To the Parents of Adult Alcoholics and Addicts
It is an almost unbearable transition.
Your teenage child who has a long history of alcohol/drug abuse has just turned 18, and both everything and nothing has changed.
On the one hand, you no longer have any legal control over what they do. In the eyes of the law, they are adults. They can do as they please, and must face the consequences of all that they do.
On the other hand, they are still your child. The one-day difference between 17 years and 364 days and 18 years means little to you. You still love them, and so you still feel the anguish every time they get drunk or high. You worry about what is to become of them, and you still feel the need to protect them.
Sometimes, it seems like the problem has worsened once they move out of your home. Because they are not living under your roof, you worry even more about whom they’re associating with, how they are supporting themselves, and what is to become of them.
If they’ve been out of your home for any length of time, you might hear the same old tired litany of demands that virtually blackmail you into helping them –
“I need some money or I’m going to starve.”
“Help me out or I’ll be living on the streets.”
“You don’t know what it’s like! I’m really hurting. Give me the money or I’ll kill myself.”
Often, the only interaction you have with your child is when they need some sort of financial support. You worry that if you don’t give in, they’ll disappear, do something desperate, wind up in jail, or somehow end up in a situation that is worse than their addiction.
So, you pay their rent, post their bail, buy them a car, and write checks to their attorneys, their doctors, and to the Court, all in an effort to protect them. You nearly bankrupt yourself to send them to rehab after rehab, and in response, they quit before the treatment plan is complete. Even when they stick it out, the rehab just doesn’t seem to take.
You give and you give until you and other family members suffer. Your life savings are dwindling, money you set aside for other children’s futures is gone, and your own financial security is destroyed.
On top of it all, you don’t feel as if your sacrifices are gaining you anything. Your child doesn’t seem to be getting any better, you are fighting with your spouse or other children because of the support you’re giving, and everything you provide seems to be spent on drugs and booze.
Now that you are at the end of your rope, what do you do?
If you were to ask that question of anyone in recovery, they would all tell you the same first step –
“Admit that you are powerless over drugs and alcohol, and that your life has become unmanageable as a result.”
When you can make that admission truthfully, you will instantly feel an incredible burden lifted from your shoulders.
Think about it – for years, you have been battling against an implacable opponent – addiction – over which you have no power whatsoever. All of your efforts to defeat addiction have only resulted in a destruction of your sense of peace, serenity, and sanity.
When you admit that you have no power over addiction – especially someone else’s addiction – you free yourself from the crushing responsibility of finding a way to beat it.
The second part of that admission – that your life has become unmanageable – is you giving yourself permission to seek help outside of your own abilities.
When you are able to ask for help, you will find that there are time-proven strategies and resources that are there for you to help you regain YOUR life.
Moving forward, and that’s where your focus needs to be – on YOUR life. YOUR peace of mind. YOUR serenity. YOUR sanity. YOUR health. YOUR financial security. YOUR other relationships. YOUR happiness.
This does not mean that you are turning your back on your child. It means that you understand that you cannot help someone before you help yourself. It means that you absolve yourself of the responsibility for their substance abuse problems. It means that you stop taking on the impossible burden of their addiction.
Those are the mental adjustments that you need to make for yourself. Once you have done this, you can start doing the practical things to implement this new-found attitude adjustment.
The first thing you must do is STOP ENABLING your child and their addictions.
This means that you stop financially supporting your addict/alcoholic and stop protecting them from the consequences of their behaviors. Look at it this way –
As long as they are immune to the consequences of their addictive behavior, what motivation do they have to change?
You have lived the last few years hoping desperately that your child will change. The reality is, people can only change themselves, not others. In this situation, that may be enough.
When you change the dynamic of the unhealthy relationship that you have had with your child, as a result, they, too, will be forced to change. These changes can be unpredictable, but again, they are not your responsibility.
Initially, they will almost always vehemently resist. They may curse you, cry, threaten, and beg, all in an effort to get you to return to your old way of doing things. If they have children, they may even use them as bargaining chips.
This brings you to the second thing you must do – stand up to your addicted child. This is the “tough love” that you’ve heard about. You must be firm, first for your sake, and secondarily, for theirs.
It will be difficult. Because she you have cut off the flow of financial support, you will hear an endless number of desperate promises and an equal number of guilt trips. Of course the loving part of you will want to believe the promises and the self-blaming part of you will want to absolve what you perceive to be your own guilt.
If you cave in now, you only reinforce their negative behaviors and teach them once again that there are no consequences to their own behaviors.
Keep in mind what happens if you give in.
FIRST, your addicted child will continue to drain you of both your financial resources and your sanity. They will continue to exploit your love for them while never taking any personal responsibility for their actions and never seeking help to overcome their addictions.
Make it a complete quid pro quo situation. Never give you any support without first receiving from them some sort of demonstrable progress in cleaning their lives up – treatment, 12-step programs, rehab, measurable sobriety, etc.
In other words, any help that you continue to give should be conditional upon their commitment to their own recovery in sobriety. It’s okay to help them find effective treatment and aftercare programs.
Remember to place the responsibility for attendance, adherence, and progress in squarely on their shoulders. The most common cause of relapse is a person’s own belief that they are unworthy of or unable to achieve sobriety. Let them gain that belief and self-worth by putting in the work.
If they have children, think of their welfare, rather than listening to the threats coming from an addicted person. Be prepared to take your grandchildren in yourself or discuss with other family members their ability to do so. If necessary, explore the options of contacting Child Protective Services.
SECONDLY, come to the realization that your adult child has the ability to get their life in order if – they have sufficient motivation and if the correct drug/alcohol rehab program is chosen.
THIRDLY, remember that it is okay – indeed, vital – that you focus on your own recovery as the co-dependent loved one of an addict/alcoholic. Your own behaviors while you were enabling their addiction has severely and negatively impacting your life and the lives of your other loved ones. Focus on your own step-by-step return to serenity and peace.
FINALLY, realize that you do not have to do it all by yourself. There are any number of support groups and recovery programs for the family members of alcoholics and addicts. Avail yourself of their services and you will find that by sharing your own experiences, the pain and stress is lessened.
It is a hard realization that your child is now an adult and can make their own decisions. Like it or not, one of those choices might be to continue drinking or using. You may not be able to keep them from destroying themselves, but you and the rest of your family don’t have to go down with them.
Genuinely support and encourage your adult child in any effort they make toward their own recovery and sobriety by giving your child, your family, and most importantly, YOURSELF the benefit of the best treatment and support options available.