7 Things I Did Right as the Parent of a Young Adult with Substance Use Disorder
Before we get to my top seven—in order of importance, no less—some quick context for you.
My son started abusing alcohol and drugs in high school. By age 24, he was using heroin intravenously and had full-blown substance use disorder (SUD). Those were some very difficult years for me, my wife, my daughters, and especially my son.
At times it felt like the run-ins, the anger, the arguments, the worries, and the sleepless nights would go on forever.
Until they didn’t.
One day, he found recovery, and it stuck.
He’s 30 now, with nearly three years of sobriety to his credit. He lives a good and full life, not without its challenges and disappointments, but they are the challenges and disappointments of a person in full recovery.
You have no idea how happy I am to write that.
How I thought about this countdown list
My Top 7 go from important to very important to most important for me.
I also want to emphasize that these things were what worked for me. Your list, if you choose to compile it one day, may be very different from mine.
My goal with this blog post? To explain what helped me get through this difficult period in hopes that it will help you get through yours.
Here goes …
I tried to focus on the behavior, not the person.
In other words, I went with language like “Why are you lying to us?” rather than “Why are you such a liar?” Or “I’m worried about your drug use” rather than “I’m worried that you’re a drug addict.”
This shift in emphasis somewhat mirrors the way the medical profession says to talk about diseases and chronic conditions. For example with diabetes, we no longer say that someone is a diabetic. Rather, they have diabetes, or they are living with diabetes.
Same goes for the term “addict.” The addiction field is getting away from calling someone an addict, as if that’s their entire essence. Rather, he is addicted. Or she is living with addiction.
Back to my own efforts to focus on the behavior not the person. I did pretty well with that regarding my son’s addiction, in part because I’d heard about this philosophy years before as a good rule for parents to follow. I had tried to treat my kids that way from when they were little.
Two more things about this behavior-not-person strategy. First, the rightness of it becomes really clear if you put yourself on the receiving end. You would likely be significantly more angry and defensive if someone called you a liar as opposed to a person who occasionally lies. Or if someone called you a drug addict rather than someone who uses drugs or is addicted to drugs. That’s a clear difference, right?
Second, I know that when I didn’t follow this strategy—and angrily blasted my son with a “You’re a drug addict!” type of insult—it was because I was furious and was deliberately trying to hurt or shame him into shaping up. It never worked. It only made things worse between us, and made him feel less worthy than he already felt.
I always let him know that I still loved and supported him.
Honestly, this was not always easy to do. Let me put it this way: When my son was in active addiction, he wasn’t always super loveable.
The addiction really changed him. His behavior could be manipulative and self-centered to the point of narcissism. That wasn’t who he really was! His substance use disorder was thinking and acting for him. It had hijacked his brain.
So my trick when he was acting out was to show him that I still loved and supported him, but in my mind I was loving and supporting the old him. Or I was loving and supporting the future him that he would get back to one day.
I did not enable him (much).
Enabling is when you try to help and support a person close to you who has SUD but in doing so you actually aid and abet the addictive behavior. In effect, you’re helping it to continue.
Some classic cases of enabling that we parents or loved ones are prone to:
- Paying overdue bills for your loved one because he spent the money on drugs rather than his utility bill and car payment.
- Calling your daughter’s work and making up an excuse for why she didn’t show up again the day before.
- Allowing him to keep living with you even though he keeps breaking all the rules (no drugs in the house, no high friends in the house, etc.) that you have clearly laid down.
The tricky thing about enabling is you usually do it with the best intentions. You don’t see it as enabling, you see it as helping (there’s a very fine line between the two). And each time you do it, you think this is the last time you will need to take this action because she will feel so grateful and guilty about it that she’s going to change her ways.
Nope! It rarely works like that. As a rule, enabling generally leads to more enabling. And if it’s your money you’re enabling with to pay his bills, for example, it doesn’t help you either. That money is gone.
Most of the time I was good about not enabling my son. Less so at first, but I got there through trial and error. I’d been warned about it, understood the concept, stayed vigilant, and got better about it. I always tried to keep track of where the helping/enabling line was so I could stay on the proper side of it.
Me not enabling helped my son, too, by the way. A key point! Even when it put him on the spot and made things more difficult for him in the short term, it helped him in the long run.
That’s a good distinction between enabling and helping. Enabling is playing the short game—the quick fix, the “I’ll help you out of this mess this time” routine. Whereas, helping is playing the long game. It can be difficult and painful for both sides in the short term, but it usually works better in the long term.
I stayed positive.
As with a lot of the things I’m sharing here, staying positive wasn’t always easy. And I wasn’t always able to do it. There were some dark days, and some even darker nights. (Melatonin and I became well acquainted.)
But the bottom line during my son’s active addiction was that I was never going to give up on him. I was never going to lose hope, and I’m pretty sure he knew that.
If I had allowed myself to get too down about his substance use and the mess he was making of things, I wouldn’t have been able to function. And I needed to function. I had responsibilities—to myself and my family.
Also, my son needed me to stay positive, whether he was conscious of that or not.
I shared without shame.
One thing I heard a lot from parents at Nar-Anon Family Group meetings was that they didn’t want to talk to people about their addicted child because they were ashamed. Or because they didn’t want to be judged. Or they didn’t want their child to be judged.
The thing about that is, it is well established scientifically at this point that SUD is a brain disease. A chronic illness. It is not a moral failing, or a sign of weak character or criminal conduct.
So why should we feel shame when sharing our child’s plight with others? To me that’s just buying into the stereotype that people with SUD are morally suspect, so best to sweep the whole thing under the rug and don’t tell a soul if you can get away with that. To my mind, that would be like feeling shame because your child has cancer or depression. That doesn’t make sense to me.
In fact, at times I may’ve gone overboard in the other direction when it came to sharing. Sometimes I could sound like a walking public service announcement (PSA) for substance use disorder awareness. I was so proud of my son for accomplishing as much as he did despite having a relentless, debilitating illness, and darnit I wanted to talk about it. Brag about it even.
To this day, I feel more proud of him for fighting through his struggles and hanging in there with life than I would be if he’d never had SUD and had graduated from college with honors.
I didn’t blame myself.
I almost feel like I got lucky with this, because a lot of parents blame themselves for their child’s substance use disorder. I never did. At least not for long.
This self-blaming was another theme that came up a lot at Nar-Anon Family Group meetings. Parents frequently worried out loud that they’d done something to cause their loved one’s addiction. That it was somehow their fault.
- “I’m sure it’s genetic. I mean, my father and grandfather were both alcoholics.”
- “Maybe she turned out this way because I didn’t pay close enough attention to her when I should have—when she was in high school.”
- “None of my friends’ kids have addiction issues, why does mine? What did I do wrong?”
- “Maybe I’m just not a good parent. There’s no other way to explain it. I’m sure it has something to do with that time when…or that time when…”
It’s true, there is a lot of self-blame among us parents, and I understand that. You’re always asking “why.” Why did this happen?
I asked myself that countless times, and maybe I’m clueless, but I rarely thought it was my fault. I was sure—am sure—that I’m a good parent. Substance use disorder just happens sometimes. Some people are more prone to it. There’s not always someone to blame. You know, like a parent.
Which brings me to the “3 Cs” mantra about addiction that is so important for us parents to repeat often, especially the first C: “I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it, and I can’t cure it.”
I continued to live my life.
This is what I did right that I’m most proud of as the parent of a young adult with SUD. Because, you know what? It’s hard to do.
I was determined during the years of my son’s active addiction to never let him affect my life too much.
And make no mistake, addiction can do that. They don’t call it a family disease for nothing. A family member with SUD can wreak havoc on everyone around him.
At best, an addicted son or daughter is a massive ongoing worry and distraction for a parent. At worst, it can take over your life, and everything and everyone around you suffers because of it.
The parenting of your other children is one of those things that can be negatively affected. I tried to be careful that my son’s troubles didn’t take too much of my time and focus from my two daughters. They needed me, and I needed them. It wasn’t their fault that their brother had SUD, and it wouldn’t have been fair if I was too distracted to be the father they deserved.
You’d have to check with them to see if I succeeded in all this, but I’m pretty sure I did.
Same goes for my marriage. We came through the hard times fine. That’s not always the case, because young adults with SUD can be masters at playing parents off against each other, at finding the weak links.
It’s kind of like a stress test. If there are small cracks in your relationship, an addicted child can widen them. I was determined to not let that happen. But I was also fortunate that my wife and I were usually on the page regarding how to deal with our son. That makes a huge difference.
I remember saying to my son at least once, though I thought it plenty more times in my head: “You seem determined to take yourself down, but you’re not going to take mom and me down with you.”
And he didn’t. Because we didn’t let him.
In the end I was able to keep going with the other important parts of my life as well. My work. My physical and mental well-being. My running, travel, reading, and other things I love to do that give my life shape and meaning. Those all remained priorities for me.
In fact, I probably clung to them more tightly than ever, and I’m sure that helped me get through.
After reading this post a final time before it went to press … it felt a little too certain. And I rarely felt certain about this stuff when it was happening.
I had some things I believed in, some true-north settings I tried to keep, and I learned a lot along the way. But there was a lot of uncertainty. A lot of winging it. There still is.
In the end—as of today at least [knocking on wood here]—things worked out. My son found recovery.
Which has given me the time and breathing space to think, yes, I did do a few things right. They helped me, I’m pretty sure they helped my son, and hopefully they’ll help you, too.