The Emotions I Went Through as the Parent of an Addicted Child

mother and son looking at sunset

What’s it like being the parent of someone struggling with an addiction? I’m not talking about the day-to-day experience with a crisis and drama around every corner. I mean what is it like inside the mind of a parent who has gone from discovery (of a child’s drug use) to recovery (from a drug addiction)? As I take stock of my current emotional state, I examine all of the emotions I have felt over the last 10 years.

I wonder: Am I normal? Am I a survivor? Am I crazy? Maybe I’m just a composite of these experiences and it’s simply who I am now.

After reflecting on the last 10 years, here is my emotional inventory:

Hurt: Hurt is one of the emotions that never fully dissipates. Usually I am able to put the hurt aside and shield myself. However, it occasionally jumps out at me. I have never hurt like I had while suffering through my son’s active addiction. For me, it is a hurt that even overshadows the death of a loved one. I spent a long time with this emotion. For many years, I couldn’t separate the disease in my son from my son himself. His addiction was a personal affront that I held onto very deeply. The pain from this emotion took me to places I wish I never would have seen. This was the hardest to reconcile within myself. Hurt was the most destructive emotion for me and it drove my life.

Anger: Anger was my defense mechanism against the hurt. Anger moved me to do things that I am not proud of. I would scream and curse at my son, scream and curse at my wonderful wife — in fact, at times, I attacked anyone who was within reach. For the most part, my anger wasn’t physical. Rather, I sliced people to bits with words. But one day, my anger drove me to my lowest point in life — I struck my son in anger. My son taught me a lesson, however. Even though he was high and addicted, he did not strike back. His respect for me at that time was greater than my respect for him. Of this, I am ashamed. “You have a right to be angry,” he would say. I have heard those words before. But they are empty. Anger comes with the territory. Our response to life with anger is something we must find a way to live with, while not destroying ourselves.

Suspicion: I always thought of myself as a trusting person. My whole philosophy in life was that I was too lazy to distrust somebody. After all, trusting is easy. To distrust, on the other hand, requires a tremendous amount of work and energy. Yet, suspicion makes distrust easier. You begin to see the evil in a person. It is easy to forget that the symptoms of a disease can mask the reality of a situation. It is easy to allow suspicion to drive your life and behaviors. I’m not talking about the things the parent of an addicted child must do to protect themselves and the addict. I’m talking about learning to see evil in a person, when evil is not the intent. This outlook leads to negative consequences for all involved.

Contempt: Contempt is the culmination of hurt, anger and suspicion. Contempt is a terrible thing for parents to hold against their own children. Contempt can easily slide to a place where there is no caring. I felt once that I was entering that place. I can’t go there; it is a one way door. Thankfully, I did not go through that passage. It is a bad, bad place.

Joy: Joy is that emotion we all want. When I think of joy, the picture of Snoopy dancing on top of his doghouse comes to mind. Joy comes from many places -– but it is immediate and temporary. However, joy is a fix that I craved. I’d twist reality in order to experience that feeling. Too often, my desire for joy allowed me to ignore realities to the detriment of myself and my son.

Hope: Hope was the most dangerous positive emotion. Hope set me up for terrible lows. I misunderstood hope for a majority of the time that my son was using. It was an emotion that I transferred to others. My hope was based upon the actions — or lack thereof — by others. I would pass out hope to people like business cards at a conference. I placed my hope in the hands of rehabs, meetings, counselors… basically anyone. I allowed others to build up my hope and also pull it out from underneath me. Yet, hope is an emotion that must be internalized; it isn’t a wish. Hope is an awareness of life and the tender nature of what impacted me. Where there is life, there is hope; it was only until after that I understood the simple phrase of what hope really was, rather than what I wanted it to be.

Happiness: Happiness is so much more than joy. Joy is fleeting, happiness is an internal state of being. Happiness can be found in all things. Happiness can be obvious: the birth of wonderful grandchildren; the sound of, “Papa come here.” But happiness can be born of heartache and pain, like the happiness I feel to have known my father for 27 years of my life. Happiness isn’t the smile or grin you see on my face, it is the feeling inside. The smile is simply a physical response.

Appreciation: Appreciation is the dominant feeling I have today. Appreciation isn’t a “thank you,” but rather, is a recognition of what “is.” Appreciation is taking in all in-the good, the bad and the ugly. The simple process of writing this post is a process of appreciation for me. The horrible emotions and actions I described above are just as valuable in shaping my well being as the wonderful feelings I experience today while my son is in recovery. Appreciation ALLOWS me to learn from what I have experienced over the past 10 years. If I choose not to learn, then what is this decade of my life worth? I wish that I had never experienced any of this and that my son had never become addicted. If there was a time machine, I’d be on it right now to change it all. Unfortunately, that can’t happen. Ignoring the bad and only recognizing the good discounts my life and make me less than the best that I can be. In order to do so, I must learn from my terrible mistakes.

Love: Love is so much more than what we whisper at night before falling asleep. Love is a life preserver in a storm; it is a foundation that holds you up; it is something that makes you better than what you can be alone. I learned more about love in the past 10 years than I had learned all my life before. Love comes not just from those whom are close to you, but also from those who have enough in their life that they wish to share. All you have to do is ACCEPT it.


As the parent of an addicted child, I have learned that we are not perfect. In fact, we shouldn’t even strive for perfection. Trying to be perfect causes terrible control issues (speaking from experience). It’s a hard lesson, but we all must do what we are capable of doing at any one time. Self assessment and learning isn’t something we do, it is a process we work through.

I wish that I could live the rest of my life experiencing only the positive emotions. But I know that hurt, anger and suspicion will at some time again enter my life. That’s the way life is. Yet, after experiencing the extreme emotions brought about parenting an addicted child – and acknowledging them — I believe that I will be better able to cope with any negative feelings that arise.

Have any of you have experienced these same emotions? If you have, it is worth the reflection to examine what parenting an addicted child has done for you as much as it has done to you.

Maybe I’m normal, or maybe not. But no matter what, quoting an old wise philosopher, Popeye the Sailor Man:

“I yam wot I yam. And that’s all wot I yam……”

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    Patti Herndon

    October 12, 2013 at 8:53 PM

    “Does anyone have suggestions”?

    On wit’s ends and raw emotions: “I began to understand that I was not supporting forward momentum in my emotion based reactions -to the contrary. And, I realized that I ‘could’ contribute to and support forward momentum in my son’s recovery journey by ‘responding’ rather than ‘reacting’.

    In other words, I could allow for/acknowledge ‘feeling’ whatever it was I felt and still choose whether or not I allowed those feelings to dictate my spirit of approach, my decision making, my belief about recovery and about my son’s ability to gain recovery.”


    Please read, “Get Your Loved One Sober: Alternatives to Nagging, Pleading and Threatening” -Robert J. Meyers Ph.D. and Brenda L. Wolfe Ph.D, and visit Self Management and Recovery Training Friends and Family website (SMART Recovery Friends and Family). It’s a very user-friendly, easily accessed, free support resource that is based on a frame that utilizes Motivational Interviewing (MI) and Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT). Basically, ‘it works’ to support/coach family members in the discovery of/in recognizing and implementing the kinds of healthy interactions/responses to the challenges that come with addiction that serve to facilitate their own, and their addicted loved one’s innate ability to sustain hopefulness about the challenge ,(this is key), toward problem-solving for their particular circumstances -on any given day.

    Learning to recognize and increase our sense of self efficacy is a powerful,life-changing thing. We can’t harness our innate, recovery-serving sense of self efficacy if the lion’s share of those energies are being used unproductively/are held captive by all the anxiety,(aka fear, anger, shame, resentment, disappointment, blame etc.), we feel regarding our son/daughter, our circumstances.

    It took me a long while to figure that out. But, I did. And, it’s no coincidence that as I/as my collective family learned how to better manage feelings and emotions about the challenges, as well as how to govern our responses to the extreme challenges we faced; My son began engaging recovery. He gained the ability to advocate for himself, on behalf of ‘his own’ reasons to make healthier and healthier choices. This progress did not happen in a vacuum. It happened because of a lot of hard work and willingness by us – his family members- to be open to examining the dynamic in the family that contributed to his choice to use substances to cope with his negative feelings and narratives about his life.

    He is in long term recovery.

    Addiction is the Journey. Recovery is the Destination.

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    Nancy Toth

    July 10, 2013 at 5:11 PM

    Thank you Ron for this very insightful article. We have felt all of these things and gone down this road twice before. My husband and I are now trying to decide what help we can get our son if he is willing to seek it. He has been taking Methadone although sporadically and not every day. He has had issues with taking pills in the past and was told he did not need to be in an inpatient facility but needed counseling because he was not fully addicted and taking drugs every day. he has seen several counselors before but never follows up. He has been told he has trouble with coping skills. he recently lost his job (not due to drugs) and his GF had a miscarriage. We are not sure how to proceed next. He is very upset with us because we took away our house key (he lives with his GF) and told him he could not work for us as long as he is using (he was working for us while his unemployment gets straightened out. So no job, car is broken down, no money. We are at our wits end because we are so afraid of him going down a much worse path if this is not nipped. Right now emotions are high and raw. Ive cried for two days straight. We do not know what our next step should even be. Our son is 29. Does anyone have any suggestions? Since he is not a teen I was not sure whether the helpline here could help us.

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