7 Truths About My Addict – 5 Years To Learn

Friday, November 6th, 2009 – By Ron Grover

I feel deep empathy toward parents just beginning the terrible journey of their child’s drug addiction — and those facing the turmoil of a next step: rehab, incarceration, dislodging the addict from the family home. These are still open and fresh wounds for my wife and me.
Following are seven hard lessons we’ve learned in our journey, all of which we denied in the beginning. We fought with ourselves and with each other about these things. It didn’t matter who was telling us the truth, we knew better, after all he was our son. We have come to accept these truths and now it is much easier to deal with the heartache and we’ve become more effective helpers of our son/addict.
1. Parents Are Enablers
We love our sons and daughters. We would do anything to remove the pain. Take away the addiction. Smooth the road. We’d give our life if it would help. I once wrote a letter to my son about using drugs. I used the analogy of him standing on the railroad tracks and a train (drugs) is blasting down the tracks and blaring its horn but he hears nothing. I told him it was my job to knock him out of the way and take the hit, that’s what fathers do. I understand now, I was wrong. All that would do would leave me dead on the tracks and he would be standing on another set of tracks the next day.
We raised our children the best way we knew how. At some point they made decisions that set them down this path. We can only support them and provide them opportunities to make another decision. This is a hard one. That is why at times sponsors, recovering addicts, police officers, probation officers, corrections officers, pastors, counselors can all do a better job than we can in showing our addict the correct path. That is difficult because no one loves our addict like we do but we cannot treat their addiction and enabling made things worse..
2. I Cannot Fix This
This goes to what I wrote above. This is a problem only our addict can fix. A concept such as this is very hard for me to accept because I try to fix everything. No one is allowed in our addict’s mind except them. They are the only ones that can decide to do something about this. This will not end until they decide to end it. Parents trying to make that decision for them only results in failure and frustration.
3. My Addict Is A Liar
Addicts will say anything to hide their addiction and take any action to mask the problem. I honestly believe at the time they do not even realize they are lying, they just say whatever they think you want to hear. I believe they have motives in this to seek approval and to give us pride. I believe addicts do not like themselves or what they do but at some point they can see no door out. Their only mechanism for survival is to seek somekind of approval through lying, even if they know they will be busted. I believe it offers a similar instant gratification as drugs. I think even a smile of approval from a loved one shoots off those chemicals in the brain that gives them a different high, even if it lasts only a couple seconds. When my addict tells me he is not using I really don’t hear it. I tell him often, “My eyes can hear much better than my ears.” Just as we seek evidence of their using, we must seek evidence of their NOT using. Do not rely on faith that they are not using because they told you.
4. My Addict Is A Criminal
Symptoms of this disease include illegal behavior. That is why he is incarcerated. Face up to it, Dad and Mom. He has done things wrong and he must pay the price, as they say, his debt to society. It does no good to bad mouth the police, the judge, the jail, the lawyers they did not put him there. He put himself there. When we see others on TV and in jail we think about how much they deserve to be there but our babies aren’t like them. We can justify and separate the wrongs by misdemeanor and felony but those are legal terms. The long and short of it, my addict has done things that got him put in there and he must pay.
5. Others Don’t Want Them Around
That is OK. He has wronged many people. We are the parents, it’s called unconditional love. It is not wrong for friends, brothers, sisters, grandparents, relatives to have their own feelings and pain about this situation. Some families have great support and no one abandons the addict, some people decide they do not want the trouble of an addict in their life. That is OK. We all get to make the choice and there is no wrong choice, it is just a choice by those people.
6. Life Will Not Be The Same
At 5 years old my son thought he was Michelangelo of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Running around the house with an orange bandanna tied around his head brandishing plastic weapons fighting evil and the bad guys. When we look at our addicts we see that 5 year old and mourn the loss and try anything we can to get them back. My addict is now a 21-year-old man. He is every bit an adult with at times a child’s maturity. But our world recognizes chronological ages, not maturity levels. Parents must do that too. I believe Michelangelo is lost inside of him. Those that are lost sometimes find their way back, but some do not. I can grieve this loss but it will not help him or us to move forward. An addict does not live in the past or the future. An addict lives in the here and now, if you want to help your addict you must live in the same world he does.
7. Homelessness May Be The Path He Chooses
Mom works in downtown Kansas City. When you drive down there you see homeless people with signs and some of them living under the bridges. They are dirty and hungry. They very likely are addicts, alcoholics or suffer from a mental illness. The one common denominator for all of these men and women living alone and homeless is that at some point in their life they had people that loved them. They are sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends to someone. That doesn’t change their situation. They made choices that got them to this point. They can make other choices, and there are people and organizations to help them change. The key is, they must make the decisions. If our son makes the decision to live this way, it will hurt me terribly but he will do this until it is time for him to change, I cannot change him or those circumstances. It will not help him for me to give him a bed in my home if he continues to live the lifestyle.
Why is This Important?
We struggled mightily against these truths, fought with every ounce of strength. We lost our fight. We have accepted what we wished was not true. My learning is: until you understand the truth you cannot find peace within yourself or really be able to help your addict. Accepting the truth is what allows you to help your addict by helping yourself.
I do not hate my son for using drugs and putting all of us through this pain. I hate the things he does. I hate the lying, the stealing, the using. I love my son very much, I hate his ways. It is perfectly okay to separate the two.

The family is sicker than the patient?

In 2005 when I entered the field of addiction treatment, our company was helping mostly drug addicts and alcoholics who were seeking help voluntarily.  To me it appeared to be a “personal problem” that a person became addicted. After all, how could it be anyone else’s fault that a person is drinking or drugging to excess?  On occasion we would deal with family members of the patient.  They would always seem frantic and out of sorts, sometimes wishy-washy about helping financially or sometimes unwilling to help at all. Other times they would be the opposite way and want to control the treatment plan.  I always felt an extra sense of difficulty working with them but never viewed them as sick and I certainly never saw them as part of the problem.

As I went to conferences, meetings and workshops I started hearing this phrases “the family is sicker than the patient” or “the apple never falls far from the tree”.  Comments like these were coming from well seasoned counselors, interventionist and so on who were discussing cases they were involved with.  When I would question them about the comment they would always answer something to do with codependency and always with stern conviction of its truth.

It wasn’t until I began studying the art of intervention, reading the recommended books and actually working with families as my client that I started to see this truth for what it was.  It was a tough pill to swallow because not only did I see it others but I saw it in myself.

I will take the first bullet so to speak and share my own experience of being in a codependent relationship with an addict.   For me it was my uncle and for a time, my senior business partner.  Prior to our working together we were very much estranged because of his chronic drug use.  My family had exercised tough love and shut him out of our lives until he could get clean and sober, or die, whichever came first.  Growing up I can remember having crying spells wondering if he were dead or alive because at the time he was my favorite uncle.  Once we were reunited we formed a partnership in the field and started working together.  At one point he had a major relapse and it didn’t take long for it to get ugly.  His arms and legs were swollen, his breathing slowed, he would nod off sitting or standing and it came to a point where we had him committed.  He finally did get sober.

During that time I can remember being consumed with fear and anxiety, always checking on him and always on high alert.  It brought back the feelings of wondering if would live one day to the next.  I tried reasoning with him, I covered for him, I made up stories to other people about his absence or condition etc.  I can remember the shame I felt when he would be seen by others in the field, the CEO of a large addiction treatment firm high as a kite…I felt guilty by association.

Even though this was a short period of time, I got a taste of what others live with for years at a time.  I experienced intense feeling of anxiety, fear, stress, sorrow, trauma and shame.  I made excuses, I blamed him and others who influenced him, I got angry, I cried, and when I saw glimpses of hope I felt better.   This is the roller coaster of codependency!  In a few short months I had become emotionally sick, maybe even as sick as he was but in a different way.

Since then I have worked extensively with other families and I must say that the power of codependency has astounded me.  A mother of a 19 year old heroin addict cosigning her daughters elopement from treatment two days after our successful intervention.  A 65 year old man losing his life savings to the consequences of his wife’s alcoholism refuses to have an intervention because he’s afraid to lose the frail remains their relationship.   A mother of a meth addict allowing him to live in the basement killing himself because she believes he won’t go to treatment, and a failed intervention will mean she has to evict her closest living relative from her home.

There are hundreds more stories to demonstrate the power of codependency but let’s talk about what it actually is.  Codependency is the loss of one’s self in another.  As the addict starts to under-function, the codependent starts to over-function.  It literally becomes an addiction to another person.  If the other person is ok then you are ok.  Codependency places a higher value on the relationship with the person than on the person themselves.  One of the biggest fears of a codependent going into an intervention is that the addicted loved one will never forgive them for it, or that they will never see each other again.  It warps maternal and paternal instinct into something it was never meant to be.

It causes people to worry to the point of not eating or sleeping properly, it produces stress which makes people physically sick.  It causes people to live in denial about how bad things really are. It causes people to actually ENABLE the addict in their life to use harder and longer than would ever be possible without their help.    And here is the kicker, even once we get the addict into treatment and recovering, the codependent family members are still bound up with worry and fear.  They are still ready to do anything and everything the addict wants them to do.  Why? Because the addict is their drug of choice.

The title of the article is a question, and after almost a decade in the field an coupled with my personal experience I believe the answer is yes.   But the good news is that there is help for the codependent.  There are books, support groups, expert counselors, outpatient groups and even residential treatment programs for those who can recognize that they are sick and make a choice to recover.  The even better news is that our most successful intervention cases happen when everyone in the family including the addict make a choice to get treatment and support for their illness.