A few weeks ago, I touched on how to cope with addiction and self-care (https://caringcounselor.blog/2017/12/20/addiction-and-self-care/). For that post, I put up a status on my personal social media calling for recovering addicts from all backgrounds to answer a few questions. The response was overwhelming. It opened up my eyes to how prevalent addiction was in our society. However, I also had several individuals reach out to me that were in a different form of recovery from addiction. These were the people who watched their loved ones fall further under the spell into oblivion. In some cases, they looked on helplessly until the addiction consumed their loved one and won.
In my last post, I also described my own struggle with two personal addictions- women and work. On the other hand, I have been on the outside looking in. Throughout my entire childhood, I spectated my father’s slow demise with alcohol. With my dad being a chef, I loved waking up to him cooking me awesome breakfasts like western omelettes and French toast. He would make sure I had my bookbag and took me to school if I missed the bus. He was and is an awesome guy…when he is sober. I dreaded coming home from school. My dad normally downed a pint of vodka by this point, and my mom was preparing for her night shift as a bartender. Almost every night for several weeks straight, they would be at each other’s throats. I do not mean little bickering here and there. I am talking full on WWE cage matches with screaming, pushing, and the whole nine. Then, my dad would calm down for a few weeks after a few hollow threats to leave each other.
When I was thirteen years old, my dad’s drinking grew significantly worse after his father (my grandfather) passed away. For the next few years, I watched my dad wither away. He lost around fifty pounds and was a skeleton of the man I knew. You could see him falling apart in front of your eyes. If you asked him if he was drinking though, he would lie straight to your face or avoid the question altogether. Then, later that day, you would normally find a vodka bottle in one of his five or six favorite hiding spots.
His condition worsened until my junior year of high school. He grew jaundice. His skin possessed a grey-ish tone. The white of his sunken eyes turned into a pale yellow. His abdominal area slowly grew in size. This was a sign that his liver was shutting down. In May of that year, I saw my father without his shirt on, and you would have thought it was nine months pregnant. My mom saw it as well, and we persuaded him to go to the hospital. My dad reluctantly went.
The hospital staff looked at my dad and immediately admitted him. They pulled five liters of fluid out of his abdomen! While I was sitting at my dad’s bedside, the doctor came in to talk to us. He told us that my dad might have woken up the next day if he did not come to the hospital. He also informed us that his liver was only functioning at 25%. This caused his liver to reject fluids that it would normally process, leading to the fluids leaking into his abdomen. My dad was lucky to be alive. I went to see my dad every day that week. This was the same week I was putting the final touches on organizing my high school’s prom, but very few people knew what was going on outside of my close circle.
Over the next few months, my father remained sober and ended up in the hospital on a few more occasions. Those times were more or less for maintenance and to drain further liquid out of his belly, but only a liter or two. About a year later, my mom left us. It was her turn.
My mom married her new husband around my 18th birthday. I did not talk to her for nearly a year because of the events that transpired. When we finally started talking again, I was disgusted. My mom was not the strong woman I knew during my childhood. She dodged my questions even about the most mundane activities in her life. Her words were slurred. Her husband would often not leave her side. She was hanging around people I never heard of before. My suspicion was that she was using drugs of some sort, but I tried to stay out of her business. I always managed to get pulled back in somehow.
During my one summer break from college, I did not have much of a choice. I stayed with her husband and her against my will. I did what I could to stay away from them. One night though at around three in the morning, I walked into the apartment from seeing my buddy. I went to go say hi to my mom because she was a night owl herself working on the graveyard shift as a bartender. She would not wake up. I woke up my stepdad, and he started freaking out. The most I could get out of her was her opening her eyes and yelling at me. My stepdad instructed me to take him to the nearest 24-hour pharmacy to fill one of her prescriptions because she was withdrawing from her medications. At four in the morning, I drove across the southern half of New Jersey an hour to get this prescription filled because I did not know any better. We got it filled, and I raced back to her apartment. My stepdad gave her a few pills, and she calmed down. When she woke up the next day, she was still out of it, but she was coherent. I could not take it anymore and drove to a friend’s house about an hour away. I stayed there for three or four days.
I found out later that she was abusing benzodiazepines and painkillers. She had taken somewhere around seven or eight Xanax that night, causing her episode. Not only was she abusing them, but her husband and she started selling them too. I tried finding peace of mind with my dad during this time.
My dad started drinking again around this time. I found out that his doctor had been prescribing him painkillers and benzo’s too. I thought he might at least be taking them as prescribed out of my two parents. Oh boy, I was wrong. He was abusing them and selling them too to make a few extra bucks. I had no escape. The two people I cared most about in my life were falling victim to addiction.
Their struggle fed into one of my own. At what point should someone draw the line between helping their loved one who is suffering from addiction and self-preservation? I tried to help my parents countless times. I sat down with them face-to-face on dozens of occasions to tell them how I felt and what kind of damage they were doing to their well-beings. I provided them with numbers to detox and rehab programs. I staged interventions with my aunts, uncles, and cousins. On my end, like I said, I avoided them whenever I could when it involved their addiction and associated lifestyles. It took me years of trauma, wisdom, and therapy to finally develop an appropriate approach with my parents.
- Setting boundaries. Misery loves company. Addicts will often pull those that are closest to them down with them. For self-preservation purposes, it helps to set firm boundaries with them and with yourself. Examples of boundaries to have with your loved one might be to not let them be around if they are under the influence, not giving them money when they ask for it, etc. Examples of boundaries for yourself could be reaching out for your own support when needed, checking in with yourself emotionally, etc. Setting limits may help to keep in place what little of the relationship is left especially if and when the time comes when the individuals wants help.
- It’s okay to say “no.” The tough part was not setting the boundaries but keeping them in place. It will emotionally drain every bit of you to stand your ground. You want to help your loved one. You want to be there for them, especially as they dig their hole deeper. You want to save them. Unfortunately, when you give in, you send the message that it is okay for the individual to continue with this lifestyle, and it reinforces the behavior. It enables them.
- Stop taking the blame. Similarly, as the onlooker, we always feel like there is more we can do to help. Sometimes, we feel like we are the reason that our loved one picked up the addiction in the first place. Guilt runs rampant through our veins. When addiction takes over, it takes control from everyone. It is no person’s single fault, and there are often multiple contributing factors.
- Have your own support. As the spectator, ensure that you have individuals you can reach out to. You are most certainly not alone in this endeavor. Whenever I did groups on this topic, I would ask, “Who in this room knows someone who has suffered from addiction?” Without a doubt, every hand in the room went up every single time. Everyone knows what this feels like to different extents. We have all been there and seen someone in the midst of addiction. There are also support groups specifically for the family members and friends of those suffering addiction (i.e. Al-Anon for alcoholics-https://al-anon.org/ and Nar-Anon for all other addictions-http://www.nar-anon.org/). There are also anonymous online forums, Facebook groups, and therapy groups you can attend.
- Be on standby. Your loved one will experience resource loss during their addiction (i.e. loss of job, legal issues, loss of relationships). Typically, some resource loss can be used an opportunity to intervene in the addiction without the individual “hitting rock bottom.” Therefore, do not totally cut yourself off from your loved one. Let them know that you are still there for them if and when they want to get help. Inform them that you will help them get into treatment, attend AA/NA meetings, and provide them with basic resources. It always helps them to know that you will still be there to at least some extent.
About two years ago, I finally told my parents that I had enough and that I needed a break from them. I gave them both the same offer. I would help them to go to rehab if they asked me and that I would call them in three months’ time to hear their decision. I stuck to my plan. My dad was more accepting of the offer. My mom tried calling me from different numbers after getting my new number from family members. When I spoke with my dad, he decided to go to rehab for three months. He ended up leaving early and did another four-week stint recently. When I called my mom, she did not want to go. I set boundaries with her including not sending her any more money and checking in with myself regularly because she brought a lot of rage out of me every time we spoke. I spoke with her again this past Christmas about how I felt about bailing her out all the time and how she has isolated herself from her family. She is presently in a detox program as we speak.
This is not to say that my parents and I have a picture perfect happy ending. I expect them to make mistakes and have relapses in the near future. This is a step in right direction though. I know not all stories end happily, but hopefully this can help make it a little easier.
-The Caring Counselor