Ask the average parent to list their deepest fears and most will include drug addiction. This is of course quite understandable. Aside from the financial cost, the health dangers, and the unpleasant people addiction exposes a child to, parents also fear “losing” them. Indeed, it is interesting to note that when the British novelist Julie Myerson decided to write an account of her son’s addiction to skunk cannabis and the terrible impact it had on the family, she titled it The Lost Child.
The Problem With Addiction
Obviously, situations vary. The parents of a 40-year-old son gripped by alcoholism will have different concerns to the parents of a teenage daughter hooked on heroin. But, no matter what the circumstances, addicts tend to share certain traits. Anyone who has lived with one will tell you never to underestimate them – or, rather, never to underestimate what addiction can turn them into. Addicts are often ruthless, selfish, devious, and manipulative. Feeding their addiction comes first, and everything else, including their parents, fades into the background.
First, you must take care of yourself. An addicted child will never say “you look a bit tired mum – how about I stop my addiction for a few weeks so your health and bank balance can recover?” Their addiction is all-consuming. It has consumed them and, if you are not careful, it will consume you, your partner, and your savings. Most important of all, it will damage the lives of your other children – something you cannot allow. Indeed, this has to be a red line. Not only will the sight of a drug or alcohol-addicted sibling upset them, there is the danger that they will be tempted themselves. If you have very young children, there is also the danger that they will find a bag of pills, a bottle of whisky, or even a needle, with potentially fatal consequences.
Addicts may enjoy their high, but they rarely enjoy being addicts. Many find their drug or alcohol dependency exacerbates, or even triggers, mental illness, while others lose careers, friends, and children. Watching all this unfold, parents are often so desperate to help that they ignore their own needs. Such masochistic neglect does no one any good. Not only is it unfair on you, it won’t benefit your addicted child either. Helping someone through an addiction is a battle. And if you are going into battle you need to be fit and strong. So make a special effort to exercise, de-stress, and eat healthily. Taking care of yourself is not selfish.
The Sense of Shame and Failure
Aside from the practical fears and concerns, parents must deal with a sense of failure. Sooner or later everyone asks why and wonders what they could have done differently. Did you give them enough space? Should you have been stricter when they were young? Should you have intervened earlier – or not intervened at all? There is almost no limit to these sorts of questions, and parents can literally drive themselves mad asking them. Such self-interrogation is a waste of time, however. For a start, you will never find answers that satisfy you. Secondly, they are a pointless distraction. If you truly want to help your child, you must focus all your time and energy on what can be done here and now.
More generally, there is the problem of shame. Addicted children often cause their parents acute shame and embarrassment. They may, for example, steal money from your friends or spend time in jail. Sadly, human nature being what it is, some people will take immense, if hidden, delight in your predicament. This is especially common when the family had been a happy and prosperous one. There are always people who envy and resent such happiness and will be very pleased to see you brought down to earth.
By far the best way to deal with this kind of shame is to be honest. You don’t need to go into the gory details, but if you try and carry on as though nothing is happening you will irritate and provoke the worst in people. Be honest about what it has done to you and how it has made you feel. Imagine, for example, that you and your husband are wealthy and successful. Your marriage is strong and happy and, until recently, your two sons were doing well at school. Over the last six months, however, your 14-year-old has got in with a bad group and developed an addiction to cannabis. The drug has altered his personality, and he was recently caught breaking into a local store. The following Monday, you pick up your younger son, aware by their glances that the other parents at the school gate are talking about you. Be both dignified and honest. Tell them that it breaks your heart to see your son in such pain and that you are frightened something terrible will happen to him. People often feel ashamed of themselves when the person they’ve been gossiping about behaves with such dignity.
Knowing the Difference Between Loving and Enabling
When dealing with an addicted child, it is vital to recognize the difference between love and enablement. When someone “enables” an addict, they essentially help him to continue. An obvious example would be providing cash or allowing him to take drugs in your bathroom. But there are other, more subtle forms of enablement. Even laughing along when he or she makes jokes about their addiction could be considered enablement because you are making light of things and, in a sense, reassuring them that it’s OK.
Instead, you must walk the line between cold detachment and active help. Make it clear that you love them, are rooting for them, and that you believe in them; but also make it clear that no one can do this for them. Again, it must be stressed that the same advice is not suitable in every situation. A 16-year-old daughter who is desperate and frightened needs love and care; a 35-year-old son who sits around the house all day drinking and feeling sorry for himself may just need a kick in the butt! And in any case, only you know your child. Some will be sensitive and mature, others whiney and self-pitying. It is also worth adding that some forms of enablement may be sensible. For example, a parent may end up driving his daughter to meet her dealer. Outsiders will be horrified, but the parent knows she is going to do it anyway – at least this way he can protect her from assault.
Unfortunately, being desperate and manipulative, addicts will exploit this confusion, blurring the lines between love and enablement. Refuse to help them get their fix and you may be met with a barrage of insults, usually something like “why did I bother to ask? You never loved me, you’ve never been there for me etc.” When the child you love is also depressed and malnourished, or weeping and shaking, they can be even harder to resist.
Often, however, only tough love will work. Remember, no matter what they say, most addicts don’t want to stop. They may not like the comedown, the depression, the sickness, the loss of control, the lack of money and so on, but they do like the high they get from cannabis (or alcohol, gambling etc). And giving up that buzz can be hard. Consequently, they will seek to rationalize, justify, and generally downplay the effects.
Don’t allow them to get away with this. There is no need to nag or yell, but you must make it clear that the addiction is hurting them, that it needs to stop, and that their life will just spiral down and down unless it does. Assuming that your child is old enough and mature enough to withstand it, you must stress the need to take responsibility. That is what it means to be an adult. They chose to start, and they must choose to stop.
Setting clear boundaries is an important part of this. And even more importantly, you must stick to those boundaries and follow through on your threats. Again, it must be stressed that each case should be treated individually. No responsible parent would throw a vulnerable teenage girl onto the street. Unfortunately, many settle into a kind of ritual or game: making threats and setting boundaries to which the child agrees, all the time knowing, as does the child, that nothing will come of them.
Finally, join a support group. Being the parent of an addict can be a very lonely experience. Friends may try to help, but none will ever truly understand. Few things will help you more than sharing your story with people who’ve been there, people who will not only reassure you but may also provide good advice. If you cannot find a support group in your area, try setting one up yourself. You may be surprised how many people turn up – after all, most people keep quiet about such things, and there may be more out there than you realize.
The parents of an addict face one of the bitterest experiences life can inflict: seeing your child in pain. On top of this is the terrible sense of failure, the feeling that “this happened on my watch.” And seeing the neighborhood kids set off for college or begin a career while your son checks into rehab yet again, only adds to the bitterness. Ultimately, however, accept that there is a limit to what you can do. Your child is not an extension of you. They have free will and make their own choices. Accept this first – and then do all you can.