It was a pretty spring day in May two-and-a-half years ago. Mother’s Day weekend. I found myself sitting in a conference room at a recovery center in another state. I was attending a family workshop with a dozen other strangers sharing the awful bond of having an adult child in treatment for drug addiction. The more accurate term for the affliction is “substance use disorder,” but whatever you call it, it had almost killed my son and left me deeply wounded.
It wasn’t easy for me to sit in that room. I didn’t know what to expect. My mind kept playing back events of the previous four years, the years my son’s brain was caught in the vice grip of heroin addiction. I was numb just thinking about all the horror but so grateful that he had survived his latest overdose and had finally hit his bottom. He wanted treatment and I had come to the workshop to learn, or so I thought, how I was going to help him stay alive. I was mistaken in expecting the counselors there to tell me it was my entire fault. I was willing to listen to whatever they hurled at me as long as they gave me the “magic answer card.” I wanted to leave there with a game plan. “Just tell me what I need to do to keep him alive,” I thought to myself. “Call me every name in the book. I don’t care. Just tell me what I need to do for him.”
The first day of the workshop was filled with explanations of the disease of addiction and why it is so baffling, cunning and crippling for those who suffer from it. I was no stranger to people afflicted by it. Other family members had struggled with addiction embraced sobriety and went on to live better lives. I thought the struggle was theirs alone. After all, I knew I didn’t cause the addiction, so I saw myself as a spectator in both the path of addiction and the recovery process. That view was different when it came to my son’s addiction, I guess in part because as a parent, I had a vested interest in making sure my son survived. That was my duty as his mother. I was the reason he was here on this planet.
To my surprise, I was told at the workshop that I was not a spectator to the process. I was in fact, an addict myself. Addiction is a family disease, I was told. My “drug of choice” was co-dependency. I was collateral damage. We were all the “walking wounded” and needed to understand how we had been caught in the unmanageable insanity of our addicts. My behaviors, in desperate attempts to manage, control, influence and save the life of my son, had actually come to mimic the same behaviors my son exhibited in his attempts to manage, control and perpetuate his drug use. My life had become a vicious cycle that was being sucked dry of any joy or hope…the same cycle my son faced every time his addiction won the battle in his brain.
Then the clinician at the workshop told us that we had already done everything we needed to do to help our children. We had brought them to treatment. My obligation to my son was complete because the only person who could keep my son sober and alive was him. I needed to understand that I had no control over whatever choice my son made in regards to his future. He would learn in treatment what he could do to stay sober. The decision to do it or not rested within him. I had no control over his sobriety. At first I felt helpless after getting this news. I realized the clinician was right. The only thing I could control was my own recovery, and I had a lot of work to do if I wanted to get better.
By the end of the second day of the workshop, I was struggling with the notion of embracing myself and my recovery. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do, but I knew I had to do one very important thing first. I had to forgive myself. I had to let go of all of the guilt that had consumed me up to that point. It was keeping me from moving forward. So I forgave myself on that day and started my own journey of recovery.
We learned many valuable lessons and skills at the workshop…how to set and hold healthy boundaries for ourselves, the difference between helping versus enabling, the importance of self-care, how to deal with all the feelings that get churned up and exposed at a time like this, plus new, effective ways to communicate with our adult children after treatment. I left the workshop with a new “toolbox full of tools” to build on the foundation of my recovery. I’ve been building ever since.
I took my recovery one day at a time. It was slow and awkward in the beginning. I wasn’t used to focusing on myself. I became stronger in my efforts by making sure all my decisions and actions kept me moving forward. I found a wonderful Nar-anon family group meeting that I look forward to attending each week. I found my passion again for writing and signed up for classes that not only enriched my art form, but connected me with a new social community of friends. I joined a women’s hiking club and, to date, have made a 70-pound dent in my target of losing 100 “stress” pounds. I started volunteering at The Extension Women’s Campus and mentoring other families at the same family workshop where my recovery began. I understand what the family disease of addiction is, and I also appreciate how powerful family recovery can be.
My son is now 22 months sober and living a wonderfully fulfilling life in another state. Although our recoveries were not dependent on each other’s, we have both been strengthened and encouraged by each other’s success. I am very busy now living the life I was meant to live. It’s one of the magical perks of family recovery.