Have you ever grieved for someone nodding off across the room from you? I have. I remember looking at our son and thinking, “Where are you? Where have you buried that easy smile and gentle spirit?”
There is no other word for it but grief when your child is lost in the haze of substance use. My son is still alive, thank God, and this grief is not the same as the grief a parent feels should their child pass away. It’s not the kind of grief that brings people around with a show of condolences and support. It is a silent grief that no one talks about. It is buried in shame and despair. Nothing prepares you for the experience and certainly nothing prepares you for the deep sense of loss that enters your daily life. And so, you grieve.
While I was grieving such things as the loss of spending meaningful time with my son and what appeared to be the end of all the hopes I had for him, I also began to wonder if I wasn’t subconsciously preparing myself for an unthinkable outcome. I knew my child was in mortal danger with his addiction. I seemed to be “trying on” what I feared the most — what would certainly be the death of my child. How could I possibly face that outcome?
I had some insight into the power of this fear one day, while spending time with my elderly mother who was living with episodic dementia. After taking her to lunch, we settled into the car, and she turned to me and very hesitantly asked, “Have I ever buried a child?” Her eyes told me that she dreaded hearing the answer. Fortunately, I was able to reassure her that all eleven of her children were alive and well. Indeed, she would be seeing all of them in a few days at a family outing. Even at the age of 90, a primary fear for my mother remained, Are my children okay? I think back to this often, and it really gives me a perspective on what I had been feeling during our son’s addiction and what many other families may feel, as well.
During the height of our son’s substance use, it was as though we had lost him somewhere in a parallel universe. I remember thinking, “Here we are, right beside him, and we can’t reach him. How could we have lost our precious child to this? And how can we find him again?”
So often I was told by well-meaning people, including professionals, that I had to get out of his way. Let go. Detach. Watch him tumble into the abyss to find his rock bottom. To me, that felt like telling me, “Your family hasn’t suffered enough, and neither has your loved one.” “Stop enabling him,” they would say. “Stop being codependent. You’re as sick as he is.” While there were some times when I believed this, and even did my best to operationalize these “recommendations,” most of the time it felt like I was abdicating my responsibilities as a parent and abandoning my child when he needed me most.
I would be the first to admit that there were times my choices were not in the best interest of our son’s recovery, but telling me that the only other option was to do nothing was unthinkable. Thank God, we intuitively knew to stay close and keep trying by supporting our son with love and understanding. By God’s grace, and a lot of work on everyone’s part, we found our way to a sustained recovery. Our son has been in recovery for more than a decade and is now living the life I always dreamed he would.
In retrospect, the most important lesson I learned and want to share with others in a similar situation is to never, never, never give up. Your child is still there, and you will find them again. There are many roads to recovery. People who tell you otherwise are mistaken. One of the most important features to our family’s recovery was finding a connection with other families in similar situations. We were fortunate to find it locally, but when I learned that this peer support is also available through Parent Coaching, I found the science behind what I knew intuitively all along.
There are ways to stay connected to your loved one throughout this ordeal, and there are evidence-based practices that can be used to influence change while maintaining a positive relationship with your loved one. Practices like CRAFT (Community Reinforcement and Family Training), MI (Motivational Interviewing), and ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) have taught me so much about what I already felt in my gut:
- Communicating positively and collaboratively with your loved one is key.
- Using positive reinforcement is necessary for positive change.
- Allowing your loved one to learn from natural consequences is important.
- Substance use serves a purpose and doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
- Self-care is crucial.
- Words cannot adequately describe what a comfort these science-based learnings provided me.
I now work to share this knowledge and that comfort it brings with other families experiencing the same grief as I did. It’s incredibly rewarding to help families trust their instincts and find the science that can be so elusive in our current treatment and recovery environment. The science that tells a family you can be involved with your child in a productive, non-confrontational way, and ultimately influence the outcome, is one of our biggest assets.
I have come to realize there is no “bottom” to this disease. Rather, there are points of intersection where the trajectory of a person’s life can be changed with loving, caring support and evidence-based interventions. And there are people you can talk to for help and support. No one has to suffer through the silent grief alone.