In 2014, just as the air was getting cooler and the world was painted white, a dear friend lost her nephew to a drug overdose. It was a tragedy for the family and their small community, but what happened in its wake was truly unspeakable. Friends were around for the funeral, but very shortly after, they all left. While some stayed away because they were unsure what to say or do, others were busy placing blame.
When you have a child that is using drugs, everyone has an opinion of what you should or should not do. Many will tell you their opinion whether you ask for it or not. “You should cut him off!” “How can you throw him out on the street?” “Stop giving her money and paying her bills!” “Stop bailing her out.” The often unsolicited advice is endless. When such a tragedy strikes, you then begin to hear the whispers, “she was enabling him”, “he was so codependent”, “if they had just listened to us maybe their son would still be alive.”
Parents of substance users often feel guilt and blame themselves for their child’s struggles. That is largely due to a complete misunderstanding of the problem known as addiction. In recent years there has been a push in the treatment industry to find causes for addiction. Many outspoken researchers have now linked childhood trauma to addiction, and while there seems to be a rather weak correlation, there is absolutely no data whatsoever to support causation. There are just as many people struggling with substance use who have had uneventful and even wonderful childhoods as there are those who didn’t. And there are literally millions of people who experience all kinds of horrendous childhood trauma who do not become addicted.
Based on this now accepted misinformation, you now have a generation of parents looking for something they did wrong to explain their child’s problematic substance use. The truth is your adult child’s heavy substance use is caused by the fact that they have developed a strong preference for getting drunk or high. Their use likely started much like yours may have, as experimentation in high school or college, “Hmmm, let’s see how this makes me feel.”
Those that like the feeling typically do it again. While the vast majority of people who use drugs recreationally do so without issue, some begin to use more heavily. The fact is, all substance users know they are using because there is something about it they like. They know this to be absolutely true until they go to their first meeting, counseling session or treatment program. It is there when the preference for using substances begins to morph into a compulsion and eventually a lifelong disease that they must continuously fight and can never escape.
When sending your child to treatment, families are often forced to attend counseling sessions where they are taught about their child’s progressive, incurable disease (that does not actually exist). Regardless of whether there were problems in the home, parents are shown all the ways they contributed or even caused their child’s struggles. They are taught how to implement “tough love” and how to break the “cycle of co-dependence” and “enabling”. They are sold on the idea that somehow, someway, their choices can make their child stay sober or make them use.
This is when so many parents become conflicted. “Is drug use a choice or a disease? And if it is a disease and they are actually powerless, then why would I cut them off?” “Can my child stop or reduce their drinking on their own, or do they need help?” After all they have seen them stop many times on their own. “What if my child comes to me for help? What if they need food? What if they need a place to stay?” They wonder, how much help is too much and they worry constantly about what will happen if they make the wrong choice or do the wrong thing. Many parents become paralyzed by fear and with good reason. They fear that at any moment, their child will die and it will be their fault.
If you’re a parent and you know your child is struggling, and your head is spinning, it’s important to stop yourself for just a moment and take a deep, slow breath. Forget all you’ve been told about addiction — it’s entirely wrong. Clear your mind and think, “My child is a capable adult.” Whether or not you believe that to be true right now, articulate it. Say it a few times and then remember, from the time they could cook their own food and dress themselves, your child has been capable to live independent of you. It’s important for you to understand this reality, and know that it hasn’t changed simply because they developed a preference for being drunk or high.
If you still don’t believe it, say it to yourself again, “My child is a capable adult.” When I say this to parents, many people mistakenly think that I’m about to advocate tough love or cutting off all support, but that’s not the case at all. I’m advocating getting your thoughts and beliefs back to reality so you can begin to make an informed decision for you and your family.
In my book The Freedom Model for the Family, I hammer home the point that you have no power over how someone else behaves, and that includes your children. You have no control over their likes and dislikes, their thoughts and emotions, and their beliefs and actions. The only person you can control is you, and the only life you have the power to change is your own.
Regardless of what you may have read online or heard from your friends or counselors, your child is not powerless. Trust me when I say, it takes a tremendous amount of willpower and perseverance to keep up a heavy substance use habit. Anyone that can do it for any length of time is tremendously capable and resourceful. While they may look helpless to you and those around them because they are not living as you hoped they would, they are far from it. What you are seeing and identifying as helplessness, is actually just evidence that their priorities are different from yours.
Every mother has walked into their teen’s bedroom at one time or another to find mounds of dirty clothes, dirty dishes and wet towels stacked in a corner. To you it’s disgusting and you wonder how anyone can live this way. I have asked my sons, “Doesn’t this bother you?” And there answer is no, not at all. It’s simply not a priority to them at that time in their lives. This is much the same for someone who drinks or uses drugs heavily and has made it a priority in their life. While you would not choose to live as they are, the fact they are living that way does not mean they are powerless to change it, it simply means their preferences and priorities are different than yours.
Sadly, once substance users go to treatment and take on the addict/alcoholic identity, all bets are off. If they continue to go down the dark road of perpetual recovery, that now often includes mental health diagnoses and medications, then a preference for heavy substance use can be morphed into a lifelong progressive disease that is out of their control to change. I have seen far too many substance users and families torn apart by this imaginary disease and the ineffective and harmful treatment system built on it.
For parents of children struggling with heavy substance use, forget all you’ve been told about addiction. Educate yourself on what addiction is and is not, and you will begin to view substance use in a much different light. Your child is not diseased and he is not immoral or bad, nor is he weak-willed or powerless.
If your child has been abusive or stolen from you, stop blaming the drugs. There are many heavy substance users who never abuse their loved ones or steal from them. You don’t have to accept that kind of behavior and you have a right to feel safe and secure in your home and your life. But if you have an otherwise loving relationship with your child, but you’re simply concerned for them due to their substance use, it makes no sense to shut them out or cut them off.
What you choose to do or not do for them is your choice. And it should be based on you, and what you want to do for you, not what you hope they will do. You have no power to force them to stop using or cause them to use. You only have power over your own choices and behaviors, so do what you feel is best for you and your family.
If you have lost a child due to substance use, you have my deepest, heartfelt sympathy. It’s every parent’s worst fear. It’s important for you to know that nothing you did or didn’t do caused or contributed to their death. Whether you sent them to rehab after rehab, implemented tough love and cut them off, or kept bailing them out of trouble, or somewhere in between, your child kept using because that’s what he wanted to do, and he was willing to accept the risks. You loved your child the very best you could, and that’s all any parent can do.