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

    July 9, 2013 at 12:12 AM

    I’ve discovered that the experiencing of emotions of all shapes and sizes is a given in parenting a son with a substance use disorder…

    As I have worked to open up my scope and learn more and more over the past 17 years regarding what genuinely supports my individual son’s long term recovery, as well as what supports my own, and my collective family’s ‘sense of can’ about the journey; I have a better grasp, now. And, I also have a growing understanding of the role my own emotions play in desired outcome regarding my circumstances/my hopes.

    What I learned that is not a given…what had to be consciously ‘reached for’… is the development of/nurturing of an awareness as to how those many emotions have impacted my son’s, as well as my own and my family’s collective spirit of travel/mechanism of belief about the journey.

    My spirit of approach, my perspective, my narrative about my challenge is something ‘I’ choose. I am responsible for that choice. Not anyone else. In neglecting to question (and challenge when necessary) my emotion’s potential influence on my response to the challenges faced in addiction; I am, essentially, surrendering the innate power I possess to deliberately, intentionally and consciously choose the best possible/best healthy response for the circumstance. As importantly, I began learning better and better how to recognize -and then disallow- the negative emotions/narratives of others in dictating my responses and decision making capability.

    It took a while to find my life raft and paddle my way to solid ground, despite the waves of my emotions. But, I did…finally.

    It took some hard work to figure this stuff out. But, as I did…It was BIG. The result was that I witnessed my son engaging and gaining consistent momentum in recovery, little by little.

    I have the blessing of witnessing the same in other parent’s journeys, too. And, I have a deep sense that the strides in recovery of these sons/daughters have been no coincidence. It had a lot to do with parents recognizing the impact their own emotions were having regarding their responses/decision making about their day to day challenges associated with addiction, as well as how their emotions influenced how they allowed their perspectives/narratives to be influenced by others.

    As our negative narratives are drowned-out and silenced within ourselves, (no matter how these narratives became rooted/established), we become better creative problem solvers, and reasonable expectations regarding our individual circumstances tend to replace the dysfunctional narratives…and the stress lessens. And… when the stress lessens, hope can better-finds its voice. When hope finds its voice and is singing a consistent tune -one that everybody in the family finds they can sing along with… relationships get better, more functional, more healthy…and so do our individual choices, little by little.

    I’ll take ‘little by little’, any day. That ‘little’ has meant big change in my son’s recovery and my family’s collective sense of ‘can’.

    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.

    I figured out that as big as my emotions ‘felt’, they were dwarfed in the shadow of the need there was for me to shift most of that focus of energy toward how best to advocate on behalf of my kid…to learn what I ‘could do’ that best utilized ‘his’ strengths for recovery… and, for God’s sake, to keep trying the ‘next thing’ when what I was doing in response to the challenges wasn’t having the result I hope for in a reasonable amount of time -instead of ‘letting go’ while clinging to clichés that had been drummed into my head about all the things I ‘can’t do’, ‘didn’t do’, and ‘couldn’t control’. These advisements had become impotent for me…because they didn’t teach me what I ‘could do’.

    Learning what I did -about the psychological mechanics of the ‘change process’ of individuals, and how people make healthy, sustainable change over time -contributed to my journey in gaining coping muscles and building self efficacy regarding my circumstances, and hope for the road ahead. I was able to better model that sense/that essence of ‘can’ to my kid, and others too. Subsequently, the emotions I felt about my challenges were relegated to a more functional role of ‘to be acknowledged, but not automatically submitted to’ or ruminated about. I repossessed and repurposed the energy that had been stalled out and tangled up in indulging negative emotion. And, that was powerful recovery ‘stuff’…Still is. It’s a work in progress…but it’s a kind of work that I am beyond grateful to engage.

    *Even though we are all still exposed to many status quo, negative narratives intended as support regarding recovery -which despite intent fails to direct us/inspire us toward all the ‘cans’ there are to carpe in recovery- Things…they are a’changin in recovery narratives, approaches and advocacy -little by little.

    Wishing us all the ever-expanding ability to forge our own path toward recovery, and loads of unstoppable hope to pave the way…

    Addiction is the journey. Recovery is the destination.

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    chris campbell

    June 13, 2013 at 8:15 PM

    How touching and honest this article is. This should be shared all over the world. I had the honor of 2 newcomers call in the last 48 hrs- so wrapped in fear as they are just getting started, and an adult child asking about her mother-‘what do I do?’ I don’t know what to do? As my wonderful sponsor said ‘we have a lot of work to do out there…

    Thank You!

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    Carol Derov

    June 13, 2013 at 6:08 PM

    I would also add “Guilt” and “Shame” to the list – at least in the beginning stages of learning about and understanding what we, as parents of addicts, are dealing with. For too many months, I asked myself “why me” and “what could we have done differently?” “What did we do wrong?”. Of course, with years of NarAnon (which saved us – literally), we now understand the nature of the disease, and we continue to learn how to live One Day at a Time. We ‘bank’ the good moments to enjoy later, when times get tough again….

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    June 11, 2013 at 5:52 PM

    Wow. “If I choose not to learn, then what has been the worth of a decade of my life.” Unbelievably beautiful. So simple. You could have posted just that. What a powerful statement. I’m going to share that at my group tonight. I’m also going to print out this post and pass it out. Everything you talked about is what we speak of at our NA meetings. Our group gets bigger each week, I am sad to say…but happy that there is a place for the loved ones of addicts. That said, I am a frequent reader to your blog. One of my favorite postings was the seven truths. This will now be another. Thank you for your beautiful words.

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    Bruce Colbert

    June 6, 2013 at 11:40 PM

    Great, great article. Really brings it home to people who may be in the same situation, or for us who can only experience it through the eyes of someone else. Should be required reading in college class or handed out to new admits in recovery centers.

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