“My son’s addiction became my life,” Johanna says. “He wasn’t the sort of alcoholic who hid it; it was all front-and-center and impossible to ignore. I didn’t have any opportunity to deny it or slowly become acclimated to the idea. Once it was discovered, it was full force and my life was consumed by, ‘How do I make this better? How do I keep him safe? How do I get him into treatment?’ Nothing else was important anymore.”
Johanna was 54 when she discovered her 24-year-old son, John, was an alcoholic. She was 57 when he went to treatment. “For those three years, treatment was my only end goal. If he could just go to treatment, everything would be fine,” she tells me. “When treatment finally came, I was expecting elation, but instead, I felt completely lost and I had no idea why. I was sad. I was angry. I was so tired. And it took me a long time to figure out why that was. It was because I had been swept up in someone else’s illness so completely that I had forgotten about myself. My behaviors, my feelings, my thoughts revolved around him. My oscillating roles as caretaker, savior, and enemy were all defined by his illness. I stopped being a fully functional person and instead changed into whatever I thought he needed in the moment. My own needs didn’t even occur to me.”
“I remember sitting across the table from my husband a few weeks after John started treatment and thinking, ‘Who are we?’ If we weren’t the parents of an active alcoholic, what were we? We were almost like shell-shocked strangers staring at each other. It took a long time to come back from that—to get to know ourselves again and to get to know each other and to figure out what to do with all the anger and pain that had gone unspoken for years. Neither of us had recognized the need for self-care for parents of addicts.”
Living in a State of Emergency
Addiction has a way of taking over everything in its path and for parents of children struggling with addiction, it is natural to want to devote yourself entirely to their care. As Dr. Tian Dayton writes:
Alcoholic families may become characterized by a kind of emotional and psychological constriction, where family members do not feel free to express their authentic selves for fear of triggering disaster; their genuine feelings are often hidden under strategies for keeping safe, like pleasing or withdrawing. The family becomes organized around trying to manage the unmanageable disease of addiction. They become remarkably inventive in trying everything they can come up with to contain the problem and keep the family from blowing up. The alarm bells in this system are constantly on a low hum, causing everyone to feel hyper-vigilant, ready to run for emotional (or physical) shelter, or to erect their defenses at the first sign of trouble.
In this constant state of emergency, it can seem impossible to think of anything else. Moreover, it can feel counterintuitive to the point of absurdity; if you stop focusing on your child and start focusing on yourself, that could be the moment you miss, the opportunity you squander. Turning inward can feel hazardous, as it could take you off-course. Sometimes, it can feel like a betrayal.
Often, you don’t recognize the true dangers of this approach until your child is in treatment and you are left to grapple with the thoughts and feelings that have gone unseen and unexpressed throughout the active addiction stage. Suddenly, your child is where you want them to be and instead of relief you feel the overwhelming burden of having to rebuild your life and your family relationships after years of neglect.
Self-Care for Parents of Addicts
Comprehensive addiction treatment is a tremendous opportunity for personal transformation, growth, and healing for those struggling with substance abuse disorders. For parents of adult addicts, treatment can also be a critical time to start your own recovery journey and process the impact your child’s addiction has had on your family, your sense of self, and your psychological health. Self-care is an essential part of this process, allowing you to shift your focus from your child’s needs to your own and giving you real ways of addressing those needs.
For many, the most successful self-care strategies include the following:
Seeking Professional Help
Seeking the help of trained mental health professionals specializing in supporting the families of addicts is often vital to the recovery process. With the guidance of experienced clinicians, you can safely explore the role your child’s addiction has had in shaping your experiences and get the insight and skills you need to acknowledge and express your emotions. Individual therapy provides you with a confidential, nonjudgmental space to explore even the most painful questions, such as what role you played in your child’s addiction, allowing you to more fully understand your family dynamics and individual behaviors.
Because having a child with addiction can take a serious toll on your marriage, both individual and couples counseling can be critical pieces of the healing journey. Dayton explains:
Because family members avoid sharing subjects that might lead to more pain they often wind up avoiding genuine connection with each other. Then when painful feelings build up they may rise to the surface in emotional eruptions or get acted out through impulsive behaviors. Thus, these families become systems for manufacturing and perpetuating trauma. Trauma affects the internal world of each person, their relationships and their ability to communicate and be together in a balanced, relaxed and trusting manner.
Family therapy provides real strategies for recovering from the trauma of addiction together and nourishing the connections that addiction has harmed, allowing you to rejuvenate and strengthen your relationship.
Connecting With Peer Support
The benefits of peer support for addicts themselves are widely recognized and easily understood; finding others who share your experiences and motivating, supporting, and listening to each other can be profoundly healing and break through the social isolation that so often accompanies substance abuse. These very same benefits are available to parents in the form of specialized peer support groups geared toward families of those struggling with addiction. There are free peer support groups available all over the country that allow you to access a safe, empathetic space surrounded by others who understand what you are going through. As one parent says, “There is no way to put a dollar amount on support group meetings. Parents that attend realize they are not alone, sharing their stories, resources and ideas, supporting each other and paying it forward to others – no insurance company will cover it, yet the impact is endless: Inspiration and Hope.”
Supporting Mind-Body Health
The mind and body form an intricate, continuous feedback loop, each informing the health and well-being of the other. Integrating physical activity and holistic body-focused practices into your self-care routine can enhance emotional regulation, increase inner tranquility, and provide a healthy way to reconnect with yourself, relieve stress, and augment self-awareness. Whether it’s going for a walk, taking a yoga class, getting a massage, or taking up running, activities that let you be in your body in healthy, nurturing ways are a wonderful way of supporting overall wellness.
Participating in Family Programming
High quality, residential addiction treatment programs recognize the unique needs of family members throughout the treatment process and provide dedicated family programming designed to meet those needs during and after residential care. These programs offer the education you need to better understand what your loved one is going through, as well as greater insight into your own experience. Through workshops, process groups, and the opportunity to meet with your loved one and their therapist, you can begin to better understand the dynamics that have influenced your family and your child’s addiction, establish meaningful and healthy boundaries, and define your role in both your child’s continued recovery and your own.
“For me, addiction didn’t just mean recovery for my son,” Johanna says. “It meant that every member of our family had to recover. What that looked like was different for all of us, but each of our journeys made us stronger individually and as a group.”
Alta Mira offers a comprehensive suite of addiction treatment programs for people struggling with substance use disorders as well as co-occurring mental health disorders and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our innovative approach to addiction treatment and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward lasting recovery.
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