self-destructive.”
It is not a one-to-one ratio either. It is not as if the harder the family works the better the kid gets. It would be easier that way. I wish we could work hard enough to get our loved ones healthy. That would be a very co-dependent approach. My favorite Jungian psychologist, James Hollis wrote in his book, The Eden Project, “The quality of all of our relationships is a direct function of our relationship to ourselves.”
Since much of our relationship to ourselves operates at an unconscious level, most of the drama of our relationships, and to the transcendent, is expressive of our own psychology. The best thing we can do for our relationships with others, then, is to render our relationship to ourselves more conscious.
Any therapeutic approach or orientation is going to be aimed at increasing awareness. We can’t change a behavior or pattern that we don’t know we have.
The more we know about ourselves the more we can be intentional about where we are trying to go. We can work towards responding instead of reacting. Our work doesn’t fix our loved ones. What our work does is it allows us to be healthy when they need us to be there. If we understand our fear of holding boundaries, we can improve our ability to have healthy boundaries. When we start to understand that while the behavior of our loved ones might make us anxious, our anxiety is our responsibility. We stop depending on someone that is undependable. When we have our own healthy support, we can start to support others in a healthier way. We start to be able to differentiate support from enabling. When we start to address our own discomfort, we find that the discomfort of others becomes less daunting. None of these points make us immune to fear, sadness, disappointment, or anxiety. These things are a part of any relationship. What this work produces is a more internal locus of control. It allows us to cope in healthier ways when these things come up.
In my experience, I have found that when this becomes a family process the outcomes are more favorable. When we start to address our own work, we stop expecting our addicted loved ones to do it for us. When we take that responsibility out of their hands they have a greater ability to address their own disease. When they address their own disease, there is a greater propensity for a healthy relationship. It is simple, but not easy.
Carl Jung said it best, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.” He also said, “Knowing your own darkness is the best way to deal with the darkness of others.”
We are asking you as the family member to get uncomfortable. We are asking you to walk into a 12-step meeting and ask strangers for help. We are asking you to dig into the aspects and issues within yourself that you are trying to avoid. We can’t think our way into better action, we have to act our way into better thinking. And to be clear, there is a difference between wanting to and being willing to. You don’t have to want to do it, you just have to be willing to. We are asking of you the same thing we are asking of your child – to be vulnerable, to try something different, to stop doing it your way. I say to my guys in the field often that if you do what you've always done, then you will get what you've always got. If nothing changes, nothing changes.
I say to parents in my group that if I get to choose how this goes – you have a sponsor, you are actively working a 12-step program, you have a therapist and you cultivate a support team and/or fellowship of people that are going through the same thing so that when things get difficult you have a healthy place to turn. And, we start that now not when we need to, or when it becomes convenient (because it is never convenient). When you start to make those changes it will absolutely change your relationship with your loved ones and you will have a chance to be there to support them in a way that they really need you to be able to.
It boils down to the serenity prayer (Which applies to atheists, agnostics and religious people alike.)
God (As I understand the concept),
Grant me the SERENITY to accept the things I cannot change (people, places and things)
The WILLINGNESS to change the things I can (me)
The WISDOM to know the difference
or the parent version
God, grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change,
the courage to change the person I can,
and the wisdom to know it is me!