“Inpatient” conjured all kinds of images—none of them pleasant. My uneducated mind thought first of asylums—places where mental illness was treated. A One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest scenario. (If you haven’t seen the 1975 Jack Nicholson comedy/drama, it’s a classic.) Once I learned of my son’s heroin addiction, inpatient took on a new meaning, no more appealing than my original impression, but one I knew was necessary—for all of us.
Every parent initially thinks they can help their child beat addiction. All we really need to do is talk some sense into them, show them how harmful their actions are, set down some rules, and our kid will see the light and just stop. It’s only after weeks, months or longer that we realize that we, no matter how much we love our kids, are in WAY over our heads. It’s then that the term inpatient becomes the one word we can add to our vocabularies that may also translate into the word, hope.
When my son first entered inpatient rehab, I experienced numerous emotions, including fear, relief, and shame. For us to have come to this point, I must have failed, somehow. What did I miss? What didn’t I do? What did I do, to drive my son to become an addict, an “inpatient?” Even years removed from the experience, I still find myself holding back tears at the memory.
And now that David was an inpatient in rehab, would they know how amazing my son could be? Would they see that the being before them wasn’t really him? Would they be able to exorcise his demons and return my son to me?
God bless Bernard, my son’s first therapist, who patiently (at least on the surface), handled my multiple phone calls, during which I felt compelled to “explain” my son. Little did I know that Bernard had already experienced my son—through the numerous addicts he had treated before.
Somewhere along the line, I learned to trust Bernard, to let go of trying to “fix” my son, because I couldn’t. In fact, neither could Bernard, or anyone, but David, himself. What they could do was give David the tools to live a clean life. Yet the decision to use those tools was David’s alone. But without Bernard, and others like him, both David and I would have been lost.
Sending a loved one to inpatient treatment can be frightening. But know this: immersion in rehab as an inpatient, where the addict is removed from behavioral triggers and easy access to drugs, as well as supplied with therapy by knowledgeable, trained professionals, is nothing short of a lifeline—for the addict and you.
Detoxes and cleanses are particularly popular at the beginning of a new year, when most of us are determined to get healthy, eat “clean” and generally live better. Yet there is little scientific evidence that body detoxes and cleanses have any medical benefit—unless, of course, you’re an addict. Then, the word detox holds another meaning—getting the drugs or alcohol out of your body, the first step towards any significant healing.
I can’t speak for the mind of an addict, but I imagine the idea of detox is at once frightening and appealing. Fear of being without the drug and anticipation of being able to live without the drug. But there’s nothing spa-like in the process. It’s stressful, uncomfortable and scary.
For a parent or family member of an addict with no frame of reference on personal drug or alcohol abuse, detox is yet another confusing word in the endless parade of language used to describe what’s happening to a loved one.
When my son first entered treatment, I was told he would undergo a period of detox before beginning rehabilitative therapy. I had no idea then, nor do I now, what the particulars of detox involved medically. I didn’t need to know. I didn’t particularly care. All I knew was that someone—someone who knew how to help my son, because I clearly didn’t—was going to remove the poison from his body and try to help him heal.
That was enough for me. I assumed it wouldn’t be pleasant for him, but cruel as it may sound, I didn’t really care. I’d seen enough of how drugs consumed my child to know that it wouldn’t be easy to be rid of that demon. If David had to be uncomfortable or even in pain to be able to deal with his addiction, so be it. It was a price worth paying if my child could be made whole again.
It was also a time when I “detoxed” myself from the constant, considerable strain and pain of thinking about my son’s addiction 24/7.
Knowing he was in the hands of medical professionals with a skill set to handle addiction provided enormous relief. I thought about him of course, but granted myself the mercy to take a break, rest, eat well and take care of myself while others were taking care of him.
Detox is the beginning of the journey towards a healthy life for any addict. While it begins with removing poison from the addict’s body, it is also the beginning of removing mental and emotional poison from the family. Ask your medical professionals if you want to know more and remember to “detox” yourself and rebuild with rest and healthy habits while your loved one is in treatment.
As energizing and positive as that sounds, it has a flip side—exhausting. Especially when you realize that for everything to change, everyone must change too, and the odds of that happening are slim to none, especially if you’re dealing with addiction in any form.
So, I’d like to propose another word to keep in mind as we charge into a new year: preservation.
Self-preservation, that is.
When we think about how we want to live in a new year, we’re full of hope that this year things will be better. And they may be, but they may not. We rarely plan for how we’ll deal with the setbacks, the relapses, the pain and possibly failure to achieve our goals—especially if those goals involve the sobriety of another, which we ultimately have no control over anyway.
During the worst of my son’s active addiction, I sometimes chose self-preservation, even if it meant giving in to the madness of David’s addiction at that moment. I would literally walk away, leaving him to his demons, locking myself in my room to binge watch a favorite show, or even drive away, because really, is there anything better than McDonalds French fries when life is hard? And there’s a drive-through—my winning at the time.
Be kind to yourself.
Self-preservation is not self-indulgence, although there’s nothing wrong with that, either.
Self-preservation is survival, and sometimes it’s all you have the strength for.
Build recovery time into your own life.
Retreat is not the same as defeat, and it’s necessary if you’re to stay in the fight for your loved one’s addiction recovery. Create a safe zone in your home—somewhere you can retreat to that is addict-free. Watch TV, read, play spider solitaire on your computer (my favorite!), nap—do what nourishes and replenishes you.
It’s okay to choose to do nothing to combat addiction if you’re depleted.
Remember the three C’s: you didn’t cause the addiction, you can’t control it, and you aren’t going to cure it. Take care of yourself. Love the one suffering from addiction, but remember to love yourself, too.
But as anyone (read: everyone) who has ever resolved to join a gym and get in shape, lose 10 pounds, eat better, act better, be better at everything knows, resolutions are frequently a recipe for failure.
Too often, we decide that January 1st is the day we’re going to totally recreate ourselves and our lives. And we do—for about two weeks. Then, life intervenes, we slip back into old habits, and by February 1st, we’re no thinner, not much better, and still eating donuts. Happy New Year.
Those dealing with the addiction of a loved one may be equally determined that this year is going to be different. And it can be, if resolutions are reasonable and consider the unpredictability of addiction.
Before making any resolutions about how you’re going to change the addiction in your family, keep one simple thing in mind: the only thing you can change about addiction, unless you yourself are the addict, is your behavior and thoughts towards it.
You will never be able to love an addict out of addiction, talk them out of addiction or bribe them out of addiction. You can, however, change your behavior towards the addict and how the addiction impacts your life.
While you’ll never be able to eliminate the impact of this tragedy completely, you can start to limit the effects of addiction on your everyday life by embracing one simple resolution: The Truth.
It means you must accept the fact that the person you loved is not the one standing before you. When drugs or alcohol take control of an individual, it controls them mind, body and soul. By acknowledging that, you will be better able to protect yourself from the side-effects of addiction, including lying, stealing, and manipulation.
It doesn’t sound like a prescription for a happy New Year, but it can be the first step towards healing. When a family is willing to look at the truth about addiction, it’s often the first step towards recognizing the loved one needs help beyond what the family can give.
Have courage and look at the truth about addiction this New Year.
Getting help for yourself and your loved one is the best resolution you can make.
That process—which resulted in the book The 15 Minute Master—helped us keep our sanity and allowed us to go on living, despite periods of intense pain and fear. But it wasn’t always about managing pain and fear. Often, we used our 15 minutes to relax, find some fun, laugh, or just feel normal.
The holiday season is both joyful and stressful. Full of fun and sometimes anxiety. When dealing with addiction, everything is heightened—even more reason for building breaks into your day. Here are some ideas for discovering your own 15 minutes of magic:
Watch 15 minutes of funny videos:
Or start your own personal binge-watching marathon of a favorite show (I’m obsessed with Say Yes to the Dress!). Even if you can’t commit to a whole program, the brief respite will refresh you.
Listen to Christmas music:
Regardless of your religious orientation, Christmas music is uplifting and fun. I recommend Michael Bublé—Christmas—great voice, great music, and he’s kind of cute, too! You may even find yourself having a little dance party in the kitchen. Or maybe that’s just me….
Eat some Christmas cookies:
We spend much of our time denying ourselves in an effort to be some version of “better” than we are. While I won’t recommend excess and too much over-indulging, it’s okay to eat the cookie every once in a while. Just remember that if you’re going to indulge, enjoy it; don’t stuff it into your face over the sink when you’re on your way out the door. Savor the taste and the moment by sitting down and paying attention. That cookie will taste even better!
Take a ride to look at Christmas lights: I love Christmas lights—especially when someone else has gone to the trouble of putting them up and later taking them down! Jump in the car or take a walk around your neighborhood in the evening. You’ll likely see displays that make you smile right near your home.
Take a walk: It’s no secret that exercise releases endorphins and elevates mood. Take 15 minutes and go for a brisk walk in the fresh air. Good for the body and the mind.
And most important—Take a break from addiction: Give yourself a 15-minute break from thinking about addiction. Set a timer if you must and do something you enjoy for 15 minutes. If you find your mind wandering back to your problem, gently pull it back to your moments of relief.
Fifteen minutes can change things. It’s enough time to start—to refresh your mind, body and soul. Be kind to yourself this holiday season and remember to take care of you—15 minutes at a time!
My son’s active addiction wasn’t the only issue facing me and my family at the time, though it was by far the most challenging. But other issues reared their ugly heads as well, including the loss of my writing jobs due to the internet, a sinking economy threatening our family business, and a big, scary birthday—which seems laughable now.
Despite being exhausted, battered and terrified by my son’s addiction and what it was doing to all of us, despite the fact that I could think of almost nothing else, life was going on, bringing with it all of the usual, and some unusual, stresses and problems which needed to be addressed.
But how? How do you manage everyday life when an actual life—that of your loved one—hangs in the balance because of addiction?
That doesn’t mean we sit on our hands and let the world pummel us, however. Even when at a loss as to how to solve or manage a crisis, we can at least set an intention, one that turns our minds towards pulling something, anything, good towards ourselves to bring some relief to the ugly.
I didn’t have the first clue about managing any of the issues facing me and my family during our time of crisis. But I did know that it wasn’t always going to be that way. Even if I couldn’t solve anything, I could at least be open to whatever might be a point of light in my day, regardless if that light was only a temporary respite or a beacon pointing toward something greater.
Also, by taking life in 15-minute segments, I managed to somewhat contain my anxiety in a brief time frame. The problems were still there, but as I survived each 15-minute interval, I began to breathe just a bit easier.
Yes, life goes on when dealing with addiction. But by recognizing the limits of control, setting an intention to pull the positive towards you, and managing crisis in 15-minute intervals, you’ll get through to fight another day—until the day comes when you no longer have to fight.
The words above are taken from the beginning of my book, The 15 Minute Master—How to Make Everything Better 15 Minutes at a Time, published in October 2019. It’s my fourth book, and very different in tone and subject than my previous books—the last two with the titles of Not Ready for Granny Panties and The Woman’s Book of Dirty Words. Both with a message, but firmly planted in the world of humor.
I needed humor when I wrote those books. They came to be during the time of my son David’s active heroin addiction, when laughter was almost non-existent in my world. I needed the pinpricks of light and joy that focusing on something not associated with addiction brought me. And I found that sharing some laughter with the world also lightened my burden. When I was writing funny, I could escape from the horror that was consuming my son and my family, at least for a while.
During David’s active addiction, people would counsel us to “Take it one day at a time,” an impossible task for the family of an addict. My husband and I resolved to just get through the next 15 minutes, especially while we were in crisis mode. Staying in the present and taking on no more than what was immediately in front of us, saved our sanity—over and over again.
Further, when we had 15 minutes in non-crisis mode, we worked a method that somehow naturally evolved, involving 15 minutes and 3 basic questions, which led to 1, single action step toward making life “better.” Focusing on a single task within a brief timeframe allowed us to cope without losing ourselves in the “coulda, woulda, shouldas” and the “what-ifs.”
No one has “The Answer” about how to navigate drug addiction. However, by reigning in my racing mind, focusing on a single task, and confining myself to a single action, I did, indeed manage to make things “better,” if only in the moment. Often, that better moment gave me the strength to continue the fight when addiction reared its ugly head once again.
My 15-minute philosophy proved to be a lifeline, not just for me, but for my family and friends as well. If you’d like to learn more, visit www.maryfranbontempo.com, or find the book on Amazon. Resolve to be kind to yourself. Get through the next 15 minutes; that’s enough.
Oh my god, what am I going to say? How do I tell people what’s going on?
Addiction is a horror that begins privately and almost always ends up playing out in public, for the world to see. The emotional trauma that consumes family members is multiplied tenfold when shame and embarrassment are piled onto the burden of pain and fear when addiction becomes known to others.
Mothers are especially vulnerable. Usually the primary caregivers and influence on children, mothers internalize the emotional burden of addiction, blaming themselves for a problem they are sure they caused or contributed to in some way.
But all family members can struggle with what to say when it becomes clear to others that something is wrong, either because of the addict’s changed behavior or because s/he has entered rehab and is no longer “around.”
How much to share is often dependent on your relationship with others. Even those closest to you don’t need to know everything. It’s sufficient to say, “S/he is struggling with some serious issues and it’s very challenging for all of us. Please keep us in your prayers.” Well-meaning follow up questions can be answered with, “Thank for your concern, but I don’t want to get into it further,” and then a change of subject.
Addiction is all-consuming, not only for the addict, and can swallow family members whole without an outlet for the accompanying emotional trauma.
Find a confidant. Reach out to someone you trust and know will react to your crisis with care and concern. Don’t be afraid to lay your problem bare and ask for support. Navigating addiction is a full-time job; no one can do it alone. It’s essential to surround yourself with a supportive “village” consisting of not only experts, but people who have your best interests and emotional health at heart.
During my son David’s active addiction, I often felt the need to go “underground,” managing my pain privately and sometimes suffering more for not opening up to those who cared for me. Yet when the burden became too much and I shared my story, I was overwhelmed with the love of those who did not judge, but loved me and were there to offer support, a kind word, their presence and prayers. Their generosity knew no bounds, as I found when my sister, on vacation with her family, drove up from the Jersey shore with a meal to spend a few hours with me. I will be eternally grateful to them all.
Sadly, the addiction epidemic has left few untouched in some way. What to say and share with others is less important than you think. Give the world a chance to share some kindness; you are not alone.
Ah, the holidays! The time of year when worries are sent packing and the world is bright with cheer, love, and lots and lots of temptation, triggers and potential traps for those struggling with addiction.
When families are embroiled in a loved one’s addiction, the holidays can resemble a minefield more than a joy-filled wonderland. How can we manage such a time of excess and self-indulgence without putting our loved one at risk? Are we in charge of policing those struggling with addictions? Should anything be off-limits? Should we expect others to keep our loved one’s struggles in mind when celebrating?
During my son David’s active addiction, we wrestled with all the above. And there is no playbook, nor instructions to follow to ensure the holidays will remain joyful, safe, and not lead our loved one back to active addiction or encourage an already active user to slip further into peril.
So, what to do? While every family and situation are different, a few guidelines may help to allow celebration without encouraging harmful excess.
Set expectations and boundaries. Let your loved one know in advance what’s happening with celebrations and what you expect in terms of their behavior. Don’t be afraid to say no to drinking in your home or even having them not attend celebrations if you believe it will put their sobriety in jeopardy. Be sensitive to others hosting celebrations and respect their boundaries involving your loved one.
Be flexible. God willing, your current circumstances will not be permanent. If your loved one is struggling, consider modifying your traditions to respect their current struggles. For example, instead of hosting a large gathering with opportunities to over-indulge, consider having a smaller family gathering with no or limited alcohol—perhaps a brunch instead of evening party. You may need to make this the year where celebrations are a bit more subdued.
Encourage mutual respect. Clearly, you want anyone struggling with addiction to respect your rules. Consider, then, also mutually respecting their struggle by not placing them in compromising situations. For example, when our son was in early recovery, my husband and I chose not to drink alcohol in his presence.
We did not impose that restriction on anyone else, but we told him that we knew how challenging his situation was and we wanted to offer a sign of support by not drinking in front of him. A little solidarity with someone struggling is a holiday gift worth giving.
With some thought, honest conversation, flexibility and mutual respect, the holidays can still be a time of joy and shared experience with all families, including those struggling with addiction.
As we drove up to the historic-looking white building outside of Philadelphia, I felt oddly detached, almost numb. Ordinarily, such a place would have sparked my curiosity about the origins of the house—what had it been used for years ago? Philadelphia is an area rich in history, something I always enjoyed exploring as a native Philly girl.
But this was no pleasure outing. This was where we would leave my son, in hopes that he would be able to beat his heroin addiction.
Earlier that day, in May of 2010, David was released from a three-day hospital stay after overdosing on a pain medication he’d stolen. The first night (Mother’s Day, in fact), I stayed close to my son, trying to sleep on a cramped, two-seat hospital waiting room bench. I was terrified, not knowing whether my boy was going to live or die.
We waited for what seemed like hours in the facility’s main office, just inside the front door. It almost felt like an out-of-body experience. Surely this was happening to someone else, not me. But after we checked David in and he was led away to begin treatment, I knew, after a hug for this child whom I loved more than life and hated at the same time, that it was happening, and somehow, not only would I have to get through it, but I’d have to lead my husband and daughters through as well.
This retelling is painful. It recounts the worst time in my life. But when we left my son that day, no one told us anything—or maybe they did, but it wasn’t much. I had zero frame of reference on drug addiction. And much as I understand the need for privacy laws, handing over your sick child without access to information—in fact, being told NOT to contact him—seemed cruel. And oddly appreciated at the same time.
If I sound confused, I was. I was also alone. I had no one to talk to. I was ashamed, exhausted, terrified and horrified at what my son had become and what he’d done to my world.
I don’t want anyone else to feel that way. Ever. And though it’s painful to revisit this, I believe the only way painful experiences rise above individual suffering is if we use them to help others. I want to help others who find themselves lost, afraid, and ashamed. Writing about my experience—our experience—is one way I can do that. I will share with you, pray for you and be there for you through this writing. Until next time. ~ Mary Fran