There’s a scenario you may have heard that’s relevant to most people who have a child or loved one struggling with substance use. I’ll share it and then discuss why this is an important concept to understand to keep yourself as whole and healthy as possible during a highly challenging time.
If I handed you a glass of water and asked you how much it weighed, you would probably look at how big it was and say eight, 12, or 16 ounces, depending on how big it was.
Then if I asked you to hold the glass an arm’s length away from you, told you to keep it there while I stepped out, returned an hour later, and asked again, “how heavy is the glass of water?” you might have a different answer.
And then what if I said, “okay, I’m going to add just a little more water to the glass, and now you need to hold it up above your head.” And again, I left, but this time I went on vacation for a month. When I returned, you and your arm would probably not be in the best shape. Your glass would probably feel much heavier than when I first handed it to you.
You may have been holding a “glass of water” above your head for a long time. Of course, I’m talking about the heaviness, burden, and weight of having a child or someone you love struggle with substance misuse.
And while this is just a make-believe scenario, it’s a great visual for us to keep in mind because it might feel like this is all in your head, maybe you should be coping better, perhaps you should just know how to do this.
Some of you are just entering this phase; maybe it’s been a few weeks or months since you learned the severity of the problem. Some of you have been holding this heaviness for years or a decade.
Regardless of how long it’s been, you might be wondering, how come I have to hold this burdensome, painful thing? You look around, and you don’t see anyone else doing it, or at least not holding onto something as complicated as yours. You might feel bitter about this or angry; it doesn’t seem fair. But you’re not sure what to do with your “glass of water” so you keep holding it.
Sometimes, you even let people pour more water into it.
I speak from experience as somebody who held a very full glass of water above her head for many years, so I’d like to offer a few thoughts on different ways to make the holding process a little less painful.
Recognizing that usually, setting down this heavyweight entirely isn’t an option, there are two ways you can go about giving yourself a rest:
- you can let others help you hold the glass - or -
- you can make your glass lighter
These options aren’t mutually exclusive, so ideally, you do both.
Letting Others Help
First, people need to know you’re holding a weighty glass of water above your head. If nobody knows you’re holding it, they really can’t help. Often we try to make our weary arm and our heavy glass invisible, so nobody sees them. We say things like, “Oh, I’m good, the kids are good, everything’s fine.” It’s critical, though, to have at least one or two people in your life who you can trust to tell about the weight you’re carrying. You can share how painful it is, and hopefully, they’ll be able to listen without offering judgment or advice. You might find this group online, in your local community, through a church or synagogue, or through AA/Al-Anon. Don’t be afraid to check out several different options - if one doesn’t feel right, don’t give up! There are lots of different styles and flavors of support available, but it may require some experimentation to find the right fit.
When you’ve found your people, you can start practicing by letting them help you hold your glass once in a while. Or if that doesn’t feel right, you could also have them prop up your arm if you’re not able to let them help fully. They could do this by getting you out of the house regularly just to do something normal where you feel less isolated.
They could help declutter a space in your home that’s causing you stress. They might simply sit and listen to you talk about whatever feels good or perhaps make you a meal. The trick is, you need to let them know how they can help. It can feel hard at first, so start small with somebody very close to you. Then you can work your way up to accepting more help from more people.
Lightening Your Load
The second option you have is to take some water out of the glass to make it lighter. One way we may keep our glass heavier than it needs to be is by filling it with guilt about the past and worry about the future.
If you’re ruminating about the past and how you got here, about things you did, decisions you made, or conversations you should have had, your glass is going to get and stay very heavy. All of those things are natural to feel, but allowing them to make the burden heavier will only draw from the strength you need to hold it in the first place. So if you can, let the past go. Consider those lessons learned, and your glass will become so much lighter.
The other way to lighten your glass is to prevent yourself (or others) from adding to it. When we commit to things we shouldn’t, say yes to something when we need to say no, or keep the wrong people and relationships in our lives, we continually make our load heavier.
Some people around you might carry a lot of negativity or lack empathy for what you’re going through. It could be that you’ve asked them to learn about substance use and addiction, and they’re not willing to take the time or aren’t interested. It can be painful to draw back from certain people, but if they’re weighing you down, it may be time to look at taking a break.
We can also make our load lighter around expectations - those we have of ourselves and those others have of us.
You might have very high expectations around your home and what it looks like, your work schedule, exercise routine, or diet. Normally you probably accomplish more in a day than most do in a week. But with this incredibly heavy glass of water, you may need to consider some changes.
There’s a time for you to take care of everything and everyone else, but right now, prioritizing yourself and your self-care is more important than upholding unrealistic expectations. You can still conquer the world; it just might not be right now.
Give yourself the gift of resting that arm of yours. Also, recognize how long you’ve been holding it and pat yourself on the back for your strength and stamina. You’re carrying a lot; you probably need some help with the load.
Brenda Zane is a Mayo Clinic Certified health and wellness coach whose work supports moms of kids with substance use disorder. After almost losing her oldest son to multiple fentanyl overdoses, Brenda helps moms maintain their health and sanity as they navigate the frightening and exhausting experience of having a child who’s experimenting with or addicted to drugs or alcohol. Her podcast, Hopestream, and private, online community, The Stream, provide connection, hope, and resources related to holistic health, CRAFT parenting skills, addiction, and treatment.