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An Open Letter to the Parents of Adult Alcoholics and Addicts

An Open Letter to the Parents of Adult Alcoholics and Addicts

 “It hurts so bad that I cannot save him, protect him, keep him out of harm’s way, shield him from pain.  What good are fathers if not for these things?” ~ Thomas Lynch, “The Way We Are” It is an unbelievably difficult transition that far too many families are forced to endure. Your teenaged child who has an extensive personal history of alcohol or drug abuse has just turned 18, and everything has changed.  On one hand, they are now considered full adults in the eyes of the law, and you can no longer legally control what they choose to do. As adults, they can do whatever they want.  Of course, this also means that then they must face the consequences of their actions. But on the other hand, nothing has changed. Adult or not, this is still your child your flesh and blood. The paltry, arbitrary one-day distinction between 18 years and 17 years and 364 days means nothing to you. You still feel the same unconditional love for them, and consequently, you still feel the pain and worry and heartbreak every time they drink or use drugs. You have lost countless hours of sleep worrying about what will happen to them, praying that they will somehow get sober, and still feeling the overwhelming need and responsibility to protect them from everything that can hurt them.

“Get help for your addicted son or daughter. You don’t have to lose your child to an addiction!”

When They Still Live at Home

I stare into the dark, my anxiety mounting.  It is a pathetically familiar state. I have been waiting for Nic for years.  Whenever he was late or failed to call, I assumed catastrophe. He was dead. Always dead.” ~ David Sheff, Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey through His Son’s Addiction If they are still living with you, you see firsthand what addiction is doing to them, but you are at a loss as to what you can and should do to help them stay sober.  NOTHING seems to work, so you try EVERYTHING. Have you:

  • Stayed up late – or even all night – worrying or waiting for them to come home?
  • Had numerous arguments about their substance abuse and behaviors?
  • Nagged them or pleaded with them to stop?
  • Covered for them when they were late or missed school or work?
  • Had to hide or lock up your money, credit cards, alcohol, or prescription medications?
  • Driven around looking for them?
  • Called and texted them, wondering where they are?
  • Gone through their room and things, looking for any drugs, alcohol, or paraphernalia?
  • Thrown away what you have found?
  • Missed work or other important obligations to take care of them when they are hung-over or coming down?
  • Endured verbal or physical abuse?
  • Threatened to kick them out of the house?
  • Actually done so?

When They Have Left Home

“…my thirty-four-year-old son had hit rock bottom so many times I had lost count.  His life had become one mess after another – a crystal-meth drug addiction, which led to all sorts of risky behaviors, and now  AIDS – messes I had continued to clean up.” ~ Brenda Rhodes, Someone’s Son: A Mother’s Fight for Her Gay, Drug-Addicted Son Eventually, though, they WILL move out, either because you kicked them out or because they want to go somewhere where they aren’t always being “hassled” just because they like to drink and get high. But because they are still drinking and using, your peace of mind doesn’t improve.  In fact, in some ways, it seems as if the pain and worry have somehow gotten worse now that they have moved out of your house.  Since they are no longer living at home where it’s “safe”, you are even more preoccupied about what they are doing, who they are hanging around with, how they are earning their living, and what disaster is just waiting around the next corner.  If their substance abuse is bad enough, you may even worry if they are alive. Like so many other parents of addicted children, you may dread every phone call, because you don’t know if it’s going to be the police, the hospital, or even worse.   intervention-body2

When Your Helping Doesn’t Help

“Like many in my straits, I became addicted to my child’s addiction.  When it preoccupied me, even at the expense of my responsibilities to my wife and other children, I justified it.  I thought, How can a parent not be consumed by his child’s life-or-death struggle? But I learned that my preoccupation with Nic didn’t help him and many have harmed him.  Or maybe it was irrelevant to him. However, it surely harmed the rest of my family – and me.” ~ David Sheff, Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey through His Son’s Addiction And, if they have been away from home for any appreciable length of time, you are probably used to hearing the same old worn-out list of demands that always guilt you into helping them: “Give me some money because I don’t have any food at my place…no gas…no electricity, etc.” “They’ll throw me out if you don’t help me.” “You don’t understand – I’m sick! I’m really hurting. I need the cash or I’ll kill myself.” Sometimes, the only time you even get to speak to you your child is when they want more money. They seem to stumble from one emergency to the next, always expecting you to “loan” them money. And you are terrified that if you do not give them what they want, they’ll simply vanish, become homeless, go to jail, or maybe even end up dead. So against your own better judgment, you continue to pay for their apartment and utilities, you  make their car and insurance payments, you keep on bailing them out, and you keep on writing checks to their lawyers, their therapists, and to the Court, all in a vain attempt to protect them from the consequences of their addiction-driven behaviors. You continue to give them time and until everyone else in the family suffers. Your own bills go unpaid, your nest egg is depleted, funds you set aside for the future of your other children have been frittered away, and your own fiscal stability is completely disrupted. Worst of all, all of your sacrifices have been for naught. Your child isn’t sober, they’re not getting better on their own, you’re arguing with the rest of the family because of all that you have done, and all of your money is going towards their drinking and drugging.

“Your support and understanding of rehabilitation options could save your child’s life.”

Why Does My Child Use Drugs or Alcohol?

We feel safer when we cling to the notion that substance abuse is the activity of the troubled, weird kids from broken or strange families.  We assume that substance abuse is in response to some inner demons or personal problem. It’s time to give up that thinking up.” ~ John Cates, Jennifer Cummings, Recovering Our Children: A Handbook For Parents of Young People in Early Recovery Those are the big questions that so many parents struggle with – Why my family?  Why my child? They waste time and energy and asking questions that often have no definite answers.  Addiction is a complicated disease that can affect ANYONE, regardless of age, gender, income level, social status, education, race, or family dynamics. There is no single identifiable cause for addiction.  There is nothing that you can point to attend know for certain that THAT is the reason why someone abuses alcohol or drugs.  But there are contributing factors, each of which can play a major role in increasing the likelihood of addiction:

  • Family history of substance abuse: Genetics are responsible for approximately 60% of  person’s risk of addiction.
  • Environment: The more accepted and “normal” alcohol and drugs are within the family, the neighborhood, and the culture, the more likely it is for someone to use them.
  • Peer pressure: People tend to model their behaviors after their friends’.
  • Trauma: Negative experiences that are emotionally or physically painful.  70% of people in rehab had a history of trauma.
  • Mental illness: People who struggle with anxiety, depression, PTSD, Bipolar Disorder, disordered eating, and other emotional disorders are at far greater risk of problematic substance use.
  • Adverse Childhood Events: One in four American children experience an ACE such as child abuse, domestic violence, natural disasters, bullying, parental divorce, death in the family, etc.  before adulthood. Each incident QUADRUPLES the risk of substance use.
  • Chronic pain: Compared to someone who is pain-free, a person in chronic pain is 41% more likely to become addicted to opioid painkillers.
  • Sexual trauma: 80% of sexual abuse survivors turn to alcohol or drugs.
  • Stress: In the book Women and Addiction: A Comprehensive Handbook, authors described addiction a “stress-sensitive” or “stress-related” disorder.
  • Age of first use: Because the adolescent brain is still developing, the younger a person is when they first start using alcohol or drugs, the more likely they will develop an addictive disorder as an adult.

Sometimes There’s No Reason

We feel safer when we cling to the notion that substance abuse is the activity of the troubled, weird kids from broken or strange families.  We assume that substance abuse is in response to some inner demons or personal problem. It’s time to give up that thinking up.” ~ John Cates, Jennifer Cummings, Recovering Our Children: A Handbook For Parents of Young People in Early Recovery Yes, there are risk factors that can increase the likelihood of problematic substance use, but even young people from “perfect” families can experiment with, use, abuse, and become addicted to alcohol and drugs.  In other words, you can do everything “right” and still live the nightmare of watching your child struggle with active addiction.  And yet, somehow, you still feel responsible. But at times like these, you would do well to keep the “Three C’s” of recovery in mind. You didn’t CAUSE their addiction.  You are not to blame for their disease.  PERIOD.  Even if your actions contributed to a risk factor, you cannot ever pinpoint that as the sole reason they became addicted.  So you can let go of the heavy burdens of shame and guilt that have been holding you back. You can’t CONTROL their addiction.  Think back on that everything you have ever tried to get your child to sober up once and for all – the yelling, the pleading, the tears, the threats, the late-night worrying.  How much of it has REALLY made a difference? You can’t CURE their addiction.  You are their parent, so OF COURSE, you feel that it is your job to fix your child’s problems.  All their life, you have been the one with the answers. But not this time. Addiction is a disease that is too large and too complicated to be handled alone.  Your adult addict child needs professional intervention, effective treatment, and long-term support from trained specialists that they are truly going to recover. depression-body

Changing Your Mindset

Now that you are about to lose your mind, what can you do? Ask that question of anyone in recovery, and you will invariably get the same answer: “Admit to yourself and one other person that you are powerless over alcohol and drugs, and as a result, your life has become unmanageable.” This is the First Step of Recovery, and it is the foundation of everything that you and the addict in your life will need to do to get your life, your sanity, and your serenity back.  When you truthfully and sincerely can make that admission, you will immediately feel as if a crushing weight has been lifted from your shoulders. Your not-so-secret secret is out in the open, so now you don’t to work so hard to keep everything hidden. Look at it this way–for so very long, you have been waging war against an invincible enemy– addiction – over which you have no power at all. All of your attempts to do so have destroyed your peace of mind, your personal harmony, and your sanity. By admitting that you are powerless when it comes to addiction –especially one that belongs to someone else – you instantly are released from the crushing responsibility of somehow beating it all on your own. The admission’s second part– that your life has become unmanageable –  means you are giving yourself permission to do .to get better, including seeking professional help for you and the addict in your life. Once you ask for help, you will discover that there are concrete actions that you can take that will help you restore balance to your life.

“Get your loved one the help they need. Our rehab program accepts many health insurance plans, this is our 28-day program.”

Stop Enabling the Addiction

“Encourage, but don’t enable. Helping people is wonderful, but carrying someone who could walk by themselves will only slow you both down.” ~ Doe Zantamata, Happiness in your Life—Book One: Karma Unfortunately, you are TOO CLOSE to this situation to be objective.  Your blind love for your addicted child to makes it impossible for you to do what is best for them, you, or the rest of your family YES, it is true that you are helping them avoid the worst consequences of their behaviors. YES, because of you, they have a place to live, they are not starving, they aren’t in jail, and they are still alive. At least… for now. Here’s the hard truth – in the long run, you are doing much more harm than good. When you clean up their self-inflicted messes and shield them from the natural consequences of their self-destructive actions, you “enable” their addiction to continue.  This is one of the worst things you can do for them or you. Naturally, your first instinct as a parent is to help your addicted child by solving their problems. But in actuality, all you’ve done is taken on their responsibilities.  This gives them the freedom of to drink and use drugs as much as they want. When addicts are protected from the emotional, financial, and legal damage their actions have caused, they have absolutely NO motivation to change. You’ve heard it many times before – addicts have to WANT to change. But the undeniable truth is someone lost to addiction will never ask for help or try to change for the better unless they have the proper motivation.  For most people, that motivation develops when the consequences of their unstable, dysfunctional life of active addiction become so unbearable to them that they finally become willing to do almost anything to get better. Many alcoholics and addicts have to hit what is known as “rock bottom ” before they are ready to take the First Step of Recovery. This is their lowest and most vulnerable point, and it is unique and personal for every individual. For some people, it could be divorce or estrangement from their family, while for others, it’s surviving an overdose or landing in jail. Most just don’t like the way they feel. Some people in recovery say that they got sick and tired of being tired and sick. When you do for them what they could be and should be doing for themselves, you are actively standing in the way of them taking the first steps on their own sober journey. And that is the opposite of what you hope to achieve. If your adult child never has to face the consequences and reality of their addiction-driven actions, they may never hit a rock bottom meaningful enough to motivate them to change.

Focusing on Yourself

Up to now, your entire life has revolved around your addicted child – THEIR needs, THEIR problems, THEIR messes have all taken top priority.  This has to stop. Moving forward from this point, you must focus your energy and your efforts on YOUR life – YOUR needs, YOUR well-being. YOUR money, the rest of YOUR family, and most of all, YOUR mental health and peace of mind. Please understand, when you look after yourself first, this does not mean that you are abandoning your sick child.  It only means that you understand that cannot help ANYONE if you cannot help yourself first. It also means that you are moving away from blaming yourself for their addiction.  It also means that you’re no longer carrying around the unproductive burdens of toxic shame, guilt, embarrassment, and misplaced responsibilities.


Setting Boundaries

Be warned, your child, who is used to being the center of your attention, will not like the healthy attitude adjustments you have made. At first, they will nearly always resist… STRONGLY. It can get ugly. They may cuss you out, cry, try to make deals, and beg because they want to go back to the whole way of doing things.  They will make the same old promises to change that you have heard time and time again.  But, you have to be firm, for both your sake and theirs. This is called “tough love”, and it may just save your child’s life. If you give in now, you only teach them that there are no consequences for their behaviors, thereby strengthening their addiction. What you need to do is set your own personal boundaries, clearly describe in what you will and will not do for them as long as they continue to abuse drugs and alcohol and refuse to seek help. This could possibly include:

  • Cutting off financial support
  • Kicking them out of your home
  • Refusing contact in person, by telephone, or even by text until they get help
  • Reporting them to law enforcement

This will be the hardest, yet most necessary thing you have ever done. Because you have stopped the money and the support, you will have to listen to any number of desperate promises, guilt trips, and even threats.  Don’t listen to any of that. No matter what they are saying, it is the addiction that is doing the talking. Here’s the good news –When you alter the dynamic of the toxic relationship that you have created with your child, they, also, will be forced to alter their behaviors.

Things to Keep in Mind

FIRST, remember that this was entirely necessary. Your addicted adult child will NEVER stop joining your financial resources, disrupting your family’s stability, and destroying your emotional well-being until they are clean and sober.  They will exploit your love for them and will never, ever take any personal responsibility for their actions. Worse, they will have no reason to ever seek help. SECOND, Quid pro quo should be your watchword. Refuse to give support of any kind without first witnessing real effort on their part, including measurable progress showing how they are getting their life together – treatment program reports, 12-step meeting attendance, counseling sessions, demonstrable sobriety, etc. This means that while your love should always be unconditional, any support you give should be conditional upon their dedication to their own sobriety and recovery. It is permissible, however, to help them find appropriate alcohol treatment facilities and rehab programs. And remember, though, the responsibility for attending, complying, and making progress in recovery is completely theirs.  One of the most common relapse triggers is an individual’s own warped self-image that they are incapable or somehow unworthy of sobering up.  When they work hard on their own recovery, their sobriety becomes that much more valuable to them, because they have earned it.  And, because they have earned it, their self-esteem likewise improves. THIRD, if they have kids, think of the children’s welfare, rather than subjecting yourself to the epithets and insults coming from an addict. Steel yourself to committing to take in your grandchildren yourself or discuss with other members of your family their ability and willingness to do so. It may even be necessary to contact Child Protective Services. FOURTH, you need to realize that your adult child can defeat their demons– IF they have the right kind of motivation, and if the right alcohol/drug rehab program is chosen.  By setting boundaries and making them face the consequences of their actions, you have given them the proper motivation. You have also done your homework and helped them find the right rehab program. FIFTH, don’t forget that you have to concentrate on your own recovery from codependency. Your own actions when you were enabling their addiction have damaged your life and the lives of the rest of your family. You can affect positive healing by focusing on each step in your own personal recovery. FINALLY, remember that you do not have to go through this alone. There are innumerable 12-step support groups and recovery programs for the loved ones of alcoholics/addicts. The more you use their services, the more you will discover that sharing your own experiences will reduce the pain and distress that you feel.

The Bottom Line

It is a scary and heartbreaking truth to realize that your child is now an adult and can make their own choices. For better or worse, one of those choices might be to continue using and drinking even when it harms them or others. The best you can do is to help them find the motivation they need to accept that they have a problem and need help, and then offer them emotional support when they finally begin recovery in earnest. For more information about what you can do to help your adult addicted child, click here.