Three Lessons for Family Members of an Addict

I had many sleepless nights when my son was in active addiction.  Questions raced through my mind such as:

Why can’t he stop using?  Why does he relapse after a hospital detox?

What happened to the person I love?  He used to be smart and kind.

Why is he doing this to his family?  Doesn’t he love us?

My husband and I were very fortunate. We were able to attend a weekly family support meeting at my son’s rehab.    This meeting was run by recovered addicts and alcoholics.  Here are three lessons that they taught us.

Lesson #1 How it feels to be in the cycle of addiction

The addicts broke down their addiction into two problems.  They described the first problem this way:

Once I start, I cannot stop.

What this means is that, once they introduce any mind altering substance into their body, then it is guaranteed that the addict will continue to take in more and more substances. Only a force outside of the addict can halt the use.  (Hospitalization or jail are examples of halting outside forces.)

There is no known cure for the cannot-stop problem.  So then the obvious answer is never to take another drink or drug.  But this brings us to the second problem, which they describe as:

Once I am stopped, I cannot stay stopped.

This second problem is a really bad problem to have.  It explains why so many relapses occur in spite of possibly deadly consequences.  It also explains why detox is not enough to bring about lasting recovery.

But what about will power?  The addicts explained that this is not a matter of will power.  My teachers said that their addicted brain will come up with a “story line” that bypasses the will, bypasses the memory of what happened before, and bypasses the knowledge of consequences.  The story line might look like, “This time I will be able control my using” or “My problem is with heroin, so I can have a drink” or “I’m not hurting anyone but myself”.

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This lesson answered many of my questions.  It also gave me with a sense of what it is like to be caught in the seemingly unbreakable loop of addiction.  The recovered addicts also gave me hope as they showed up week after week with smiles and kindness for our little group of parents.  They told us that, in their experience, a strong program of recovery had helped them to escape from the cannot-stay-stopped problem.  They once were heavy users and now each had many years of sobriety.  Their transformation was amazing and inspiring.

Lesson #2 I’m not the person to help

The addicts often told us:

You are the LEAST qualified person to help your addicted loved one

Ouch, this lesson hurt.  At the time I deeply believed that my love should be enough to direct me to the right actions that would cure my son.  I also thought that my job as a parent was to protect him and to sacrifice everything in order to help him when he had a problem.   

It turns out, I was wrong.  I eventually had to admit that the people who could best help my son were other addicts and alcoholics who had recovered.  People in recovery could win his trust as they shared a lot in common.  They could demonstrate the power of recovery and show the path that they used to get there.  The recovered addicts also were strangely immune to my son’s stories and manipulation.

So what, then, was my role?  I told him that I love him and support him in recovery. But importantly, I also stepped back and gave my son some space to walk his own recovery path.  I’m happy to report that he is now over four years in recovery and he is indeed a wonderful person – trustworthy, kind, and loving – just as he was before heroin entered our lives.    

Lesson #3 A healing path

This lesson was perhaps the most surprising of all.  Every family meeting was started with sitting in silence: eyes closed, breathing slowed.  This was not just a few quick seconds but multiple minutes of deep group silence.

At first, I could not do it. My grief and fear kept my mind running, seemingly with no way to stop the train of thoughts.  And I was certainly too freaked out to look closely at what I felt and where I felt it.  I would peek at the recovered addicts at the front of the room.  They had lived terror that I could only imagine.  And now they sat, so calm and centered.  How can this be?  And how can I experience some of that healing?

And so, slowly, I started to add healing practices to my life.   I certainly knew that loving an addict had caused me to suffer, but I didn’t understand that recovery was available to me as well as to my son.

Conclusion

So there you have it: three lessons that I learned.  At one point I believed that I was somehow superior to those caught in addiction.  But pain is a great teacher and I see now that we are all sharing the experience of living as human beings.  I am so happy that I became willing to listen and so grateful that the addicts were willing to teach!