In today’s post, I want to talk about what we’ve learned about how to help your addicted loved one.
If you’re a regular reader of Money with a Purpose, you know that my wife, Cathy, and I are the parents of an addicted son.
We made a lot of mistakes. Those mistakes taught us a lot. Since sharing our story on this blog back in June, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
Cathy convinced me I should write a follow up to offer what we’ve learned and to bring you up to date on our son. And I’m a big believer in the concept of “happy wife, happy life!” Hence, today’s post.
What you’re about to read is a summary of the parenting, marriage, and financial lessons we’ve learned in dealing with our son’s disease. Yes. Addiction is a disease.
It took us a long time to come to grips with and understand that. I’ll talk about that in some detail and offer a resource that helped us a lot.
I’ll also tell you about a support group we’ve started in our area for parents. And I’ll point you to a website to search for something in your area or to start one if none exists.
One reminder. When I talk about an addicted loved one here, it’s about an adult over age eighteen. Someone who is a minor under your care is a different story. Please keep that in mind as you read.
With that, let’s get started.
It’s not your fault
We need to start right off with this truth. When we learned of Jason’s addiction, in 2007, one of the first things we did was to question our parenting (after the initial shock). We went through a mental checklist of events throughout his childhood, including high school and college.
Jason’s biological father was a heroin addict. He died from an overdose in his early thirties. I’ve had Jason since he was 8 1/2 or so. I adopted him at age ten shortly after his father’s death. It was one of the happiest days of all our lives. We got him into counseling to help him deal with the loss of his biological father.
Our first question was, “did we pull him out of counseling too soon.” From there we questioned if we did the right thing putting him in a private high school. Then it was, “why did we send him to Indiana University. It was much too big, and he wasn’t ready.”
If you’re a parent, I’m sure some of these questions resonate with you. Here’s the truth:
IT’ NOT YOUR FAULT!!
It’s our job to teach our kids the values and beliefs we hold dear. It’s up to them to live their lives the way they choose. And choose they do. It took us years to stop asking these kinds of questions. It’s a natural thing to do. Left unchecked, though, it can lead to depression and move to the blaming each other. One spouse picks out something the other did and places some responsibility on the other for the child’s behavior and choices.
DONT’ DO IT!
It’s essential that you and your spouse stick together and stay unified. More on that shortly.
You can’t fix them
That statement goes entirely against the grain of parenting, doesn’t it? When our children were young, isn’t that what we did. We protected them and taught them when they made mistakes. Whether it was something as simple as mending a cut or counseling them when a close friend hurt them in some way, we were always there to take care of them.
Here’s the problem.
They’re adults. Though they may not act like it, the fact remains they are adults. They are responsible for their behavior. An addict’s reaction, though, is often childlike. They begin to exhibit behaviors that are things an adolescent does to get what they want. So, what’s our first instinct as parents when we see our adult son or daughter acting like a child?
Yup. We treat them like a child.
We revert to the parenting style we employed when they were children. It’s an instinct. You act like a child. I’ll treat you like a child. You want to be treated as an adult. Then act like an adult.
But it’s not that simple, is it? The addiction keeps them childlike.
The clinical theory behind this behavior calls this delayed emotional growth. It’s the idea that somewhere in the process, the addict’s development stopped or got delayed. Actions of addicts are not ones of a responsible adult.
Addiction is a disease
The resource that taught us about the disease of addiction is a DVD called Pleasure Unwoven. Click the image below to see the DVD. I’ve watched the video numerous times. I learn something new every viewing. I’m going to spend some time on this topic. It’s critical in understanding addiction, the addict and their behavior.
Kevin McCauley created the DVD. Dr. McCauley was a Naval flight surgeon for the Marines’ helicopter and flight/attack squadrons. He watched as pilots became addicted to drugs and self-report their addiction to avoid court-martialled or worse. After treatment, they returned to their flight duties.
Dr, McCauley became addicted to opioids himself after surgery. His fortunes didn’t turn out so well. He was convicted, imprisoned, court-martialled and sent to a maximum security prison. Once released, he went on a quest to discover how best to treat his disease. He did extensive research and interviewed world-renowned addiction experts. The result is the Pleasure Unwoven video.
I’ll give you a summary of how it began to make sense to me.
Definition of disease
Kevin introduces the accepted clinical definition of a disease. It goes like this:
A disease affects an organ. The affected organ has a sickness. That sickness causes the organ to exhibit symptoms.
Diabetes is a disease of the pancreas. The sickness is in the pancreas’ inability to regulate insulin production. The symptoms of the disease are things like poor circulation causing peripheral neuropathy, high blood pressure, and potential loss of extremities (toes, or even a foot in severe cases)
Addiction is a disease of the brain. The sickness causes the brain’s chemistry to get altered. The symptoms of the disease are behavioral. They are things like lying, stealing, manipulating, triangulating parents, etc. I can tell you first hand that when you’re on the receiving end of these symptoms, you’re not thinking of it as a disease.
We learned about it years into the addiction. Would we have changed? Hard to tell. I hope we would have. I’m confident we would have had a better chance with an understanding of the disease.
In the video, Dr. McCauley explains how the chemistry changes in the brain. Here’s a very brief summary (oversimplified I’m sure).
In normal brain activity, the center part of the brain sends dopamine (the pleasure chemical) to the frontal cortex, which registers pleasure. The frontal cortex sends glutamate to the center part of the brain to tell it the enjoyment from this activity is good. The exchange is part of how the brain processes pleasurable activity like food, sex, and other activities.
When the pleasure comes from a drug, the amount of dopamine and glutamate get exaggerated to the point where it changes the healthy interaction of the two chemicals. For the addict, the result of the change is that their brains associate their drug of choice with their very survival. In other words, if I don’t get my drug, I’m going to die.
That turns the choice argument on its head. The choice argument says, “Hey. The addict chose to do drugs. They can choose to stop.” It’s not that simple. Once the brain chemistry changes, the addict in their mind, has no choice. They have to get their drug.
Their behaviors reflect that desperation. It’s something we parents can’t control. The focus needs to shift to the things we can control. Here are some of them.
You must establish boundaries
Boundaries are always the elephant in the room. Every parent or family member know they need them. Every parent or family members struggle to set and keep them. It’s hard not to want to rescue your son or daughter.
Parents should consider learning a new way of parenting. We talked about the importance of letting the addict suffer the consequences of their choices. That means not bailing them out when they get in trouble.
We had to learn to protect ourselves, individually and our marriage. Addiction can tear apart a marriage. One of the most challenging things we dealt with was learning to protect our marriage.
We made lots of mistakes as parents. What follows are suggestions on how to avoid some of the mistakes we made.
One of our biggest series of mistakes over the years involved finances. I won’t go into the details here. If you’re interested, read our story. I’ll offer advice based on the lessons we learned.
Addiction costs money. The addict needs money for their drug.
In many cases, addiction causes job loss, making the costs even higher. After spending their money on drugs. addicts will max out credit cards and other kinds of debt.
They will come to you with the most gut-wrenching sob story imaginable. It will tear you apart when you decide not to help them. I know it’s one of the most challenging things to do as a parent. We heard about cutting them off all the time. Rarely, though, was it from anyone who had a son or daughter as an addict.
If you decide to help them financially, set a limit on the maximum amount. If you’re married, both of you need to be on the same page on the dollar amount. When you reach that number, support stops. The addict needs to understand you’re serious. There will be another crisis down the road until they stop using. To protect yourself, set that financial boundary and stick to it.
It’s common for an addict to get evicted from their homes. Either they can’t pay their rent or their mortgage. Either way, they will be desperate for help. You already know my advice. Don’t bail them out. They are adults and we need to treat them that way. If you and I get in trouble financially, we suffer the consequences. Your loved one needs to experience the effects of their bad choices.
We cosigned a lease for Jason, his wife, and her son. They got evicted. We took them into our house. Both of these decisions were terrible and costly, both financially and personally.
What we learned – let them figure it out on their own.
Until the addict deals with their addiction, it’s rare for them not to get into trouble with the law. It might be DUI, driving with a suspended license or other driving infractions. More than likely, they will have other arrests. If the drug of choice is heroin or another opioid, the addiction is often accompanied by charges of theft.
Remember, once addiction kicks in, they associate having their drug with survival. As such, they will do whatever is necessary to get it. If that means stealing stuff to sell, they’ll do it. If it means writing bad checks, they’ll do it. Another thing we had to learn was that once Jason became addicted, he was no longer the same person. He was now an addict. That’s one of the hardest things to accept.
Cutting off contact
For Cathy (and most mothers) this was by far the hardest thing to do. Mothers agonize seeing their son or daughter in desperation. Every fiber of their being wants to help pull them out of that state. With an addict, that’s not possible. The drug keeps them in that state. There’s absolutely nothing we can do to get them out. The more we do, the longer we prolong our misery. It doesn’t help the addict and only hurts us as parents.
Jason begged us to come home after he’d been thrown out of yet another half-way house. It was the coldest week of the year with high temperatures in the single digits. We talked about it before getting his call and agreed he had to figure it out. It was a tough conversation for me to have. But it was the action we knew we needed to take to protect ourselves. We had to get ourselves to the point where caring for ourselves and our needs were more important than helping him.
Once we reached this point, we began getting better. Jason learned that he could no longer manipulate his mother and me; that we were serious about the boundaries we set. In the past, the limits were moving targets. In time we figured out how to stand firm.
It was hard. It will be hard for any parent to make these kinds of decisions. But it’s important for you and for your addicted loved one. The sooner we begin to treat them as adults, the sooner we get better as parents.
Where are we now
Our son is currently in Fairfaxfax County Adult Detention Center awaiting sentencing hearings. He will appear before two different judges.
The first judge will decide on his most recent charges, which have been reduced from seven to one (by the grace of God!). The second judge decides on the parole violation. That charge could carry the most severe penalties.
We’re very encouraged by a recent development in Fairfax County. Drug Courts, an alternative system designed specifically for those with drug and alcohol dependency problems, have recently been introduced in Fairfax County.
Jason met his new probation officer for several hours on a recent Friday afternoon. After the meeting, she decided the best course of action for him was a long-term treatment program. Her recommendation to the judges is that he enters a twelve-month treatment program. That’s something that Cathy and I have prayed about for years. Jason recently came to the conclusion that was the best thing for him as well.
When a probation officer recommends this to a judge, there is an excellent chance they will accept that recommendation. If that’s the case, Jason will be the first person to enter the brand new program.
We are cautiously optimistic as we approach the upcoming court dates.
When in Indianapolis this summer, we had dinner with some long-time friends. He’s is the director of a counseling center at our old church. He told me about a Christian support group specifically designed for parents. It’s called PAL (parents of addicted loved ones).
PAL is the brainchild of Mike Speakman, who is a licensed therapist who’s been in the drug counseling business for most of his career. He saw a need for a Christian support group specifically designed for parents. Since there weren’t any that fit, he created one.
PAL’s goal is to start groups around the country. I reached out to them in mid-July to inquire about starting a group in my area. On September 17, 2018, we held our first meeting. PAL provided the training, materials, and meeting format to get us started.
It’s been a great blessing to Cathy and me and the parents who’ve attended our first two meetings. If you’re interested in starting a group in your area, first check the website to see if there’s a group near you. If not, while there, send an inquiry to see about getting your own started.
It’s wonderful to have fellowship with other parents who share similar experiences. The group isn’t just for Çhrisitans. It’s for anyone who is the parent of an addicted loved one.
Any parent reading this post has likely said AMEN a few times during the reading. For those who aren’t parents or who haven’t known anyone suffering from addiction, I hope you’ve gained a better understanding of what it’s like. I hope it helps you have compassion for both the family members and the addict.
Of course, the addict chose to do drugs in the first place. However, not everyone that does drugs becomes an addict.
In a recent conversation with his mother, Jason said the following, “Mom, do you think I wanted to become an addict? Do you think this is how I wanted my life to be?” The brain is a powerful force that regulates everything in our bodies. When that gets altered, it’s a game changer.
I hope you will remember that the next time you see, read, or hear about an addict. Understand they are hurting. They are human. They desperately want to get out of their addiction.
Learn from our mistakes. If you find your son or daughter is in the throes of addiction, love them. Have compassion for them. Most importantly, treat them as adults. They will most definitely exhibit childish behavior. Resist the urge to treat them that way.
In doing so, you will quicken the time it takes for you to get better. What happens to your son or daughter is up to them.
Now it’s your turn. Do you have biases about addiction and addicts? Have you stereotyped them? If so, are you willing to be open to a different view? Share your thoughts and experience in the comments below. Thanks for reading.
Fred started the blog Money with a Purpose in October 2017. The blog focused on three primary areas: Personal Finance, Overcoming Adversity, and Lifestyle. During his time at Money with a Purpose, he was quoted in Forbes, USA Today and appeared in Money Magazine, MarketWatch, The Good Men Project, Thrive Global and many other publications.
I April 2019, Fred, along with two other partners, acquired The Money Mix website. To focus his time and energy where he could be the most productive, Fred recently merged Money with a Purpose with The Money Mix. You can now find all of his great content right here on The Money Mix, along with content from some of the brightest minds in personal finance.