When it Comes to Your Child’s Addiction, Leave the Past in the Past


How do we help a loved one who is struggling with substance use? I wrestled mightily with that question for years, while I lived a life with a son who was in active addiction. In those early days, my answer usually came down to a deceptively simple focus of “I must fix him.”

After many years, I began to take some of the emotion out and use my own tried-and-true problem-solving methodology. Back to the basics.

I’m a pretty simple guy without a single hour of formal education beyond high school, so I usually use past experience and analogies from my life to learn. What I applied was something that made it easier to understand where I was in relation to “fixing” my son.

Many years ago, I worked as a laborer in the local laborers’ union. Most of the time, if I wasn’t on the end of a 90-pound jackhammer busting out concrete, I had a machine in my hands pouring it back. That experience became a metaphor for life.

Life is like a sidewalk. As I walk along that sidewalk, I look back over my shoulder. There is a concrete sidewalk behind me that has hardened and set. There is nothing I can do to change that concrete now.

Around my feet the concrete is wet but it is quickly becoming hard. If I don’t keep moving forward, I will become trapped in that hardening concrete.

In front of me the concrete is wet and pliable. I can shape that concrete any way I chose.

I can look back over my shoulder and see the hardened concrete and learn from where I walked, but I cannot change it. Ahead of me I can shape the concrete into a path I choose. I can add curves or hills. I can work it to be as smooth or rough as I want. I have the power to shape my sidewalk. Sometimes I can walk along and do nothing, leaving it rough and ragged, sometimes I am on my knees working it with the care and tenderness of soothing a baby. My sidewalk becomes my choice to design and make.

When my son was struggling with the disease of addiction, I hate to think how many times in our “discussions” (read: loud arguments) I started with an accusatory, “You did X. You did Y.” At the time that was important. “You did” was a way of keeping score and also trying to change the shape of that sidewalk over my shoulder.

After years of learning and reflection, I have come to realize that no effective discussion begins with the words “You did.”

We all say it, and most of us have had it said to us. But the fact remains that defensiveness is not a good way to begin any dialogue.

If we don’t work on ourselves first, we cannot effectively work with anyone else. It’s hard when we are wrapped in emotion, but when we realize and accept that the sidewalk behind us is unchangeable, we can more easily begin to address the things that really do make a difference.

To Begin Helping, Start Talking.

Want to address your son or daughter’s substance use? Learn how to have a conversation — not a confrontation — with your child.

Talk Bubbles

14 Responses

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    January 24, 2018 at 10:32 PM

    Excellent way of describing what we go through and a helpful way to deal with it.It really made me think!Thank you, and God bless every one of them, and us that love them!

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    Jane Hendrix

    January 24, 2018 at 8:51 PM

    We just had a loud discussion with my son, who struggles with addiction. He keeps telling us why do you both keep bringing up the past. I don’t won’t to but I do not want to sit there and let him repeat the same vicious cycle. This is his last chance outside prison walls. It does not seem to do any what I say. He sometimes brings up the past just to remind me or make me feel guilty. I do feel like this will be the last time. Our county was just on the news tonight as being top 10 for Opoid and substance abuse. Rx for these drugs in this little county are unreal. I am sad for all out there, and talking about the past or not, does not seem to stop him.

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      January 25, 2018 at 4:02 PM

      Hi Jane,

      I can’t imagine how difficult this is for you and your fears around your son’s well-being. To Ron (the author’s) point the past can’t be changed so it means trying to figure out what to do in this moment that will help you move forward. It’s also helpful to remember what a vicious cycle your son is living with, likely wanting to have a great life and not be in prison and yet he’s stuck.

      I’m wondering if he has ever considered some of the anti-craving medications that are available. Sometimes coupled with counseling, it can make a big difference. Also, it would be important to have Narcan (naloxone) on hand as a safety precaution against overdose. You can learn more about both at this link: https://drugfree.org/article/heroin-other-opioids-from-understanding-to-action/

      Attending to your own self-care is really important too. This is such a difficult journey for parents so finding moments of peace in the storm are needed and deserved.

      Wishing you and your family well,

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    Paul Marcotte

    January 24, 2018 at 5:17 PM

    Thank you for taking the time to write about and share your experiences with dealing with a love ones addiction. I can relate to your story in regards to having to fix things. As parents we want to step in and “fix things” for our children so they don’t have to experience the deep pains and challenges of addiction. If as parents we get too caught up in past moments, if I only did this or only said that things wouldn’t be where they are right now. This is unproductive and your analogy of shaping the sidewalk you are working on right now is where we need to keep our focus.

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    Kacee Payne

    January 24, 2018 at 4:43 PM

    I am the recovering addict. I am 47. My mother disowned me when I went to rehab. It is an emotional rollercoaster that I struggle with daily. Some days are better than others.
    This is an amazing analogy of “letting go”. Thank you for sharing

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    January 24, 2018 at 3:06 PM

    Hi ,
    Currently I have a son who is struggling , he relapsed but has started over again. I told him it does not matter what happened yesterday . Lets do better today . One day at a time. I am thankful he knows he can trust me enough to tell me when he has relapsed. I am scared for him and don’t know what else to do.

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      January 25, 2018 at 4:07 PM

      Hi Christine,
      Relapses can be so scary and I think it’s such a blessing that you were able to discuss it with your son.

      It’s helpful to have open discussions about what happened and what he might do differently to ensure he stays on track. I wonder what kind of help he might need whether it’s counseling, support groups, more structure, different friends, medications, etc. Sometimes it can help to talk about his options and to continue to reassure him you’ll be there to help.

      Here is another article about relapses that might be helpful to you.

      Wishing you and your son all the best,

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