When there’s nothing more a parent can do: conversation with a parent.
A woman with an adult daughter who was addicted to drugs plotted and schemed every day to get her daughter to change, then inevitably spent her nights in tears because she was failing. One day a friend asked her, “When you die, whose life is going to flash before you – yours or your daughter’s?”
Unfortunately, this is the trap many parents fall into as months spiral into years of destructive behavior – by the addict and by the parents as well. It is appropriate to learn as much as one can about the child’s addiction, to offer treatment, to withdraw privileges, and to refrain from doing anything for them that they can do for themselves. However, at some point, the parent has to realize the drugs are taking down two or three lives besides the addict’s.
One mother described it this way, “I felt as if I got up every morning and zipped myself into my child’s skin, and lived her miserable day inside of her.” She might as well have tried to change the weather.
The following interview is with a woman whose attentions were taken up with her 17-year-old son’s drug and alcohol addiction. The months turned into years where they did nearly anything, right or wrong, to keep him sober. Her story has taken unpredictable turns along the way and is still in process. The names of her boys, their high schools, and their treatment programs have been changed.
How did you find out Alex was using opioids in high school?
A friend of mine told me he was using OxyContin.
What a favor.
Yes, it was. We got him into an intensive outpatient program, then he went into residential treatment.
Did your family get any drug education at that time?
We went one day a week for lectures and advice.
Did you keep his problem secret?
At first you can’t talk to anyone, you become isolated. But we ultimately told our family and friends.
What was his trajectory then?
It turned out he had been using during the last phase of his residential program. As soon as he got out, he continued to use alcohol, marijuana, and cigarettes. He went out of state to a junior college, used the whole time, and graduated with an associate degree. He’s 20 years old now, has a great job, but he just got a DUI.
That was my reaction too. He stayed in jail for the weekend.
Is he an alcoholic?
My opinion is yes, but it’s his call. He thinks this is a perfectly normal way to live.
He’s not finished getting high yet.
Right. But he’s been through a 12-step program, so that information is in the back of his head.
Do you pressure him?
No. Al-Anon [a 12-step program for family and friends of addicts and alcoholics] has helped me with that. It’s helped me realize this is his path and he owns the consequences. That’s not how it’s used to be. I felt his consequences. Now he takes care of all of his court issues, mandatory drug school, dealing with his attorney, and calling his case worker daily.
Tell about your other son.
While Alex was away at junior college, we learned that our 14-year-old, Zeke, had been using alcohol, pot and heroin. This kid was on the freshman basketball team, the high honor roll; he participated in family recovery sessions. He was completely beneath the radar.
How? When? Did he use in his bedroom at night?
Yes, he’d turn on the shower and smoke. His drug use was undetectable. But then things just started happening, so we decided to drug test him.
What made you suspect?
The kid he was hanging around with. So he began being drug tested at school, but he cheated by using someone else’s urine. Last Halloween he took the car without permission, and the next day we had the escorts from the treatment facility come and pick him up.
And because he was a minor, he had no say?
Right. He tried to run and they shackled his arms and legs. It was awful. He came along slowly, because he didn’t know if he wanted a life of sobriety, but became a leader in the group and a model citizen. Then in May he relapsed, so – boom! He was back in the program. He worked his way back; we were negotiating with his private high school to re-enroll him. We informed him that he had to choose between the drug friend and his family, but a week before starting school he relapsed again. He assumed we’d cave and not follow through. But we were done. Our minds were made up.
We walked away, they kicked him out of the treatment program, and he was left in North Salt Lake with his backpack, no money, nothing. He couldn’t believe it. He said, “What about school?” We told him we were no longer willing to pay for private school. He rode a bus home, and we told him he couldn’t stay here. We offered him a change of clothes and he went to grandma’s. That was August 20, and he’s still there. He can get away with anything there. He wanted to get into the local public school, get a job, or go back into treatment. As of today, he hasn’t done any of it.
So how do you get up in the morning and not be completely miserable?
I’m not miserable. For one, I know I’m doing the right thing. When we walked out of the facility and left him there, knowing he would be put out on the street in North Salt Lake, I had the biggest sense of relief. I kept waiting for the regret but it never came. We finally got a backbone and followed through. It was liberating! What have we not given this boy?
Does he have a car?
No. No phone, no money. This change of heart happened when I started going to Al-Anon.
What did you learn there that changed your behavior?
That I won’t fall apart. That my hopes and dreams for him are just that – my hopes and my dreams. I own my desires; he has his own higher power and his own path. He can come home if he’s clean, attending high school and getting good grades.
Do you and your husband problem-solve constantly?
No, but when I find myself strategizing, I realize I’m planning his life again. So I focus on the things I can control. What am I doing with my life today? I enjoy feeling valuable at work, I go to 12-step meetings about five days a week, and read Al-Anon literature.
Mightn’t someone say that you’re pretty cavalier about your sons’ drug problems? Why aren’t you bringing them home and coaxing them into school or treatment?
Because I know I have no control over another human being.
Even a minor?
Yes. He has his own will. What consequences can I impose on him? When his consequences become painful enough, he may make a change.
Is living with grandma painful?
It is. Zeke would love his car, his phone. I don’t call to lecture him though. I know he’s living and breathing today; that’s all I need to know.
I understand that the way the addict’s brain becomes rewired; drugs are no longer a matter of recreation – they have become a matter of survival. Those new pathways created in his brain are far more powerful than any lecture you can deliver. He’ll endure it, all the while planning how he’s going to get his next high.
He stopped listening to me long ago. I should say here that I’m in recovery as well. I’m an alcoholic. Going through the process with Alex helped me see that I needed to stop drinking, and I got into Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). So the best thing I can do is work on my own recovery and be an example. He asked me the other day, “Is it really a better life, Mom?” I said yes, it is. Everything is better about it.
Do you attribute your calmness to AA or to Al-Anon?
Al-Anon. When I wanted to send Zeke to a boarding school, my sponsor said, “Before you do that, you need to go to Al-Anon and see what those people say.” She was absolutely right. I went to a couple of meetings – didn’t like them – but kept looking, and finally connected with a group.
People stay away in droves from 12-step meetings because of the “higher power” thing. How do you deal with that?
I was born and raised Catholic and sent the kids to Catholic school. God was not a problem. But my relationship with God is completely different now. It’s not about tenets of religion; it’s about spirituality.
For those of us who grew up in the 70s – when it was all about the individual, not the group – we learned to value our own will, our autonomy. Turning that over to some third party is tough to imagine. What do you say to someone who thinks it’s peculiar to turn their life over to a higher power?
I would say to them, “How’s that working for you?”
How do you advise people who don’t believe in God?
A friend of mine is agnostic, and he’s been in AA 25 years. His higher power is the power of the group. You can decide your higher power is the doorknob – anything to take away your burden of controlling the universe.
For many of our peers – who bolted from the churches they grew up in, and became somewhat jaded – it would be difficult to find comfort in a group of strangers sitting around talking about spirituality. Can you describe this power of the group?
We tend to get isolated when we’re in pain. But when you find other people having your experience, you start to listen to them. You’ll hear something you need to hear at just the right time. The more you listen, the more you trust the others and care about what happens in their life. It takes the focus off of you, takes you out of yourself and your own pain. Then you begin to help others feel better. You come to care more about the group dynamic than you do about your problems. I always feel better after a meeting. And that’s a higher power than me.
What else, besides Al-Anon, helped you?
I read “The Four Agreements,” and “The Power of Now.” And I learned to take care of myself. I was always someone’s mother, someone’s daughter, someone’s wife. My feelings didn’t count.
What would you recommend to the parent who is suffering, whose child isn’t getting any better?
Move on with your life.
Create hobbies, enjoy yourself, exercise, eat well, and show everyone that you matter to yourself. If you don’t take care of yourself, who will? Your kids? You’ve done everything you can for them, so live your life and become the person you thought you could be.
Kim Hancey Duffy is a freelance writer in Salt Lake City, and is also a member of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Coalition on Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs: www.slcpreventioncoalition.org