My best friend in college once told me that when my relationships aren’t working, I go in with a machete to clean them up. You could say that my relationships – with friends, family, spouse, children, colleagues – are the most valuable things in my life. I’ll do anything to facilitate, celebrate and rehabilitate them. But when our third child, a son, found himself in the throes of active addiction, my dream of an intact, united family flew out the window.
Happiness and stability ceased to exist. Imbalance and chaos reigned. Our family feared and distrusted our addict; we argued, resented and withdrew from each other. As parents, our laser focus – at the cost of all other life concerns – was centered on one irrational thought: we must investigate and eradicate HIS substance abuse. Our fight-or-flight fear reactions took over and we became entrenched in diametrically opposed opinions and misguided attempts to control situations.
I would rush to judgment, wanting to track, find out, and take precipitous action (my husband called it “going rogue”). He would offset my negativity with his benevolent optimism and believe that things would eventually work themselves out, always giving our son the benefit of the doubt (I called it blatant denial). One therapist refers to this dynamic as being stranded in The Relationship Boat where the more you rush to one side of the deck to defend your way, the more your spouse heads to the other side, severely tipping the boat in dangerous waters.
Once we took responsibility for our individual and shared recovery through attending parent support meetings, seeing an addictions/couples therapist and engaging a sponsor, we began to detach from our son and his addiction. After several rehabs and relapses, we chose to halt all communication and contact with him, supporting recovery not addiction. Five months later he voluntarily chose treatment. We began to restore balance as we rediscovered our “best selves” and collaboratively strategized about whom the “go to” person would be for each challenge that arose.
Ironically, our strengths temporarily transformed into weaknesses when the storm of addiction threatened us. As we allowed our true strengths to re-emerge, my husband’s optimism made him the best communicator with his calm, positive approach so he wrote memos/letters to our son upholding recovery principles while offering lifelines of support. My investigative tracking enabled me to openly speak my truth and authentically tell our story. Both of these pursuits fit with the intentions of the Caron parent group where “coming out” with your family’s journey feeds the collective spirit and reduces shame and stigma.
As we strove to restore balance within our family relationships, we began to honor individual choices rather than mandate group decisions. During our separation, I suffered from feelings that we had abandoned our son; my husband privately compartmentalized his grief; the two older siblings stayed in touch with him though they understood our embargo. To stave off thoughts that he’d been forgotten, I crafted a memory bank from a vintage, brass tissue box in which I deposited many written, caring thoughts that I eventually gave to my son once he gained his sobriety.
Our son has three years of drug and alcohol recovery and has stopped smoking as well. As a family, we are much more intimate, communicative and respectful with each other. To maintain our balance, we continue to educate ourselves about addiction and recovery, seek fellow parent support, and offer help and service. Most importantly, we view as a precious gift, the hard-won lessons that we learned when we were at our very bottom.
Nancy Clifford, MA is a Personal Growth Coach and Writer who uses Transformative Storytelling to help individuals and family members affected by addiction to strengthen recovery, reclaim gifts, and promote healing and.wellness. Nancy can be reached through LinkedIn