I remember with so much emotion, those first days, months and years when we had learned that our son had developed a substance use disorder. For the first year we basically went into hiding. We talked to a few “trusted” people and were ultimately given the advice that we needed to double down on our bad parenting. A year into the chaos, we knew that we could no longer burry our head in the sand regarding the problems that we were having with our son and we also knew that all the crying and praying we could do was not going to make this go away.
So we did the next thing. We googled “helping our loved one with addiction.” Now THAT was horrifying.
We never got any real help but we definitely got barraged with many phone calls from “industry professionals” telling us that we HAD to get our son into treatment and if we just tapped into our 401K to pay for it everything would be ok. Scratch that help off the list.
After that we went to a mutual support group where we were told that we could not ask each other for advice, we had to figure things out for ourselves and we had to wait for our son to hit some mystical bottom. He was 15. We were not going to let him die.
Years later we look back on that time period and we wonder how we made it through. We were desperate for information and guidance that even our school counselors and church pastors didn’t know where to find. Eventually through reading every book that we could on addiction, crowd-sourcing opinions on social media and painstaking trial and error things got a little easier. Only because I wasn’t willing to wait until we “figured it out.” My mission since then has been to make sure that families don’t have to go through what we went through. There is a ancient proverb that says “a smart person learns from their mistakes, but a wise person learns from the mistakes of others.” We have made more than our share of mistakes along this very crooked path. Our hope is always that we can help prevent others from making even a fraction of the ones we made.
Every single day, I get a call from a frantic parent, spouse or sibling asking the question “what can we do to help our loved one?” The common answer they have most often recieve is “Let go, there is nothing you can do. They have to want it.”
But what if? What if there really were things that you could do? What if I told you that you were NOT powerless and you didn’t have to wait until your loved one “wanted it” or until they “hit bottom” which in our current substance use climate could mean death?
While there is truth to the statement that we can’t change other people, we are not powerless as the affected and there are things that we can do right now that will give your family it’s best opportunity to heal.
But not from your neighbor or your friends or the many other well-meaning people that don’t understand the brain science of substance use disorder. Proper education is critical. 3 years ago I emerced myself in the recovery community and learned everything I could about what recovery actually looks like. I discovered the 8 dimensions of wellness and the stages of change. I learned that there are multiple pathways to recovery, that 23 million people are in recovery and that many of them didn’t belong to a secret club where they were sworn to be anonymous. I learned from documentaries like Pleasure Unwoven and experts, Dr. Nora Volkow and Dr. Crystal Collier about what really happens in the brain when someone is affected. I listened over and over to Dr. Gabor Mate’s philosophy on the relationship between trauma and addiction, as well as reading anything from Johan Hari (Chasing the Scream and Lost Connections) and Maia Szalavitz (Unbroken Brain). Learning that addiction wasn’t just about not having enough willpower or morally failing, but about actual physiological changes that occurred before substances entered the picture, due to multiple factors and during active use, gave me a completely different perspective on how we treat the disease and the diseased in our country. It helped me understand that my loved were not bad, they were just not well. One of the best tools for education in the new FamilyRx program. To learn more you can click here: http://www.family-rx.org/
Understand alternatives approaches
At the beginning of this journey with my son, I was told that there was nothing you could do, that you had to detach and that you simply need to “let go and let God.” But my son was 15. And I believed intrinsically that we were created for relationship. How could I detach from a boy who was so young and was sick? I knew that wasn’t the right approach for me. But if not that, then what? It wasn’t until 3 years later that I took a peer recovery program that enlightened me regarding multiple pathways to recovery. It was at that point that I discovered motivational interviewing and how I could apply it to my family in general. I learned about SMART Recovery and the CRAFT approach, which advocated for a loving, compassionate, “harm reduction” response from the family and community when interacting with someone affected by SUD. I realized that up until that time, I had only heard of one family recovery modality. And if that wasn’t the right fit for your family or your value system, you were left feeling even more isolated, alone and frustrated. Understanding that there was more than one way to approach this situation lifted a burden off of me that had weighed me down for years.
Get help for yourself
About 3 years into our son’s use disorder, he was required to take DBT and I was required to go with him. It began to radically change our family. Using DBT skills like mindfulness, practicing radical acceptance, managing my own distress and learning how to communicate more effectively altered the way our family interacted. Earlier that year our daughter and husband had started DBT so suddenly our entire family was practicing the skills that we were learning. Using DEAR MAN and DESCRIBE became a way of being for us. We had lots of laughs when someone started practicing their skills on one another. When we mixed DBT with other therapeutic interventions like CBT, MI and EMDR we could see the palpable change happen in our home. We were no longer living in chaos and destruction, but had been able to obtain peace and calm even though our son was not yet sober during that time. I could see that one person changing started a ripple which ultimately caused a title wave of change in our family. If you have an unhealthy, toxic pond and you put just one healthy plant in that pond, you can change the ecosystem. If you start getting well in the middle of this disease yourself, you will be amazed at how it impacts your entire family system. Even though now, I regularly coach family members, I still have a coach and mentor who continues to guide me through the process of loving my son.
Replace judgement and anger with vulnerability and compassion
It’s not personal. Nothing our loved ones do “to us” is really being done to us. There were many times during the most difficult years in our home, where I would ask my son “why are you doing this?” What I now realize is that by judging his behavior and taking things personally I was only adding to the shame and trauma that occurs in the disease. I was inadvertently sending the message that something was wrong WITH him. Guilt says “I did something wrong.” Shame says “I am wrong.” And in the disease all our loved ones hear time and again is that they ARE wrong. They most likely have felt that way since they were young, either because of early trauma, sexual identity or mental health issues. I was a good mom. And I loved my son. But I didn’t realize how much I was contributing to the shame in my sons disease by my actions and my words. I remember thinking “wait, we are a good family. There was no trauma.” Yet when I look back I can see how my son, at a very early age, experienced trauma because he was not conforming to our expectations or standards for behavior. And I can see now how, once the disease started, we made it worse by the words that we used, by our angry outbursts, by our over-reactions and by the arguing and black and white thinking in our family. Did we do the best we could? Yes we did. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. Somewhere along the line, I began to read that the opposite of addiction is connection. I listened to everything I could from Brene’ Brown on empathy and vulnerability. I realized that by my judgement, my expectations and by taking things so personally I was contributing to the problem. Taking a step back and listening to my son, asking questions to understand, not to respond and affirming the positives started to improve our relationship. Learning to say “I’m sorry” and “I don’t have all the answers” and apologizing when I needed to, brought about change.
If we are going to impact our family dynamics we have to change the language around the disease of addiction. When we call our loved ones addicts, liars or manipulators we are only adding to the shame and stigma of the disease. Modern psychology acknowledges that we become the very things that are spoken over us. When our son first went through treatment at 15, we were told that he was an addict and he was told that he needed to get up every morning and remind himself of that fact. During the most formative years of his life, when he was the most vulnerable he was told that he would never recover if he didn’t call himself an addict. And we reinforced that. If we want people to recover it is imperative that we begin speaking about the disease of addiction as if it were a disease. That means taking away the labels that surround it. That means affirming our loved ones even in the disease. It means using words like substance use disorder rather than addiction. It means saying “a person with substance use” rather than “addict.” It means “treatment” rather than “rehab,” “reoccurrence” rather than “relapse”, “positive” rather than “dirty,” “negative” rather than “clean” and any other words or terms that have been adopted that stigmatize someone with a use disorder. If we are truly going to change the culture of our family and our country, we have to change the language.
Finally, there is nothing more practical in all of this, then practicing patience. Change doesn’t happen overnight. But if we continue on this journey in a mindful, intentional way, things will not only begin to change, but most importantly we will change our hearts from a place of chaos and war, to a place of peace.\