I feel deep empathy toward parents just beginning the terrible journey of their child’s addiction — and those facing the turmoil of a potential next step: rehab, incarceration, considering dislodging your child from the family home. Examples like these are still painful for my wife and me.
We have learned and faced several difficult lessons throughout our journey, all of which we previously denied in the beginning. It didn’t matter who was telling us the truth, because we thought we knew better. After all, he is our son.
We have come to accept these truths, and today it is much easier to deal with the heartache. We have become more effective at helping our son through addiction, and much more effective at helping ourselves through the process.
1. Parents can be enablers
We love our children. We would do anything to remove any pain they are feeling. We would do anything to take away the addiction and smooth the tough road ahead. We would give our lives if it would help, even a little.
I once wrote a letter to my son about substance use. I used the analogy of him standing on a railroad track when a train is coming forward as fast as ever, blaring a horn that he cannot hear. I told him it was my job to knock him out of the way and take the hit, because that’s what fathers do. I now understand that I was wrong all along. All that would do would leave me dead on the tracks, leaving my son alone to stand on another set of tracks the next day.
We raised our children the best way we knew how. At some point, they made certain decisions that led them down this path. In the long run, we can only support them and provide different opportunities to help them make the right decisions in life. That is why different role models such as sponsors, those in recovery, police officers, probation officers, correctional officers, pastors and counselors should all work hard to show the person struggling to find the correct path. Unfortunately, this tends to be a difficult thing to do. However, at times, we cannot always do what they need when they need it — we cannot always prevent them from hurting, because they need to experience the natural consequences of their actions in order to get better.
2. Parents cannot "fix" this on their own
This statement is regarding what I have written above. This is a problem only the person with addiction can fix. A concept such as this is very hard for a person like me to accept, because I try to fix everything. No one is allowed in the mind of a person with addiction, except for them. They are the only ones that can decide to change their lives, for better or for worse. This will not end until they decide to end it. Many times, parents try to make that decision for them and it only winds up resulting in more frustration and failure. What parents can do is encourage them to seek help or treatment, and let them arrive at the decision themselves.
3. A person with addiction may lie
A person with a substance use disorder may say anything to hide addiction, and may take any action to mask the problem. Perhaps they do not even realize they are lying, but are simply saying whatever they think a parent would want to hear.
I believe that children seek approval from their parents and look to give us pride. I also believe that many people struggling with addiction do not approve of what they are doing, but believe that they have no way out. If this is the case, their only mechanism for survival is to seek some kind of approval by saying what they think their parents want to hear, even if these things aren’t true.
So, when my son tells me he is not using substances, I really don’t hear it. I tell him often, “My eyes can hear much better than my ears.” Just as we seek evidence of their using substances, we must seek evidence of their recovery. Do not rely on faith alone that they are not using substances, just because they have spoken those words. And when you do see them doing something positive — for example, when they’re telling the truth — give them positive reinforcement, even if it’s for something small.
4. A person with addiction may break the law
Symptoms of addiction can definitely include illegal behavior. That is why my son is incarcerated. Face it, Dad and Mom — he has made mistakes and he must pay the price. As some may say, “It is his debt to society.”
When we see others who are incarcerated in the spotlight, we tend to think about how much they deserve to be there. However, our babies are nothing like that, right? In reality, while we can justify and separate the wrongs by misdemeanors versus felonies, those are only legal terms. Every person is someone’s child. I now understand that my son has done many things that have resulted in jail time. He must pay for his wrongdoing, and must understand why that is so. Again, it is part of the natural consequences of his actions that I can’t save him from, only discourage him from.
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5. Others may not want to be around a person with addiction
My son has wronged many people and I have come to terms with this. It is okay to feel uncomfortable around someone who uses substances. We are his family, and it is unconditional love that keeps us by his side. However, it is not wrong for friends or relatives to have their own feelings and pain about the situation. Some families in a similar situation may give great support and stick by their loved one’s side through thick and thin, while others may decide they do not want to associate with the situation, and thus make the decision to keep their distance. We, as families, get to make the choice, and there is no wrong one — either choice is okay. You have to do what is best for you and yours.
6. Life will not be the same
At 5 years old, my son thought he was Michelangelo from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He used to run around the house with an orange bandanna tied around his head, brandishing plastic weapons and fighting evil. When we look at our children with addiction, at times we see that 5-year-old and mourn the loss of a child. We would try anything to get them back.
My son is now a 21-year-old man. He is an adult, with a child’s maturity at times. However, our world recognizes chronological age, not maturity level. Parents must learn to do that, too. I will always believe that Michelangelo is lost inside of him. Those that are lost sometimes find their way back, but some do not. I can grieve this loss, but it will not help either of us if we don’t move forward. A person with addiction does not live in the past or the future; they live in the here and now. If you want to help someone struggling, you must live in the same world they do, and understand where they are coming from.
7. Homelessness may be the path a person with addiction chooses
My wife works in downtown Kansas City. When you drive down there, you can see people living on the streets and under bridges, with signs asking for food or money. They can very likely be someone struggling with addiction or suffering from mental illness. They are sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, cousins and friends to someone. That doesn’t change their situation. If our son makes the decision to live this way, it will hurt me terribly, but he will do this until he thinks it is time for him to change. I can try to help and I can try to encourage him to seek others’ help, but I cannot make him change.
Why is this important for parents to learn?
I have learned that until you understand the truth, you cannot find peace within yourself, or be able to help your child who is struggling with addiction. Accepting the truth, and proceeding from there, allows you to help both yourself and your child.
I do not hate my son for using substances and for putting all of us through this pain. I hate the disease of addiction and the things he does because of it. I hate the lying and the stealing. I love my son very much, but I hate his ways. It is perfectly okay, and necessary, to separate the two.