Parenting an Addict: The 12 Steps I Didn't Know I Needed

Armed with absolutely no knowledge about addiction, I was completely unprepared to cope when it reared its head in my own family. My childhood was wonderful. My good fortune continued when I married my best friend, and we had three beautiful children. We even landed in a home five houses away from my parents—a picture-perfect existence.

But when our bright, talented and beautiful first-born daughter descended into the illness of addiction, life became unbearable; a series of crises (created by her) and desperate attempts to save her (by me). I spent countless hours self-isolating—avoiding friends, family, and experiences. Gradually I learned to move forward and, when I came up for air, I realized I had my own 12 steps—or lessons about navigating life when a loved one suffers from addiction:

1. I am not at fault—really!

As the parent of an addict, the refrain is familiar: “You did not cause it.” It took years for me to be convinced. We gave our daughter unconditional love, appropriate boundaries, encouragement and understanding. It was a pretty darn good childhood. (She confirms this!) When people encounter lovely children, they frequently remark, “those parents did a great job.” Well, I did a great job too! And there are plenty of lackluster parents who end up with terrific children. While I believe we affect our children positively and negatively, I am certain that in many respects, all individuals are wired from the outset. Some children end up with ADHD, anxiety, or childhood diabetes. Others end up with a proclivity toward addiction—it’s their trajectory. (There is alcoholism in my husband’s family) It’s just the hand we were dealt.

2. I cannot live from a place of fear

This doesn’t mean I don’t have fear—I’ve got tons. During my daughter’s active addiction, I would have done anything out of fear: I’d clean up her messes; talk teachers out of giving her bad grades; defend her against charges of plagiarism; and hand her extra money. I finally learned to accept fear without living my life in reaction to it.

During my daughter’s time in rehab, I wrote a letter that was difficult to write and even more difficult for my daughter to read:

I fear losing you. I fear you dying. I fear you living a life as an active addict—committing unspeakable acts to get your next fix. I fear you being homeless. I fear your grandparents not spending time with you and their sadness. I fear that they will not have the comfort of seeing you in healthy, long-term recovery. I fear your siblings’ pain. I fear Dad’s anguish and the terrified look in his eyes. I fear your legacy will be as a drug addict when there is so much more that is so beautiful about you. I have so many fears. But I can’t live from a place of fear. I can’t keep bailing you out (emotionally and financially) because of my fear.

3. I cannot live in the future

If you live for tomorrow (hoping for your loved one’s recovery), you will miss today. I once read an account of a mother whose child had a terminal illness. Knowing their time was limited, this mother did not focus on her son’s future—his schools, talents, or someday career. She cherished the present. While this was clearly a tragic situation, there’s a valuable lesson for sure. When we worry too much about what will happen, we fail to experience, enjoy, or savor what is happening.

4. I’d rather live with discomfort than not live at all

When my daughter began her descent into addiction, I too began my own descent. I isolated myself and regularly checked out. I skipped social events, canceled plans, avoided friends—even one who was dying of cancer. One evening during this journey, my daughter had an emotional breakdown of sorts—exhibiting the type of histrionics that normally caused me to press the pause button on life. On that particular evening, my husband and I had plans. With news of this “catastrophe,” my husband asked if I wanted to cancel. In a surprise move, I insisted we go out. We went to a favorite restaurant. It wasn’t perfect—I had an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach. But it was more-than-okay, and certainly better than curling up in the fetal position and crying at home. It was a watershed moment; I realized that living life with discomfort is far better than not living at all.

5. Sadness is inevitable

I always harbored this idea that we are not supposed to be sad; that life should be happy. It’s impossible to live a life without sadness—and it’s particularly impossible to avoid feeling pain when your child suffers from addiction. This too I memorialized in a letter during my daughter’s active addiction—explaining to my husband how hard it was for me:

I cry a little (sometimes a lot) almost every single day of my life. I think the only days I don’t cry are when we are on vacation. Then I forget. I forget that I have a daughter who is an addict. I forget that she has lied to and stolen from us. I cry when I see young friends starting their lives with possibilities spread before them. I cry when I hear about our daughter’s classmates moving forward and being adults. I cry when I see families together. I even cried the other night with our good friends; their conversation about a family vacation was a gut punch. I cry because family vacations are not a part of our lives—and haven’t been (at least not in a positive way) for almost a decade.

Sadness is a part of life; it must be accepted—it need not be paralyzing.

6. When you stop enabling, detachment follows

I always wondered how to “detach” from a child. It seemed impossible. And then I stopped enabling. I no longer made constant and desperate attempts to save my daughter from her own horrendous behavior. I let her take care of herself, and I began to take care of myself. That was the recipe. Stop enabling, and you’ve done it—you’ve detached.

The most beautiful aspect of detaching (not enabling) is that it is actually good for everyone!This realization was an enormously important milestone:

7. Enabling is damaging: for everyone

Trying to save your child or loved one from negative results—postpones recovery for the addict and is simply a catalyst for continuing the unhealthy behavior. Addiction is a way to avoid pain and, absent naturally harmful consequences for the addict; there is absolutely no incentive to recover. At the same time, remaining involved—enabling and fixing messes—enmeshes the non-addict in the chaos, the downward spiral, the illness. When I was desperate to make everything “right” by saving our daughter, I inadvertently postponed her recovery, and I lost years of my own life. When I stopped enabling—telling our daughter she was not welcome in our home because she stole; refusing to give her money—she lost everything. That was when she decided to begin the journey of recovery. That was when I started to live again.

8. Get “expert’ help to stop enabling

Like the addict, those of us who love the addict can always rationalize our ill-advised enabling conduct. I have met very few people able to detach without support. I often consulted the therapist who treated my daughter. Others have gained guidance from fellow Al-Anon or Naranon members.

When I wanted to give my daughter a pair of relatively new, expensive hand-me-down shoes (they never fit me well and she loved them), I told myself it was okay. “It’s not like I’m buying her something.” Her therapist advised me otherwise. Until my daughter learned to take care of her own life independently, he suggested I allow her to fend for herself.

Outsiders can provide perspective and objectivity. When my daughter was well into her recovery and taking care of her own needs, I happily gave her the shoes!

9. Enabling is a desperate attempt to avoid painful feelings

Enabling was my attempt to control, fix, and help my daughter. But it was also a way to self-medicate! When a loved one dies, we may keep busy to avoid sad feelings. It’s okay for a while, but eventually, you need to grieve. By constantly fixing crises, I was too frenetic to recognize the pain and let myself feel the sadness.

10. Accept conflicting feelings

I like organization and neatness. There is discomfort in maintaining conflicting emotions-it’s unsettling. And yet, it is unavoidable. Anger, compassion, love, sadness, and fear can and must coexist in the person who loves an addict.

11. This is a marathon—not a sprint

This cliché is absolutely true in the case of addiction. The road to recovery is long—don’t expect your loved one to “get better” quickly. There are no shortcuts for her. Likewise, for the one who loves the addict—feeling normal, letting go, and moving forward all take time, and the progress is not linear.

12. I made a choice to live for me because the alternative was unacceptable

When parents of addicts hear me speak about detachment and recovery, they praise my wisdom and courage. I always counter their compliments with this truth: The choice to live and to cease efforts to fix my daughter, is my survival mode—it is neither brave nor noble. Living in the vortex of chaos and the all-consuming efforts to change circumstances beyond my control was exhausting and an ultimately fruitless (and counter-productive) effort. In order to truly live—to experience joy and appreciate the gifts in my life—I had to let go. It’s really that simple.

*Follow-up: My daughter recently marked four years of sobriety—a milestone we all celebrated with joy and pride. She is thriving in her career, earning a graduate degree, all while working (a life-long endeavor) on her recovery. We have a strong, loving relationship in which we enjoy and support one another—and laugh constantly. As life moves forward, there are many joys and, of course, some bumps. I am better equipped to handle life’s curveballs (those unrelated to addiction) by applying my 12 lessons.

Written by Adina Amith

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