The Key to Dealing With My Son’s Addiction? Setting Boundaries for Myself

    I am a hard-headed, stubborn guy with the propensity to be a control freak. It took me a long time to learn that my anger was a result of not being able to control my son’s addiction. Eventually, I learned that, at most, I have only a small measure of influence over him. The only real control I have is over my own self.

    When my wife and I first began this nightmare of addiction, we heard about boundaries. In my mind, that was an easy one. Rules are rules; follow the rules and there would be no trouble. Unfortunately, I learned that that was untrue — the hard way. People with addiction often have no concept of rules and how they provide structure to society. If the parents of someone struggling with addiction expect that a set of rules will manage their child’s behavior, they will live in an angry and frustrating world.

    My famous directive to my son — usually delivered at the top of my lungs — was: “No lying, no stealing and no drugs.” Just what the hell is so hard about that?

    I am finally beginning to understand “just what the hell is so hard about that.” This has caused me more anger and frustration than just about anything else I’ve dealt with about addiction. With me, anger and frustration nearly always dissolved into me hollering at him and anyone in the vicinity. This resulted in more anger and hurt for all. In a hurting family, that is the last thing you need — hurt compounded upon hurt.

    I have learned that there is a big difference between rules and boundaries. Rules are easy. They are set and everyone follows them. Boundaries are not rules. Boundaries help direct your universe when the rules do not apply or are not relevant. My lack of clear boundaries for myself led me to inadvertently encourage my son’s substance use. This has probably prolonged his addiction and is a regret I live with every day.

    Boundaries are healthy for you and those surrounding you. I cannot change my son’s behavior by setting rules. Any success for me in dealing with my son’s addiction is a result of setting good boundaries for myself.

    I choose where I want to go. I no longer allow my child with addiction to take me where he wishes to go. In a simplistic form, I can make a rule directed at my son that he cannot use substances in my home. The reality is that he is actively using substances; he will do so in my home. I will become angry because he violated my rule. I have a right to be angry, right? I think. But did this make anything better? No — we are still at square one. I am angry that he is using substances in my home and I feel out of control and helpless. He is feeding his addiction. All of this happens because I am trying to control something that I have absolutely no control over.

    But I can establish a boundary, like this: I do not wish to live in a home where substances are being used. This actually puts everything on me; there is really no reason to become angry. I now have complete control of the situation and I have several options. I am not trying to control him. I get to decide on the actions in my life.

    Boundaries must be set after much calm and reasoned thought. Trying to set boundaries in the midst of heated situations resulted in failure every time — especially because those “boundaries” (really, rules) I thought I was setting were being yelled at him and not being set for me. If you are setting boundaries for yourself and using a calm, deliberate approach, success can be more easily achieved and you can control your own actions. That works well with the “control freak” in me. I set my boundaries to match my values.

    To be clear, I do not see boundaries as a solid, impenetrable barrier like the Berlin Wall, with heavy life-or-death consequences. I see the boundaries that we set for ourselves more like a rope line. There is a clear demarcation of where we decided we should not go, and there is self-imposed security to make sure we know there are consequences for crossing the line. But there may be circumstances that make crossing the line necessary, and there may be consequences that you or your loved one has to pay for doing so.

    For example, my wife and I have set a boundary about not visiting in jail, because jail is punishment. However, there was a time when our son was in jail and we went to visit him. Why would we violate our own boundary? Actually, we went for Mom. Mom had been having bad dreams about Alex, and in all of her bad dreams, Alex was with all of her dead friends and relatives. She was troubled by this. I’m not sure if she believed it was a premonition, but she was worried. I looked at it as a dream, but it was troubling my wife, so it troubled me. We visited Alex in jail and the visit calmed her worries. She could once again sleep peacefully. If there are consequences to stepping over our boundary, we shall deal with them when and if they arise.

    Setting good boundaries for yourself allows you, the loved one of someone with addiction, to bring a measure of control and sanity into a truly insane situation.

    Learn how to set boundaries for yourself

    Limit setting, and consequences for moving outside those limits, is a successful way to help both yourself and your child through struggles with substance use.

    Learn more
    By Ron Grover, Parent & Advocate
    January 2010
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