I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a parent of a child with a substance use disorder, witnessing the unknown from a front-row seat. The hope of seeing your child enter recovery is quickly followed by a whole new set of uncertainties. After treatment, the main question is usually, “What now?”
As a young person in recovery myself, I might not be able to tell you what to expect — but I feel I can at least tell you what not to expect.
REALITY: Everything — from routines to relationships — will shift.
It’s going to be awkward. Your relationship with your loved one will not return to the exact way it was before they used substances. Try to have lightness with them, and don’t take yourself too seriously. There’s no right way to support a child in recovery, so you’ll probably feel weird and self-conscious sometimes.
My mom and dad entered totally unfamiliar territory when I began recovery. On my 30th day of sobriety, my mom had to Google, What kind of gift to buy someone for a sobriety milestone? After brainstorming, she decided to send me a little ceramic bird, which was inspired by an inside joke and my childhood nickname, “Mollybird.” She and my dad have been gifting me bird trinkets and cards for every sobriety anniversary since. They figured out how to support me in their own way that’s unique, sweet — and most importantly to me — a little silly.
Our family ate at a nice restaurant on the night I celebrated one year of sobriety, right before heading over to my regular support group together. Everybody froze when the server asked if we’d like anything to drink. My sister whispered loudly to my dad, “IS IT MESSED UP IF WE ORDER WINE BEFORE GOING TO A MEETING?” They looked at my mom, my mom looked at me, I looked at the menu pretending to study the appetizers, and the server looked at the other tables she should’ve been able to attend to if this family could just get it together and answer the simple question already. Three years later, I still don’t know the “right” answer. My guess, and what I said that night was, “Uh, it’s fine, I guess? Right?” We all fumble through moments like these daily and sometimes all we can do is shrug our shoulders and laugh.
REALITY: Life looks more like an EKG with ups and downs than a straight path forward.
First, abandon this expectation:
And become more comfortable with this one:
The definition of “recovery success” is as subjective as recovery itself. Ask your child how they define their well-being and learn about their specific goals. Be quick to celebrate when they reach those goals, because it will affirm that these achievements are the result of their self-directed life in recovery. Their growth may not align perfectly with the length of time since their treatment discharge or their last drink or use. In fact, I can almost guarantee it won’t.
A whole new set of challenges is presented to young people once they enter recovery. Many of us use substances as a coping mechanism for co-occurring mental health disorders, and we need to learn different, unfamiliar methods of dealing with these issues. Others may have normalized our substance use through a party-centric social circle, and we need to rediscover how to develop healthy relationships outside of substance use. These types of obstacles are to be expected.
If a young person struggles to manage these stressors, it doesn’t mean that they’re in danger of using substances again — these are simply growing pains. In fact, my own mental health took a significant dip in the first several months of my recovery journey. My brain needed time to heal and re-calibrate. Trial and error was the name of the game when it came to finding treatment methods, medication and activities, but I was fortunate to have a support system of friends and family who were willing to have patience with me.
REALITY: It’s just a setback — it doesn’t erase your progress.
I try to avoid the word “relapse.” Why? Because a lapse suggests returning to square one no matter what. If I drank again, would my parents come over to my apartment and steal all my birds back? Of course not. Those milestones still exist, even if they occurred in the past. Too often I see my peers embark on a self-fulfilling prophecy when they slip up or have a setback, assuming they’ve lost all of the hard work they’ve put into recovery thus far. They’re daunted by the idea of returning to recovery and their binges become more extreme as a result.
Recurrence of substance use doesn’t necessarily mean that treatment was unsuccessful or that recovery is lost. The sooner a person reaches out for help, the easier it will be for them to bounce back on track. You can create a safe space for your child to open up when they struggle by simply expressing your love and support. Spend time doing an activity you both enjoy together, encourage them to define recovery for themselves, say “I love you” a lot, and ask how you can support their journey. Discuss the ground rules and expectations in the event of a recurrence of substance use before it ever happens, so that everyone is on the same page. You can even put your agreement in writing and have each family member sign it.
Think about “relapse prevention” like you would a safety overview on an airplane. All airlines take this necessary precaution so that passengers feel safer and more confident in the event of an unexpected and high-stress event. Does it mean that we doubt the pilot’s ability to fly a plane?
Finally, make sure you carry Narcan, because if you witness an overdose, you could save your loved one’s life.
To parents everywhere: I believe in you! Take care of yourselves too, okay?