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
David had overdosed, not on heroin—he couldn’t get it that day—but on a pain medication he stole from his grandmother. He landed in the hospital, and doctors told us that if they couldn’t reverse the effects of the medication he’d ingested, he would need a liver transplant, if he lived.
Mother’s Day. When children are young, it’s a day celebrated with macaroni picture frames, candy, flowers, sweet hugs and declarations of “I love you, mommy. Happy Mother’s Day!” But in 2010, as I tried to sleep on a cramped two-seat bench in a hospital waiting room, praying that my son would survive, I knew that Mother’s Day would never be quite the same.
I’d known something was wrong for a long time, but it never had a name until that moment. A heroin addict. How? How did my son, the sweet, smart little boy who grew up in Catholic school, played on soccer teams coached by his dad, and made me laugh with his quick, goofy wit, how did that boy become a heroin addict? God forgive me, but heroin addicts were someone else’s child, not mine.
I had no answers. I still don’t. What I did have was fear and a boatload of guilt.
What did I do? What didn’t I do? I know this is my fault; how did I let this happen? And now that it has, how do I save my child?
How do I begin to know how to save him when everything I thought I knew about myself suddenly seems like a lie?
Who I thought I was, where I’d been, how I’d raised my family, where I thought I was going—all of it was erased with one horrifying statement:
David survived the overdose, without needing a liver transplant. But that day and very long night were the beginning of a descent into a world I had no idea how to navigate. When you grow up with Marcia Brady as a role model, you don’t exactly have a frame of reference for heroin addiction.
But if my son, and the rest of my family were going to survive—of which there was no guarantee—I knew I had no choice but to walk into the fire.
I’m here to share our story. And though I don’t have the answer (no one does), I’ve learned some things along the way that I believe will help the families of those struggling with addiction.
David is well, healthy, and the married father of three amazing kids. It wasn’t easy for him, or for us, to come out on the other side of addiction, and it’s not easy for me to go back and re-visit the pain.
But I believe the only way to turn something terrible into something good is to use the experience to help others.
Sharing our story is one way I can do that. I hope you’ll join me on this journey, and perhaps find some peace.
Until next time, keeping you in prayer. ~ Mary Fran