By Sherry Gaugler-Stewart, Director of Family and Spiritual Recovery at The Retreat.
Thank you, Sherry, for being part of #fsts16. We are pleased to have you elaborate on many of the points from the panel discussion that took place at From Statistics to Solutions: Addressing the Underlying Issues of Youth Substance Use. MWM
When parents arrive at our Family Program, they are typically experiencing a variety of different emotions. Some of them arrive feeling desperate, as they are tremendously fearful for the well-being of their child, and are out of ideas about what to do. Some of them arrive confused, as it makes no sense that they have raised this beautiful child with their best efforts and values, and, yet, the disease of addiction is still present. Some of them arrive angry, because it’s really frustrating to deal with the behaviors that happen when someone is actively using. And, some of them are just exhausted, because standing guard over your child’s life is all-consuming.
To say it’s not easy to be a parent of a child who struggles with alcoholism or addiction is an extreme understatement. When the dreams and aspirations for the person you love are side-tracked by addiction, what is left behind is the stuff most parental nightmares are made of.
Our society doesn’t help with these nightmares. In fact, someone outside of the situation who hasn’t had firsthand experience with alcoholism or addiction may easily make judgements. It’s a common belief that if a child is “good” or “bad” it has to do with how they have been parented. Most people look at alcoholism and addiction as a moral failing, rather than a disease or disorder. There is much stigma placed on families who are impacted by addiction, even though alcoholism was first declared a disease by the American Medical Association in 1956, and, addiction has been placed in this category, as well. This information alone doesn’t seem to stop the judgements, or stop a parent from taking their child’s addiction personally.
I know it was something my husband took personally. Even though he understood the disease of addiction better than most because he is in long-term recovery himself, understanding what to do as two out of three of his children struggled with their own addictions, and the consequences that surrounded them, escaped him. I took it personally, as well, thinking that if I had a different role in their lives, or maybe if his prior marriage was still intact, something would be different for these two.
Despite the stories we create in our heads about all of this, the facts remain the same.
Good parenting doesn’t stop addiction. There is no amount of loving someone that can change their physiology or propensity for alcoholism or addiction. Bad parenting doesn’t create addiction.
There are many who have survived less than ideal childhoods who have grown up to live happy, productive lives without the cloud of addiction.
And, yet, most of us still want to blame something or someone for this issue. I was recently involved in a conversation where a question was posed: What are some of the road blocks and challenges that hinder collaboration with working with youth struggling with addiction? With so many obstacles that stand in the way, I was looking forward to the answers, so we could start addressing them! I was surprised to hear that one of the people involved believed the major obstacle was parents.
As she explained, I understood her standpoint. Sometimes parents, in their confusion around the situation, get caught up in denial. They want to believe that their beloved child would know better. They want to believe that addiction couldn’t possibly touch their family. They want to believe that it’s just a phase. They don’t want to live in the embarrassment and shame associated with alcoholism or addiction, and who can blame them, really?
But, sometimes we still blame. It’s fairly common in the world today that when something goes “awry” we want answers and to know who is responsible. If it’s a child, then the parent must be at fault. Even those of us working in the addiction recovery field we hear the comments about the parents that are more of a problem than their child. We may have even made those comments.
The truth of the situation is that parents are doing the best they can with the information that they have. They are doing their very best. They want the very best for their child. The assumption should not be that they are to blame. The assumption should always be that they are loving their child as much as they possibly can.
The question for those of us who work with these parents is: How do we help families from blaming themselves?
In my experience, the best place to start is creating a safe place for them to talk. Isolation is a key symptom of addiction, and is present on both sides of the disease. Parents who have a child struggling with addiction often isolate themselves trying to protect their child and their reputation, not realizing this is also blocking them from receiving help. If a parent starts talking, they will share information on how we can best help them. They’ll talk about their fears, their confusion, their hopes and their plans. The best thing anyone can do is listen.
When we listen, we will hear when a parent is ready to learn more. The next important thing we can do for a parent is help them to really understand addiction. Education around chemical dependency, how it happens and what it looks like, can help to clear up some of the confusion families have. Although families typically understand addiction on an intellectual basis, their emotions haven’t always caught up yet, and these emotions add to their underlying reactions. In my experience, when families have the opportunity to really learn about addiction, and have the questions that they have answered, it helps them to navigate the situation better.
However, as stated earlier, education isn’t enough. Although it’s extremely helpful, it doesn’t answer the question most parents want answered “So, now what do I do?” How do I get my loved one into recovery? How am I supposed to be as they navigate early recovery? How am I supposed to show up if my loved one relapses?
Typically, parents with a child who is actively using have one major fear: their child will not stop using and won’t be able to find recovery.
Often times that fear continues after a child is getting help, but it turns to fear that their child may not be able to maintain their recovery. Although their child may be doing everything they had hoped that they would do, parents may still be having the same reactions as they did when their child was using. It is imperative families find support for themselves, as well.
A study by Laudet, Morgen, and White, (The Role of Social Supports) states “Support, in particular, recovery-oriented support, is likely to be critical to alcohol and other drug users, especially early on…” It would stand to reason that recovery-oriented support would be helpful for parents and families, as well. In fact, John Kelly, Ph.D. and Director of the Recovery Research Institute, was recently quoted to have said “Social support is good, but recovery specific social support is more important.”, which also can be interpreted that a parent’s love is good, but a parent’s love with the support of recovery is more important.
The greatest gift I’ve received is something that can be passed along to others: the gift of family recovery.
Recovery is community. It is the support of other people who know what it’s like to love someone who struggles with addiction. Recovery offers ideas and resources based on the experience of others. Recovery offers a common language to talk about addiction, and the communication skills to reconnect with each other. Recovery offers opportunity for healing. Recovery offers hope. The same process that helps our children recover can help other family members, too. Family recovery offers answers to the question, “So, now what do I do?”
When my husband’s son started his recovery journey from his meth use, we were cautiously optimistic. He was doing better than we’d seen him do in recent years, but we weren’t sure it would last. We understand that this disease is chronic and can be fatal. Through recovery, we also knew that placing our fears on him would not be helpful. We also knew that the time that he spent in a facility was just the beginning of the journey. The real work would happen for him in his own recovery community.
Three years later, we get to see the gifts of recovery turn into a full blown miracle. We’ve watched him walk through the highs and lows of early recovery. We’ve watched him take ownership. We’ve watched him make decisions, good and bad. We’ve watched that he’s let us know what’s going on in his world. He did it in his own time, with his own support around him. And, we needed our support around us.
Parents don’t have to do it alone. Talk to someone. Learn more about addiction. Find others who understand addiction who can support you in this process. And, please, remember that everyone is doing the best that they can with what they have, including you.
About Sherry Gaugler-Stewart
Sherry Gaugler-Stewart is the Director of Family & Spiritual Recovery at The Retreat in Wayzata, Minnesota. She has worked with The Retreat’s Family Program since its inception. Sherry is a certified spiritual director and has been an active participant in Twelve-Step recovery since 1999. In addition to her work at The Retreat, she has lead spiritual retreats and is a meditation teacher. She is also involved in the Kids’ Programming at The Retreat, for children aged 7-12 years old who are growing up in families affected by chemical dependency.
Side note: The Retreat offers a generous scholarship program to help defray the cost of participation in its programs.
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