Parents don’t know how to parent a young adult who is an alcoholic and/or drug addict. Period! What they do know, is that there comes a point when they reach outside of themselves, their family unit and ask for help. Usually, when everything they have tried to do to save their child from alcohol and drug addiction hasn’t worked. And, when they get to this point, we the professionals can hear their emotional exhaustion and psychological desperation. But most importantly, we can hear the unconditional love that they have for their children. We can only hear it, if we are actually listening. And if we are listening; it is that love, that bond that we the professionals should be nurturing. We should be utilizing every clinical skill we have attained to strengthen the individual and secure the foundation of their relationships, which are based on unconditional love.
Every professional working in the mental health/substance abuse field has been exposed through either education or work experience to the terms: enabling, family dysfunction and co-dependency. And each professional has also been exposed to: family dynamics, emotional bonds and unconditional love. Yet, it appears that over the years we have focused on the prior, rather than the latter in dealing with addicted young adults and their families. We have forgotten that these parents have just spent months or years immersed in a nightmare without the skills to stop this horrendous dream from ending. They have spent the majority of their waking moments reflecting back to happier times and wondering where or when did it all go wrong. They wonder how this could have happened to their child and their family. They replay every memory they can think of to try and find some logical reason for their child using alcohol and drugs to the point they no longer recognize their own sons or daughters. These thoughts consume them. We have forgotten that these parents lay in bed at night with their secret thoughts of: what did I do to cause this, maybe it’s my fault, maybe I’m not a “Good” Mom or Dad, and maybe I should have done more or provided more. The would haves, should haves and could haves. These thoughts continue throughout the night, as silent tears run down their cheeks and another sleepless night goes by. They wonder where their kids are and who they are with and they wait for that dreaded phone call to come in the wee hours of the morning. The call that tells them their child has overdosed, or is in the hospital emergency room or has been injured in an accident. They lay there remembering the dreams of planning the pregnancy or being scared and then excited when they found out they were having a child. Moms remember nurturing their growing babies from the day they knew they were pregnant. They can think back and remember rubbing their abdomens and trying to picture if they were having a boy or a girl. They wondered what they would name the baby and who the baby would look like. They were excited and counted the days to the delivery date. Now heartbroken, never did they imagine, or even conceive, the thought that that their baby, the child they nurtured before they were born, would ever get involved with alcohol and drugs. But here they are, and they are grasping for any sign, just a sentence from their child that this nightmare could be over, that their family can start over; that they can go back in time; a time when they were all happy. A time before drugs and alcohol took over all of their lives.
We, as professionals need to embrace these dynamics; use these dynamics as a therapeutic tool in helping their children attain recovery. We must educate families by helping them learn new parenting skills, which have in the past been foreign to them. Learning how to parent a child with the disease of addiction is a skill set all unto itself. Families who are dealing with addiction have a strength in which families who have never had to deal with this issue can’t even imagine. Their strength lies in still loving their children even after their child has: lied to them so many times they can’t even count it any more, stolen from them, verbally abused them and manipulated them at every opportunity. It is an emotion that we, as professionals in the recovery field, can help them to redirect ever so slightly. Addiction does not have to be the curse, or stigma, that society has proclaimed. By gently using the bond of love that comes so effortlessly between parents and their children we as mental health and addiction professionals can help families to reformulate and strengthen their ties in ways never imagined. Co-Dependency doesn’t have to be a dirty word anymore. We have learned techniques that can be administered in such a way as to foster the bonds of love through cognitive restructuring, emotional management, behavioral redirection, and spiritual enlightenment. You mean use the tools that we already know. Yes! That’s exactly what we’re saying. Here’s the twist. We swing the pendulum back in the other direction! If we all work in concert as professionals, and with the families, instead of as antagonists, which is what the theme appears to be at times, then we use the bond of love that the family already has to our advantage, dysfunctional or not. Family dynamics seem dysfunctional at first because many times they are. In the addiction and mental health field’s, co-dependency and enabling, are rampant, but let us not be deceived by misperception. Remember, love comes in many forms. Love can appear chaotic at times. I dare to say that if it weren’t for chaos, in some form, which didn’t come under some form of direction, then none of us would be here. We mentioned earlier in the article that co-dependency doesn’t have to be a dirty word anymore; we said this because it seems that some, within the industry, want to somewhat break the natural bonds that develop within the family. Can we find a family that is not truly co-dependent? Does co-dependency have to be unhealthy? Are co-dependency and enabling synonymous? If not, where does the synergy begin and end? Are these terms relative to each family or do they encompass? The writers of this article have a diverse background in the addiction and mental health field. We have seen what seems to be a pattern disturbing to us, hence this article. Families being marginalized by counselors; sometimes within the very own agencies with which we have worked. We do not think them malicious. Maybe somewhat reactionary, but aren’t we all human? Some counselors/therapists come from personal experience with addiction and some do not. Either way, these writers believe that the intent for which the developer of the term “Co-Dependency” intended approximately thirty (30) years ago has somewhat morphed over the years. This is why this article is so important. Many times the original intent of an original idea must be morphed to accommodate for the population for which it serves. In this case, we are not so sure this is true. It is not that the writers of this article do not understand that there are not unhealthy components to co-dependency within the family dynamic where addiction to drugs and/or alcohol is concerned or any other behavior that is not conducive to healthy function for that matter. What we are proposing is that we begin to swing the pendulum back toward the midline of a healthy balance. We have personally witnessed much too much personalization of the client and/or families tendency toward dysfunction. All families are co-dependent, enmeshed and enable each other. Let’s use these traits as strength, as a way to engage the family and strengthen their bonds with each other to attain a positive outcome. No, a client does not have to learn recovery how I learned recovery. No, a family does not have to love their child how I may love mine or how I think they should love theirs. You see, we learned a long time ago how easy it is to find what an individual or collective is doing wrong. The glass was never half empty; it was shattered! The field of addiction teaches all of us how to look at things differently.
Loretta Lukic, LMHC, ACS, CAP, NCC is the Clinical Director at 12 Palms Recovery Center, Inc. in Jensen Beach, Florida
Tom Edwards, BS, CAP is a Primary Counselor at the 12 Palms Recovery Center, Inc. in Jensen Beach, Florida