Last week, before learning of Corey Monteith’s addiction-related death, I happened to write a post about attachment and substance abuse. I wrote that one of my greatest fears is that my daughter will grow up to have an addiction problem.
Monteith’s family is dealing with the absolute greatest fear: the death of their child. But the reason it’s so awful for a parent to live with their child’s substance abuse is because that ultimate fear is never far from their thoughts. Every day, parents wonder, “Is this the last of my child’s life? Is this the day addiction will claim him?”
One of my clients told me that in the wake of Monteith’s death, her addicted son attempted to reassure her: “That would never happen to me.” This fearlessness is the opposite of reassuring. My client is terrified by her son’s denial. When our children don’t know to fear for themselves, we have to fear for them.
Some of this is normal development. When our children are young, they are programmed to explore without fear. And it’s our job as parents to protect them, in part by instilling a healthy amount of fear. We want them to realize that certain situations require caution, without squelching their natural exuberance.
This is a difficult balancing act. We have to let our children know there are things to fear, without turning them into fearful people.
Some parents err on the side of overprotection. “No, don’t touch that!” “Don’t you see what can happen?” they are constantly saying. They often tell stories of children who’ve been harmed. Or their non-verbals give them away: flinching in fear, reaching out a hand whenever the car stops suddenly, etc.
The problem with overdoing is that you may either make your children highly anxious, or the opposite may occur: They may decide that you’re not a credible source since obviously, people are not dying every time they go near an electric socket. Then they may become especially fearless. Or you might achieve your aim, which is raising a person who can accurately evaluate risk.
That’s what’s so terrifying about substance abusers. The denial is a part of the disease, which means that they are not qualified to evaluate the risks. And their parents will see the risk all the time–their children could get drugs that are laced with something, or could take more than usual, or could take the same amount but have an unpredictable result.
For the parent, every day could be their child’s last. But unfortunately, the more they tell that to their using child, the stronger the child’s denial seems to be: that belief that the parent just doesn’t know what he or she is talking about, and people don’t really die from sticking their fingers in light sockets.
That’s why it’s important for parents to do their best to get their children in touch with people who have credibility–for example, at 12 Step meetings or in treatment programs. These people are trained to puncture the denial. It’s crucial that parents do this when they have the legal power (when their children are under 18.)
With children over 18, the parents have to set limits and use what influence they do have to get the addict in treatment. It’s key that parents seek support themselves. It’s so hard not to be codependent with an addicted child. We naturally depend on the assumption of our children’s safety to sleep well at night; that assumption is removed when substance abuse is involved.
But with support (therapy, Al-Anon, etc.), parents can work on living with their greatest fear, so that it doesn’t overrun their lives.
Young man preparing drugs image available from Shutterstock.