Lorri A. Irrgang, LPRC

woman standing on rock that looks like a heart with moon in background

I was lost in the world of my son’s chaos! I no longer functioned as I used to. The activities I used to enjoy were second to being on 911 alert for any crisis that might occur. As the parent, I felt it was my responsibility to head off any poor decisions my son might make. I lived with worry, fear, and anxiety. I did not want to feel like this! My life absorbed many changes due to my son’s substance use illness.

We often feel, as caregivers, that it is our responsibility to fix and take care of all those around us. We are always putting our personal needs and wants behind others. For many of us, this pattern of behavior has gone on for years.

Why do we do this? Is it a lack of our own self-importance? Or is it the opposite? We are the only one available to help. Is it based on the feelings of guilt that we will feel if we do not make ourselves available? Is it based on the fear that our loved one is incapable?

When our loved one has a substance use illness, we often step in to help or fix a situation. This prevents them from taking responsibility for themselves. By doing this, we are also instilling an unhealthy co-dependence. This creates an antibiotic relationship. One that is disadvantageous or even destructive to one of the people involved. The caretaker is likely to become the one at a disadvantage as you push your own needs to the side. You spend every waking moment trying to convince your loved one to stop using. Frustration will peak once you realize you are unable to control the situation. You, too, will suffer and become hopeless and fatigued.

Feelings of guilt can surface when you unveil the secret your loved one is hiding. You may feel guilty because the genetic component is within yourself or from your side of the family. Feelings of guilt may come from not being able to control the chaos. This feeling will place you at a disadvantage. It is a very powerful feeling that weighs on a caregiver. You may ask questions like, “What could I have done different?” or “How did I not see the signs?” If you have other children that “turned out just fine”, you might wonder, “Where did I go wrong?” Caregivers must recognize that guilt allows you to be manipulated by your loved one. It will keep you from setting limits and standing up for your rights. Guilt is not helpful for yourself or your loved one. Most importantly, guilt can keep your life out of balance.

For many parents and spouses, life takes on a new normal. Normal means obsessing over our loved one’s actions and no longer being easy going. Normal is no longer being productive at home and/or at work. Your new normal is taking excessive amounts of time to complete what used to be simple jobs. Normal is a reluctance to make plans and staying home. Normal is sleeping with your purse and keys under your pillow. Normal is putting medications and valuables in a safe. Normal is diffusing situations that may lead to yelling or dangerous outbursts. Normal is locking bedroom doors. Normal is not knowing what makes your life happy any more. Normal is waiting for the other shoe to drop.

If you do not make changes for yourself, your life will be in the hands of the disease that is consuming your loved one. It is like jumping out of an airplane and free falling without pulling your parachute open. You have a choice. You can choose to crash into the ground…or open your parachute and glide to safety. I chose to have some control over my life. It took time to get to this point but I did this by recognizing that “I” have rights.

My being was shaped by someone else’s substance use illness from the later years of my marriage to four years ago. I became used to having my rights taken for granted and completely disrespected. My normal was not healthy for me at all. I decided to dedicate some time to identify what rights were important to me. What rights was I going to incorporate to protect my own happiness and well-being.

There are many different “Personal Bill of Rights” lists available on the web. Generally, the lists are similar but you can use them as a guideline to create a list that is personal to you. I will share the ones that I felt entitled to once I pulled the rip cord of my parachute during my free fall. These rights have helped me to glide into a safer and happier life.

1. I have the right to expect honesty from others. Alcoholism and addiction breed dishonesty. It kills trust in a relationship. Trust is important to me in a relationship.
2. I have the right to say no to requests or demands I cannot meet or for which I am not ready. This includes anything related to finances, my time, car or home.
3. I have a right to be healthier than those around me. If I do not take care of myself, no one else is going to.
4. I have a right to live in a safe, non-abusive environment. I do not have to walk on eggshells waiting for verbal or physical abuse.
5. I have a right to have my needs and wants respected by others, including time and space. Those who love me will want my needs and wants to be met.
6. I have the right to be treated with dignity and respect. If I do not expect this of myself, I will not receive it from others.
7. I have the right not to be responsible for others’ behaviors, actions, feelings, or problems. My loved one must be responsible for his own choices regardless of his illness.
8. I have a right to put myself first without feeling selfish. I do not have to feel guilty for this anymore.

Please take the time to create your own “Bill of Rights.” Every one of you has the right to choose how you want to live and feel. You do not have to be at the mercy of the choices that your loved one is making.

Lorri Irrgang is an author, a Certified Peer Recovery Coach and the President/CEO of “Let’s Get Real,” a family advocacy organization. She writes a column for the local paper, the Cecil Whig, called “Shift the Focus.” Lorri is a Family Peer Support Specialist for the Maryland Coalition of Families (MCF). She is a member of several local committees; Drug Free Communities Coalition and Drug Free Cecil.