10 Things You Need to Know if You’re the Parent of an Addict

If you’re a regular reader of Money with a Purpose, you know our son was a heroin addict. We have several articles on the site that deal with the topic. Our story, along with two other families, was picked up by Money Magazine. It was the cover story of their December 2018 print and online additions.

I’m thrilled to report that our son is now in recovery. In fact, on May 27, 2019, our son celebrated one year of sobriety. It’s been a long, tough journey, to say the least. As hard as it’s been, there have been some great things come from the journey.

For example,  my wife, Cathy, and I now co-lead an education and support group for parents of addicted loved ones (PAL). We have been meeting weekly since September 2018. It filled a void for us. It fills a void for the parents who attend each week.

There are lessons we’ve learned along the way. These lessons are ones we wish we would have known when we first found out about our son, Jason’s heroin use.

The list of things we learned is a long one. I’ve whittled it down to ten. These are some of the things we wish we would have known. They are things that can help other parents and family members dealing with an addicted loved one.

The first three things are, to me, the most important for us to understand. They come from Al-Anon.

Al-Anon’s three C’s

Many of you are familiar with Al-Anon. It’s a nonprofit designed to provide support for family members of alcoholics. However, Al-Anon is not just for alcoholics. Any family members whose loved ones are addicted to something other than alcohol are welcome as well. Support and principles are the same. 

 The three C’s (slightly modified) are:

  • Parents didn’t cause it
  • They can’t control it
  • They can’t cure it

Educating parents on the three C’s is part of the PAL Group principles as well. They are foundational for family members to understand.

Let’s dig a deeper into each.

1. Didn’t cause it

When we first found out about Jason’s addiction, we went through a range of emotions – shock, anger, fear, sadness, hurt. Our heads were spinning. It’s the last thing in the world you’d ever think would happen to your son or daughter. It’s something that happens to someone else. The first and most significant emotion is one of shock.

As you move through the other emotions, you begin to question how it could have happened. When did it start? Why? Where did we fail as parents? What could we have done differently?

Cathy and I each identified things we thought might have contributed to his fall. I questioned myself and examined the mistakes I made. She did the same. In our minds and conversations, we went over every possible scenario imaginable looking for a cause from our parenting. Every parent we’ve met has gone through some version of the same thing.

It’s only natural. We raised him. It had to be something we did that caused him to go astray. We finally came to understand that this was an exercise in futility that was only worsening our own angst. The truth of the matter is he made the choice to use heroin. Questioning our parenting, his selection of friends, his college choice, or any other things that come into our heads was a waste of time.

We finally came to understand the first important point. We did not cause his addiction. He did. It was a hard decision that took time. It was the right one.

2. Can’t control it

We and every parent we know thought they could control, or at the very least, manage their loved one’s addiction. Addicts create messes beyond what any parent thought them capable of creating. Every addict gets into financial trouble. Addiction is expensive. In the case of opioids, it can be very expensive.

Jason told us at his highest use his habit cost him $400 – $500 a day. Think about that for a minute. That’s $2,800 – $3,500 weekly. Rounding that to $3,000/week adds up to $150,000 a year. That’s crazy!

In most cases, addicts lose their jobs, get evicted from their homes, lose their cars, and turn to crime to get the money for their drug of choice.

As parents, we thought we could lessen the burden, which in turn, would help them better deal with their addiction. We did this by helping them out of some pretty big financial messes. After all, what parent wants to see their child (even their adult child) suffer? No parent I know wants that.

So we do things to keep them from suffering the consequences of their addiction in an attempt to manage and control it. The problem?

It doesn’t work. If anything, it makes it easier for the addiction to continue. More on that later.

The bottom line – we can’t control it.

3. Can’t cure it

As part of the attempt to cure, Cathy and I paid to get Jason into rehab. We sent him to a thirty day live in treatment center near us that our research said was one of the best. He also told us that’s what he’d heard as well.

By the time we sent him there, he was already well into the criminal system. He’d stolen and sold things to get money for heroin. He convinced us he wanted to get clean and that treatment is what he needed. We willingly forked over the money for the treatment.

After the thirty days, one of the requirements of his treatment was to get into what a ninety-in-ninety program. He was to attend 90 twelve-step meetings (Alcoholics Anonymous – AA or Narcotics Anonymous – NA) in 90 days. It was designed to put accountability into his recovery and to form a habit of going to meetings.

Here’s what we learned from Jason after he got sober. That facility was known for having the ability to use while going through the program. It was run by “recovering” addicts. there were no professional counselors. They never did drug tests. He continued to use the entire time he was in treatment.

Who knew?

We made numerous other attempts to “help” him get to recovery. What we and other parents we met fail to understand is this – unless and until they are ready to get better, there is nothing you can do to help them. Your attempts will almost always fail. Yet parents continue to try to force their addict into treatment or rehab they don't want or feel they need. 

No one can cure the addict except the addict. We spent embarrassing amounts of money trying to do just that.

4. We enabled him by treating him like a child

One of the lessons we teach in our PAL Group is about the addict’s delayed emotional growth. When an addict begins drug use at an early age, it can hinder their emotional growth. Drug use at any time in early adulthood can slow or stunt that emotional growth. 

When we ask parents how old their adult son or daughter acts, the answer is invariably somewhere from a teenager to one who is ten to fifteen years younger than their actual age.

When we see our adult child acting like a teenager, what do we do? We treat them like the age they're acting. They’re adults. When we treat our adult sons and daughters like teenagers, it builds resentment. It does the opposite of what we want it to do.

The addict wants to be an adult. When we parents treat them as a child, it can drive our sons and daughters further into their addiction.

By treating Jason like a child, we enabled him in the child behavior longer than it might have. Over the years, we learned to treat him like an adult. Did it change his behavior? Not at all during his time of drug use. It did, however, change us. And that’s the one thing we can control.

5. We enabled him by bailing him out of his financial messes

Ahhh, the well-meaning parents and their financial help. Adults are supposed to take care of themselves financially. Addicts are incapable of doing that. To help them avoid the messes they create in their addiction, we think that bailing them out financially will ease the pain and help them get clean more quickly.

That’s about as wrong as it could be!

One of the questions we ask in our PAL Group lessons is, “Have you ever given your son or daughter money for or bought them drugs?” Of course, not a parent we’ve asked that question ever said yes.

Here’s the thing. When you bail them out financially, in essence, that’s exactly what you’re doing. You’re freeing them from the consequences of having to use whatever money they have to take care of their obligations. This frees up that money for drug use. Did you give them cash to buy their drugs? No, not directly. But you did, in fact, enable them to do so.

Did I mention how good addicts are at lying? That’s one of their most advanced skills. Jason told us how he and other addicts operate. They go to their easiest enabler with a sob story of how they need, let’s say, $100 to pay a bill, buy food, or some other account. There is truth in what they’re asking. There is also a big fat lie.

They might only need $20 for the item in question. The other $80 gets spent on the drug. Don’t prevent your addicted loved ones from the consequences of their addiction. That may be the very thing that gets them better.

Image of Dark street reflection on wet asphalt. Rays of blue neon light in the dark, clouds of smoke, fog. representing the bottom for an addict


6. An addict’s bottom is lower than you, and I could ever imagine

For the most part, parents live in a world of reality. We make decisions every day based on logical (at least somewhat) conclusions weighing the consequences of those decisions. When we see the irrational decisions our addicted loved ones make, we look at them through this lens of logic or realism. We can’t understand why the decisions they make are so irrational. We say things like, “That’s not how we raised them. That’s not what they were taught. Don’t they see how they’re destroying themselves?”

Our son became homeless. He was in and out of county jail off and on for the eleven plus years of his active drug use. He served 33 months in a Virginia state prison during that time.

When he was in prison, he was not using drugs. But don’t deceive yourselves about drugs in prison. They are readily available in most. Yup. Prisons are not drug-free. Jason did not use during his time in prison. We didn't believe that while he was using. Now that he's sober, we asked him again. He had no reason to lie about that now. 

Post-prison release – set for success

After his 33-month prison stint, he had himself set up for success. He moved away from where his drug contacts were. We thought it was his best chance of success. However, less than three months after he returned to society, he was using again. Shortly after that, he skipped out on his parole and was a fugitive. He remained a fugitive for almost a year.

What’s the point? None of those things represented Jason’s “bottom.” The bottom is that elusive state of mind it’s said every addict needs to reach before they decide to get sober. That bottom defies any logic we might have. It’s far lower than anything we can imagine. None of the consequences of jail, fines, losing jobs, houses, living on the streets brought him to the point he wanted to stop his drug use.

Here’s another thing to understand. The bottom is different for every addict. No picture represents the bottom that will get an addict out of their addiction. Something happens in their hearts and minds that tells them they’ve had enough.

The other thing we teach parents in our meetings is this. “When the pain of staying where they are is greater than the pain of getting better, they will get better.”

Until then, the devil they know is better than the devil they don’t. They won’t change, and there’s nothing we can do to make that change happen.

7. Cutting him off was the right thing to do

The conversation about cutting off your addict is something that is incredibly hard. Cathy and I and every parent we’ve met have the same struggle. Well-meaning friends who have no personal experience with addiction will quickly tell you that’s the best thing to do. You know what? They’re right. But the last thing you want to hear when you’re dealing with your addict is to cut them off.

That’s especially true if you’re in the early stages after discovering their addiction. As parents, our instinct is to help our child. We love them. It's hard to see them suffer. We ache for what they’re going through. We want to believe that our actions can help get them better; that we can somehow love or bail them out of the mess.

But it doesn't work. The only thing going down that path will do is make our lives miserable. Trying to help or fix them only brings frustration and heartache.

I’ve told you that’s what we did. I can also tell you that every parent we’ve worked with has done the same. It’s counterintuitive to cut off contact with your child. It feels unnatural. We want to help them; to believe we can make a difference. We want to know how they’re doing; that they're safe.

Where change starts

Realizing that continuing down that path is hurting you, your marriage, and your relationship with other family members is where change starts for parents and family members.

We went for almost two years without any contact with Jason. He knew we loved him and would always love him. But he also knew we could not walk this journey with him any longer; that as long as he was an active drug user, we were not going to be a part of his life. It was an excruciating decision for us.

But it was the right one. When Jason finally decided to get sober, he told us that being cut off from us was killing him. He couldn’t take losing us. It was one of the primary motivating factors in his decision to get sober. But please understand. What motivates one addict to get sober may not be the same for someone else.

Distancing yourself from the addict and their behavior is something parents do for themselves, not the addict.

8. Isolation makes the problem worse

When we first found out about Jason’s addiction, we didn’t tell anyone other than a couple of our closest friends. Two of them were with us when we found out about it. It’s incredibly embarrassing for parents. As I mentioned, you question what you did wrong and how you could have stopped it. When it begins, things happen so fast, and furiously, it’s hard to keep up.

All of a sudden, you look at your financial assets and realize you’ve almost depleted them. You know that he’s no better now than if you would have kept all the money. It would be easy to make the argument that he was worse as a result of financial help. We prolonged the consequences of his choices.

The result is isolation; avoiding people because you don’t want to answer the question about how your son’s doing. It's tiring to have to explain. The comments, looks, and the feeling of being judged wear on you.

Isolation is another thing that every parent we know and have worked with has done. Things changed for us when we found out a couple of close friends had sons dealing with addiction too. That opened the door to get out of our shell and talk about it with them. It helped all of us.

The Pal Group offers a weekly outlet for people to talk about their struggles dealing with their adult child addict. We can all do it safely in an environment where everyone in the group understands exactly what the others are going through. We can all talk about it without feeling judged. It’s a freeing feeling. It’s very cathartic and healing to know you’re not alone.

9. The one thing you can control is you

The three C’s apply to us as parents and family members. Their decisions are up to them.

We do, however, have total control of our own decisions. We can and should control how we respond and react to our loved one’s behavior. The biggest part of taking back our control comes when we let go of our addicted loved one. Until we do, we relinquish our power to them. Why? Because they are addicts. They are laser-focused on getting the drug they need to avoid the pain of withdrawal. If that means stealing, lying, and manipulating, they will do that.

Jason told us flat out that he would do anything he needed to get his drug. There was nothing anyone could do to stop him. Even when he was in and out of the system, he found a way.

The quicker we realize that as parents and family members, the quicker we can live healthier lives.

Their decisions are up to them. Our decisions are up to us. As long as they are active drug users, and we are in contact with them, we give up a certain amount of control to them. We need to take back that control and live our lives on our terms. The only way to do that healthily is to let them go.

It’s not easy. It won’t happen overnight. It usually happens after parents get sick and tired of being sick and tired. Only then do they decide they don’t want to live that way anymore.

The sooner we parents can get to that point, the better for all of us.

10. Never give up hope

Finally, I want to encourage anyone who has an addict in the family to never give up hope. We watched our son battle his addiction for over eleven years. In the act of self-preservation, we prepared ourselves to get the dreaded call. You know, the one that comes from a police officer asking if you’re the parent of ____________? Every parent with a son or daughter who is an addict has the fear in the back of their mind.

We never thought we’d see our son again. Whether that meant him overdosing or simply never being able to stop his drug use didn’t matter. We prepared for the worse.

Don’t get me wrong. We never stopped hoping that he'd get sober and we'd reconnect. But after so many years of disappointment, we had to get our minds around the fact that it might never happen.

During those years, there were very few days I didn’t pray for my son. I prayed that God would save him from himself. That he would draw him out of the mess he was in.

The transformation

That day finally came in May 2018 when he was arrested and jailed for the last time. His turnaround began there. That’s when hope arrived. He applied for and got approved to enter into our county’s drug court program. It’s a long term treatment and accountability program with four phases. It lasts fourteen months. Each participant moves into each successive stage as they complete the requirements of the stage before it. Jason recently moved to phase three. The turnaround has been nothing short of miraculous.

He now lives in a sober living house with like-minded recovering addicts. There are a group of guys as serious about their sobriety as he is. It’s been challenging, but also a good fit for him. Four or five times a week, he attends twelve-step meetings. His days start with reading the Bible, a devotional, and prayer. He has a great job of managing a top-rated and successful food truck. When he’s not working, he attends church with us. We talk to him regularly.

He spoke to our PAL Group parents in late March to share his story. He is speaking to 130 or so senior high students on June 16 at our church.

It is a remarkable turnaround. It’s one we honestly thought would never happen.

In summary

I know I've given you a lot to digest. Addiction is messy and complicated. Though the post is long, and probably hard read for any parent, it’s an honest portrayal of our journey and what we’ve learned.

I hope that any parent who has a son or daughter who is an addict will find something to hang on to in these words. Know you are not alone. There are resources out there to help, including the PAL Group and Al-AnonPAL Group and Al-Anon have meetings around the country. Go online to these organizations and see if there is a meeting near you.

Pal Group helps anyone interested in starting a group in their locale do so. They have excellent training, resources, and support to help.

Both of these groups are excellent. You may have to attend a few meetings to find a good fit. If there are no meetings near you, the PAL Group has phone meetings you can join on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Check out this page to get the details.

Final thoughts

Even if you’re not dealing with addiction personally, you likely know someone who is. It is an epidemic that is spreading more and faster each day. Most of the people I talk to about our son, tell me about someone in their inner circle dealing with drug or alcohol addiction.

I’ve listed other resources to help you below. If you know someone who needs to read this post, please pass along the link. Don’t let them go through this alone. Point them in the right direction. Love them and be there for them. They need that more than any advice you could offer.

The Addict's Mom
In the Rooms
Help for Veterans
Speakman Coaching Resources
Dr. Kevin McCauley – Pleasure Unwoven


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