On August 6, 2015 my husband and I watched our son Kurt, a recovering heroin addict, receive his 18 month chip. He chose to go to the alumni meeting at the place where he had started his recovery, the Center for Dependency, Addiction and Rehabilitation at the University of Colorado Hospital – CeDAR. We sat in the same room where we first reunited with Kurt three weeks into his recovery. At that time we were all exhausted and still feeling raw and overburdened with the weight of the past we were wearing – a leaden cloak we thought was our armor, but was mostly woven out of sadness and fear. Eighteen months later there we were, in that very same space, watching our son address alumni as well as present clients of CeDAR – some just starting their program, others receiving their 30 day chips and a few close to completing their 90 day program. It was his moment. We went to witness and support him in his moment. We are proud for him, rather than proud of him. He earned that chip for himself by slogging through his program one step, one day at a time. He had to pull every thread of that leaden cloak out and study it. He unwove it through hard work and perseverance during some of the most difficult months of his life. He forged his path and he stayed on it. For those in early recovery, 18 hours seems impossible and 18 days a distant goal. For eighteen miraculous months Kurt has been working hard every day.
As for me, I am more like 17 (maybe only 16) months into my recovery. Addiction is a family disease, and we all need to work toward our own recovery. CeDAR runs an amazing week-long family program. During that week they taught us about ourselves and the role we played in this family disease of addiction. They broke down enabling. They taught us about healthy boundaries. They took us through exercises in communication, explaining to us how to speak openly and honestly with our loved one. They explained the importance of validating another’s words by repeating them before speaking our own. These exercises seemed weighty and awkward at the time, but led to more open and honest communication which has lasted through today. We family members were a pretty resistant group. We were filled with blame and anger. It was with incredible patience we were brought to understand the swirl of negative feelings and anxiety we were experiencing were reflections of basically two emotions; sadness and fear. Sadness for the loved one we had ‘lost’ through addiction, and fear that we would really and truly lose them as we watched them kill themselves slowly. Fear of not being in control. Sadness for what could have been. Fear of our lack of control over the situation. Sadness that our lives were so completely taken over by something we had been trying with every fiber of our being to fix. Our loved one’s addiction is not ours to control, their lives are not ours to repair. Our own lives, on the other hand are totally in our control. We learned to start repairing ourselves.
CeDAR educated us on addiction. They explained brain chemistry in terms we could understand. They talked of how addiction hijacks the fight or flight basic instinct. They explained how long it takes for an addict to stop thinking like an addict. They made us understand that willpower is very rarely enough.
There was one exercise that sticks with me. They asked a person to stand on a chair and stare at the clock on the wall and told us, ‘this is your addict’. Then they stood others around as examples of family members –chief enabler, policeman, sibling who hides, sibling who acts out, etc. They asked them all to look up at the addict. The clock was the addict’s drug of choice. He stood on the chair and stared at the clock, while everyone else stared up at him. We were revolving our family life around someone who was paying no attention – he was staring at the clock. We resented that he didn’t appreciate all we were doing for him as we tried to save him from himself. He saw none of what we were doing, he was staring at the clock. Addiction takes over the brain. It tells the addict that all things can be solved with the drug of choice. Angry parents, failing grades, loneliness, depression, anxiety, desperation, self-loathing because you’re an addict who can’t stop …. addiction tells them all of this can be solved by the drug. The fight or flight mechanism in the brain has been re-wired, it sends the addict to the drug as a solution to everything, even though it is the cause of everything. Willpower and reason have almost no voice when they are being drowned out by brain chemistry.
For families who have a loved one in active addiction, please don’t wait for the addict to find recovery before finding it for yourself. I waited too long. Taking care of yourself and finding your own recovery – whether it be through Alanon, Nar-Anon, other support groups, or therapy – can help alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression. Educating yourself on the science of addiction can help you come to terms with the anger and resentment you have toward the addict as you understand what is really going on in their brain. We take the addict’s behavior personally, but it is very rarely about us. We are gray shadows in the fog that swirls around them– the addict is staring at the clock.
Loved ones whose addicts are in treatment or jail should understand the difficulty they will face upon re-entering society. If they have only had 2-4 weeks of treatment, they are not there yet. Thirty days is not rehab, it is detox. Their bodies are free of the drug, but their minds are still hi-jacked. Any sign of stress or danger and their fight or flight mechanism sends their brain the signal that the solution is their drug of choice. They spend much of their time trying not to look at that clock while hearing it tick relentlessly in the background. Be gentle, don’t expect miracles overnight.
Understand that they are fighting for their lives. Support them emotionally, tell them you’re in their corner, but don’t enable by doing things for them. Hard as it is, don’t micro-manage. Tough stuff. An addict who comes out of 30 days from even the best program has only been handed the tools with a quick lesson on how to use them. They are driving the highway with only a learner’s permit. They need to work their program and surround themselves with others who can show them the way. It is hard to recognize that their recovery is their own, but as you work on your recovery it becomes more clear. Detaching with love from our addicts is not abandonment. We are not giving up on them. We are allowing ourselves to be in a better space to support our loved ones in a healthy way whether they are already walking the path of recovery or still finding their way to it. Acceptance, love and support are something we can give even in the worst of our addict’s manipulation.
It is our nature to close ourselves off emotionally from people and experiences that hurt us. Our addicts have hurt us. We don’t want to open ourselves up to that hurt again, so we wrap that leaden cloak around us. The day I dropped that cloak was the day I realized that it was OK if I was hurt again. I would take that risk for my son. He is my baby boy, and he is worth any pain I may have to endure down the road. Others have not been so lucky, they have lost their children to addiction. I realized I did not want to lose the connection with my living, breathing son to my own stubbornness. I let go. I let go of the anger, the hurt, and yes (most of) the anxiety. I gave up any illusion I still had of control. I looked at the pit of addiction we had climbed out of and I decided it was time to fill it. I no longer look back, I look forward. I try very hard to curb the anxiety which makes me project fear and negativity. I appreciate every single day that is good and no longer hold my breath waiting for disaster. If it comes, I have an emergency plan where blame and anger have no part. Love, support and hope that the Village I have found and the Village surrounding my son will carry us each on our own path through many more todays.