The Beast Within

Three Tips For Parenting an Addict

The real battle begins at home

It's no secret that I own an alcohol and substance abuse treatment center. Indeed, most of my expertise is born from decades of fighting the disease of addiction from the front lines. And my trenches are full of the men and women who've helped me dig them; psychiatric professionals who, like myself, are committed to staving off this malady which threatens our communities.

But the real battle begins at home.

I cannot begin to tell you how many attempts to save the lives of our loved ones are thwarted by family members who are unaware of the roles they play in saving someone's life. This is not to say that caring for an addict is wrong; in fact, I am saying quite the opposite. The truth is, sometimes the best way to show that you care for the addict is to establish and maintain strong boundaries (which manifest themselves in different ways for different addicts). In many instances, these boundaries represent the addict's best chance for survival.

To that end, I am positing these Three Tips to Parenting an Addict. They are difficult for many parents because they represent a fundamental change in the familial dynamic -- a drastically new way of doing things that goes against what has been occurring in the home until now. But I feel these are necessary strategies for the successful treatment of addiction in all of its forms. And, in these instances, one basic principle prevails: If you've really got what it takes to save your loved one, it's going to take everything you've got.

1. PLACE A CONDITION ON FINANCIAL SUPPORT

I was a hopeless dope fiend. I used my family's love and devotion for me to finance my drug addiction. I stole from my loved ones, manipulated my parents, and borrowed from my friends to make sure I got the thing I thought I needed to survive: drugs. But then everyone I cared about got together and intervened on my behavior. One by one, they let me know that they weren't going to participate in my drug addiction anymore. And it was my father who threw the final gauntlet: he told me that until I got help, all financial support was going to disappear. I was going to get nothing. Nada. From ANYONE. Which left me with a horrible choice to make: I could either get help and stop tormenting my family and friends or I could walk off into the night and live the life of a homeless person.

Now, you've got to understand, I'd been playing these fools for years and years -- I immediately ran a cost/benefit analysis in my mind to see if I could continue to use and manipulate them (my mother was a hapless sucker who fell for my tears of need and atonement every time!) but then I saw the look in my father's eyes and I knew in a heartbeat that he meant every word. My family was drawing a powerful boundary and each and every one of them were committed to maintaining it.

Faced with the reality of having to take care of myself (and feed my own habit), I chose to finally give in and do what it took to get well. Many parents refuse to see the therapeutic benefits to holding the line like that; they make empty threats (and the addict always knows they're empty) and buckle when push comes to shove. What they don't understand is that, every time you cave in, you are actually participating in killing your child. And no parent wants to attend the funeral for a loved one knowing that it was their money or car or enabling behavior that contributed to an overdose. I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy, and I certainly don't want that for you.

2. DO NOT BUY INTO WHAT YOUR CHILD IS TELLING YOU

My kids are big fans of a TV show called BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, which is about a cheerleader who battles vampires in her spare time. What's funny about the show, I think, is that every now and again, Buffy will get a boyfriend who will -- undoubtedly -- get bitten and turn into a vampire. This guy always shows up at her home and knocks on the door and asks to be let in (a vampire, it turns out, cannot enter your home unless invited). But Buffy usually takes one look at the fellow and sees the fangs and turns him away, no matter how much he cajoles or begs, which strikes me as incredibly wise on her part because she knows she's not talking to her boyfriend anymore; she's talking to the thing that killed him.

It's the same way with the alcoholic or the drug addict. As parents, we always know when our children are "playing us". We are hip to their white lies and manipulations, but -- more often than not -- we allow it. We know that they're telling us they need money for a Disney movie, but they're actually planning to sneak into the horror movie with their friends, but it's harmless so we roll our eyes and smile and give 'em the twenty bucks.

Not so with the addict. We cannot afford to smile and roll our eyes as we dole out the cash and turn the blind eye to what we know is really going on. It is never too late to be a better parent. Never. And sometimes this means refusing to buy into the rhetoric. They will get angry with you, they may even yell at you and say that they hate you, but the odds of them being found in an alley with a needle in their arm will be greatly diminished. And that isn't even the worst thing that can happen to your child. Remember the world that we live in. I have two daughters and the thought of someone taking advantage of them because they're too stoned to defend themselves greatly outweighs my fear of them telling me they hate me. They're allowed to be angry with me, especially if I'm trying to save their lives. I am, after all, the parent. It's my job to look after their best interests.

3. REMEMBER TO FORGIVE THEM

Every alcoholic and drug addict does things that they are ashamed of. Even worse, things happen TO them that they are ashamed of. As parents, it falls upon us to walk through these traumatic and emotionally debilitating experiences with our children. Creating a safe, non-judgmental space is a vital part of familial recovery because it is only in this space that the healing can occur. Your child will ask for forgiveness for past transgressions, and it is your responsibility as the parent to forgive them. Now, this is the tricky part: you need to bear in mind that you are still dealing with an addict. Forgiving them does not mean that you go back to enabling them. Do NOT remove the boundaries. They exist to protect them as well as yourself.

When I ask you to forgive them, what I am asking you to do is not lord their past transgressions over their heads for the rest of your relationship. They've suffered enough. You must not repeat (especially in mixed company) their list of crimes over and over again, even in jest, because for the addict, none of it is a laughing matter. If the addict or alcoholic is truly living in recovery, then he or she is doing their part to promote the healing of the family unit. Your part is to stop punishing them and start reintegrating them back into their new lives. We don't shoot our wounded; we nurse them back into good health.

But vigilance is the key. Hold them, support them, love them and nurture them, but never stop being the parent who remembers the hell you went through to get to where you are now. And always keep a watchful eye out for the Beast Within.

Howard C. Samuels, Psy.D., is a licensed therapist with a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology with years of experience, and is the founder of The Hills Treatment Center.

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