12 Actions I Took When I Realized My Son Had Substance Use Disorder

father taking action to help son's substance abuse

12 Actions I Took When I Realized My Son Had Substance Use Disorder

By Lakeview Health
Lakeview Health
Author Adam Bean
Adam Bean

Adam spent the first half of his career as an editor at National Geographic and Runner' World magazines. He later switched over to writing... read more

Published: June 30, 2021

In a previous post on this site, I discussed the moment it became clear that my adult son had substance use disorder (SUD). After years of run-ins, legal messes, and stress for our family, we finally knew what we were dealing with. 

With this post I want to return to that moment of clarity. Or more specifically, to just after it, when it was time to figure out what to do next. 

There is a time … to wallow

Before I get to the steps we took, I want to first admit something: I wasn’t ready to take action right away. My head was a mess, and I needed time to process.

My thoughts at the time went something like this: 

I’m scared.

I’m worried. 

I feel alone, and there’s no playbook to get me through it.

I did NOT sign up for this!

I resent that my grown child put me in this position.

Can I disown him? I’m sure other parents have done that.

Why are certain family members and friends not taking this news about my son’s SUD the way they’re supposed to take it? As in … the way I took it!

I AM SO ANGRY at the mental healthcare situation in this country. No one is there to guide us. Where do we start?

I AM SO ANGRY at the health insurance industry right now. What, you’re telling me that’s not covered?!

I AM SO ANGRY at the social stigma that still exists around people with SUD. 

I AM SO ANGRY that addiction is still treated more as a criminal matter than a health issue in this country. 

I’m really sad because my son’s future—and my future with him—are going to be so different than I always envisioned.

That’s how it was for a while. Soon enough, those thoughts started to fade. As they receded, the way forward became more clear. 

Baby steps at first … then bigger ones

Below are 12 concrete things I did once my wife and I got our heads around the fact that our son had SUD. Taken as a whole, looking at them now, they even seem like a plan. A plan! Such a precious thing for the parent of a young person with SUD.

But they weren’t conceived as a plan. Rather, it took me weeks and months to get around to some of them. 

May this list help you get to a better place sooner than I did. Maybe it’ll even feel like a plan. You deserve that.

1. I became more strategic about my parenting.

Before my son’s SUD onset, I was like most parents. You handle this, you react to that, every day you’re busy keeping things going, loving your kids, trying to do what’s best for them.

You do your best to plan, you try to run a smooth operation, and you’re always trying for the holy grail: a routine.  

When one of your kids has SUD, a routine becomes mandatory—for your sanity if nothing else. Winging it no longer cuts it, because when there’s SUD in the house, chaos is always lurking. 

To control or at least counterbalance that chaos, you need rules. You need to be more intentional as a parent. 

An example: Before my son’s SUD onset, we five (mom, dad, three kids) ate dinner whenever. Anytime between 6 and 7:30 pm was fine. Post SUD onset, it became a lot more important (and calming) to eat promptly at 7.

2. I changed my dad-stance and tactics. 

Once I realized my son had SUD, my attitude toward him changed. Most of all, I was less angry.

I no longer saw his antics, self-destructiveness, and narcissistic behavior as mere youthful acting out, or as a way to rebel against me. His situation was clinical now—he had a brain disease. How could I be angry at him for that? 

I stopped yelling at him so much, and I stopped trying to force him to see logic and shape up. 

I was also more patient, and I tried to listen more. I asked him more questions to try and figure out what he was up to, and how I could help. 

Something my wife and I heard early on in my son’s SUD struggle was that telling him things—what to do, how to behave, who we’d prefer him to hang out with—wouldn’t work. Rather, that it was more effective to sometimes put things in the form of a question. This way, by answering, he would hopefully arrive at the conclusion himself. Or if he didn’t reach a conclusion, at least he’d think a little more about his actions. 

An example: “Do you realize that being in that area late at night is risky?” Yes. “And you know that you’re out of second chances with this stuff?” Yes. “So why are you going to do it?” Because … I want to. 

Again, these Q&As didn’t always get him to realize the error of his ways or change them, but at least they allowed him to actually hear the craziness of his actions and thought process. 

It was a more effective behavior modification than us telling him “No, you can’t do that, that’s a really dumb move.” That approach just raised the level of antagonism between us, and invariably made him shut us out and do what he was going to do in the first place. 

3. I set up clearer boundaries and expectations. 

Setting boundaries is primarily about protecting yourself from the person with SUD—they’re your boundaries—but they sometimes produce the secondary effect of modifying that person’s behavior as well. (Try not to create boundaries for the sole purpose of modifying behavior—it rarely works!)

Some of the boundaries/expectations we put in place for our son included: 

  • No drugs or drug use in the house.
  • No drunk or high friends in the house.
  • Your be-home curfew is 12 on weeknights, and 1 am on weekends. 
  • If you’re going to stay over at a friend’s house, text us by 12 to let us know.

These boundaries protected us by helping us keep order in our world. They were tangible. We could depend on them, and control them.

Regarding enforcement, what did we do when he crossed a boundary? The key for me was that he felt the consequence of that transgression. Make him deal with the consequence, restate and re-emphasize the boundary, move on. That’s how we handled it, and it worked well when we stayed firm and consistent with it.

4. I pushed to get him into treatment.  

When it was still unclear if my son had SUD or if there was something else going on, addiction treatment wasn’t the obvious answer. Once it became clear that he had SUD, addiction treatment was the obvious answer. 

I still remember how relieved I was about this clarity. We’d been trying this and that for years, with varying degrees of success, but basically had no clue. Now we did. It was time to get him in to see the experts. 

Of course, he didn’t always comply. He usually didn’t think he had a problem, even when it was clear to everyone around him that he did. 

We didn’t know it at the time in those early days—you never do—but long-term recovery was still years away for him. But we knew that getting treatment was key. We were always proud of him for being willing to seek it, and he was occasionally able to stay sober for weeks or months afterward.

5. I shared with others

I talked about my son’s SUD often, which helped me deal with it. Not with complete strangers or anything weird like that, but certainly with family members, friends, and co-workers I trusted. 

I did this mainly for myself, but also for my son. In talking about it openly, I was doing my small part to help break down the stigma he was dealing with—and still is. 

I’m not ashamed that my son has SUD, and I don’t want him to feel shame either. So I talk about it, to unburden myself, but also to bring people up to speed on SUD and to de-mystify it. Like I’m doing with this blog. 

6. I stepped up my exercise routine.

Okay, “stepping up” isn’t quite right, as I was already exercising a lot. I just guarded it more, and held fast to it. I’ve been a lifelong runner and strength-training enthusiast, and I do both of these as much for my head as my body. Because of my son’s SUD, and the worry it caused me especially at first, my regular head-clearing, stress-reducing runs became even more essential than they already were. 

I saw it as self-care. Heck, call it selfish if you want, that’s fine! To my mind, you need and deserve that kind of selfishness even more when a loved one has SUD.

7. I got educated on SUD. 

I read a lot, asked addiction specialists a lot of questions, and checked websites of reputable resources like the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the Substance and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), WebMD, Mayo Clinic, and others. As with most diseases, the more you know about SUD, the less spooky it becomes, and the better prepared you are to deal with it. 

8. I looked closer at our health insurance coverage. 

My son was still on our family plan when his SUD came on. I checked our mental health coverage, and thank goodness it covered outpatient and inpatient addiction treatment. 

I remember how relieved I was when a treatment center admissions person said this when I called: “Yes, we take your plan, and it should pay for several weeks of inpatient care if that’s needed.”

It’s important to check what’s covered by your plan. Consider switching if you believe SUD treatment may be needed. 

9. I started therapy.

Even though I exercised regularly, shared my worries with family and friends, and generally stayed on an even emotional keel with it all, I knew I still needed help.

I needed an expert to help me through everything I was feeling, and I needed someone outside my immediate circle who could see things objectively and rationally. She was a huge help at a critical time, and I’ll always be thankful I took that step. 

10. I started going to Nar-Anon Family Group meetings.

These were so helpful. And by the way, this happened to be the meeting type my wife and I chose, but there are many other kinds of family support groups that aren’t AA- or NA-based. We went weekly for several months when my son’s addiction was especially active and worrisome. 

We learned a lot, especially about how to look out for ourselves. The meetings helped keep us grounded. We became friendly with some of the other parents, and would look forward to seeing them each week.

It also felt good to be useful and supportive to others going through tough times. Maybe best of all, it was cathartic to be able to talk about our worries with people who totally got it. Those knowing, empathetic head nods during meetings were so therapeutic for us. 

11. I began advocating for SUD awareness. 

As I mentioned earlier, I talked about SUD with people I knew, many of whom didn’t have any knowledge of it. But I advocated more formally as well

Once it became clear to me that my son had SUD, it also became clear how clueless we still are about drug and alcohol addiction in this country. We too often treat addiction as a moral failing or a sign of weak character, rather than the brain disease that it is. 

We too often think of addiction as a criminal matter—and lock people up because of it—rather than a public health issue. And too often, people can’t afford to get the addiction treatment they need, either because their insurance doesn’t cover it, or because they don’t have insurance. 

It’s a sorry state of affairs in general, and in my opinion it says a lot about our country that we’re unwilling to care for this vulnerable segment of the population better than we do. 

To advocate in all these areas, I write to my government representatives, I sign petitions, I consider my government rep’s stance on addiction-related policies when I vote, and I have joined a national advocacy group (it’s called Shatterproof) that does great work on addiction awareness. I know I need to do more.

12. I changed my expectations of what success looks like for my son. 

Let me make it clear that I didn’t lower my expectations for his success. I don’t see it that way. I changed them.

That said, with the onset of his SUD, and during the years when he really struggled with it, it was clear that certain options were indeed off the table for him. And yes, a few doors shut.

But other opportunities arose, and will continue to. He’s been sober for nearly three years, and has his life back. He has his brain back!

I’m so proud of what he’s accomplishing every day of his sobriety. Every day is significant for him. Seeing that has been a great lesson for me, too.