Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Controlling Conflict

It’s said that control is the flip side of fear. When we’re afraid that disaster will strike, we want to seize control and hold on for dear life. Ironically, the harder we fight for control, the more chaotic things can become. This is especially true when we try to force our will on others.

I remember a time when almost every conversation I had with my daughter ended in anger. In my mind, she was the one who was being unreasonable when she lashed out against my advice or refused to answer my questions. I knew that she lied and kept dangerous secrets from me, and I was frustrated by my inability to break through and show her the light. I guess I thought that if I shouted and nagged enough, I would make her see that she was throwing her life away.

But the harder I tried to control her, the more she resisted. We were locked in an exhausting battle that did neither of us any good, until I accepted the need to let go of her problems and put the focus on myself. That was the beginning of my recovery.

I stopped challenging her on every suspected lie. I stopped offering unwanted advice. I let go of trying to solve the inevitable problems her addiction created. I started being clearer and firmer about my own boundaries. And when conflict with me was no longer a convenient excuse for her problems, she was left face-to-face with the consequences of her own choices. That was the beginning of her recovery.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Detachment - One Day at a Time

One night in a Nar-Anon meeting, a woman described her addicted son’s latest crisis. I forget if he was facing eviction or jail or some other calamitous but predictable consequence of addiction. What I do remember is that the woman wrapped up her comments with this statement: “It’s not my problem!” Her voice held a note of triumph, as if she were celebrating some kind of liberation. And in a way, she was: liberation from responsibility for fixing the mess her son had gotten himself into.

Her words made a powerful impact on me because I have struggled mightily with the concept of detachment. At the slightest hint that something was wrong in my addicted daughter’s life (and there was almost ALWAYS something wrong), my mind would race to find solutions to her problems. Was she depressed? I could buy her a car to cheer her up (and make it easier to get drugs). Was her phone being shut off? I could pay the bill (making it easier to contact her dealers). Had she lost her job? I could call places that were hiring and set up interview appointments for her (that she never kept). But despite all my efforts, her problems kept getting worse. And because I insisted on inserting myself into her life, it was easy for her to blame me when things went wrong.

The notion that her problems were not my problems was a startling concept to me. It allowed me to look at detachment in a whole new light. Somehow, I had gotten the idea that detachment meant I had to turn my back on my daughter. That was something I would never do. But thanks to that woman’s words, I saw that detachment simply meant that I didn’t have to accept responsibility for my daughter’s problems. That I could love her and still own what was mine and allow her to own what was hers.

The line still gets blurry at times, and I don’t always get it right. But I am grateful to that woman for her simple words, “It’s not my problem!” For I have increasingly come to value detachment as one of the cornerstones of recovery – my daughter’s and my own.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

10 Things I Wish I'd Known before my Child Became Addicted

I didn’t know where my daughter was. At 23, she claimed to have moved in with some friends. But I hadn’t heard from her in days. No one answered the door when I went to her apartment, so I drove through the dark streets of her run-down neighborhood, hoping to see her.

Finally, I spotted her car parked along a curb. A dim streetlight showed a back seat piled high with possessions: blankets, clothes, a plastic makeup case, a tattered stuffed bunny she’d received for her fifth birthday.

Panic swelled in my chest as I returned to the apartment. This time, lights were on and a young woman reluctantly invited me inside. She stared at the floor as I asked about my daughter. After a long pause, she admitted that she had kicked her out. Then she looked at me curiously. “Do you know your daughter’s a heroin addict?”

My knees buckled. The floor heaved. More than 15 years later, I can still feel the life-altering shock of that moment.

Yet, looking back, it’s hard to understand why my daughter’s addiction came as such a surprise. All the signs had been there for quite some time. Only ignorance and denial had prevented me from seeing what was so painfully obvious — just as ignorance and denial had blinded me to her experimentation with substances as far back as elementary school.

I’ve learned a lot about addiction since then. I’ve learned about detox and overdose and rehab and relapse. I’ve learned how addiction can take hold of someone and not let go. I’ve learned that the way back is a gargantuan struggle, and that many recover, but some never do.

Most of all, I’ve learned that knowledge is our best defense against the scourge of addiction. These are the things I wish I’d known before my daughter became addicted:

1. Addiction can happen in any family. It seems incredibly naive — if not downright smug — but there was a time when I believed my kids were immune to addiction. They were too smart. They had a good upbringing. They were good people. But I didn’t know that none of that matters. Some people are susceptible to addiction the way some are susceptible to heart disease or depression. Researchers believe that genes account for about 50 percent of a person’s vulnerability to addiction.

2. Addiction has a mental health component. People with mood, anxiety, or conduct disorders are about twice as likely as the general population to develop substance-use disorder, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. For those individuals, substances offer relief from emotional pain, a way to “self-medicate” that’s profoundly compelling. Many addicts — including my daughter — describe an “inner emptiness” that existed long before they began using mind-altering substances.

3. Environment plays a role. Pop culture exposes our kids to countless images of drug and alcohol use. Many kids have been offered alcohol or other drugs by age 13. And kids who have seen their parents drunk are more than twice as likely as other kids to get drunk in a typical month and three times likelier to use marijuana and smoke cigarettes, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.

4. Early substance use correlates with future addiction. The organization Shatterproof found that approximately 80 percent of people who are currently addicted began abusing substances before age 18. One reason for kids’ vulnerability is that the prefrontal cortex — the area of the brain that governs judgment, problem solving, and self-control — doesn’t fully develop until around age 25.

5. Addiction damages the developing brain. Substance abuse hinders the development of the prefrontal cortex, creating long-lasting problems with decision making and impulse control. It also short-circuits the brain’s reward system. Using alcohol and other drugs becomes the only way to experience pleasure and avoid pain.

6. Addiction erodes morality. As dependence deepens, dishonesty flourishes. Lying becomes second nature. If confronted about their problem, addicts will deny (“I don’t use drugs”), diminish (“It’s not a big deal”), and deflect (“You’re an awful mother”). To support their habit, many turn to stealing and other crimes.

7. Preventing addiction begins at home. Parents can’t control every choice their kids make. But they can reduce the risk of substance abuse by teaching kids about the damaging impact of addictive chemicals on their health, relationships, intellect, and goals. Parents can clearly express their expectations and define consequences for breaking those rules.

8. “Typical” teen behaviors can mask chemical dependence. Some of the symptoms of budding dependence are also seen in “normal” teens: moodiness, rebelliousness, and a pronounced need for privacy. But some things warrant a closer look, including bloodshot eyes or enlarged or pinpoint pupils; changes in appetite or sleep patterns; unexplained agitation or lethargy; impaired speech or coordination; loss of interest in school and activities; sudden change in friends; use of incense or room fresheners.

9. Substance abuse requires swift action. Physical changes in the brain make it almost impossible for kids to stop using substances on their own once dependence sets in. Parents who suspect that their child is abusing should seek professional help with the same sense of urgency with which they would seek help for any other life-threatening condition.

10. Shame is the enemy of prevention and recovery. Addiction has long been viewed as a sign of weakness or immorality. Yet science has clearly shown that addiction is unrelated to character. And even the most attentive, conscientious parents can raise kids who end up addicted.

Shame makes it harder for kids to admit their problem and for parents to confront it. But blame and shame have no place when it comes to addressing addiction. Instead, it should be recognized for what it is: a serious mental health condition. Prevention is the best strategy. But when prevention fails, swift, effective treatment can limit the damage and set addicted kids on the road to a healthy life.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Seeking Clarity

When we break through denial and confront the fact that our loved one has an addiction to alcohol or other drugs, we open the door to the possibility of change. But initially, we’re apt to be overwhelmed by fear and confusion. Unfortunately, confusion plays right into addiction. The more confused we are, the more able they are to mislead and manipulate us.

Addiction causes physical and psychological changes that alter the way addicts think. In their compulsion to continue using substances, they become masters of the “3 Ds” – Denial (I don’t have a problem.); Diminishment (It’s not a big deal.); and Deflection (You’re the one with the problem. You’re crazy.).

We listen to what the addict tells us, and we begin to doubt our own perceptions. We question the evidence of our own eyes. I remember seeing a bead of blood on the back of my daughter’s hand one night after she had sworn up and down that she was no longer using. It was obviously a needle puncture, but when I asked about it she said, “Oh, I brushed my hand with a cigarette.” I knew it wasn’t a burn, but part of me thought, Maybe

My confusion at that moment was a retreat into denial, because I honestly didn’t know what to do. What I didn’t understand was that it wasn’t up to me to do anything. As it says in Nar-Anon literature, “Your role as helper is not to DO things for the person you are helping, but to BE things . . .” I could have simply stated the truth as I saw it – that it looked like a needle mark to me – and left it at that. But it took a very long time for me to understand that the best help I could offer my daughter was to maintain my own sanity and reflect it back to her. To do that, I first needed to find the courage to clearly see what is

Monday, November 5, 2018

Facing Reality

We often hear that addiction is a disease of denial. In the early stages of their growing dependence, budding addicts tell themselves that things are “not that bad” and “I can stop whenever I want to.” If confronted about the situation, they flatly deny that they have a problem. Even when faced with catastrophic consequences, active addicts will deny that their drug or alcohol use has anything to do with their problems. Only when something cuts through the denial is there a chance for the long process of recovery to begin.

But what about the friends and families of addicts? How does our own denial play into the disease of addiction? Quite simply, our denial facilitates the progress of the disease. I myself was a case in point. In high school, my daughter exhibited all the signs of substance abuse: loss of interest in favorite activities, falling grades, a new set of friends, evasiveness, and frequent mood swings. Amazingly, I never suspected substance abuse.

When she was in her early twenties and living with a boyfriend, I met her for lunch one day and noticed a bunch of scabs on her arms. She told me they were some kind of rash and the doctor wasn’t sure what had caused it. Another time I was helping her move and saw that she wore a sweat-stained, long-sleeved shirt despite the sweltering heat. I didn’t ask why. There continued to be signs that something was seriously wrong. But I tried to explain away my daughter’s difficulties by telling myself that she had emotional problems, relationship problems, financial problems – anything except the obvious answer: my daughter had become addicted to heroin.

The years of my own denial enabled her disease to progress unchecked. Only when I was finally forced to face the reality of what had happened to her was I able to try to help her. For the most basic way to help our addicted loved one is to embrace reality. When we let go of pretending and instead face what is, we no longer prop up our loved one’s denial. Instead, we can challenge it and crack open the door to the possibility of change.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Breaking through Denial

Some moments are seared on our brain forever. My discovery of my daughter’s heroin addiction was one such moment. 

I had been worried about her for years as she lost jobs, got evicted from apartments, and became ever more distant. My fears came to a head one night as I drove past her apartment. I spotted her parked car on a side street and saw blankets, pillows, and some kitchen items piled in back. My heart began to race. She was almost certainly living in her car.

I returned to the apartment house and leaned on the buzzer. Reluctantly, her roommates let me in. I could see that they were uncomfortable, maybe embarrassed. I asked if they knew where she was. They mumbled something evasive. I kept pressing for details, and finally one of them said, “Do you know your daughter’s a heroin addict?”

I remember grabbing a chair for support as the floor seemed to collapse beneath me. Everything became fuzzy and far away. I could barely breathe. “How do you know?” I managed to ask.

I wanted proof, although even in my shock, I didn’t doubt the truth of what I had heard. The young woman before me was merely confirming something that I had feared on some deep level for a long time. She went into details about my daughter, describing bloody tissues, nodding off at the kitchen table, and arms covered with scabs. I could barely take it in. I felt nauseated and terrified. Among the horrible images that crowded my mind, one thought rose to the top: I had to find my daughter and help her.

I returned to her car and waited on the dark street. After a long time, a white car pulled up and my daughter emerged. The car was full of young men I didn’t know. After it pulled away, I studied my daughter as she approached her car. She looked terrible. Her hair was matted flat to her head on one side, as if she had been sleeping. One of her heavily drawn-on eyebrows had worn off, giving her a lopsided look. She wore short shorts and a long-sleeved tee shirt.

I stepped out of the shadows and called her name. She gave me a sleepy, quizzical smile. With a shaking voice I said, “Show me your arms.”

She turned and bolted. I chased her through narrow streets in a bad neighborhood that many women were afraid of even in daylight. “I’m never going to stop!” I called. “You’re either coming home with me or we’ll see a cop and I’ll have you arrested! Those are your choices!”

I felt strong saying that, believing that I had taken charge of the situation. All her problems could be fixed now that I was taking matters into my own hands. I was wrong, of course. Her problems were far more serious than I could possibly have known.

But that terrible night forced me to break through my denial of my daughter’s addiction and cracked opened the door to the possibility of recovery.