Anger: Behind the Disappointment and Frustration
Part 1: How to understand the anger one feels when a loved one is using.
Posted November 17, 2019
In this blog, author Wesley Davidson relays her trajectory of losing a child to drug abuse. Unfortunately, Ms. Davidson’s story is played out all across the United States. In 2017, the year after Ms. Davidson’s son overdosed, over 70,000 U.S. citizens died similar deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control. As Wesley fully knows, losing a child to drugs is every parent’s nightmare. It leaves the mourner with many issues.
This mother’s story is empirically based and is the yin of Dr. Shrand’s yang. Dr. Shrand’s observations in “Dr. Joe’s Shrink Think” stem from his long career in counseling children, adolescents and adults, particularly in the field of addiction, his authorship of four books, and his knowledge of current research he incorporates into his practice and teaching position as a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School.
Heroin may have been a soothing habit for my son, but it incited a hornet’s nest of problems within the family. One of these problems was anger. It has the ability to make one angry because you feel like a victim. I felt like a victim, and that made me very, very angry.
I was angry on many levels: at myself, at my son, at the so-called “fixers,” the doctors that James hoodwinked into giving a multitude of prescriptions, the exorbitant rehabs that did little more than detox and give a minimum of therapy within the 28-day stay (two within James’s small group of six, like him, are now dead).
While living alone in California, James would call us in the wee small hours of the morning. I would rail in the darkness with clenched fists. I disliked my seven-hour sleep cycle disrupted.
I would yell at James for calling late, but even more when I found out the reason: he needed money. Then I would scold my husband John for transferring money to James. But because it was always less than James wanted, in John’s mind, he was compromising. In my mind, he was “enabling.”
I could expect a call within two days, during the day this time, from James criticizing me for “always defending Dad” and not transferring money without Dad’s approval. James would argue with me that Dad was putting money into his bank account and then withdrawing it. My rationale was why would Dad go to the trouble of putting money into your account, only to confuse the bank on a regular basis while he abruptly withheld the deposit? James and I would go round and round on this point. ( After our son died, his best friend K. told me that he would call her and brag that he had just scammed his Dad and why didn’t they go shopping?)
As a result of these too-frequent verbal joustings, I would work myself into a lather, rinse, repeat. In fact, my blood pressure was too high, and the doctor prescribed two drugs to lower it. Although these physical manifestations of anger were annoying, I think their psychosomatic underpinnings were the angry feelings I felt at having no control over a son who was controlled by illicit drugs and angry at everyone around him: the psychologist who was in touch with us despite a lack of permission from the patient, the police who were called to his apartment, the sober living home he left because it didn’t stock the refrigerator, etc., his sister, who in his mind, had abandoned him. It was as if the drugs had arrested his maturity and caused him to abdicate his responsibility for his own well-being and turned against those who cared about him.
Dr. Joe writes about anger in his award-winning book Outsmarting Anger: 7 Strategies to Defuse Our Most Dangerous Emotion (Jossey-Bass 2013). Anger is an emotion designed to change things. We get angry when we want someone to do something different: to start doing something or to stop doing something. The feeling of being a victim is a feeling of being powerless. It is worse than feeling helpless and hopeless. Anyone would want that to change.
When our son died, I felt like a victim. Why me? What have I done to deserve this? Why must his sister have to suffer too? Addiction had won or so it seemed. The family felt powerless over its influence to cause friction, guilt, shame, and anger.
However, with time, I realized that I couldn’t stay mad at the world. SAMHSA states on its website that approximately 8.9 million adults with substance abuse disorders have co-occurring mental disorders. Highly sensitive, our son had physical and mental issues that made drugs appealing to his soul. He was depressed about being gay, always felt being adopted was a liability, frustrated that he had learning disabilities but they weren't severe enough to qualify him for a school that was geared to dyslexic students like his sister’s. He was jealous of his sister who was more outgoing, didn’t get into trouble and did what was expected of her. He took on the role of being the rebellious kid in the family. I believe that every time he was sent to a rehab, it probably felt to him as if he was being given up yet again, by a parent who wanted to be separated from him, as in adoption.
While I can honestly state that my anger seems to be abated, I am envious of my friends’ pride in their sons’ accomplishments, their grandchildren, and their visits with their sons. My visits with our son take place at a gravesite or in the form of daily prayers.
Dr. Joe responds:
Wesley describes her son as progressively feeling more and more worthless. We know that one of the greatest risk factors for first-time substance use in teenagers is low self-esteem. That is what Wesley describes in her son.
Anger is an emotion designed to change something. We get angry when we want someone to stop doing something or start doing something. In Wesley’s case, as with so many parents of children challenged by addiction, they wanted him to stop doing drugs and start being sober. They became enraged that their loved one would rather use drugs and didn't seem to care how it affected everyone around him.
But there is biology going on here. People who are using often shut down their brain’s ability to recognize how their behaviors are influencing people around them. In Drug Story Theater (www.drugstorytheater.org), we teach that when you are using drugs you are having an effect on someone else’s brain. In essence, you are blocking the very brain chemical involved in trust.
That is part of what makes someone angry. We want to be able to trust. We need to be able to trust. And when you cannot trust someone you want that person to change. Wesley desperately wanted to trust her son. But the drugs he was using were interfering with trust, interfering with Wesley feeling valued by him. How could he send her the message that the drugs were more important than their relationship?
Next week Dr. Joe will continue this blog and explore the question of what is anger? What do you think it is? What makes you angry? And for all of those reading who may be experiencing a loved one who appears to be choosing drugs over them, how do you want to use your anger as an agent of change? Until next week. Stay tuned! Dr. Joe.