Having one or more people in the family that are abusing substances creates all manner of chaos and heartache.  The bigger problem is that we only see the using family member as the one having a problem.  No matter how we view them we are missing the bigger picture.  Addiction is a disease, and it is contagious!

Oh, did I catch your attention?  No, I don’t mean that if you have a family member that is an addict it makes you one too.  What I am saying is that this disease makes the whole family sick.  An illness creeps in and changes the way we act and think, and feel.  Most of the time we don’t even notice until it has gone so far that we have damaged relationships, lost jobs, and done crazy things we would normally not have thought we would do.

It’s in the name of love and caring for our family member, so we justify and rationalize at first.  But… we may in fact be feeding a fire not keeping the damage under control.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though.  Let’s talk prevention.  Much like what is needed in schools parents must be watchful and in communication.  Communication is not limited to talking and listening although maintaining that open line of dialogue with our children and other family members is vital.  Here is a definition of Communication I really like;

“Any act by which one person gives to or receives from another person information about that person’s needs, desires, perceptions, knowledge, or affective states. Communication may be intentional or unintentional, may involve conventional or unconventional signals, may take linguistic or nonlinguistic forms, and may occur through spoken or other modes.”

So we can extrapolate from that definition that we need to be mindful of our loved one’s habits, behaviors, attitudes, moods and mood swings, friends, activities, hygiene, and so much more, noticing any changes, and beginning dialogue when we spot anything of concern.

Remembering the examples of “who is at high risk”;

“Those who suffer learning disabilities like ADD and ADHD, victims of abuse, children that are withdrawn or over boisterous, kids dealing with guilt or shame, kids who feel like their parents don’t have time for them, adrenaline seekers, just to name a few.  These are the kids that are feeling different, and want to not feel that way.”

Reminding our children that they are an important part of the family and that talking about what they are experiencing as they grow is important to your role as parent so you can help advise and steer them through difficulties, being available to them when they need you, and being firm, asking questions when you must.  And when and if your child admits they don’t feel like they belong we just let them know that’s ok.  A lot of people feel uncomfortable in their own skin and do ok.  We don’t have to fix it, it will pass.

Now the painful truth.  Being the greatest parent in the world, and having the healthiest home life on the planet does not exempt your child from getting involved with mind altering substances.  Dealing with the problem once it happens is the next challenge.

You may have not noticed anything unusual about the change in your child’s behavior and attitudes and all of a sudden get a call that they were arrested for possession of some pills.  You ask yourself why they would have these pills.  You ask your child.  Your child says, “I was holding them for someone, I’m sorry, I was so stupid”, and you believe them.  You get a lawyer, and the lawyer gets them off.

A couple of months later your child goes off with friends on a Friday night.  You get a phone call at 9:00 PM that your child has been arrested and this time a drug test reveals there are opiates in their system.  You argue with yourself that it couldn’t be right, your child tells you that someone must have slipped pills into something they drank.

You just hit a very important cross road. 

Your next step could mean life or death for your child.  Every ounce of you wants to defend them keep them out of trouble.  Give them a chance to not have a police record and prove they are telling the truth. If this is the decision you make, you are probably headed down a long road of enabling and codependency, and misery.

I learned too late in life that children learn faster if they have the opportunity to experience the full force of consequences from their choices.  What choice you ask?  If my child was slipped a drug he didn’t make that choice.

Your child did make the choice to be around people that would do that, if that is even the truth.  The consequence may prevent that kind of choice in the future.  Creating a soft landing will certainly not.

Enabling, and codependency go hand in hand in a self-feeding fire of progressive sickness and destruction. And like the addict doesn’t know they are an addict until things have gotten so out of control that they have to stop and take a look, so goes codependency.

What then?  What do we do?  Is this where tough love comes in?  Actually, I don’t like the term tough love, I think it makes it too difficult to weed through the quagmire of right things to do.  It makes it sound like you need to be tough on someone to love them.

The way I phrase it is close, but more direct to me.  We have to Love them enough to make tough choices!  Do you see and feel the difference?  Tough choices means I will do things, and not do things, that are not the popular choice.

I will think through my choices and if I believe an action or inaction will do more harm than good, then I will make the choice against that.

Soft landings, helping a child to suffer the least possible consequences, paying for lawyers when they were busted for something they did.  Giving them money, lying for them, covering for them, and so much more.  These behaviors are trademark enabling and signs of codependency, which runs much deeper than just in relationship to the addict.   It is a personal mental illness that will manifest itself in all areas of your life.  This is why I say that Addiction is a family disease that is contagious.

“Generally speaking, codependency can be defined as a set of compulsive behaviors learned by family members in order to adapt in a setting where there is addiction, neglect, physical or emotional abuse, chronic illness or a dysfunction that creates an environment of significant emotional pain and stress”

If we are going to have any hope of having a healthy family when there is addiction involved it has to start somewhere.  It only makes sense that those with best presence of mind should stop and look at the whole situation and determine if maybe they need some help to get healthy before they can help anyone else.

Even a few visits to Alanon or Naranon, can be huge step toward making this happen.  Listening to others’ successes and failures is what you get there, and it can be a help in the right direction.

I am a recovering addict and have been since 1987.  I was a champion enabler and codependent.  It took me 10 years to quit trying to get my ex-wife into recovery.  I enabled my children in their own addictions.  I paid for lawyers, I paid impounds, and Bail.  I provided jobs and housing.  Then one day it all changed.  I quit giving my kids the things they were used to and one at a time they went into recovery themselves.

I won’t try to paint it all to be a rosy picture either.  Even after going through all of the pain of being the bad guy and them finding recovery, my oldest went back into his addiction.  After losing his daughter in a custody battle with his mother in law he had a son that was born addicted and spent 2 ½ months in NICU being medically detoxed.  My wife and I took him to raise until my son got his act together and ended up moving from California to Tennessee.

Over the next 4 years my son would call asking help from time to time and I was always willing to give him the help he needed; a bed in a rehab, or halfway house, a connection with a friend that could get him to meetings, but I had to refuse the help he wanted.  Money, a car, and things he could use to sell or trade for drugs.  I did get him food a few times.

On December 23rd of 2015 I received the call that no parent wants to get.  He was in the hospital on life support.  Using needles had caused infection to attach to his heart and then other organs.  I flew 2,000 miles to see him for the last 9 hours of his life.  No parent should have to bury their child from a stupid disease like addiction.

I have to reject the feelings of guilt and tell myself that if I had done what he asked those, oh so many, times his death would have just come faster.  I have to remind myself that I gave him the best possible chance I could in the things I had any influence over.  I got him beds in rehabs he chose not to go to.  I offered to bring him to Tennessee if he would get back into recovery.  He just couldn’t break free from the things that held him captive, and then it was too late.

At least I didn’t love him to death, which would have been a guilt I wouldn’t want to deal with.  Instead I loved him enough to make the tough choices.

A year before he died He had another son born addicted which he lost to the system, and I was unable to get custody of.

So I say that not all endings are happy, but we have to do our best to make the best possible conditions for recovery to be attractive.  Always loving, never hurting, willing to do what will help and rejecting what won’t.   And always being willing to learn.  If your family is sick from a family member’s disease, treat the whole family.

The next Newsletter in this series will be “Parents and Families Part 2, Signs of Trouble”.

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Definition of Communication from: http://www.unm.edu/~devalenz/handouts/defcomm.html

Definition of Codependency from: https://www.allaboutcounseling.com/codependency.htm