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To Parents Struggling with a Child’s Addiction: 3 Things I Want You to Know

Parent friendships are a funny thing. They don’t start out like other relationships, over shared interests – they start over play-dates, school activities and birthday parties, or are the result of our children’s friendships. Others are born out of shared experiences, sometimes in the most unexpected and difficult circumstances. We all know it’s futile to try to manage our children’s friendships, but, one way or another, our children are very often responsible for ours.

One of those less happy ways this can happen is when we discover our children are using substances. Will people think it’s my fault? Is it my fault? What if I’m labeled a “bad mother?” But so much is to be gained from reaching out and asking for help. Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. There’s power in sharing stories.

Many parents feel ashamed, guilty or embarrassed when their child has a substance problem. They buy into the stubbornly prevalent myth that addiction is somehow a character flaw that can’t be cured – even though the science is clear that addiction is a treatable disease and families can and do recover. It’s easy to see why parents might be tempted to shut down and close themselves off from the world.

But when I was recently a Master of Ceremonies for a fundraising event for the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, I was deeply moved by the powerful stories shared by parents during their testimonies of heartbreak or recovery. I was one of these parents. My own story began on March 4, 2012. That was the day I got the kind of phone call every parent dreads: “Mommy, I can’t breathe.” It was my oldest daughter Christina, then in her senior year at Yale, two months away from graduating.

Looking back on that March day as I frantically drove from New York to the emergency room in New Haven, and later when we left the emergency room with my sedated daughter crying in my arms, and later still over the hard weeks that followed, I focused on all that I was grateful for: that my daughter was alive, that she wanted to get well, that she had a loving family that rallied around her, and that we were lucky enough to find inspiration and support from other families that had been through similar experiences.

And just over a year later, my daughter taught me a lesson about the importance of sharing stories when she decided to go public and share her own:

Writing this blog a year ago would have been impossible, because of the shame and the deep guilt I felt about being an addict. I have never been abused or neglected. I didn’t grow up in an alcoholic home. I have been blessed with an unconditionally loving family and I have been given every opportunity to thrive. Why then? Why cause the people who love me so much pain? Why be seemingly intent on throwing it all away?

The honest answer is: I don’t know. What I do know — and I have grappled with this over the past 13 months — is that addiction is a disease. It is progressive, it can be fatal and it can touch anyone.

My life as it is today was unthinkable thirteen months ago. Yes, I mean the particulars — I have a steady job and healthy, loving relationships — but more than that I’ve learned to be vulnerable. I’ve learned how to apologize and how to forgive. I’ve learned how much strength it takes to let go. If writing this can help one person feel a little less alone, if it encourages one person to ask for help, if it allows one person to know that no matter how hopeless it feels right now, it can get better, then that is enough.

What she taught me is that it’s important not just for the people suffering from addiction to share their stories, but for their families as well. And I witnessed the power of these family stories the night of the recent Partnership event. It’s inspiring and empowering when you know that others have been through what you’ve been through.

I’m glad to say that Christina recently celebrated her fifth year in recovery. And I’m also glad that so many parents are telling their own stories to help and support others.

2. We can all do our part to erase the stigma and create change.

As a journalist, I know the power of words and stories. They are some of our most important tools not just in helping eradicate the stigma of addiction, but in creating life-saving change. Families are showing up by the thousands on Capitol Hill, speaking out and advocating for legislation to help curb our country’s opioid epidemic. And what they’re also doing is writing the most personal, most heartbreaking obituaries in their local media, not hiding the fact that their son or daughter died of an overdose, so that another family can seek help and never have to suffer the same tragic loss.

Words matter, and they deepen our compassion, empathy, caring, understanding and love. Addiction is one of the most misunderstood diseases in modern society. With addiction often viewed as a choice or a moral failing, families struggling with this disease just do not get the same support that families coping with other illnesses do.

3. It’s important to take care of you.

Finally – and this is true for all parents – it’s also important to remember that to take care of anyone else, including your own child, you have to take care of yourself. It’s like what they say on airplanes: put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others. It’s not selfish. Making sure you’re recharged, renewed and resilient is the best way to help your child and your family.

This impulse to discount our own well-being is understandable. But if we are stressed and burned out, we are less able to help our child by remaining strong, calm and optimistic. And when we prioritize our well-being, we’re not just replenishing resources our children need, we’re also modeling behavior that will be as good for them as it is for us.

Some of the parents I met at the Partnership’s fundraiser had never met one another before, but I could see new friendships and relationships already forming. Their shared experiences, their willingness to speak out to stand up for their families, and to demand changes that will support other families was powerful. It’s true of the community they’ve found at, as well.

As Christina wrote, it takes a lot of strength to be vulnerable. But when we can do that, we help not just ourselves but the world around us. The more we take that to heart, the easier it becomes to move from struggle to grace.

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