What’s it like being the parent of someone struggling with addiction? I’m not talking about the day-to-day experience with 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 substance use) to recovery (of a child from 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 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 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 struggling with addiction, 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.
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 “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 a child with addiction must do to protect themselves and their family. I’m talking about starting to see evil in a person, when evil is not the intent. This outlook leads to negative consequences for all involved.
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 is that emotion we all want. When I think of joy, a 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 was the most dangerous positive emotion. Hope set me up for terrible lows. I misunderstood hope for the majority of the time that my son was using substances. 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 rehab facilities, 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 simply 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 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 you see on my face, it is the feeling inside. The smile is simply a physical response.
Appreciation is the dominant feeling I have today. Appreciation isn’t a “thank you,” but rather, a recognition of what is. Appreciation is taking it 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 have been 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 experienced addiction. If there were 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 keeps me from being the best I can be. I must learn from my terrible mistakes.
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 you are close to, but also from those who have enough love in their life that they wish to share it. All you have to do is accept it.
As the parent of a child who has struggled with addiction, I have learned that we are not perfect. In fact, we shouldn’t even strive for perfection. I have learned that trying to be perfect causes terrible control issues. It’s a hard lesson, but we all must do only what we are capable of doing at any one time. Self-assessment and learning isn’t something we simply do; it is a process we need to 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 point, re-enter my life. That’s the way life is. Yet, after experiencing the extreme emotions brought about by parenting a child with addiction — and after acknowledging these emotions — I believe that I will be better able to cope with any negative feelings that may arise in the future.
Have any of you experienced similar emotions? If you have, it is worth it to examine what parenting a child with addiction has done for you as much as it has done to you.
Maybe I’m normal, or maybe not. But no matter what, as the wise philosopher Popeye the Sailor Man once said, “I yam wot I yam. And that’s all wot I yam.”