As parents of a recovering heroin addict, my wife, Cathy and I struggled to deal with our son's addiction. Jason, our son, battled this disease for over eleven years. Parents of addicted loved ones often suffer alone and in silence. There are a lot of reasons for that – embarrassment, guilt that sometimes turns into shame. You question your parenting. You ask yourselves where did you go wrong.
The stories that come with having a son or daughter who's addicted to drugs or alcohol are, well, surreal at times. There is no logic to them. They are unexplainable. To anyone who hasn't dealt with a loved one fighting the demons of addiction, it's impossible to relate.
Well-meaning friends offer all kinds of advice. In retrospect, some of the advice was good. At the time, it's precisely the opposite of what you want to hear -cut 'em off financially. The best thing you can do is let them “find their bottom.” Have a family intervention. It's a long list.
Depending on where the parent is in their journey through their son or daughter's addiction, the advice may hurt them more than help. It also may damage the friendship with the one offering the advice.
Healthy help for your friends
Part of the reason I'm writing this post about parents of addicted loved ones is to help those involved with addiction – friends and family alike. If you have a friend whose son or daughter deals with addiction, I want to help you understand the battles they fight as parents. I want to help you understand how best to help your friend. Advice is not the answer.
We parents are doing our best to get through the day. We're trying to put our best foot forward, show you our happy faces and act like life is good. Inside, we are dying. We're wondering whether our son or daughter is going to get evicted from their house or apartment, get their car repossessed, get arrested (again) or any number of other bad outcomes. That's the life of parents of addicted loved ones.
The ministry of presence
Don't tell them you understand. If you've never dealt with it, there is no way you can. The best thing you can do is just be there for them. Hug the mother. Invite her to go shopping, to a movie, or whatever her favorite thing is. Invite the dad for coffee, lunch, or a beer or golf, whatever his favorite thing is. Listen to them. Be present with them. They're struggling to decide what to do; how best to deal with their child's addiction.
A good friend of mine who is a pastor calls this the ministry of presence. Just being there with your friend and walking with them on their journey is what they want. Outside of the ministry of presence, what parents of addicted loved ones really need is to know they're not alone; to know that other parents in their situation are dealing with the same things they are. Parents want to talk to people who can relate; to hear the mistakes other parents make. Parents want to understand how other parents deal with it and get through the day.
They want hope. They want to understand better what their son or daughter is going through. Why do they do what they do? What causes it? How come they can't just quit? What causes them to lie and manipulate? Why don't they get help?
The only people who can offer this kind of help to parents of addicted loved ones are other parents of addicted loved ones. It's really the only way I know. How do you find them? What groups offer help? What are the options? Where do you find them?
I'll answer that question and tell you the solution that worked best for us – The PAL Group (Parents of Addicted Loved Ones).
Help for families
Two of the most well-known groups to help family members dealing with another family member who is addicted are Al-Anon and Celebrate Recovery (CR). Cathy and I tried both of these groups. I attended a local Al-Anon group for about a year during the worst part of our journey. Cathy and I participated in a couple of CR groups as well.
It's great there are options available. What works for one may not work for another. We also found that finding the right group is important. With Al-Anon, that's pretty easy. Al-Anon is one of the oldest family support groups out there. CR is growing and has a lot of groups as well. PAL doesn't have as many options. Each group's meetings have a different structure.
I'll tell you briefly about each of these groups and share our experience with them. Both are a tremendous resource for families of alcoholics and addicts.
Al-Anon is the oldest support organization for family members. From their homepage:
Who Are Al-Anon Members?
Al-Anon members are people, just like you, who are worried about someone with a drinking problem.
Though their focus is clearly on those dealing with a family member with a drinking problem, meetings are open to anyone looking for support. I went to a couple of groups before settling on one I was most comfortable with. That's a major benefit of Al-Anon. If you attend a group and feel it isn't a good fit, you can usually find another group close by to try. You must feel good about the group. You'll be sharing your story and want to know those hearing it will listen.
Meetings are one hour. They often begin by reading the twelve steps of Al-Anon. From there, everyone has the opportunity to share. Anonymity is a critical part of all Al-Anon and other twelve-step meetings (including PAL). People introduce themselves on a first name basis only. There is no requirement to share. Many first time visitors simply listen to others. It can feel intimidating at first. If you're an introvert, it can be even more so. It's okay just to listen. In fact, it's probably a good thing. I'm an extrovert, so I shared at my first meeting and regularly afterward.
What I liked
The best thing about hearing others stories was the validation that what we were experiencing with our son was normal. Finally, I found people who understood. It was very healing to learn I wasn't alone, and what we were going through was “normal” for those in the throes of addiction.
What I didn't like
What I didn't like about the meetings was that “cross-talk” was not allowed. After a person shared, the only response from the group was, “thanks for sharing.” I wanted more than that. It would have been nice to hear suggestions for how to deal with some of the things we were going through with Jason; to hear how others tackled the tough stuff. I left feeling something was still lacking.
I'm a Christian. I struggled with the whole concept of a higher power. Bill Wilson, an alcoholic who started the Alcoholics Anonymous, was a Christian. AA began as a Christian ministry. In time, he felt it had become too exclusionary; that claiming Christ as Lord was off-putting to non-Christians. In order to be more inclusive, the description of God changed to a higher power. It became God, as you know or understand him to be.
I get it. The idea behind AA is to help as many people as possible kick their addiction to alcohol. The change accomplished that by any measurement. I also understand that many people who come into both Al-Anon and AA come to know Christ in the process. At the time I attended, it became an issue I couldn't overcome.
I'm at a point in my life now where I have a better understanding of AA and Al-Anon. And I agree entirely with the goal of an open tent to help as many people as possible rid themselves of the horrible disease of addiction and the damage it causes to the addict and their families.
It's a great organization that I highly recommend.
If you're loved one is addicted to opioids (heroin, oxy, or other drugs, Nar-Anon may be the right choice. The stories of how addiction plays out in the addict and the families are very similar. The difference is the drug of choice. Both use the twelve steps as their foundational methods to help families take better care of themselves. The stories you hear focus on drug use rather than alcohol.
I never attended Nar-Anon. I can't speak personly about them. Our son, Jason, attends both AA and Narcotics Anonymous (NA). I will say that he prefers NA meetings over AA. Once again, attend both and see what resonates with you.
Celebrate Recovery (CR)
Celebrate Recovery is a Christ-Centered recovery program. It started at Saddleback Church, whose pastor is Rick Warren. Pastor Rick is an internationally known pastor, speaker, and author. His most famous book, The Purpose Driven Life, published in 1994. It's sold millions of copies worldwide. In the election cycle of 2008, Pastor Rick interviewed Barack Obama and John McCain on national TV about their faith.
Celebrate recovery came after God gave a Saddleback member a vision. From the CR website:
Celebrate Recovery started in 1991 at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. At that time, the church was meeting at a high school gymnasium. John Baker wrote Pastor Rick Warren the “now-famous, concise, 13-page, single-spaced” letter outlining the vision God had given John for Celebrate Recovery. After reading John’s letter, Pastor Rick said, “Great, John — go do it!”
There are now 35,000 churches worldwide who are Celebrate Recovery Churches. Like Al-Anon, there are lots of meetings to choose from. The twelve steps of CR are Scripturally based. Each step has specific Bible verses related to that step.
CR meetings have three components:
- A large group meeting of praise, worship, prayer, and teaching
- Open share small group
- Step study small groups
The open share groups can be gender-specific or issue-specific groups. Unlike AA, NA, and their supporting family groups, CR has an expanded view of the kinds of things for which people need support. Again, from their website:
“Celebrate Recovery is a Christ-centered, 12 step recovery program for anyone struggling with hurt, pain or addiction of any kind. Celebrate Recovery is a safe place to find community and freedom from the issues that are controlling our life.”
What I liked
I loved that CR is a Christian focused program. I loved that the meetings started with praise, worship, prayer, and teaching. For me, it set the right tone and put the focus on God. That was a missing piece for me with Al-Anon. Again, that's just me. Al-Anon and Nar-Anon are phenomenal organizations that have helped millions of addicts and family members.
I loved that each of the twelve steps had a Biblical reference. That's a perspective that helped me a lot and that I really needed. However, if you are a non-Christian, you will likely find CR pretty tricky.
What I didn't like
I was not comfortable with the open-share small groups. Al-Anon and Nar-on are strictly for family members. Alcoholics and addicts do not attend these meetings. At CR, I found myself in meetings with addicts. With the welcome mat out for anyone with a hurt, hang up or habit, everyone is together in the small groups.
I found myself listening to stories from addicts that I'd heard many times from my son. I didn't expect or want to listen to that in the small group. There was no facilitator in the groups. In one meeting, one person, an addict, dominated the group. I'd finally had enough and gracefully (as much as I could) diverted the conversation from him to allow others to speak. I found myself angry at being in the room with an addict.
To me, parents and family members need to be in separate groups. Again, I'm telling you about my personal experience and feelings. CR, like Al-Anon, has helped millions of people. In fact, over 5 million people have completed a CR Step Study.
If you're looking for a Christian group, you should find a CR meeting and give it a try. Everyone is different. Like Al-Anon, if you try one CR meeting and you don't feel comfortable, visit another. The important thing is to find a group where you feel supported.
The missing piece
There was one thing I found lacking in all of the groups I attended. There was nothing specifically designed for parents. I talked to parents in Al-Anon and CR about that. To the person, everyone wanted a group focused on supporting parents.
Parents have a different perspective than brothers, sisters, and other close family members. When it's your seed, it's different. For Cathy and me, we were in different places in how to deal with Jason. It's different for a mother in most cases. Fathers, including me, are more protective of their wives. Mothers want to protect and help their sons and daughters. Addiction can tear apart a marriage. Many a marriage has ended in divorce over how to deal with an addicted son or daughter.
When I say son or daughter, I mean an adult son or daughter. The legal definition is one who is age 18 or older. In your minds, you know they are adults. In their actions, you're seeing adolescent behavior. The natural tendency when we see our adult sons and daughters acting like kids is to treat them like kids. That's exactly the wrong way to do it.
Parents need to sit with other parents and share in each other's experiences. That brings us to the PAL Group.
The PAL (parents of addicted loved ones) Group
I discovered the PAL Group in July 2018 when I was in my hometown of Indianapolis for my 96-year-old father's memorial service. We have some long-time friends that we've stayed in touch with over the years we've been in Northern Virginia. Robin was the youth director in our church. Cathy and I were youth advisors with her during Jason's high school years. David, her husband, is a marriage and family therapist at a counseling center at our old church. He is now the director of that center.
Whenever we are in Indianapolis, we try to arrange a time to get together with them. We scheduled a dinner on our visit last July. Since Robin and David have a long history with Jason and us, we were catching up on the story. At the time, Jason was back in jail. In our discussion, I was lamenting the fact that there were no groups specifically designed to support parents dealing with an addicted son or daughter.
That's when David told me about the PAL Group. I can't remember where he learned about PAL. David attends a lot of conferences and continuing ed classes. As I recall, he didn't know much about them but encouraged me to check them out. And I'm so glad I did.
The history of PAL
PAL is the brainchild of Mike Speakman. Mike is a Licensed Substance Abuse Counselor and a Life Coach. Mike has helped addicts and alcoholics in residential treatment centers since 1988. In his thirty-plus years of counseling, he developed a passion for helping parents. He saw the pain and difficulty parents have in making good decisions when dealing with their sons and daughters. Mike's passion for families hurting from addiction comes out of his own story.
At age 36, Mike was financially independent. After a successful career as a commercial real estate broker in the Phoenix, AZ area, he retired. In a phone conversation, he told me, “I was an alcoholic and a woman chaser.” It cost him his marriage. Distraught, Mike decided he'd had enough of life. In April 1978, he told me he found himself on his garage floor, doors closed, with the car running. After a few short minutes, he got up off the floor, turned off the car, and called his sister for help.
From there, he got himself into counseling. At the time, Mike was not a Christian. The counselor he went to was a Lutheran minister who left the pulpit to do full-time counseling. Mike told me if he would have known the guy was a pastor, he wouldn't have gone to him. Ironically, Mike has been a Christian now for many years.
From recovery to counseling
What Mike learned in his counseling was he needed to focus on himself; to stop blaming others for his problems. Instead, he learned he was the one that needed to change. In the course of his counseling, Mike discovered he had a big hole in his life. He had all the money and trappings of success. But something was missing. He drank to self-medicate and try to fill that hole. God fills that hole for Mike now.
What he discovered after several years of working on himself was that the hole in his life came from hopelessness. He could not feel complete; like he was enough. Mike said he had achieved the American Dream without self-awareness. He described himself as having “the self-awareness of a gnat.”
He continued with his counseling over the next several years. In the process, he learned what he called active listening. He took classes, went through twelve-step programs, and ended up at the Salvation Army. Initially, he counseled addicts and alcoholics. In later years, he ran their family education program.
That was the beginning of his journey toward starting the PAL Group.
PAL is born
After years of training and working with addicts and their families, Mike decided he needed to create a group specifically designed for parents. He created a curriculum out of the lessons he'd learned in the treatment centers where he counseled. That curriculum is what makes PAL different from any of the groups I've attended. I'll talk more about that shortly.
Pal started in July 2006 in Phoenix. The first meeting had three attendees. The next three weeks, no one showed up. Mike continued to be faithful to the vision and kept showing up every week. Five people came the following week. As they talked about it to friends, more people started showing up. Meetings continued to grow. They needed to train more people to facilitate them. By the time 2014 rolled around, there were over 15 meetings in the Phoenix area.
In 2014, Mike wrote the book The Four Seasons of Recovery for parents of alcoholics and addicts. The lessons from the book became the current curriculum for PAL meetings.
What makes PAL different
PAL is a Christian organization. Unlike CR, Christianity is not the focus of the meetings. We open and close each session with prayer. That's it. All are welcome to PAL meetings – Christians, agnostics, atheists, Muslims and anyone else is welcome. Christianity is not pushed or preached. Many who attend are, of course, Christian. Many are not.
PAL isn't an organization built to convert people to Christianity. Far from it. The focus is on helping parents dealing with the excruciating mental and emotional pain of watching a son or daughter's battle with drugs or alcohol.
Here's what Mike says about the parent-child relationship:
“There is no human relationship like that between parent and child,” he says. “As the saying goes. ‘When it comes to our children, every parent is blind.’”
The saying holds even more when referring to parents of addicted loved ones.
Mike created nine individual lessons for the meetings. Each week facilitators review one of those lessons in the meetings. The lessons are not in sequence. New members can come into any meeting and not feel like they missed something. The lessons teach about addiction from the addict's perspective and the parent's perspective. They help us understand what it's like for our sons and daughters. We learn about how best to help them and, more importantly, ourselves.
So many times, parents focus is on the addicted loved one and not themselves. We see them in desperation. We want to get them out of that place. It's what we do with our kids when they are, well, kids. But they're adults. We need to treat them like adults.
The other thing that makes PAL meetings different is our facilitators. When I learned about PAL in July 2018, I went to their website to learn how to start a meeting. I called them and talked with a board member. She talked to me about the process. There is an online training program for facilitators. It is very comprehensive and well organized. All PAL facilitators must complete this online training. PAL meetings across the country follow the same format. Facilitators see to it that the meetings stick to that format.
Facilitators are not teachers. Mike is quick to point out that all of the things we teach in his lessons are presented as theories, and are high probability tendencies. Each individual takes what they want and leaves what they don't.
There are nine lessons in the PAL curriculum. Most of them came out of Mike's experience, and a variety of other recovery resources. These lessons are the most significant difference in PAL meetings from Al-Anon and CR. It doesn't make PAL better. It just makes it different.
In Al-Anon and other meetings I've attended, cross talk is not allowed. Cross talk is when someone in the group responds to someone who has shared what's going on with their addicted family member. I'm not exactly sure of the history of this restriction. I'm assuming it comes out of members of a meeting speaking out of turn, speaking in a harsh tone to someone, or telling someone what they need to do.
Family members of addicts are hurting. The last thing they need is to have more hurt piled on from well-meaning group members. The format of the PAL meetings allows for cross talk. Specifically, the facilitator asks the one sharing if they are open to suggestion or comments from the group. If they are, others may offer observations and recommendations. If they're not, there is no pressure to take them.
Part of the facilitator training is to offer ways to encourage thoughtful, loving, non-judgmental comments. We have all made horrible mistakes with our sons and daughters. We all struggle with knowing the right things to do. No one has all the answers. Starting with that understanding helps make the cross talk work.
The idea is to provide support and help, not judgment.
Below is the meeting format we follow each week.
- Meeting opening – Facilitator introduces him/her self, makes announcements, prays, and reads the PAL Preamble. Participant introduce themselves(name, who they're here for, and their drug of choice if known)
- Educational topic – We cover one of the nine lessons. We read and discuss each one together as a group. The time spent reviewing the lessons is some of the most valuable time in our meetings. When parents see these lessons for the first time, they often say they wish they would have known about them much sooner.
- Here are the nine lessons:
- Delayed Emotional Growth
- Three Promises to a Loved-One
- Healthy Helping
- Enabling Check List
- The 4 Stages of Growth in Recovery
- Thirteen Family Lessons About Recovery
- Alcoholic/Addict Roles & Family Roles
- Re-entry, Transitional Living, & After-care
- 12 Principles of Healthy Adult Relationships
- Check-in time – Check-in time is when anyone who wants to can talk about what's currently going on with their addicted loved one. We don't require everyone to speak. Many, especially first time attendees, choose to pass and not share. That's perfectly fine. Sharing time is when suggestions are offered to anyone open to them. It's okay if they aren't ready for them. It is not required or expected. In my experience, most parents value these suggestions.
- Closing – The facilitator or a volunteer close the meeting in prayer.
Meetings are ninety minutes long. We value people's time and begin and end on time. People often socialize and talk further outside after the meetings, but do our best to close them on time.
PAL is growing
Cathy and I started our PAL Group meeting on September 17, 2018. We learned about them in July, I took the training in August, and we started in September. Like Mike's first meeting, we got off to a slow start. For the first few weeks, we had one person attend. Slowly, others found out about the meetings, and we began to grow.
In November 2018, the story of PAL was the cover story for the online version of Money Magazine. Money also put the story on the cover of the December 2018 print edition. Kim Humphery and his family are the featured family for the story. Cathy and I and one other couple are also part of the story. The story's genesis came after Kristen Bahler, the reporter, read the article where I told our story of dealing with Jason's addiction and its financial consequences. If you're interested, here are more details about how that story became a reality.
When the article went online, PAL received over 100 requests for information about starting a group. The additional traffic crashed their website. As a result of the interest, the article brought, PAL started 44 new meetings in the first quarter of 2019. I'm humbled and honored by the attention the story brought.
I got emails and phone calls from local parents wanting to know when and where our group met. We've probably had 40 or more people attend at least one meeting since we started. I'd say over half of them found out about it by reading the Money article.
Pal has been a God-sent gift to us. We and most every parent who's come to a meeting, have all said the same thing, “I wish we would have known about PAL earlier.” What we've learned in PAL and through the resources they provide has been life-changing. I'm not exaggerating about that. We've heard similar things from many of the other parents in our group. The focus of PAL is to help parents learn to take better care of themselves. Most of us spent way too much time, money and emotion trying to fix our addicted sons and daughters. That has not and will not work.
What we've learned from Mike's lessons is how to take better care of ourselves. We learn to stop treating our adult sons and daughters as children, even though that's how they may be acting. One of the questions we ask our parents is how old they see their adult son or daughter. In all cases, the response is somewhere in the teenage years. Most of the sons and daughters represented in our groups are in their twenties to as high as upper forties.
Trial and error
Eventually, we figured much of this out through trial and error over the years. I can't begin to tell you how many mistakes we made. Had we known about and attended PAL meetings during those times, I'm confident the journey, though still tough, would have been much easier.
We learned how we were hurting Jason by how we were trying to help him; that preventing him from the consequences of his behavior made it easier for that behavior to continue. We learned the difference between good and bad help. Focusing our efforts on him hurt us. Each of us was individually stressed, which put stress in our marriage. We disagreed many times on how best to deal with Jason when he was an active user.
I'm a believer in the PAL Group. I also want to make it clear (as I hope I have) that PAL is one of many options for parents (and families) to get the support they want and need. We are all different. What works for one may not work for another. Try different groups and see what works for you. All groups have the same goal – to help families dealing with addiction. The twelve-step programs have been around for decades and helped millions of addicts and their families.
If you like what you've heard about PAL you can see if there's a meeting near you on this page. If you don't find a meeting near you, consider attending one of their phone meetings. There wasn't a meeting near us, so we reached out to see about starting our own. If that's your story and you're interested in becoming a PAL Facilitator, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Whatever you do, if you're a parent or family member dealing with the addiction of a son, daughter, brother or sister, don't go through it alone. Help is available. Take advantage of it.