Lorri Irrgang, LPRC

grandmother handing money to grandchild

Beloved by teachers and children alike, Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” presents many lessons about the gift of giving and unconditional love. In its simplest terms, this book presents a beautiful way to live: unselfish and generous.

In the world of addiction, “The Giving Tree” takes on a whole new meaning. Parents share stories with me that their addicted children never wanted for anything. In time, they realize that all they were giving did not control or cure their child’s using. After trying to set limits for their struggling children, those boundaries are often sabotaged by other family members. Many times, it is grandparents who fall into this category.

Grandparents are like the tree in our story. They often lead a quiet life once their own children are grown and out of the house. They long for their adult children to return for a home-cooked meal, reminiscing about stories of growing up.

Becoming a grandparent is a rite of passage, a long-awaited reward. They want to shower love on their grandchildren. They see the good in them and often see nothing but how wonderful they are. It is not the intent of these family members to contribute to the family dysfunction by helping their much-loved grandchild.

For a very long time, the tree in the story would give and give and give to the main character. Leaves would give him shade to rest under. Its branches were a place for the boy to climb and its apples something for him to eat. The tree graciously shared all that it could with the boy when he came to visit. And the boy loved everything the tree had to offer. The tree would look forward to his visits.

When my children were young, excitement flared at the mere thought of seeing their grandparents. My son and daughter loved rides on the tractor with my father. They enjoyed the delicious meals that my mother cooked for them. My parents provided them with an unconditional love that built a lifetime of memories. They gave to my son and daughter for the joy of giving. My parents, in turn, felt the same adoration and endearment from my children.

In “The Giving Tree”, the boy continued to visit the tree as he got older. The relationship started to shift from one of mutual love to a desire for material things. The tree continued to give to the boy, giving him apples to sell when he needed money. When he desired wood to build his home, the tree gave its branches. It gave its trunk to carve a boat out of when he wanted to get away.

The relationship became one where the boy kept taking and taking to meet his needs. After the tree had barely anything left to give, it provided a stump for him to sit on when he tired. The tree gave more than it could give without an ounce of gratitude in return.

Psychologically speaking, one might compare the boy to a narcissistic taker, while the tree exemplifies a compulsive enabler. This type of interaction will never manifest a healthy bond between any two people. It is merely goodness being taken advantage of.

As our loved ones start to struggle with substance abuse, we see this same pattern. When the child is aware their parents are on to them, they often go to their grandparents because they are “the weaker link.” Grandparents are more compassionate and forgiving. They give whatever it takes to see their grandchildren smiling and happy.

Most grandparents do not come from a generation that was flooded with the chaos of addiction. Loving someone through their pain was a more accepted way of helping. This form of love, through giving, used to be held up as high ideal. This type of relationship is unhealthy for a grandchild with a substance use illness. It could mean life or death.

If you are a grandparent, have you given money to a grandchild you suspect is addicted? The reality is that this will help them buy the dose of heroin that might cause their overdose. Have you allowed them to live in your home while using? This provides a safe-haven to use and indicates you condone their behavior. It is like allowing your own children to have sex in your home when they were growing up.

Using illicit drugs is an intimate act for our loved one. Many overdoses happen at home where a child feels most comfortable. Have you thought about the safety component for your family and home? It places you in danger if dealers are looking to collect money owed. Have you given your grandchild with a substance use illness your car to use? Do you realize they are using it to buy more drugs? Or that it places them at risk of drugged-driving, potentially killing someone else?

Grandparents need to understand that making their grandchild happy while in active addiction should not be an option. If you are enabling them, you are supporting a behavior that could prevent them from living a productive, healthy life. You are preventing them from reaching out for help. Nothing material that you give your grandchild will stop him or her from using. Their sole purpose for being is their drug.

This is the disease component of substance use. Your grandchild does not stop loving you, but their mind and body need a high of which you cannot compete. Understanding will help you to see that your grandchild’s desire for their drug of choice masks any desire for the love that you might offer.

Giving too much can be crippling for both yourself and your grandchild. Stepping in and attempting to help will create separation among the entire family. Drawing every part of the family into separate corners is the very thing that allows your loved one to manipulate and continue using.

Shift your focus! The healthy grandchildren in your life will never stop appreciating all that you offer. There is a serene acceptance of the love you give and that love will be returned. This is where you should put your efforts as grandparents. Your healthy grandchildren deserve to smile and spend time with you.

My parents were very upset by losing touch with their only grandson. They offered many times to help in a way that they felt might make a difference. Fortunately, they never crossed boundaries that I had worked very hard to set. I was blessed that they would ask me first before taking it upon themselves to do something for my son. I recommend developing this type of respectful relationship to deal with a loved one. Family unification is key to supporting your loved one in an appropriate manner.

There is not a grandparent on this earth who wants to be responsible for prolonging their grandchild’s substance use. Giving will decrease their chances for sobriety. If resources are provided for your loved one, the chance they will continue to use is higher. Make the decision to only help them toward recovery. This will allow you to be present when they are sober. It is when they are sober you will see the smile that you have been so desperately missing.

Lorri Irrgang is an author, a Certified Peer Recovery Coach and the President/CEO of “Let’s Get Real,” a family advocacy organization. She previously wrote a column for the local paper, the Cecil Whig, called “Shift the Focus.” Currently, Lorri is working as a Family Peer Support Specialist for the Maryland Coalition of Families (MCF). She is a member of several local committees; Drug Free Communities Coalition, Drug Free Cecil, the Mayor’s Drug Task Force and the Cecil County Drug and Alcohol Abuse Council. Lorri’s passion is to help families navigate the rough paths of which substance use takes them.